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July 30, 2008

Conservative Internationalism

Jefferson to Polk to Truman to Reagan


Since world war ii international relations specialists have debated two main traditions or schools of American foreign policy, realism and liberal internationalism. Realism identifies with Richard Nixon and looks to the balance of power to defend stability among ideologically diverse nations. Liberal internationalism identifies with Franklin Roosevelt and looks to international institutions to reduce the role of the balance of power and gradually spread democracy by talk and tolerance. Generally speaking, conservatives or Republicans were considered realists — Eisenhower and Ford — while liberals or Democrats were seen as liberal internationalists — Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter.

This debate broke down with Ronald Reagan. He opposed both the realist containment strategy of Richard Nixon and the liberal internationalist human rights campaign of Jimmy Carter. 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. Reagan improvised and succeeded brilliantly.1 The Cold War ended, the Soviet Union disappeared, and the United States emerged as the first preeminent “global” power in the history of the world. Even former critics now concede that Reagan was on to something.2

But what tradition did Reagan represent? The debate between realists and liberal internationalists leaves no explanation for Ronald Reagan ’s eclectic foreign policy choices and the extraordinary outcomes he achieved. The conventional foreign policy traditions don ’t fit. Realists and liberal internationalists try to claim Reagan but they distort and miss the novelty of his contributions.3 Others conclude he is unique and “has become a transcendent historical figure,” not terribly relevant to contemporary debates.4 Still others argue Reagan’s foreign policy had nothing to do with ending the Cold War and subsequently wound up in the hands of Reagan impostors, the neoconservatives in the George W. Bush administration, who ran it into the ground in Iraq.5

This essay rejects all of these conclusions. It argues instead that Ronald Reagan tapped into a new and different American foreign policy tradition that has been overlooked by scholars and pundits. That tradition is “conservative internationalism.” Like realism and liberal internationalism, it has deep historical roots. Just as realism takes inspiration from Alexander Hamilton and Teddy Roosevelt and liberal internationalism identifies with Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, conservative internationalism draws historical validation from Thomas Jefferson, James K. Polk, Harry Truman, and Ronald Reagan. These four American presidents did more to expand freedom abroad through the assertive use of military force than any others (Lincoln doing as much or more to expand freedom domestically by force). But they expanded freedom on behalf of self-government, local or national, not on behalf of central or international government, as liberal internationalists advocate, and they used force to seize related opportunities to spread freedom, not to maintain the status quo, as realists recommend. All of these presidents remain enigmas for the standard traditions. The reason? They represent the different and overlooked tradition of conservative internationalism.6

Jefferson is claimed by isolationists and liberal internationalists, but he was neither. He doubled the size of American territory, and although this expansion took place on the North American continent when America was militarily weak, Jefferson ’s policies can hardly be called isolationist or pacifist. In fact, he used all the military, especially naval, power that the United States had at the time and combined threats and diplomacy deftly to seize the opportunity to grab Louisiana. The Louisiana Purchase may have fallen into his lap, as some historians later argued, but he had to place his lap in the right position to catch it.

The Louisiana Purchase may have fallen into Jefferson’s lap, but he’d placed his lap in the position to catch it.

James Polk expanded American territory by another 60 percent. And, yes, he expanded American freedom — which, although tarnished by black slavery (which Mexico had abolished in 1829), gave at the time the vote to more white male citizens than any other country and launched a trajectory of future emancipation that, with all its blemishes, made America the leading light of liberty in the twentieth century. He was one of the most ambitious and successful American presidents, and while his star, like that of Jefferson, has been diminished by rear-view mirror charges of racism and imperialism, he was, again like Jefferson, a pioneer of his day not only in expanding liberty and but also understanding the close and reciprocal interaction between force and diplomacy — a particular emphasis, as I will show, of conservative internationalist thinking.

Harry Truman expanded for the first time the cause of freedom beyond the confines of the western hemisphere and inspired the Cold War policy of militarized containment that incubated democracy in Japan, Germany, and throughout Western Europe. Had Truman not inserted American forces on European soil to stop a potential Soviet advance from Berlin to the English Channel, liberty might well have been lost in the very countries where it originated.

Ronald Reagan then transformed Truman’s containment policy into a competitive strategy to defeat, not just co-exist with, the Soviet Union. He saw the opportunity to end Soviet oppression in Eastern Europe that none of his predecessors saw and ultimately opened the doors of freedom for communist Europe and a good part of the rest of the world as well.

Before we consider the conservative internationalist foreign policies of these four presidents, let ’s look in more detail at the principal tenets of the conservative internationalist tradition and explore how this tradition differs from realism and liberal internationalism.

Main tenets

We can summarize the conservative internationalist tradition in terms of eleven tenets. First, the goal of conservative internationalist foreign policy is to expand freedom and ultimately increase the number of democratic, constitutional and republican governments in the world community. In this respect, conservative internationalism shares the same goal as liberal internationalism. Modern conservatives are liberals. They believe in liberty and do not defend the authoritarian status quo as traditional conservatives did. But they are classical liberals like Jefferson who embrace the ideas of John Locke and Adam Smith. They are not social liberals. Like Fredrick Hayek and William F. Buckley, they shout “stop” to the ideas of economic and institutional equality when those ideas threaten liberty.

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.

Second, conservative internationalism focuses initially on material, not ideological, threats. In this respect, it shares much with realism. Both focus on immediate dangers and do not seek military might or imperialism for its own sake. Poverty (Darfur) or oppression (Myanmar) abroad is not enough to trigger intervention, as it may be for some liberal internationalists. There has to be a physical effect on the United States, as realists require, such as terrorist attacks or oil supply disruptions. In the absence of material threat, conservative internationalists are perfectly content with domestic “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The difficulty today is that material threats to freedom are more difficult to perceive. Terrorism is an “immanent” rather than an “imminent” threat. It is present potentially everywhere in sleeper cells and illegal arms networks, but it is not visible actually in any specific location until it happens. Such a threat blurs the distinctions between known threats which can be contained, emerging threats which can be preempted, and future threats which have to be prevented. Compared to Soviet missiles, the terrorist threat is more emerging and future than known. To cope with such a threat, conservative internationalists expect to have to take more preemptive or preventive actions, not as matters of choice but of necessity. Neither containment, which realists recommend, nor treating terrorism as crime, which liberal internationalists recommend, is likely to suffice.

Reagan made no secret of his desire o revoke the Yalta compromise and set Eastern Europe free.

Third, while conservative internationalism starts with threat and geopolitics, it does not end there, as realism does. Conservative internationalism seeks a balance of power that not only defends the status quo but also seizes related and incremental opportunities to expand freedom. It seeks, in short, a balance of power tilted toward freedom. Force is useful not just to deter despots but also to weaken them. Liberal internationalists consider such offensive use of force as provocative and detrimental to diplomacy. Conservative internationalists see it as incentivizing negotiations. Jefferson, Polk, and Truman all positioned forces to seize opportunities to change the status quo. Perhaps the best example is Ronald Reagan ’s policy toward Eastern Europe. As I recount below, he established early on that his objective was not just to stabilize Eastern Europe, as containment and realists prescribed, but to revoke the Yalta compromise and set Eastern Europe free. This policy did not call for direct intervention to “roll back” communism. Rather, it was a patient diplomacy of outcompeting the Soviet Union across the broad front of economic, military, and ideological contestation. Had Reagan stopped with geopolitics, Gorbachev may have never climbed to the top of Russia ’s leadership scaffold. Russia needed him to meet Reagan’s deeper challenge of domestic reform, not merely to stabilize Russia’s military position in Eastern Europe.

Fourth, although conservative internationalism is more ambitious than realism, it is prudent in picking its targets for expansion. It espies the incremental opportunities for freedom primarily on the periphery or borders of existing free societies. Truman succeeded ultimately because he gave priority to freedom in Western Europe where strong democratic countries (initially Britain and later France and Italy after they avoided communist governments) surrounded recent or still fascist ones (pre-war Germany and after the war, Spain, Portugal, and Greece). He did not get distracted by Eastern Europe, Latin America, or the Middle East, where democratic influences were much weaker. Similarly, Reagan concentrated on freedom in Eastern Europe, which is why he avoided costly military ventures elsewhere.

Both Truman and Reagan accepted the reality that the United States might have to cooperate with nondemocratic governments in lower-priority areas to secure freedom in higher-priority areas. Conservative internationalism does not support a universal campaign to end tyranny everywhere. In theory, it believes that democracy is universal. But, in practice it promotes democracies where they are most easily influenced by the proximity and power of existing democracies. It encourages an “inkblot” rather than “leapfrog” strategy to expand freedom.

Fifth, conservative internationalism expects to use more force to achieve its objectives than realism or liberal internationalism. The reasons are simple. The objective of expanding freedom is more ambitious than preserving stability favored by realists, and the obstacle to expanding freedom is authoritarian and oppressive states that readily use force against their own people and thus are not likely to compromise with other nations, as liberal internationalists expect, without a contest of strength. As Ronald Reagan once put it pointedly: “if [oppressive countries] treat their own people this way, why would they treat us any differently? ” For conservative internationalists, therefore, force is not a “last” resort that kicks in after diplomacy and economic sanctions fail; it is a “parallel” resort that accompanies diplomacy at every turn — demonstrating resolve, creating policy options, and narrowing the maneuvering room of authoritarian opponents. Conservative internationalists remind us that there was no diplomatic option of un inspectors in Iraq (whom Saddam Hussein had kicked out in 1998) until a massive invasion force assembled in the Persian Gulf.

Force is not a last resort that kicks in after diplomacy fails; it accompanies diplomacy at every turn.

By contrast, liberal internationalists aspire to domesticate world affairs and therefore play down the use of military force. They do not reject the use of force. Far from it — Wilson and Roosevelt, preeminent liberal internationalists, led America into war. But liberal internationalists believe it is possible to reduce the salience and use of military force in international affairs. Wilson ’s League of Nations as well as Roosevelt’s un sought to pool national military forces into a single international force which, because it was now preponderant, could be downsized through disarmament and arms control to constitute a police force. Diplomacy and international institutions would suffice to resolve international disputes and, if some states resisted peaceful solutions, economic sanctions would bring them to heel. The use of traditional military force was a last resort and then only with the consent and thus legitimacy of the international community as a whole.

Sixth, as prevalent as force is in a conservative internationalist perspective, it does not substitute for diplomacy. The best force can do is win a war. It cannot win the peace. Defeated governments and countries have to be reconstructed. That ’s a diplomatic task. Thus conservative internationalists give equal weight to force and diplomacy. They time diplomatic initiatives to coincide with maximum military strength and know when to cash in military gains to advance diplomatic ones. The best example here, I will show, is President Polk. He was a master at marrying the use of force and diplomacy. So was Ronald Reagan.

Seventh, diplomacy for conservative internationalists does not mean primarily international institutions. Conservative internationalism is not enthusiastic about international institutions even if, or one might say especially if, these institutions are effective. It advocates a “small government” version of internationalism and thus does not favor, like liberal internationalism, the construction of a world community through centralized organizations and rules. Nor is conservative internationalism indifferent to the big government or garrison state implications of foreign policies that pursue military adventures beyond immediate dangers.7 Conservatives are naturally suspicious of governments and favor self-reliance and civil society institutions. They take their cue from Thomas Jefferson. In his first inaugural address, Jefferson said: “Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted to govern himself. Can he then be trusted with the government of others? ”8 Jefferson laid down the conservative internationalist precept that the first and best government is self-government and that national and international governments should only do what local and national governments cannot do.

Democracy, for conservative internationalism, is not only a local process, but also a difficult one.

