National Review Online

Neoconservatism and American Foreign Policy

Justin Vaïsse discusses the neoconservative movement in American foreign policy in a radio interview with National Review Online (NRO).

NRO: Justin, neoconservatism is one of the most misunderstood and abused terms in the American political vocabulary. In the year 2010, does the word neconservatism mean anything anymore?

VAISSE: That’s a good question. The movement is so complex that the question can be asked whether the label really refers to something stable, but I guess, in 2010, if we give a restricted definition, then it does mean something, and that definition is the following: Neoconservatism right now is a specific school of thought in foreign policy, especially among Republicans, more located on the right side of the spectrum than on the left, and a movement that advocates a forceful and active stance for America in the world. Basically, the underlying idea is that America should be active and interventionist, shaping world order because if it refrains from doing so, then world order will be shaped by other powers, other nations, in ways that might be inimical to the interests and ideals of the United States.

NRO: There’s a domestic aspect to neoconservativism as well, isn’t there, or is that perhaps gone by the wayside?

VAISSE: No, it’s pretty much gone; take for example The Weekly Standard, which on foreign policy is really very distinctively neoconservative. But you could not, on domestic issues, distinguish it from the National Review or other outlets of the more general conservative movement, so it’s really only in foreign policy right now that you have a distinct identity between neoconservatives and other brands of conservatives.

NRO: You mentioned that Neo-cons are typically associated with the Republican Party. But as you explain in the book, the movement has its origins in the Democratic Party. Why did the original Neo-cons abandon the Democratic Party?

VAISSE: Because they thought they were faithful to a certain tradition of American internationalism and anticommunism, meaning that in the 1970s people like Jeane Kirkpatrick for example or Richard Perle and many others said that they were faithful to the tradition of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, of Truman, of Kennedy, and even of Johnson by marrying, on the one hand, active involvement in world affairs and fierce anticommunism, and on the other hand, progressive politics at home. That was very much the identity of Senator Scoop Jackson who was their hero. But in the course of the 1970s, and that was confirmed in the decade afterwards, they felt that the Democratic Party was not living up to that tradition, that the Democratic Party was becoming either too isolationist or way too dovish for them. It is in 1980 that most of them decided they could not support the Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter running for reelection, and that they went over to Reagan because Reagan was offering the right foreign policy that they were advocating themselves. That is when they migrated from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party.

NRO: Domestic politics has something to do with it as well, right?

VAISSE: Right. And here we touch the complexity of the movement. Originally, the label “neoconservative” was applied to a group of New York intellectuals who were liberals, but who were tagged with that epithet “neoconservatives” basically by the New Left in order to banish them from liberalism. People like Irving Kristol, Pat Moynihan, James Q. Wilson, Daniel Bell and many others were criticized by the New Left and by liberals for being to close to the conservatives. This was all in domestic affairs, not in foreign policy. That is what I call in the book the first age of the movement. Then starting in the 70s there was the second age of the movement, with Scoop Jackson who more and more became interested in foreign policy and that is how the neoconservatist movement really was born. So yes, it had to do with domestic politics in the very first years of the movement, but then afterwards more and more the only distinct identity that it had was in foreign policy.

NRO: As you mention, many of the original figures were New York intellectuals and one general definition of New York conservatism says that is a collection of intellectuals on the Left who moved to the Right. Why hasn’t there been any comparable movement of intellectuals on the Right who moved to the Left? It seems that it has been all one way.

VAISSE: Everything is relative and of course the question is whether they moved to the Right or whether the rest of the landscape and I would say liberalism and the Democratic Party in general moved to the Left. That is a question worth asking, because the original neo-cons, the New York intellectuals, and then the second age neo-cons, with Scoop Jackson democrats, insist that they remained faithful to their ideals and to their views in the 60s and 70s. It is the rest of the world, and especially the Liberals and the Democratic Party, in their view, which moved leftwards. And so they had a feeling that they remained moderates, liberals and centrists, but since the rest of the world moved leftwards, that pushed them rightwards. I think there is merit in both arguments, the one saying that they moved rightwards, and the one saying that they remained the same men as they were in the 60s, but that the rest of the world moved left.

NRO: Many conservatives have argued that neoconservatism, despite its meaning, is actually species of liberalism. Are they correct?

In some respect they are correct. If we take the current incarnation of neoconservatism, so once again, it is really about foreign policy, there is a creed that America can apply its power to do good in the world, not only defending its ideals and material interests, but also that it can somehow change the world, in a sort of Wilsonian creed that America can do things in the world. That is probably closer to the liberal creed than it is to the conservative creed, if you take it at the very basic level which is the faith in small government, the prudence vis-à-vis any grand scheme to change the world through the application of government power. So in a sense, the idealism and Wilsonianism and the creed in the power of America abroad definitely would put at least part of the movement in the liberal camp.

NRO: In the book you describe the three ages of neoconservatism, the third being born around 1995. What would be a fourth age for neoconservatism, and what shape do you think it might take?

VAISSE: I think we are still living in the third age, meaning that the basic profile of the movement in intellectual and political term is still the same as it was when it was reborn in 1995 around Bill Kristol, Bob Kagan, The Weekly Standard and the Project for the New American Century. It is mostly on the Republican side for practical purposes, it also has the basic same tenets of internationalism, militarism, idealism, a distrust of international organizations and a penchant for unilateralism. So the different tenets that were redefined in 1995 are still pretty much the same, and you don’t have that many ideas that popped up since then. So I would say that we are still living under the third age of neoconservatism, even though it obviously was hit in 2004-2007 when Iraq was going really badly.

NRO: Last question, the book was translated into English. You’re obviously an excellent speaker of English. Why did you write it in French?

VAISSE: Because it was partly an output of my dissertation work and it was easier in terms of schedule, and also because it is actually very difficult to translate oneself. Arthur Goldhammer did a superb job, probably much better than I could have done, and so the result I thought would be much more satisfying for the readers.

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