The Venezuelan Embassy and Conservative Internationalism

The traditions of American foreign policy that most people are familiar with are realism and liberal internationalism.  Realists are usually conservatives or Republicans, for example Eisenhower and Ford, while liberal internationalists are usually liberals or Democrats, for example Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter.  However, these divisions broke down during the Reagan administration.  Conservative internationalism was not exactly the result of this breakdown however.  According to one author, this school of foreign policy has been a constant, if unrecognized, presence in American politics.  The arrest of the embassy protectors at the Venezuelan embassy in Washington DC seems to be straight from the playbook of this elusive  school of American foreign policy– Conservative Internationalism.  This might seem like a stunning revelation, until you realize that conservative internationalism sounds suspiciously like neo-conservatism.

Reagan is one of the heroes of conservative internationalists.  He opposed both the realist containment strategy of Richard Nixon and the liberal internationalist human rights campaign of Jimmy Carter. Instead, he adopted a strategy that used force or the threat of force assertively, as realists recommended, but aimed at the demise of communism and the spread of democracy, as liberal internationalists advocated.  But although Reagan’s policies didn’t adhere to either of these foreign policy traditions, he was not unique among American presidents.  According to a Hoover Institution article, conservative internationalism draws historical validation from Thomas Jefferson, James K. Polk, Harry Truman.

So how does this school of foreign policy explain the arrest of the embassy protectors contrary to international law and the Geneva Convention?  The Hoover Institution lists eleven tenets of Conservative Internationalism. The first tenet, the goal of expanding freedom, asserts that free countries achieve legitimacy in foreign affairs by taking decisions independently or working together through decentralized institutions.

Thus, conservative internationalists give priority to liberty over equality and work to free countries from tyranny before they recognize these countries as equal partners in international diplomacy. Jefferson and Polk were unequivocal about expanding liberty, even if it involved imperialism, because they believed that liberty would eventually bring greater equality. By contrast liberal internationalists give priority to equality over liberty and grant all nations, whether free or not, equal status in international institutions, because they believe treating countries equally will eventually encourage liberty. For conservative internationalists, legitimacy in foreign affairs derives from free countries taking decisions independently or working together through decentralized institutions; for liberal internationalists, legitimacy derives from all countries, free or not, participating equally in universal international organizations.

The remaining tenets continue the doublespeak we have become accustomed to since the Iraq war, justifying the tendency of conservative internationalists to combine realism or liberal internationalism, or both, with unrestrained aggression.   Take for example the statement that poverty and oppression are not enough to trigger intervention.  There must be a physical effect on the United States, such as the threat posed by terrorism or oil disruption.  This may not sound like a problem until you add the assertion that because it’s hard to predict these events, preemptive and preventative actions will sometimes be necessary.

Because their goals are more ambitious than liberal internationalism or realism, conservative internationalists expect to use more force.  Consider their use of the now familiar accusation hurled against leaders who use force against their own people as ‘proof’ that they can’t be expected to cooperate with the United States either.  This has been used in the past to justify unilateral force.  Liberal internationalists preferred to work with the League of Nations and the UN, whereas under conservative internationalism, diplomacy is just another word for reconstruction.

To sum up, the arrest of the embassy protectors, a brazen violation of international law, might be explained by the fact that conservative internationalists dislike internation institutions, especially if they are successful.  They want small government, not centralized government.  Actually, it would be more correct to say that they don’t like governments at all–they favor self-reliance and civil society institutions over governments, whatever that means.

A review of this book in the American Conservative identifies this school of foreign policy as ‘old wine in new bottles’, or the rebaptism of neo-conservatism.  This review was refuted by Henry R. Nau, the author of the Hoover Institution article.  Now here’s the really interesting thing about this discussion.  One of Nau’s arguments against the identification with neo-conservatism is that the neo-conservatives started out as Democrats.

Many neocons, however, were liberals not conservatives, advocating social engineering at home and abroad; and some democratic realists were imperialists, seeking to gain or maintain American hegemony.

My problem with this argument is that I suspect the neocons have not been straight with us about their history.  There is a very important interlude in the history of conservatism that no one seems to know about, or at least the media never mentions it.  That would be the German Conservative Revolution.  The following summary is from a description of a History 330 course at, German Conservative Revolution and the Roots of the Third Reich.

It is asserted that Germany’s right wing intellectuals, who identified themselves with a German “Conservative Revolution”, played a fateful role in the ideological formation of national socialism in the wake of the Great War.  They ‘defied’ traditional divisions between the Left and Right, opposed parliamentary democracy and royalist reactionary ‘Wilhelminian’ conservatism, as well as Liberalism and Marxism.  They attempted to reshape theology, legal thought, race biology, geography, and political philosophy.

I’ve done a little reading about this ‘revolution’.  Although many of its members criticized the Nazi Party, this had nothing to do with the Party’s anti-Semitism.  Although some collaborated with the Nazi state and shared its fate, the dissenters were able to escape condemnation and wield a continuing influence. I would argue that current attempts to cordon off Nazism from contemporary right-wing theorists is a result of the failure to understand how they related to each other in the interwar period.

Now, if you’re uncomfortable about the edginess of neo-conservative foreign policy but you can’t quite figure out how former Democrats got so…uncharitable, this might explain it: there was a neocon presence in the German Conservative Revolution.