Eighth, democracy for conservative internationalism is not only a local process, but also a difficult one. Culture constrains democracy. It may not make democracy permanently impossible in some countries, as some realists argue, but it does make democratic development messier and more imperfect than liberal internationalists expect. Enduring democracy has three key pillars: regular (not one-time) elections in which competing parties rotate in power; elected authorities that control the major bureaucracies, especially the military; and an independent civil society that protects free speech, private property, and impartial justice. None of these pillars is easy to construct. Best then to target democracy where it is most likely to succeed, namely on the border of existing democracies, and make compromises with authoritarian realities in other places as long as the process of freedom inches forward.

Ninth, the best tool for inching freedom forward not only in bordering but also distant regions is economic engagement or the free movement of goods, capital, and people. Both conservative and liberal internationalists agree on this point. But liberal internationalists see a greater need to moderate international markets through international regulations and foreign aid. They worry about greed and inequality and promote legal structures to restrain business. Conservative internationalists have more confidence in self-reliant individuals exercising private choice in a competitive marketplace. They worry about unaccountable institutions and corruption and rely more on religious and other moral foundations of society to restrain individual license. Conservatives see development not as a process of helping others, full stop, but of helping others help themselves.9  Free trade encourages self-help; aid creates dependency, not only among recipients but also among donors who become addicted to compassion and paternalism.

Liberal internationalists worry about greed and inequality and promote legal structures to restrain business.

Tenth, and unlike liberal internationalists, however, conservative internationalists do not expect economic liberalization to lead automatically to political liberalization. Liberal internationalists believe that powerful historical forces, particularly the forces of modernization, abet the march of freedom. The world will eventually become free and force obsolete if prosperity spreads far enough and diplomacy is patient enough. Conservative internationalists are not so sure. They support modernization and globalization but worry that political freedom may not follow ineluctably from economic development. Ideologies shape human behavior more deeply than material forces, and cultures do not disappear with prosperity. Fascist regimes in Germany and Japan modernized but did not liberalize. And China today is modernizing but not democratizing. Hence it is essential to maintain the role of force should modernization merely produce stronger adversaries. What is more, modernization brings new ideological challenges. It secularizes and potentially weakens the spiritual and moral character of some societies, while it uproots traditions, especially religious traditions, and radicalizes the politics of other societies. Conservative internationalists see a continuing role for religion in a secular world; liberal internationalists tend to see secularism prevailing.

Eleventh, and perhaps most important, conservative internationalism accepts the premise that public opinion in free societies is the final arbiter of American foreign policy. Unlike realism it does not assume that foreign policy elites know best or that public opinion will always accept a policy as long as it succeeds. But unlike liberal internationalism, it is also not willing to wait for unanimous consent to act. No democracy requires unanimity to act domestically, and no community of democracies, let alone institutions that include both democracies and nondemocracies, should require unanimity to act internationally.

However, because conservative internationalism expects to use force more aggressively than either realists or liberal internationalists, it faces a tougher sell with public opinion. In democracies, public support for war is limited, especially if casualties persist or the threat is less visible, as in the case of terrorism. That reluctance, most of us would agree, is probably a good thing. Hence, when faced with persisting public opposition either at home or among democratic countries, conservative internationalism is more willing to scale back or terminate interventions. It seems incongruous to conservative internationalists to persist in a policy to spread freedom to new democracies if that policy cannot be sustained by majority support in the old democracies.

The best way to illustrate these eleven tenets of the conservative internationalist tradition is to explore the policies of the presidents that pioneered this tradition and compare their policies along the way with other presidents that fit standard interpretations more easily — Jefferson with Hamilton and realists, Polk with Andrew Jackson and nationalists, Truman with Franklin Roosevelt and liberal internationalists, and Reagan with both liberal internationalists (Jimmy Carter) and realists (Richard Nixon).

Jefferson — Empire of Liberty

Jefferson is such a protean and complex figure he belongs to every school of American government and foreign policy. Walter Russell Mead sees Jefferson as an isolationalist, a foreign policy minimalist much like nationalists or Jacksonians.10 According to Mead, Jefferson considered America as an example but not an exporter of liberty (unlike a liberal internationalist), and he focused American policy on economic, not security concerns (unlike a realist). Robert W. Tucker and David Hendrickson, on the other hand, consider Jefferson a utopian liberal internationalist bent on revolutionizing domestic and international government while avoiding the military means that would be needed to accomplish such ambitious ends.11

Both interpretations of Jefferson, as isolationist (nationalist) and internationalist, are unconvincing. They ignore two aspects of Jefferson ’s diplomacy that stand out in the context of his times. Jefferson was a passionate expansionist compared to almost all of his contemporaries, especially the realist Hamilton, and he served as president when America had no power to speak of, a miniscule navy and an army of less than 3,000 men. Thus, to argue that Jefferson was a foreign policy minimalist who had no international ambitions or that he was an internationalist who did not use sufficient power (what power?) seems out of context. In fact, at the time, Jefferson was ideologically more ambitious and used U.S. military power more assertively than anyone might have expected under the circumstances.12  Meanwhile, he accorded little influence to centralized institutions. His abhorrence of federalist powers other than those explicitly provided by the Constitution was matched by his ambivalence toward international institutions such as alliances (which was the principal form of international organization at the time). In short, his foreign policy strategy emphasized a strong role for both American ideas and American power and a minimal role for central or international institutions. Jefferson was the first conservative internationalist president.

Jefferson used American military power to the hilt to pursue the Barbary pirates, even when he had very little.

Three cases of Jeffersonian diplomacy bear out this interpretation — the dispatch of the U.S. Navy to the Mediterranean to pursue the Barbary pirates, Jefferson ’s diplomatic maneuvers to secure the purchase of Louisiana, and his embargo against England to redress attacks on American shipping. The first case shows that Jefferson used American military power to the hilt even when he had very little; the second case demonstrates his deft combination of force and diplomacy to put himself in a position to purchase Louisiana; and the third case shows that Jefferson pursued an economic embargo not as a substitute for war but as a reasonable first step toward war and as a way to buy time if events should make war unnecessary.

Barbary pirates. Jefferson became familiar with the raids of Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean when he was ambassador to France in the 1780s. He supported the founding of the U.S. Navy in the 1790s precisely to deal with this threat. Four Barbary states — Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli — repeatedly raided European and American shipping and demanded payments to desist from doing so. No sooner had Jefferson become president in March 1801 than the pasha at Tripoli raised new demands. What conceivable material threat this distant harassment posed to the United States is hard to imagine. Yet Jefferson in May 1801 immediately dispatched Commodore Richard Dale and three American frigates plus an armed schooner to defend American shipping. At the time, this contingent made up half the U.S. Navy. He did so even though he had not yet appointed a secretary of the navy (his first four nominees refused the job, some not once but twice13) and defense spending had been reduced by two-thirds from $6 million in 1799 to $1.9 million in 1801. This was not the action of a pacifist or realist, since it implied a military action of choice not necessity, and it stretched American naval resources beyond anticipated limits. What would the United States do now if enemy raiders intercepted U.S. ships and impressed its seamen closer to American shores? The conflict with the Barbary states dragged on for four years, absorbing most of the U.S. Navy. As Henry Adams noted, “with the exception of the frigates ‘Chesapeake’ and ‘United States’, hardly a seagoing vessel was left at home.”14

The Barbary policy included expansive ideological aims and risky — perhaps even reckless — military actions.

Jefferson’s Barbary policy strongly suggests a strategy that included both expansive ideological aims and risky, critics might say even reckless, military actions. Jefferson assessed the Barbary threat not in material terms but in terms of his expansive view of the rights of nations at sea. He believed all nations should be free to develop trade unless they were direct belligerents in war, and belligerents had no right to interfere with neutral-country trade even if a neutral country snapped up trade conducted by peaceful countries that now found themselves at war (as the United States had replaced French and Spanish trade in the West Indies). His view then and later in the 1800s brought him in conflict with Great Britain, which claimed the right to intercept any commerce that involved belligerents at war. Jefferson ’s lofty (realists would say utopian) view of free ships/free goods, not a direct realist threat, caused him to see the actions of the Barbary states as sheer piracy which had to be sternly punished.

By pursuing goals unrelated to a direct threat, Jefferson’s views were clearly liberal internationalist, and Robert Tucker and David Hendrickson criticize them for being both utopian and pacifist. But, in fact, Jefferson, unlike liberal internationalists, did back up his goals with almost every bit of power America had at the time, not only most of the available U.S. Navy but also a land expedition led by the American adventurer William Eaton against the pasha at Tripoli, which Jefferson did not authorize but allowed to go ahead. And, unlike realists, Jefferson did all this without an alliance with European powers even though they too were harassed by the Barbary pirates. He acted for the most part unilaterally, and the policy succeeded. In 1805 the Pasha at Tripoli sued for peace and American frigates returned home, just in time to face a threat much closer to American shores, the blockade of New York harbor by British frigates. From a fresh perspective, Jefferson ’s Barbary policy looks very much like a conservative internationalist strategy that differed significantly from both realism and liberal internationalism.15

Louisiana Purchase. The Louisiana Purchase was without question the crowning achievement of Jefferson ’s diplomacy. It did not just fall into Jefferson’s lap, as Henry Adams later claimed.16 Rather it was a product of Jefferson’s overall strategy that exploited ideas to change circumstances, used the threat of force and alliance deftly to influence perceptions of the balance of power in Europe, and exhibited diplomatic patience and timely compromise even when compromise impinged on principle.

Jefferson was “not only a committed expansionist but among the generation of Founding Fathers the greatest expansionist. ”17 Already in 1786, he wrote: “our confederacy must be viewed as the nest from which all America, North and South is to be peopled. ”18 He did not necessarily envision a single union of the Americas. As Dumas Malone writes, for Jefferson “the Union was always the means, not an end in itself.”19 A great believer in decentralization, Jefferson talked about parallel sister republics in the Louisiana territory and appealed dispassionately to “keep them in the union, if it be for their good, but separate them, if it be better. ” Jefferson did envision a common civil society — similar peoples “speaking the same language, governed in similar forms, and by similar law.” And he could not “contemplate with satisfaction any blot or mixture on that surface,” which excluded blacks and Indians from citizenship.20  He counted on white Americans to settle Louisiana, reform the authoritarian institutions of Spanish and French rule, and prepare the territory for statehood (which took ten years).

For this early experiment in occupation and democracy building, Jefferson was severely criticized. John Quincy Adams condemned Jefferson ’s plan as “complete despotism,” and Aaron Burr subsequently plotted with authoritarian-minded residents in the western territories to separate Louisiana from the union.21 But, like a conservative internationalist, Jefferson believed that liberty preceded equality and union derived from free peoples associating freely, not from equal participation among diverse peoples some of whom were not free. From today ’s vantage point, his views are racist and imperialist.22 And I do not make light of these charges. I simply side with Michael Ignatieff’s position that imperialism and liberty cannot be disentangled: “the problem here is that while no one wants imperialism to win, no one in his right mind can want liberty to fail either.”23 At the time America imperialism spread freedom, such as it was then — votes for more white males — and such as it was to become thereafter — igniting the Civil War, eventually emancipating blacks, women, and minorities, and continuing the struggle against discrimination to this very day. For conservative internationalists, liberty comes first, equality second. Diverse peoples become equal by accepting the standards of freedom, not by merely exercising power or sovereignty, as realists believe, or by participating equally in collective institutions to decide what is legitimate, as liberal internationalists advocate.

For conservative internationalists, as for Jefferson before them, liberty comes first, equality second.

The knock against Jefferson from a realist or conservative internationalist position is that he never intended to use force to block a French reconquest of Louisiana.24 It was all bluff and then dumb luck when Napoleon was unable to call the bluff. Intentions of course are hard to read. As we ’ve already noted, the United States at the time had little force. So even if Jefferson intended to use it all, as he pretty much did, it might seem as though he intended to use very little. The key instrument of force was not American but British power.25  And here Jefferson succeeded in connecting in Napoleon’s mind the probability that if Napoleon went to war with England in Europe he would also have to fight England in Louisiana.

