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Whither American Foreign Policy After the Iraq Adventure: Is Neo-Conservatism Dead?

Thursday June 1, 2006, at 12:00
Sala Seminario - Planta Baja IBEI
Research seminar
Neo-Conservatism labels a small but influential fraction of the American political elite. Its views and members cohered in the political and social turbulence and ideological excitement that marked the late 1960s and the first half of the 1970s in the United States as the war in Vietnam together with ramifications of the African-American struggle for full civil rights and the incipience of culture conflict polarized the nation. Initially, neo-conservatives presented themselves as guardians of true American liberalism struggling to promote meritocracy, to defend the moderate Rooseveltian reforms of American capitalism, to maintain skepticism about grand social experiments, to practice unrelenting hostility to Marxist ideas and movements, and to protect social order from left-wing anarchy. They distinguished themselves from traditional conservatives by citing their commitment to equal rights for African-Americans (while opposing group preferences, however compensatory in nature), their support of a modest welfare state and a strong executive power at the Federal level, and their idealism about the purposes of American foreign policy. However, they joined conservatives in reviling the United Nations as its Third World majority became increasingly critical of American foreign policy, of the structure of global trade and investment, and of Israel. Nothing more distinguished neo-conservatives than their essentially uncritical support of the Israeli State’s policies and their determination to equate the defense of those policies with the national interests of the United States. As participants in the shaping of American foreign policy during the Presidential Administration of Ronald Reagan, they succeeded in casting Reagan’s foreign policy in human rights terms, but equating human rights with the spread of electoral regimes and de-emphasizing murder, torture and arbitrary punishment practiced by regimes siding with the United States against the Soviet Union and, more generally, left-wing movements in the third World. When the Soviet Union’s collapse left the United States as the sole superpower, they advocated exploitation of the resulting “unipolar moment” to spread democratic capitalism around the globe, but particularly in the Middle East. To that end, they again bonded with militant conservatives in disparaging international law and the United Nations as constraints on the exercise of American power on behalf of ideal ends and as invasions of American sovereignty. However, unlike classical conservatives in the realist tradition in foreign policy, they also disparaged a narrow conception of American self interest. Throughout the 1990s and right up to 9/11 they urged regime change in Iraq and unrelenting pressure on Iran. By this time, they had found particularly close allies among right-wing Christian movements, particularly those with apocalyptic views emphasizing a coming final struggle between the forces of God and of the Devil which would culminate in the ascension of all Christians into Heaven. The full restoration of Jewish control of the Holy Land was seen as a necessary prelude and signal. After 9/11, in partnership with Republican leaders focused more on oil and power as such, in particular the Secretary of Defense and the Vice-President, they played a major role in moving the U.S. to war with Iraq. The resulting shambles has, of course diminished their influence within government and the foreign policy elite, but they remain important players, in part because their world view resonates with elements of the wider electorate, in part because they have access to large financial and media resources.