On October 1, 1800 Spain ceded Louisiana to France in the Treaty of San Ildefonso. Secret and conditional (on Spain getting a French-occupied duchy in Italy), the cession revived the prospects of French-British rivalry in North America (which had led earlier to the French-Indian Wars of 175663 and the original French loss of Louisiana). Jefferson cleverly exploited this rivalry. Learning of the secret treaty in May 1801 before France and England signed a temporary peace at St. Amiens in October, Jefferson instructed the American minister in Paris, Robert Livingston, to warn Paris that the cession of Louisiana “may turn the thoughts of our [U.S.] citizens to a closer connection with her [France ’s] rival and possibly produce a crisis in which a favorable part of her dominions would be exposed to the joint operation of a naval [England] and territorial [United States] power.”26 He reinforced this threat in a letter to Livingston the following April. The letter informed the French that should they repossess Louisiana, “from that moment we [the United States] must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation.”27 Jefferson knew that this threat would mean nothing in Paris unless France and England again went to war: “I did not expect that he [Napoleon] would yield till a war took place between France and England, and my hope was to palliate and endure . . . until that event . . . [and] I believed that event not very distant. ”28  Jefferson was right. Within a year war broke out again between France and England, and Napoleon, both in anticipation of war in America and because of the defeat of a French naval expedition in Santo Domingo, sold Louisiana to the United States.

Napoleon weighed American power in the balance between France and England, and that is what Jefferson intended.

Was Jefferson’s threat irrelevant? Adams says yes: “fear of England was not . . . the cause of the sale.”29 Tucker and Hendrickson say not entirely. They acknowledge that once war broke out in Europe, “Napoleon was at pains to see that the United States did not ally itself with Great Britain.”30  But Napoleon ceded Louisiana, they argue, not to deter an American alliance with Britain but to build up a new power in America to challenge England ’s maritime dominance. The argument splits hairs. Whether to prevent an alliance with England or to promote a rival to England, Napoleon weighed America ’s power in the balance between France and England, and that is what Jefferson intended.

Tucker and Hendrickson argue that Jefferson never offered explicit alliance conditions that England could accept and therefore never intended such an alliance at all. But Jefferson ’s coyness has another explanation. Jefferson’s objective was to prevent both English and French occupation of Louisiana. If he had to threaten alliance with Britain to prevent French occupation, he also had to avoid Britain occupation. To that extent, indeed, he did not intend or want an alliance with Britain. But if no occupation of Louisiana was his preferred outcome, alliance and possible occupation by Britain was still more acceptable than French reoccupation. He asked his cabinet to consider the British alliance, offering three inducements to attract Britain — not to make a separate peace with France, letting England take Louisiana if necessary, and granting England commercial concessions.31  The cabinet rejected the last two inducements but authorized alliance talks “as soon as . . . no arrangements can be made with France.”

So Jefferson did consider reasonable conditions to lure Britain into an alliance, and the alliance proposal, even without the last two inducements, was carefully thought out and intentional. As Henry Adams writes, the alliance “contradicted every principle established by President Washington in power and professed by Jefferson in opposition.”32 Certainly, Jefferson would not have proposed such an alliance without considerable reflection. Thus, while visionary, he was no ideologue. He knew when to sacrifice principle for practice and played a masterful hand at using British power without really embracing it, unless absolutely necessary, to influence Napoleon ’s calculations.33

Jefferson played a masterful hand, using British power without really embracing it to influence Napoleon.

In the end, of course, Jefferson’s diplomacy would not have succeeded without the help of unrelated circumstances. War in Europe, as Jefferson anticipated, was a prerequisite. But war alone was not sufficient. War raged in Europe after 1803 when Jefferson tried a similar diplomacy of threatening alliance with England. He pressured France to persuade its ally Spain to sell the Floridas to the United States. But after 1803 France was in a stronger position. From 1804 to 1808 Napoleon’s fortunes in Europe steadily improved. France had less reason to fear British power, let alone a British-American alliance. Indeed in this period France hatched plans to invade England. In addition, U.S.-British relations became more troubled as Britain stepped up impressments of U.S. seamen. Thus in the earlier period, when France’s position was more precarious and better U.S.-British relations prevailed, it is not improbable that Jefferson’s threat of alliance with Britain was a significant, if not decisive, factor affecting Napoleon’s calculations.

Embargo against England. If there was any doubt about Jefferson’s willingness to use force, it should have been dispelled by his ill-fated decision in 1807 to impose an embargo against all American trade with England. Yet Jefferson’s critics interpret this decision as evidence of his determination not to use military force and of his utopian design to replace the use of military force with the sanctions and benefits of commerce. In their mind the embargo confirms both Jefferson’s liberal internationalist bent to transform international politics by leveraging commerce rather than waging war (what Jefferson called, in the case of economic sanctions, “peaceful coercion”) and his isolationist bent to withdraw whenever international conflict threatens — the embargo, in effect, bringing the ships into port and removing the targets for British aggression.

The criticism is well taken. After all, this time America was attacked, and instead of going to war, as nationalists such as Andrew Jackson advocated at the time, Jefferson withdrew the target rather than attack the aggressor.34 In July 1807 a British warship, the Leopard, fired upon an American frigate, the Chesapeake, killing three and wounding 18 Americans. This was the first time Britain attacked a U.S. government vessel as opposed to privateers or private vessels harassing British shipping. Jefferson himself called the attack “this enormity” which “was not only without provocation or justifiable cause; but was committed with the avowed purpose of taking by force from a ship of war of the U.S. a part of her crew ” who “were native citizens of the U.S.”35  Yet Jefferson dithered for six months until France and Britain announced in November even more stringent restrictions on neutral trade. Then he imposed the embargo that quickly did more harm to American merchants than British aggressors.

It is hard to conclude that Jefferson saw peaceful coercion as an alternative totally distinct from war.

Isn’t this proof that Jefferson was anything but a conservative internationalist who uses military power assertively to expand freedom? Under direct attack, he eschewed military retaliation and responded with a self-defeating embargo. Well, maybe. It depends on whether Jefferson intended the embargo as a final or interim measure, and whether he knew that war was likely to follow but wanted to buy time both to allow Congress to take the initiative, as he believed the Constitution required, and to see if events in Europe might lessen the prospect of war.

Considerable evidence suggests that Jefferson saw the embargo not as an alternative but as a prelude to military force. His messages and budgets to Congress at the beginning of 1806 and 1807 increased military spending. Referring in the 1806 message to conflicts with Britain, he said: “[S]ome of these conflicts may perhaps admit a peaceful remedy. Where that is competent it is always the most desirable. But some of them are of a nature to be met by force only, and all of them may lead to it. ”36 After the Chesapeake incident, as even his critics acknowledge, Jefferson “gave considerable thought to the prospect of war with England [and] at various moments in the late summer and fall of 1807 . . . appeared to consider it, on balance, a path superior to a trial at economic coercion.”37

Thus it is hard to conclude that Jefferson thought of economic sanctions or peaceful coercion as an alternative totally distinct from war. More likely, as other evidence suggests, he faced three alternatives in response to the Chesapeake incident: no response, embargo, or war. He chose embargo as an intermediate response that might have to be followed by war. He told his son-in-law in the fall of 1807 that the embargo would likely end in war and in March 1808 he said the time would come “when our interests will render war preferable to a continuance of the embargo.”38 No doubt he believed that the embargo would hurt England more than it actually did. But he had reason to believe so. The U.S. share of trade on the high seas increased enormously from 1801 to 1805.39 U.S. shipping was vital to England. Why not give this growing form of power a chance to work before plunging the country into war? After all, war with England was different from war with the Barbary pirates or war with France in alliance with Britain. War with England would require a maximum domestic effort and raise all the dangers for the U.S. constitutional system that Jefferson feared. Why not step into such a war one toe at a time and in the meantime hope that events beyond one’s control might obviate its necessity? Nevertheless, war was contemplated and in the end it followed, not on Jefferson’s watch but under his protégé James Madison. And when it came, Jefferson supported it unflinchingly.

The knock that Jefferson could not bring himself to use military force in foreign affairs therefore does not hold up. By imposing the embargo, he used a new form of economic coercion, albeit initially peaceful (non-military), to buy time and perhaps avoid the subsequent use of military force. But he did not believe that economic coercion was somehow not coercion or that it alone might suffice to bring about peace. He used force less than a nationalist might have — someone who declares all-out war when America is attacked — but also more than an isolationist or liberal internationalist would have, someone who considers trade a positive benefit only or as a substitute not prelude for war. And he defied realist logic by employing means that went well beyond his aims (rather than what realists fear, that resources will fall short of ambitious aims). The embargo, it could be argued, cost almost as much as war, and it had much less chance of achieving what Jefferson was after, namely stopping British impressment.

Polk — Manifest Destiny

James polk was without question one of the most ambitious and successful American presidents in history. In four years, he expanded American territory to incorporate Texas, the northwest territory of Oregon, and the southwest territories of New Mexico and California. And he did all this as a lame duck president facing a phalanx of presidential wannabes because he promised upon his unexpected nomination in 1844 to serve only one term. But Polk did not succeed without war with Mexico and without unleashing the passions of the slavery question that led a decade and a half later to the Civil War. For these reasons, in particular, Polk’s star has been dimmed by history.40

But the verdict is too harsh. For many, to be sure, the annexation of Texas and New Mexico/California involved the expansion of slavery not liberty. But for others it involved the prospect of living under a freer system than existed in Mexico at the time; and the American system, it can at least be argued, led to more freedom and opportunity thereafter than would have materialized if Mexico had retained possession of Texas and the Southwest. One also needs to ask if there was any way expansion could have taken place without war and if the union would have been better off had civil war come before expansion. Almost certainly, slavery would have provoked war at some point with or without expansion, and the nation was better protected against predatory neighbors because expansion came before the Civil War. During the Civil War, Britain and France both plotted interventions from Mexico, but now because of expansion they did so from less advantageous borders.

Polk’s diplomacy sharply illustrates key tenets of the conservative internationalist tradition: 1) a clear vision to spread freedom that rises above the ebb and flow of domestic politics and foreign events; 2) an ambitious diplomacy in which the use of force is a continuing companion of negotiations, not a last resort after negotiations fail; and 3) a sense of timely compromise that respects the limits of American power and domestic politics.

Polk’s expansionist aims were never doubted.41 He seized opportunities in the 1840s to spread American liberty and power that even his more illustrious nationalist predecessor, Andrew Jackson, did not take. In 1836, Jackson had the opportunity of actual war between Texas and Mexico to annex Texas and did not take it.42 Jackson’s commitment was to union, not the expansion of union. His two terms were devoted largely to domestic struggles — the national bank and tariff. By contrast, in 1845 Polk deployed forces to the disputed Texas border to create the opportunity for annexation, albeit at the risk of war. Polk was more visionary, like Jefferson, and deftly combined ideas and power to change, not just accommodate, circumstances. He also demonstrated, better perhaps than Jefferson, the crucial importance of timely links between the use of force and compromise, especially to sustain the domestic consensus behind the more assertive use of force. In this respect Polk may have been the most consistent and complete conservative internationalist.

Polk seized opportunities to spread American liberty and power that his predecessor did not take.

Annexation of Texas. In his last days in office in March 1845, President John Tyler adopted a House of Representative plan to annex Texas immediately while the Senate sought to renegotiate the Texas Treaty which Tyler had negotiated. Polk’s role is disputed, but he at least acquiesced in and probably accelerated Tyler’s plan.43 In the spring and summer, he sent special agents to Texas to persuade the Texas government to accept annexation over independence and dispatched an envoy to Mexico City to warn Mexico against recognizing Texas independence. He also ordered U.S. troops under Zachary Taylor to move from Louisiana to the Texas border and sent additional naval forces to the Gulf Coast. By early summer, as Sam W. Haynes writes, “Washington aimed to send a clear and unequivocal message to Mexico and Great Britain that it would brook no interference in its plans to annex Texas.”44  This assertive deployment of U.S. claims and forces clearly reinforced local support for annexation. In June the Texas Congress approved annexation, and in July a convention ratified it.

Texas annexation might have happened anyway, but a better question to ask, according to the historian David Pletcher, is why it took so long.45  Other American presidents let divisions in Congress and Texas delay the outcome. Tyler and Polk did not. And if Polk had dithered any longer, the annexation of Texas rather than the acquisition of New Mexico and California may have become the pretext for war with Mexico. Pre-emptive action, if it succeeds, secures a more favorable position from which to deal with future exigencies.

Oregon Territory. In his inaugural address in March 1845, Polk declared the U.S. claim to the Oregon Territory to be “clear and unquestionable,” without specifying whether that claim was the extreme expansionist position of 54 degrees 40 minutes (including contemporary British Columbia) or the more moderate claim of the 49th parallel (today’s border with Canada). Faced with the Texas and larger Mexican issues, Polk set priorities and offered a compromise in July 1845 accepting the 49th parallel. The British refused, demanding arbitration of the issue. Given some confusion on the British side, his less expansion-minded secretary of state, James Buchanan, and others urged Polk to resubmit the proposal. But Polk now displayed patience and looked for leverage to make sure that the next proposal came from the British.

Polk, more visionary than Jackson, deftly combined ideas and power to change, not just accommodate, circumstances.

In December 1845 he submitted legislation to Congress giving notice that the United States would withdraw from the two agreements with Britain (signed in 1817 and 1826) providing for joint occupation of the Oregon territory. For four months Congress debated this legislation, finally approving a Senate version that gave Polk authority to terminate the joint occupation at his discretion. This was just the sort of leverage Polk wanted. Eventually, in May 1846, the British offered a proposal that, except for limited navigation rights ceded to the British Hudson’s Bay Company on the Columbia River, was the same as the proposal they had rejected one year earlier.

Now, suddenly, Buchanan objected. He demanded the more ambitious 54–40 boundary in an attempt to undercut Polk’s support among northern expansionists. This was just the kind of domestic political maneuvering Polk had to contend with throughout his presidency. Under these circumstances, Polk’s patient diplomacy was exactly the right domestic medicine. Offering repeated U.S. proposals would have simply given Congress the opportunity to dilute his negotiating position. Instead he rallied Congress to pass withdrawal legislation that leveraged the British to make the next proposal. To neutralize Buchanan, Polk asked him to draft the message to the Senate accepting the British proposal. In an astonishing confrontation with Polk, Buchanan refused. Polk then drafted the message himself, called a Cabinet meeting, and when Buchanan objected put him in a room with other colleagues to work out the differences. After minor adjustments, the message went to Congress and after assiduous lobbying by Polk passed the Senate comfortably (38–12) in June. The Oregon issue was settled just in time to let Polk and the country concentrate on the more recalcitrant issues of New Mexico and California.

Acquisition of New Mexico and California. Polk’s aim was not just to annex Texas and defend its disputed border with Mexico on the Rio Grande but to acquire the entire southwest region. Polk was Jeffersonian and believed that liberty would be better for indigenous peoples even if it did not involve at the outset equal recognition of nondemocratic cultures.46 Realists reject such arguments as mere rationalizations of imperialism, while liberal internationalists descry them as Anglo-Saxon racism. But conservative internationalists see this approach putting in place a freer system that over time does more for individual equality across diverse cultures than might be achieved if nondemocratic cultures remained in power.

After war broke out, Polk accelerated diplomacy each time he escalated force.

The conservative internationalist approach does not imply exporting freedom with a gun. Polk hoped to purchase New Mexico and California without war. And after war broke out, he accelerated diplomacy each time he escalated force. First, in July 1845, after Texas ratified union, he took a series of steps to strengthen the U.S. military position in Texas and the southwest. He ordered Taylor to move as close to the disputed Rio Grande border as circumstances would permit, alerted Commodore John D. Sloat, commander of the Pacific Squadron, to keep his forces ready, appointed the American consul in California, Thomas O. Larkin, to watch for intervention of foreign powers (read Great Britain), and invited two aggressive individuals to join the effort to increase military pressure — sending Commodore Robert F. Stockton, a loose cannon during the annexation of Texas, from the Gulf Coast to California and communicating with John C. Fremont, an adventurer and troublemaker in the Oregon territory, to move south to California. Shortly thereafter, in September, however, Polk embraced diplomacy. He dispatched John Slidell, a former Louisiana Congressman, to Mexico to purchase New Mexico and California, warning that if Mexico failed to cooperate, he would ask Congress for appropriate remedies. The Mexican government refused to recognize Slidell because they expected U.S. commissioners to renegotiate the Texas Treaty (based on the Senate plan ignored by Tyler and Polk). Was Polk deterring or aggressing?47  One answer is neither. He was bent on acquiring the southwest territories and understood that the best chance to do so without force was to pursue an aggressive diplomacy backed by force.

The Slidell mission failed, in part because Mexico was deeply divided. The government fell in December just as Slidell arrived. Now, Polk readied his second effort at diplomacy backed by force. Without results in Mexico City, Polk ordered Taylor in January 1846 to move to the Rio Grande, occupying disputed territory for the first time. Taylor arrived in late March. In late April, Mexican forces attacked across the Rio Grande, and in early May, after Slidell arrived back in Washington, Polk asked Congress to declare war. Polk placed Winfield Scott in overall command, but he and Scott, a presidential aspirant for the Whigs, who were less expansionist, immediately clashed. and Polk fired Scott. Polk then deployed forces in three directions. Taylor continued marching into Mexico; Colonel Stephen W. Kearny led an expedition toward Santa Fe, New Mexico and subsequently California; and Sloat proceeded to blockade the California coast and seize ports as possible. Polk signaled that he was flexible on the eventual border with Mexico as long as New Mexico and California became part of the United States.48

Santa Anna agreed to sell California but not New Mexico. But Polk knew what he wanted and waited until he could attain it.

Once again Polk escalated his peace initiatives in line with the projection of force. He looked for a leader of Mexico that would sell the southwest territory. He consulted in February 1846 with an agent of Santa Anna, an aspiring Mexican warlord exiled in Havana. In July Polk sent Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, the brother of John Slidell, to consult with Santa Anna, and in August he allowed Santa Anna to transit through U.S. naval lines on his way from Cuba to Mexico City to seize power. Once back in Mexico, however, Santa Anna turned against the United States, and Polk’s second diplomatic offensive came a cropper.

Polk turned again to the use of force to bolster his diplomacy. He opened a second front. Taylor defeated the Mexicans at Monterrey in late September but then signed an eight week truce, contrary to Polk ’s instructions. Polk ordered a second expedition to seize Vera Cruz, and overlooking earlier differences, placed Scott in charge. Never relying on force alone, however, he also escalated diplomacy. In January 1847 he sent a special agent, Moses Beach, to Mexico City. Beach almost got a deal. Santa Anna agreed to sell California but not New Mexico. Polk refused. His vision provided him with a bottom line. He knew what he wanted and waited until he could attain it.

Scott took Vera Cruz in March 1847, and Polk ordered him on to Mexico City, which the Americans stormed in September. Again, the escalation of force was accompanied by new diplomacy. In April Polk sent Nicholas P. Trist, a clerk to Secretary of State Buchanan, to Mexico City. Polk made clear to Trist that the acquisition of New Mexico and California was his bottom line.49  Trist quickly exceeded his instructions and showed a willingness to forgo parts of California. Polk recalled him in October. But Trist stayed on, feuding not only with Polk but with General Scott as well.

Here perhaps dumb luck stepped in. Polk was out of options. The All-Mexico Movement in Congress demanded the annexation of all of Mexico. Miraculously, or so it seemed, Trist finally reached agreement on February 2, 1948 in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which met Polk’s minimum conditions. The treaty’s arrival in Washington two weeks later undercut the All Mexico Movement, and the war ended short of maximalist aims.

Polk’s constant attention to the link between force and diplomacy made this intermediate outcome possible. Relying more on force might have dumped all of Mexico in America’s lap. Relying more on diplomacy, on the other hand — for example, accepting Beach’s compromise in 1947 — might have compromised too much. If the United States had acquired all of Mexico, U.S. frontiers might have been even better protected against future predators. But how much more would it have cost to occupy and control all of Mexico? Here is where conservative internationalism respects the balance between goals and resources. It does not accept the realist or liberal internationalist admonition that expansionist goals must always be pruned to match limited resources. But it also does not accept the idea that resources can always be stretched to accommodate maximalist aims. The expansion of freedom is an incremental process. Proximate gains outweigh maximalist ones. Conservative internationalism presses the envelope of forceful change but knows when to take piecemeal gains and press for further gains on later occasions.

Conservative internationalism presses the envelope of forceful change but knows when to take piecemeal gains.

Polk’s diplomacy is even more remarkable when one considers the domestic obstacles he faced. The aims of both conservative and liberal internationalists are ambitious, but the more assertive military means that conservative internationalists employ are much more controversial. The trick for conservative internationalists is to maintain domestic consensus without compromising aims. Polk faced Whigs who largely opposed expansion by force or other means. However, he also faced liberal internationalists who favored expansion but “opposed the use of force to achieve those ends, believing that contiguous lands would voluntarily join the Union” or “ripen like fruit and fall into the lap of the United States.”50 In addition, he faced sectional divisions. Southern Democrats favored expansion to the southwest but not northwest (Oregon — see below) because slavery was an issue in the southwest (the Wilmot Proviso forbidding slavery in the southwest being tacked onto one of the appropriation bills to buy the southwest territories). Northern Democrats favored expansion to the northwest but not southwest because slavery was not an issue in the northwest.

On top of these divisions, Polk confronted a welter of presidential aspirants fighting to succeed him in 1848 — Buchanan, his secretary of state, who went on to become president in 1857; Henry Clay, the leader of the Whigs, whom Polk defeated in 1844; John C. Calhoun, leader of the southern Democrats in Congress; General Taylor, who won the presidential election as a Whig in 1848; General Scott, whom many Whigs wanted to be president; and Lewis Cass, the expansionist senator from Michigan who ran as the Democratic nominee against Taylor in 1848. Polk was a consummate politician as well as a visionary and imperialist. Critics contend that he managed all of these diverse interests only by logrolling them to wage an unnecessary war. But then the war should have controlled him, not the other way around. In fact, his ability to carve out a principled but proportionate position between isolationists and opportunists on the one hand (such as Trist and Buchanan, who were ready to accept any compromise) and expansionists and racists on the other (such as Cass, who sought maximalist aims) enabled him to end the war in a relatively short period of time and in a way that damaged U.S.-Mexican relations, to be sure, but did not result in the long-term occupation or annexation of Mexico.

Truman — liberty in Western Europe

If harry truman was a liberal internationalist, he was a different one from Woodrow Wilson or Franklin Roosevelt. Wilson was a liberal internationalist first class. He invented the League of Nations and believed collective security would replace the balance of power and make the world safe for democracy. Franklin Roosevelt was a liberal internationalist second class. He amended the League idea by adding the realist component of a concert of great powers with veto rights in the United Nations Security Council. But he still believed on balance that diplomacy within the United Nations, especially personal diplomacy, could manage relations with the Soviet Union peacefully. Truman was a liberal internationalist third class. He wanted Roosevelt’s scheme to work but believed on balance that diplomacy would require a more assertive use of force to contain the Soviet Union and an ideological campaign to promote liberty and stop the spread of communism in Western Europe. In the end, had Roosevelt lived and faced the same exigencies, he may have made the same calls as Truman. We will never know. But, if so, his approach too might be better called conservative rather than liberal internationalism, because it tilted ultimately toward the free countries that founded nato rather than all countries that made up the United Nations, and it deployed American power for the first time in peace to defend and promote liberty abroad.

Three postwar developments reveal the conservative nature of Truman’s internationalism — the tilt in 1945–47 toward a more ideological rather than geopolitical interpretation of the conflict with the Soviet Union (the Truman Doctrine), the unprecedented decisions from 1947 to 1949 to commit American military power to Europe in peacetime (nato), and the shift after 1949 away from negotiations with the Soviet Union through the United Nations toward the containment of Soviet power through alliances in Europe and elsewhere around the world (sidelining the United Nations).

Roosevelt wanted Polish elections to be as pure as Caesar’s wife. Stalin replied that Caesar’s wife was known to have her sins. 51 Gaddis,

The Truman Doctrine. Roosevelt was not naïve about the domestic character of the Soviet regime. He told Joseph Davies, his close pro-Soviet adviser, “I can’t take communism nor can you, but to cross this bridge I would hold hands with the Devil.”51 The bridge Roosevelt wanted to cross was managing postwar peace with the Soviet Union through diplomacy. Truman wanted to cross that bridge too.52 For both, diplomacy had to trump ideology. But Truman and Roosevelt differed precisely on the question of how diplomacy and ideology interacted. At Yalta, Roosevelt let ideological differences pass. When Roosevelt insisted that Polish elections be as pure as Caesar’s wife, Stalin responded that Caesar’s wife was known to have her sins. Roosevelt let the comment pass. At Potsdam, when Truman and Churchill complained that the Soviet Union blocked access to the Balkan countries (Churchill had used the phrase “iron curtain” already in a cable in May 1945), Stalin replied that it was “all fairy tales.” Rather than let it pass, Truman took Churchill’s side and rebuked Stalin. Churchill told aides later that evening “if only this had happened at Yalta.”53

This was an early indication of Truman’s greater awareness that ideological differences might be a decisive impediment to diplomacy. Two events in 1946 offered further evidence. In February 1946 Truman invited Churchill to speak at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. He not only accompanied Churchill to Fulton and introduced him but read Churchill’s speech beforehand. Churchill’s “iron curtain” speech was, as many historians see it, the opening shot of the Cold War. Its bellicose tone shocked the press, and Truman subsequently tried to muffle his support for the speech by arguing feebly that he did not know what Churchill was going to say. But it is inconceivable that he did not know and share Churchill’s views, unless he was behaving in a totally incompetent manner.54 In September of the same year, William Wallace, Truman’s Secretary of Commerce and the last holdover of the most liberal internationalist members of the Roosevelt administration, gave a speech denouncing what he perceived to be a shift in U.S. policy toward a hard line with the Soviet Union. Truman initially did nothing, but under substantial pressure, including from his own Secretary of State, James Byrnes, fired Wallace a few days later. The two incidents suggest that in Washington, by the end of 1946, Churchill’s hard line was in, and Roosevelt’s soft line was out.

Eleanor Roosevelt remarked that her husband thought he’d get on better with Stalin than with Churchill when peace came.

Might Roosevelt have responded to unfolding events in 1946 in the same way? Perhaps. But Roosevelt would never have allowed Churchill at Fulton to put him in a box vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. Roosevelt often joked that the British “were perfectly willing for the United States to have a war with the Soviet Union at any time,” and Eleanor Roosevelt once commented that her husband “always thought that when peace came he would be able to get along better with Stalin than with Churchill.”55 And while Roosevelt dumped Wallace for Truman on the presidential ticket in 1944, Wallace’s views about the Soviet Union were certainly closer to Roosevelt’s views and those of his pro-Soviet advisers, such as Harry Hopkins and Joseph Davies, than to Truman’s.

Thus, by the time the British announced in February 1947 that they were pulling forces out of Greece and Turkey, Truman was primed to identify the ideological sources of Soviet behavior as the root cause of the failure of postwar diplomacy. The Truman Doctrine, announced in March, appealed to every nation to choose between two alternative ways of life, one pursuing freedom, the other oppression. Did Truman hype the ideological threat primarily to win congressional approval? Realists and liberal internationalists think so, but Congress and the public needed less encouragement to resist an expansion of Soviet ideology, which was at stake for the first time in Greece and Turkey, than a consolidation of Soviet ideology in Eastern Europe, which the Soviet Union had already occupied by the end of World War II. Public opinion turned around quickly once the Marshall Plan made it clear that it was freedom in Western, not Eastern, Europe that was at stake.

Would Roosevelt have responded in similar fashion to Soviet offensive intentions?56 Again, perhaps. But at the very least Roosevelt would have been slower to conclude that communist ideology mattered. As Wilson Miscamble concludes in an exhaustive study of the differences between Roosevelt and Truman, Roosevelt “either downplayed or simply failed to appreciate the ideological chasm that divided the democracies from Stalin’s totalitarian regime.”57  Truman, by contrast, was accused of turning the relationship with the Soviet Union into an ideological crusade. Both Truman and Roosevelt were internationalists, but Truman was a conservative internationalist, more inclined to see the absence of freedom (access to other societies) as a barrier to diplomacy and equal treatment, while Roosevelt was a liberal internationalist, more inclined to see diplomacy and equal treatment as the only effective way to encourage freedom and eventual access in Eastern Europe.

Truman was accused of turning the relationship with the Soviet Union into an ideological crusade.

NATO. From 1943 to 1947, neither Roosevelt nor Truman displayed the conservative internationalist’s instinct to back diplomacy with the threat of force. Instead, true to liberal internationalist dictates, they both backed Roosevelt’s concept of collective security carried out by the un Security Council under Chapter VII of the Charter. National military force would defer to international military force. Roosevelt pledged to Stalin at Teheran in November 1943 that the United States would remove all forces from Europe within two years after the end of the war. He repeated that pledge at Yalta, even as Soviet forces were rumbling toward Berlin. After Soviet moves in late February/March 1945 to install a communist government in Poland, Roosevelt hinted in his last cable to Churchill that they would have “to consider most carefully the implications of Stalin’s attitude and what is to be our next step.”58  Truman had to decide that “next step” and, initially, his actions did not deviate from Roosevelt’s preference for collective diplomacy over selective alliances.

Truman’s style differed, to be sure. He talked bluntly to Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov at their first meeting in April, cut off abruptly Lend-Lease assistance to the Soviet Union in May (which, however, was a mistake and quickly reversed), and understood the significance of the atomic bomb as potential leverage toward the Soviet Union. But, on the ground in Europe, where the balance of power was shifting daily toward the Soviet Union, he did nothing to counterbalance Soviet forces for fear of damaging the prospects of cooperation with Moscow. On the same day he talked tough to Molotov, he rejected Churchill’s suggestion that Western forces, which had moved about 150 miles beyond the agreed occupation zone in Germany, remain in place as negotiating leverage with Stalin over Poland and other issues. These forces were withdrawn on July 1, just before the Potsdam conference. And, if Truman intended to use the atomic bomb to leverage Stalin at Potsdam, it is odd that he agreed to the Potsdam meeting before the bomb was clearly in hand. Henry Stimson, his Secretary of War, called it “a terrible thing to gamble with such big stakes in diplomacy without having your master card [the A-bomb] in your hand.”59  His main goal at Potsdam, Truman said, was to gain a Soviet commitment to participate in the war against Japan. And that he secured on the first day.

Meanwhile, Stalin showed no hesitancy to use force as a bargaining tool. He told Molotov not to worry about the Yalta clauses on free elections in Poland because the Soviet Union would be in a stronger military position later: “work it out. We can deal with it in our own way later.”60 As the war ended, Stalin’s instincts were captured perfectly by his comment to Milovan Djilas, the Yugoslav communist: “whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system. Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach.”61

Truman’s turn toward the more assertive use of U.S. force came later, after the war in Asia ended. In a letter Truman claims to have read to Byrnes (who denied it) in January 1946, he said: “Russia intends an invasion of Turkey and seizure of the Black Sea Straits to the Mediterranean. . . . Unless Russia is faced with an iron fist and strong language another war is in the making. Only one language do they understand — ‘How many divisions have you?’”62 Stalin gave a speech in February 1946 anticipating “a war among imperialists” and calling on his people to undertake a new armament effort that appeared to confirm Truman ’s fears. Soviet forces, although having withdrawn from Iran in March, maneuvered menacingly in the Balkans in August-September. Truman now took his first steps toward strengthening national force as an instrument of U.S. diplomacy. He increased significantly U.S. naval forces in the Mediterranean, told a German audience through Byrnes that U.S. forces would not leave Europe unprotected, and initiated joint war planning between U.S. and British military staffs.63 In this context, Truman also ordered a report from his hard line advisers Clark Clifford and George Elsey documenting Soviet treaty violations. But, after Stalin, warned by spies in Washington, back-pedaled in Turkey, Truman confiscated the report. He was not yet quite ready to confront Soviet power with U.S. power.

That moment came in spring and summer of 1947 when Truman decided to take Britain’s place in Greece and Turkey and to mobilize Marshall Plan aid to help Western Europe fend off indigenous communist parties. Even then, Truman ’s instincts, like Jefferson’s in the Chesapeake affair, favored economic and political, rather than military, measures. The Marshall Plan entailed no troop commitments. But Truman, like Jefferson, undoubtedly understood that economic measures might provoke military ones. Wallace pointedly called the “Marshall Plan” a “Martial Plan.”64 And very quickly economic initiatives to unite the currency zones of western Germany sparked geopolitical hostilities when the Soviet Union cut off access to West Berlin. Now the price of trusting Stalin came home. At Yalta Roosevelt had failed to negotiate terms for allied access to Berlin, which was inside the Soviet zone. The only way now to save West Berlin was by military action. The Berlin airlift began, and plans for nato followed.

However much he backed into it, Truman’s commitment to defend freedom in Western Europe was monumental.

However much he backed into it, Truman’s commitment to defend freedom in Western Europe was monumental. In effect, it extended the Monroe Doctrine to Western Europe and placed American forces at risk to defend the “disputed” borders of freedom in Europe, much as Polk had placed U.S. forces at risk to defend the “disputed” border of Texas. It was a preemptive use of force to deter or, as critics might say, provoke aggression. Either way, it was a more assertive use of force than liberal internationalists would support, because they would emphasize the provocative rather than deterrent effects. Recall that the Soviet Union had attacked no one’s territory. In Berlin it was arguably doing no more than defending its own occupied zone. Indeed, for years thereafter, both liberal internationalists and realists blamed Truman for militarizing the Cold War. But Truman also saw that his diplomacy was unarmed. As Clark Clifford expressed it later, “there was really nothing to impede Soviet forces, if they chose to, from just marching straight west to the English Channel.”65 The days of downplaying or misreading the balance of power in Europe in order to make cooperation work were over.

Sidelining the United Nations. For Roosevelt, the realist element of the United Nations, namely great power cooperation in the Security Council, served the liberal internationalist element, collective security. There was no turning back from collective security to selective alliances. Returning from Yalta, Roosevelt sounded exactly like Woodrow Wilson returning from Paris. He called for “the end of the system of unilateral action, exclusive alliances, and spheres of influence, and balances of power and all the other expedients which have been tried for centuries and failed.”66 Perhaps such pronouncements were primarily for domestic consumption. But Roosevelt repeatedly resisted Churchill’s urging for more selective U.S.-British cooperation to bargain with Stalin. For fdr, “Churchill represented the old order,” and Churchill’s “willingness to cut classic spheres of influence deals revealed him in Roosevelt’s eyes to be at heart just another European politician.”67 Roosevelt bet the house that he could win Stalin’s trust, and it seems doubtful that had he lived he would have invited Churchill to Fulton less than a year later to call for a union of Western democracies.68

The Truman Doctrine clearly established a preference for working with free rather than unfree countries.

Truman was no less committed to the United Nations. After all, this was the prize for which the United States had fought the war. As Miscamble documents, he backed the un at almost every point from 1945 to 1947, including proposing the far-reaching Baruch Plan to deposit all nuclear capabilities in a un Atomic Energy Agency.69 Already by early 1946, however, Truman was looking for alternatives or at least supplements to the un. His alleged letter to Byrnes and his sponsorship of Churchill at Fulton were early probes. Once negotiations to implement a joint un military command faltered, he initiated joint war planning with Britain. The Truman Doctrine clearly established a preference for working with free rather than unfree countries. In early 1948 Truman backed Britain and Israel, one old and one new democracy, to partition Palestine and then launch an independent state of Israel against the wishes of the United Nations (and his own secretary of state). In his inaugural address in 1949, Truman still backed the un with strong rhetoric, and in Korea he insisted that the United States work through the United Nations to resist aggression.70 But the circumstances (Soviet absence from the Security Council) that allowed the United States to move the issue to the General Assembly would not be repeated again. The un was increasingly a dead letter, and the United States and its allies moved into a decade of rearmament and selective alliance-building that all but precluded negotiations with the Soviet Union.

Both liberal internationalists and realists criticized the absence of significant negotiations in the 1950s, blaming the later Berlin and Cuban crises on the lack of such negotiations.71 But conservative internationalists, like Truman, saw it differently. When the Soviet Union exploded its own a-bomb in September 1949, the calculus of deterrence changed. The Soviet Union’s advantage in conventional arms now loomed large in central Europe. Ignoring this advantage and negotiating with no forces between Berlin and the English Channel only invited appeasement or, at worst, Soviet aggression. Stalin’s decision to authorize the invasion of South Korea, revealed many years later, confirmed what might have happened in Europe if the West had not rearmed.

Thus, as conservative internationalists see it, negotiations had to take a back seat to rearmament in the early 1950s. Negotiations at this point might have been fatal for Central Europe. Germany was evenly divided between Christian Democrats who put Western integration ahead of reunification (they were elected to govern in 1949 by one vote) and Social Democrats who put reunification ahead of Western integration. France was still unreconciled to nato and especially rearming West Germany. In this situation, if the United States had taken up Stalin’s offer in 1952 to unite Germany as a neutral country, it might well have tipped the political balance in Germany to the Social Democrats and given the French a decisive excuse to oppose the arming of nato. Germany would have been reunited as a neutral country with Soviet armies massed on its eastern borders and nothing between Berlin and the English Channel to contain them.

Conservative internationalism does not oppose negotiations, but it conducts them only from a position of strength and sees efforts to boost armaments in situations of weakness as not provocative but helpful to motivate subsequent negotiations. No one understood that tenet of conservative internationalism better than President Ronald Reagan.

Reagan — liberty in Eastern Europe

Ronald reagan ran for the presidency against the realist policies of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger because he felt that their doctrine of peaceful coexistence blurred the ideological differences between the United States and Soviet Union. At the same time, liberal internationalists criticized Reagan bitterly for rejecting d étente, building up military capabilities, violating arms control agreements, and acting without the consent of allies and the un. Reagan was obviously neither a realist nor a liberal internationalist. What was he then? Reagan was in fact the quintessential conservative internationalist. He ardently advocated the expansion of freedom, denying equal status to countries, like the Soviet Union, that were not free. He assertively pursued the buildup of economic and military power to strengthen and accompany his diplomacy. And he preferred to work through ad hoc and informal negotiating mechanisms rather than formal arms control treaties, alliance consensus, and universal organizations such as the United Nations. Through it all, like Polk, he maintained a domestic consensus. These emphases are evident in his policies to promote democracy (the Westminster initiative), challenge the Soviet Union (with economic growth and a military buildup), and reform international institutions (leading allies and the un).

For Reagan the key problem with realism and détente was the moral equivalence between freedom and communism.

The Westminster initiative. For Reagan the key problem with realism and détente was not negotiations between adversaries but the moral equivalence détente established between freedom and communism. He understood more instinctively than Truman or Roosevelt that the Cold War began at Yalta and was a consequence of the nature of closed vs. open societies. For him, no realist reality, not even the fear of nuclear weapons, could disguise the ideological differences and make the division of Europe legitimate. On the fortieth anniversary of Yalta in 1985, Reagan said: “there is one boundary that can never be made legitimate, and that is the dividing line between freedom and repression. I do not hesitate to say we wish to undo this boundary. . . . Our forty-year pledge is to the goal of a restored community of free European nations.”72

From the earliest days of his administration, Reagan pursued the expansion of freedom, not the containment of communism. Soviet pressures to crush the Solidarity movement in Poland in 1981 constituted not just another test to preserve stability in Europe but, as Reagan wrote in his diary on December 21, 1981, “the last chance in our lifetime to see a change in the Soviet empire’s colonial policy.”73 He wrote Brezhnev on December 23 that “the recent events in Poland clearly are not an ‘internal affair’ and in writing to you, as the head of the Soviet government, I am not misaddressing my communication. . . . Attempts to suppress the Polish people . . . could unleash a process which neither you nor we could fully control.”74 And he told the reporter Laurence Barrett on December =29 that “there is reason for optimism because I think there must be an awful lot of people in the Iron Curtain countries that feel the same way [as the Poles]. . . . Our job now is to do everything we can to see that [the reform movement] doesn’t die aborning. We may never get another chance like this in our lifetime.”75

Reagan was going beyond containment to regime change. As John Lewis Gaddis writes, he was returning to the objective Kennan set for containment in 1947: “to increase enormously the pressures under which Soviet policy must operate to force upon the Kremlin a far greater degree of moderation and circumspection than it has had to observe in recent years, and in this way to promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.”76 In his famous Westminster speech in June 1982, Reagan launched “a crusade for freedom” and expressed his “plan and hope for the long-term” that “the march of freedom and democracy . . . will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.”77 His first comprehensive statement on U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union, nsdd-75 issued on January 17, 1983, “went beyond what any previous administration had established as the aims of its Cold War approach” and stated explicitly that U.S. policies toward the ussr are “to contain and over time reverse Soviet expansionism . . . [and] to promote, within the narrow limits available to us, the process of change in the Soviet Union toward a more pluralistic political and economic system.”78

Realists considered Reagan’s “crusade for freedom” wishful thinking bordering on the delusional.

Realists considered this “crusade for freedom” wishful thinking bordering on the delusional. Liberal internationalists approved the long term “plan and hope” for democracy but disapproved the aggressive diplomacy and arms buildup to weaken communism in Eastern Europe and promote regime change in the Soviet Union.

Economic growth and military buildup. Reagan was acutely aware in 1981 that he did not have the resources to challenge Soviet power. In his diary on July 14, he wrote: “Can we afford to let Poland collapse? But in the state of our present economy can we afford to help in any meaningful way?”79 Caspar Weinberger, then secretary of defense, told Reagan that “we don’t have the ability to project our power that far and we could not, without very substantial help, successfully come to the aid of the Poles if they were invaded.” The president responded: “Yes, I know that Cap. But we must never again be in this position.”80 Hence the early years of his first term were devoted to domestic efforts to revive both American military and economic capacity. Diplomacy waited until force backed it up. As Jack Matlock, Reagan’s ambassador to Moscow, notes, “Reagan was not eager to take up serious negotiations with the Soviet Union the moment he took office.”81 He proposed measures such as the zero option on inf missiles and wrote to Brezhnev of his desire to initiate discussions. But he gave priority to securing his economic and defense programs at home. Only after the economy rebounded in 1983 and the Soviets became convinced in 1984 that Reagan would win a second term in office did real negotiations begin.82 Even then, they had to await the arrival of a viable Soviet counterpart in Mikhail Gorbachev.

Reagan was accused by realists and liberal internationalists of abandoning diplomacy. He did nothing of the sort.

Reagan was accused by both realists and liberal internationalists of abandoning diplomacy. But he did nothing of the sort. Rather he understood as a conservative internationalist that diplomacy could accomplish little unless the underlying balance of forces supported it. As he observed in the case of Poland, the Soviet Union held the military advantage but was vulnerable economically. The United States had a potential advantage in both military and economic power but languished in a political malaise inflicted by Vietnam and stagflation. The objective was to restore America’s confidence and convince the Soviet Union that it could not win an arms race without bankrupting its economy. Once this “correlation of forces” was in place, Reagan had objectives that not only involved the reversal of communism but the elimination of nuclear weapons and sharing of strategic defense technologies.83

Reagan’s diplomacy had three features characteristic of conservative internationalism. It was patient. There was no need to negotiate right away or at all times. You don’t refuse to talk to your enemies (negotiations over intermediate-range nuclear forces began in 1981) but you also don’t compromise when you are weak. You define instead the substantive provisions you want (in the case of inf the “zero option”) and, if that is unacceptable to your adversary, you wait while you build up your strength on the ground.

Muscularity was the second feature of Reagan’s diplomacy. Threat was not an obstacle but an incentive for negotiation. Among many policies of pressure (pipeline sanctions, deployment of Pershing and mx missiles, support of freedom fighters, etc.), the Strategic Defense Initiative (sdi) proved to be Reagan’s trump card. It symbolized the consequences for the Soviet Union if it did not change its policies of starving the economy to keep up an arms race. No one saw these consequences more clearly than Gorbachev. At a Politburo meeting in October 1985, only six months after taking office, he warned his colleagues: “Our goal is to prevent the next round of the arms race. If we do not accomplish it, . . . we will be pulled into another round of the arms race that is beyond our capabilities, and we will lose, because we are already at the limits of our capabilities.”84

Reagan coupled each use of force with diplomacy. SDI came with an offer to share missile defense technology with the Soviets.

Pressure or military force alone, however, cannot solve international disputes (even in the case of unconditional surrender when diplomacy follows with a vengeance). Thus, a third feature of Reagan’s conservative internationalist diplomacy was timing. Again and again, he disappointed hard-liners, including some in his own Cabinet, by making concessions to gain Soviet trust. As early as April 1983, Reagan wrote in his diary, “Some of the N.S.C. staff are too hard line and don’t think any approach should be made to the Soviets. I think I’m hard-line and will never appease but I do want to try and let them see there is a better world if they show by deed they want to get along with the free world.”85 Like Polk, Reagan coupled each use of force with diplomacy. The deployment of inf missiles came with a letter to Brezhnev to negotiate. sdi came with the offer to share missile defense technology with the Soviet Union (shifting deterrence from the macabre strategy of large offensive and no defensive weapons to the more humane strategy of few offensive and more substantial defensive weapons). Threat, which conservative internationalists emphasize, always came packaged with diplomacy, which liberal internationalists emphasize. The better world Reagan wanted to show the Soviets was visible only by comparison to an arms race (e.g., sdi) which the Soviets could never win.

Leading allies and the U.N. Reagan acknowledged the need for allies, especially given American weakness in 1981. “The plain truth is,” he wrote in his diary on January 30, 1982, “we can’t — alone — hurt the Soviets that much.”86 But he was determined to lead the alliance, not accept consensus based on the lowest common denominator. He antagonized the allies by imposing sanctions against the Soviet pipeline to supply Western Europe with natural gas, even as he rallied the allies to deploy nato inf missiles in Europe. He formed a core alliance with Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain on both economic and military matters. Then he aligned in winter 1982 with the new conservative government in Germany to nudge France toward disinflationary economic goals and in summer 1983 with the socialist government in France to nudge a protest-torn Germany toward nato missile deployments. A reinvigorated and united alliance subsequently buttressed Reagan’s diplomacy with the Soviet Union. Gorbachev acknowledged as much when he told his Politburo colleagues in October 1985 that in any arms race “we can expect that Japan and frg [West Germany] could very soon join the American potential.”87

Reagan did not scorn universal international institutions but sought to reform them. He rejected summit diplomacy that fueled inflation and a “new international economic order” that advocated cartels (over commodities and deep seabed resources) and “global negotiations.” He considered the United Nations a “can of worms” and “miserable place.”88 But at Cancun and g-7 economic summits, he led the effort to revitalize the Bretton Woods institutions.89 By accelerating the end of the Cold War, he gave the United Nations another chance to reclaim its original aim of great power cooperation in the un Security Council. The un intervention in 1991 to expel Iraq from Kuwait was a classic example of collective security. However, international institutions were the caboose, not the engine, of global change. The engine was free nations led by the United States and its allies.

Reagan was helped, to be sure, by the common threat of Soviet ss-20 missile deployments in Europe, the Soviet military invasion of Afghanistan, and the arrival of Gorbachev in the mid 1980s. But, even so, as Henry Kissinger concedes, his performance was nothing short of “astonishing.”90 John Lewis Gaddis offers a more comprehensive assessment:91

What one can say now is that Reagan saw Soviet weaknesses sooner than most of his contemporaries did; that he understood the extent to which détente was perpetuating the Cold War rather than hastening its end; that his hard line strained the Soviet system at the moment of its maximum weakness; that his shift toward conciliation preceded Gorbachev; that he combined reassurance, persuasion, and pressure in dealing with the new Soviet leader; and that he maintained the support of the American people and of American allies. Quite apart from whatever results this strategy produced, it was an impressive accomplishment simply to have devised and sustained it: Reagan’s role here was critical.

Lessons for today’s debate

What does the overlooked tradition of conservative internationalism offer to the contemporary debate? Preliminarily, four conclusions stand out. Conservative internationalism offers 1) a more realistic assessment of the contemporary terrorist threat; 2) a more achievable agenda to spread democracy; 3) a keener sense of the linkage and timing of force and diplomatic initiatives; and 4) a greater willingness to set priorities and be patient in spreading democracy, trusting more in the local instincts of democratizing peoples and the majority opinion of the American people.

Terrorism. In today’s debate, a conservative internationalist assessment of threat is sorely needed. After seven years of no further attacks on American soil and none in Europe since 2004–2005, the growing consensus seems to be that there is no longer any threat, at least none that warrants a long war or continued offensive operations in Iraq and elsewhere.

Liberal internationalists tell us that the terrorist threat was never so great that it rose to the level of war. It was always more like the problem of crime, mostly localized in the Middle East and home grown in Europe in the form of displaced or “deterritorialized” Arabs (such as the 9/11 hijackers living in Germany). The misguided campaign in Iraq is what made the threat global. Moreover, weapons of mass destruction are extremely difficult for terrorists to acquire. And the idea that established or even rogue states might transfer such weapons to terrorists is either delusional (read: no “operational collaboration” between al Qaeda and Iraq) or easily deterred (by tracing the weapon back to its source and promising unrestrained retaliation).92

Realists identify threats primarily with states and rely on containment to deter rogue states. Containment, they maintain, worked in the case of Iraq, as witnessed by the failure to find weapons of mass destruction. It was working in the case of North Korea until the Bush administration abandoned the 1994 framework agreement. And according to the latest intelligence estimates, it is working today in the case of Iran. The National Intelligence Estimate (nie) on Iranian weapons released in December 2007 concluded “with high confidence” that Iran suspended its weapons program in 2003 even though the previous nie released in 2005 argued “with high confidence” that Iran “currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons.”93

Conservative internationalists have their doubts. Does the absence of further attacks on Western countries suggest that the threat was never that great or that it has been significantly reduced by fighting aggressively on multiple fronts? Are nuclear weapons difficult for terrorists to obtain, period, or are they difficult to obtain because aggressive anti-proliferation efforts, such as the Proliferation Security Initiative (psi), operating outside conventional international institutions, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (iaea), have disrupted arms rings, such as the A. Q. Kahn network that successfully purveyed weapons and missile technologies from Pakistan to North Korea, Libya, Syria, and possibly other destinations?

Intelligence on weapons of mass destruction is notoriously unreliable and has been for twenty years or more.

Are rogue states deterred by containment or do they merely gain valuable time to develop weapons of mass destruction? And how do we identify and contain what we find difficult to know? Intelligence on weapons of mass destruction is notoriously unreliable and has been for 20 years or more. After the first Gulf War in 1991, intelligence learned that Iraq was a lot closer to having nuclear weapons than it had estimated. We won’t make that mistake again, right? So, before the second Gulf War, The U.S. and all major foreign intelligence services concluded that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.94 But, as we now know, he did not have them. So, we won’t make that mistake again, right? Today, if you believe the latest nie, it is “slam dunk” (high confidence) that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program. What is clear from this pathological pattern is that intelligence is almost certain to underestimate the threat the next time around.

Moreover, even if we could know what we were trying to contain, containment relies on rational actors. How rational was Saddam Hussein? Saddam could have retained power simply by coming clean: He had no weapons of mass destruction.95 If he did not know that he did not have such weapons (because subordinates refused to tell him what he did not want to know), that’s hardly an argument for rational decision making. And if he feared domestic and Iranian foes more than Western forces gathering in the Gulf, that’s again an argument against rational decision making, particularly after it became clear to every one by early 2003, including America’s allies France and Germany, that the U.S.-led coalition in the Gulf was preparing to attack.

Intelligence may well underestimate the threat next time. How do we contain what we find difficult to know?

For conservative internationalists, neither the liberal internationalist nor realist assessment of the terrorist threat is adequate. Jihad or militant Islam is a global, not just domestic or regional menace, and the ranks of jihadists are swelling not because the United States is fighting back in Afghanistan and Iraq but because tens of thousands were trained under the Taliban before America fought back (estimated 60,000) and are being trained today in camps in the border regions of Pakistan as well as in the Mahgreb, Middle East, Caucasus region, central and southeast Asia. Tens of millions more fundamentalists are being indoctrinated against the West in madrassas around the world, and some of them stand ready to join the regiments of suicide bombers.96 Most troubling of all, moderate Islam, the vast majority of Muslims in the world, sits on the fence neither joining the jihad against the West nor condemning it.

So the new threat is bigger than traditional accounts suggest, and it is likely to last for a long time. Is, then, this long war against militant Islam the equivalent of the existential threat to the United States once posed by communism under the Soviet Union or fascism under Nazi Germany?97 No, it probably is not. Even if all of Islam unites one day behind a militant caliphate, an unlikely if, the threat is not an existential one that seriously threatens Western values because few in the West believe in militant Islam or Islam in general, for that matter. Communism and fascism were Western bacilli that infected Western thought and inspired major political movements inside free countries in both Europe and Asia. No such support for Islam exists in the West. Nevertheless, a fundamentalist Islamic threat backed by oil wealth, should Saudi Arabia succumb, and nuclear weapons, should Pakistan implode, could wreak massive damage on the West, and the effort to contain and defeat such a threat could easily achieve the dimensions of another world war.

Thus, as conservative internationalists see it, the terrorist war is a long war and potentially a world war. But it is not an internecine war. It will be fought either by reacting to repeated surprises because we drop our guard and terrorists attack again or by finding a common strategy that does not depend entirely on intelligence and containment but confronts jihadists preemptively albeit prudently on multiple fronts —and respects the good sense of the American people to tell us when we have gone too far. For, as the American people know, this is not an existential war for our souls, but for the souls of Muslims.

On the contours of immediate threat, conservative internationalists espy opportunities to expand freedom.

Opportunities for freedom. On the contours of immediate threat, conservative internationalists espy incremental opportunities to expand freedom. Where are these opportunities today? The Bush administration identified them in the Middle East. It launched the Greater Middle East Democracy Initiative to transform oppressive governments in Iraq, the Palestinian Authority, and elsewhere. Bush explicitly rejected the realist goal of stability and embraced the liberal internationalist goal of exporting democracy. The Greater Middle East initiative, however, as Charles Krauthammer reluctantly concluded, turned out to be a “bridge too far.”98 It passed over more proximate possibilities to strengthen democracy to chase after more distant ones. It was the equivalent of attempting during the Cold War to bring democracy to Latin America before securing it in Western Europe. Latin America was involved in the Cold War, to be sure, but it did not represent the front lines of that war. The front lines were in Europe and, yes, the United States aligned with oppressive governments in Latin America (for example, Chile) and elsewhere to win that war in Europe. Similarly, terrorism is involved today in the Middle East, but the Middle East is not the central battleground of freedom in the contemporary world. That battleground still lies on Europe’s borders with Russia, the Balkans, and Turkey. Democratic setbacks in Russia, as well as the grinding stalemates in Bosnia and Kosovo, and Europe’s indecision about the future of Turkey, remind us that this battle is far from over.

There are other battle lines for freedom, to be sure. A second one is drawn in South Asia, on the border of India with Pakistan; a third one lies in Asia on the borders (both by sea and land) of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan with Vietnam, parts of southeast Asia and mainland China, and a fourth one runs irregularly through Latin America on the borders of Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, and Chile. By contrast, Afghanistan and Iraq have no borders with established democracies. (Turkey, a troubled democracy, may be an exception in the case of Iraq.) They, it would seem, are indeed “bridges too far.” They exist in very rough neighborhoods. Their situation is more like that of Israel today than of Germany or Japan after World War II. And they do not compare with Israel in terms of internal strengths and coherence. Even or especially if they stabilize, they are not likely to be democratic (in terms of the three pillars of democracy and compared to Eastern Europe, Turkey, etc.) for some time to come.

The success of the military surge in 2007–08 offers a second chance to accelerate diplomatic progress.

Linkage and timing of force and diplomacy. If the long war against terrorism requires preemptive actions that are backed by the best imperfect intelligence available at the time and by a majority of public opinion, the mistake in Iraq was not the use of force (which was supported initially by intelligence and respective majorities in Congress and among the allies) but to forgo an accompanying diplomacy that exploits and validates force.99 Just as effective diplomacy needed force to put un inspectors back in Iraq, a successful invasion of Iraq needed diplomacy to reconstruct the country and the region. Had the Washington leadership escalated diplomacy each time it made a military advance, as Polk did in his campaign to acquire New Mexico and California, it might have had more success and had it sooner. Instead, the failure to integrate force (invasion) and diplomacy (postwar reconciliation) magnified the difficulties that followed.100 The success of the military surge in 2007–08 offers a second chance to accelerate diplomatic progress. But time may be running out in Washington. The American public is not infinitely patient when it comes to war. Nor should it be.

Local democracy. Liberal internationalists are optimistic about democracy promotion and call for institution-building and the mobilization of post-conflict civilian resources to match combat capabilities. Realists despair that democracy is possible and call for partition or radical decentralization of authority in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. Conservative internationalists fall in between.

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. foreign policy needs more patience. Compromises have to be struck that fall far short of establishing democracies in these countries. As Truman gave priority to Western Europe and Reagan to Eastern Europe, so today the United States must give priority to democracy building in Turkey in the Middle East and India in South Asia, where the chances of “three-pillared” democracy are much greater. If diplomacy destabilizes these partners, democracy in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan has much less chance to advance.

Conservative internationalists have greater confidence than liberal internationalists in the spontaneous forces of society. Democracy needs less guidance and institutionalization than liberal internationalists think. What matters most is that democracies that already exist (Israel, Turkey, India) are supported and strengthened and that they create a bordering environment of open markets and military deterrence that stabilizes and empowers moderates and democrats in neighboring authoritarian states. This is the way the long battle for the moderate soul of Islam will be waged and won. Those sitting on the fence will see the fence slowly tipping in the direction of freedom. It may not be visible for a long time, as the tilt toward freedom in Europe was concealed until the late 1980s. But when the fences fall, the rout is rapid and the freedom that emerges has the local characteristics essential to endure.


Henry R. Nau is professor of political science and international affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs, the George Washington University. He served in the Ford and Reagan administrations and is author, among other books, of At Home Abroad: Identity and Power in American Foreign Policy (Cornell University Press, 2002).


1 For two thoughtful reassessments of Reagan coming out of the academic community, see John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy During the Cold War (Oxford University Press, Revised and Expanded Edition, 2005); and Sean Wilentz, The Age of Reagan: A History 19742008 (Harper, 2008).

2 See Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (Simon and Schuster, 1994), 764–65.

3 Claiming Reagan for realist and liberal internationalist traditions respectively are Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke, America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order (Cambridge University Press, 2004); and Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay, America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy (Brookings Institution, 2003).

4 Jacob Heilbrunn, “Whose Reagan? A Uniter, Not a Divider,” National Interest 90 (July/August 2007), 87. Heilbrunn calls on conservatives “to get over their Reagan fixation.”

5 Robert Kagan debunks the conspiracy theory and shows that neoconservative thinking has been a part of American foreign policy for a long time. See “Neocon Nation: Neoconservatism, c. 1776,” World Affairs (Spring 2008).

6 I may find other presidents that need to be considered, but these four presidents stand out both for being associated with the most significant expansions of liberty and for not being easily explained by the standard traditions.

7 See Kim R. Holmes and John Hillen, “Misreading Reagan’s Legacy,” Foreign Affairs 75:5 (September/October 1996).

8 Quoted in Henry Adams, History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson (Library of America, 1986; originally published 1889–91), 137.

9 For an insightful summary of conservative principles for aid to the indigent, see Douglas J. Besharov, “The Right Kind of Hand Up,” Washington Post (November 19, 2007).

10 Walter Russell Mead, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World (Routledge, 2002).

11 Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson, Empire of Liberty: The Statecraft of Thomas Jefferson (Oxford University Press, 1990).

12 For an interpretation of Jefferson that concurs with mine, see Robert Kagan, Dangerous Nation: America’s Place in the World from Its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the Twentieth Century (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), Chapters 3–5.

13 Adams, History, 661–62.

14 Adams, History, 593.

15 Curiously, Tucker and Hendrickson devote only a footnote, albeit a long one, to the Barbary war. See Empire of Liberty, 294–299. They make the tedious argument that even though Jefferson used force and stretched resources beyond what Gallatin, his secretary of the Treasury, thought wise, his action was not the equivalent of waging war. If committing almost your entire navy does not constitute war, what does?

16 Adams, History, 311. Adams agrees with the realist Hamilton that Jefferson’s policy succeeded only because black slaves in Santo Domingo defeated the French force sent to seize New Orleans.

17 Tucker and Hendrickson, Empire of Liberty, 159.

18 See Merrill D. Peterson, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation (Oxford, 1970), 745; see also 746. He repeated this view in his first inaugural.

19 Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Times (Boston, 1948–81), Vol. iv, 317. Peterson agrees: “Liberty was the ultimate value, Union the means.” Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation, 772–73

20 Jefferson quotes from Tucker and Hendrickson, Empire of Liberty, 160

21 Peterson, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation, 782.

22 See the blistering and unrelenting attack on Jefferson as the president of the “slave power” by Garry Wills, “Negro President”: Jefferson and the Slave Power (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003).

23 See Michael Ignatieff, “Who are the Americans to Think Freedom is Theirs to Spread?” New York Times Magazine (June 26, 2005).

24 This is the argument throughout by Tucker and Hendrickson in Empire of Liberty.

25 Much of the U.S. Navy was in the Mediterranean, and in March 1803 Jefferson added two companies to U.S. forces stationed at Fort Adams just above New Orleans, bringing the total to 600 or about one-fifth of all available US forces.

26 Tucker and Hendrickson, Empire of Liberty, 108.

27 Adams, History, 277.

28 Adams, History, 293.

29 Adams, History, 344.

30 Tucker and Hendrickson, Empire of Liberty, 127.

31 Adams, History, 301.

32 Adams, History, 304. Jefferson had vigorously opposed the Jay Treaty with England in the 1790s.

33 By eventually concluding the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson also sacrificed his principles of strict construction of the Constitution which, he believed, did not authorize the federal government to acquire new territory. Adams and Tucker and Hendrickson see this sacrifice of principle as hypocrisy. But it can just as easily be interpreted as pragmatism in pursuit of a higher goal, namely the expansion of liberty.

34 H.W. Brands, Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times (Doubleday, 2005), 144–45.

35 Quoted in Louis Martin Sears, Jefferson and the Embargo (Octagon Books, 1978), 28.

36 Peterson, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation, 815.

37 Tucker and Hendrickson, Empire of Liberty, 206.

38 Tucker and Hendrickson, Empire of Liberty, 207 and 211.

39 U.S. shipping “grew by leaps and bounds, . . . as French, Dutch, and Spanish shipping was driven from the seas by Great Britain.” American deep sea tonnage doubled from 1802 to 1810 even during the years of increasing restrictions. Tucker and Hendrickson, Empire of Liberty, 190.

40 For negative assessments of Polk, see Anders Stephanson, Manifest Destiny: American Expansionism and the Empire of Right (Hill and Wang, 1995), Chapter 2; and Thomas G. Paterson, J. Garry Clifford, Shane J. Maddock, Deborah Kisatsky, and Kenneth J. Hagan, American Foreign Relations: A History (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006), Volume 1, Chapter 3.

41 Haynes sums it up best: “Few presidents ever had so clear a view of their goals at the outset of their terms; fewer still can claim to have left office having fulfilled them.” Sam W. Haynes, James K. Polk and the Expansionist Impulse, Oscar Handlin, ed. (Longman, 1997), 194.

42 Brands, Andrew Jackson, 508–26.

43 Paul H. Bergeron, The Presidency of James K. Polk (University Press of Kansas, 1987), 55.

44 Haynes, James K. Polk and the Expansionist Impulse, 109.

45 David M. Pletcher, The Diplomacy of Annexation: Texas, Oregon, and the Mexican War (University of Missouri Press, 1973), 204–05.

46 Bergeron, The Presidency of James K. Polk, 67.

47 Historians disagree. Bergeron concludes he was deterring a Mexican attack on Texas and preparing, if war came, for contingent hostilities in New Mexico and California. The Presidency of James K. Polk, 63.

48 Bergeron, The Presidency of James K. Polk, 82.

49 By sending Trist, Polk signaled that his aims were not maximalist. He told Trist explicitly that his bottom line did not include the cession of Lower California or transit rights for U.S. citizens across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which more extreme expansionists favored. In this crucial period, Polk consistently resisted bolder demands. See Bergeron, The Presidency of James K. Polk, 97–103.

50 Haynes, James K. Polk and the Expansionist Impulse, 90.

51 Gaddis, Strategies of Containment, 3.

52 Wilson D. Miscamble, C.S.C. From Roosevelt to Truman: Potsdam, Hiroshima, and the Cold War (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

53 David McCullough, Truman (Touchstone, 1992), 445.

54 McCullough notes that at the same time he was disowning Churchill’s speech, he was telling his hard-line adviser Averell Harriman that the Soviet Union’s refusal to withdraw from Iran could mean war. Truman, 490.

55 Miscamble, From Roosevelt to Truman, quotations from 68 and 47 respectively.

56 Historians naturally disagree. Robert Dallek thinks Roosevelt would have moved toward confrontation with the Soviet Union sooner than Truman. But Miscamble sees “little indication he was contemplating such a move.” See, respectively, Dallek, Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932–1945 (Oxford University Press, 1995), 534; and Miscamble, From Roosevelt to Truman, 79.

57 This and preceding quotation from Miscamble, From Roosevelt to Truman, 52–53.

58 Miscamble, From Roosevelt to Truman, 70.

59 Miscamble, From Roosevelt to Truman, 129.

60 Miscamble, From Roosevelt to Truman, 66.

61 Miscamble, From Roosevelt to Truman, 293.

62 Miscamble, From Roosevelt to Truman, 275.

63 Miscamble, From Roosevelt to Truman, 295–96.

64 McCullough, Truman, 595.

65 McCullough, Truman, 547.

66 McCullough, Truman, 31.

67 Miscamble, From Roosevelt to Truman, 47.

68 Churchill called for a union of Western democracies and argued that it would not be inconsistent with the United Nations. See McCullough, Truman, 489.

69 Miscamble, From Roosevelt to Truman, Chapters 6–7.

70 He told an aide referring to the decision to resist aggression in Korea: “I did this for the United Nations . . . in this first big test we just couldn’t let them down.” Robert H. Ferrell, Harry S. Truman: A Life (University of Missouri Press, 1994), 323.

71 President Kennedy dramatized the point by asking what if the United States and Soviet Union had had a hot line during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

72 Paul Kengor, The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (Regan, 2006), 220.

73 Ronald Reagan, The Reagan Diaries, Douglas Brinkley, ed. (HarperCollins, 2007), 57.

74 Quoted in Kengor, The Crusader, 104.

75 Laurence J. Barrett, Gambling with History: Ronald Reagan in the White House (Doubleday, 1983), 298.

76 Quoted from x [George F. Kennan], “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Foreign Affairs (July 1947). See Gaddis, Strategies of Containment, 353.

77 Quoted in Kengor, The Crusader, 143.

78 See Paul Lettow, Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (Random House, 2005), 6370. For a summary of nsdd-75, see Jack F. Matlock, Jr. Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended (Random, 2005), 53–54.

79 Reagan, Diaries, 30.

80 Caspar W. Weinberger, with Gretchen Roberts, In the Arena: A Memoir of the 20th Century (Regnery, 2001), 280.

81 Matlock, Reagan and Gorbachev, 50.

82 Matlock, Reagan and Gorbachev, 100.

83 Lettow, Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

84 Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, “Power, Globalization, and the End of the Cold War,” International Security, 25:3 (Winter 2000–01), 29.

85 Reagan, Diaries, 142.

86 Reagan, Diaries, 66.

87 Brooks and Wohlforth, “Power, Globalization and the End of the Cold War,” 29

88 Reagan, Diaries, 33 and 110.

89 See Henry R. Nau, The Myth of America’s Decline: Leading the World Economy into the 1990s (Oxford University Press, 1990).

90 Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (Simon and Schuster, 1994), 764–65.

91 Gaddis, Strategies of Containment, 375.

92 For arguments along the lines in this paragraph, see Francis Fukuyama, America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy (Yale University Press, 2006), Chapter 3. See also Olivier Roy, Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah (Columbia University Press, 2004.

93 Dafna Linzer and Joby Warrick, “U.S. Finds that Iran Halted Nuclear Arms Bid in 2003,” Washington Post (December 4, 2007).

94 This fact is often misrepresented. As Paul Pillar, a former cia agent who was in the intelligence community in Spring 2003 and later became a sharp critic of the administration, wrote in “Intelligence, Policy, and the War in Iraq,” Foreign Affairs 85:2 (March/April 2006): “the Bush administration was quite right: its perception of Saddam’s weapons capacities was shared by the Clinton administration, congressional Democrats, and most other Western governments and intelligence services.” See also Mortimer B. Zuckerman, “Foul-ups — Not Felonies,” U.S. News and World Report (November 14, 2005.

95 As the closest accounts suggest, he never did come clean. See Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard Trainor, Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq (Pantheon Books, 2006), 119.

96 Recent surveys by the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies estimate that 91 million Muslims believe that the 9/11 attacks were “completely” justified, another 78 million “largely” or “partly” justified, and another 300 million “in some way” justified. See Max Boot, “Are We Winning the War on Terror?” Commentary (July/August 2008).

97 Norman Podhoretz, World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism (Doubleday, 2007).

98 Charles Krauthammer, “The Partitioning of Iraq,” Washington Post (September 7, 2007).

99 Reasonable people could disagree about going to war itself. See Henry R. Nau, “Why We Fight Over Foreign Policy,” Policy Review 142 (April/May 2007).

100 On the divorce between the diplomacy (State Department) and force (Defense Department) in the Iraq war, see among others, Gordon and Trainor, Cobra II, Chapters 8 and 23–24.