'The issue of force in human affairs is not a problem to be eliminated but a dilemma to be managed," Henry Nau tells us in "Conservative Internationalism," an ambitious and uneven book about America's foreign policy. In the wake of Syria-related brinkmanship, it is easy to see, at the moment, how enduringly important it is to manage force in human affairs—with the right diplomatic strategy, if possible.
The author, a professor at George Washington University, identifies six traditions in American diplomatic history and connects each to at least one important president whose policies capture the tradition's outlook. They are: Minimalist Nationalism (which is wary of alliances and exemplified by George Washington); Militant Nationalism (hemispheric and open to selective alliances: Andrew Jackson); Defensive Realism (aimed at maintaining the balance of power: Richard Nixon ); Offensive Realism (imperialist and eager for dominance: Theodore Roosevelt ); Liberal Internationalism (aimed at stability through interdependence and wary of the use of force: Woodrow Wilson ); and, not least, Conservative Internationalism. This last tradition encourages democratic republics to cooperate in the use of force and in the maintenance of freedom. The presidents who have pursued this last policy, Mr. Nau says, include Thomas Jefferson, James K. Polk, Harry S. Truman and Ronald Reagan.
Mr. Nau's taxonomy tells us that we are reading a foreign-policy wonk writing primarily for other foreign-policy wonks, but the general reader can learn a good deal along the way. The author's primary purpose is to make a brief for Conservative Internationalism, which seems to meld Nixonian realism and Wilsonian internationalism. The Conservative Internationalist, Mr. Nau tells us, is devoted to promoting freedom but goes at the task with a sense of limits, avoiding universal crusades and targeting contiguous unfree areas where liberty can be nurtured. Mr. Nau pursues this theme with presidential case studies, some more persuasive than others.
Jefferson presents some special problems. How does one identify as a conservative a man who ostentatiously displayed busts of John Locke and Voltaire in his home? If we can get past his sympathy for such liberal icons, we still must contend with a common critique of Jefferson, one that was put forward forcefully nearly 150 years ago by Henry Adams : that Jefferson was an ineffectual pacifist unable to cope with British provocations against U.S. neutrality in the war between England and France.
Mr. Nau fairly establishes that Jefferson was willing to deploy force against the Barbary pirates, and he shows that Jefferson brandished the threat of an alliance with England to persuade the French to sell the Louisiana Territory. England, the world's major sea power, was a tougher problem. Here the author conflates military force with a misguided effort at economic coercion—Jefferson's embargo against all trade with the British, which failed in its objective and nearly wrecked the Union. Henry Adams has the best of the argument.
Mr. Nau's treatment of Polk, following the work of the historian Robert Merry, is compelling, displaying a president who overcame widespread insubordination to annex Texas, win a war with Mexico, negotiate with the British, and extend the boundaries of the U.S. south to the Rio Grande and westward to the Pacific. Whether these triumphs extended the boundaries of freedom is another matter. Texas was, after all, a slave state, and many Southerners hoped to extend their "peculiar institution" to the rest of the Southwest. It seems a stretch, moreover, to classify the residents of the Oregon Territory, existing under British jurisdiction, as unfree.
Mr. Nau rightly depicts Truman as a major defender of freedom in Western Europe and Korea against Communist aggression. But he unnecessarily goes at it by establishing an implicit dialogue between the blunt president and the nuanced diplomat George Kennan. In real life, Kennan's "long telegram" from Moscow, depicting the Soviet Union as an expansionist totalitarian regime, confirmed a view that the president already held. Oddly, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who crucially reinforced Truman's impulses for a vigorous containment effort, never appears in Mr. Nau's narrative. When the author tells us that Truman "was not a big fan of executive power," we are left wondering why Truman thought he could send troops to Korea without congressional authorization in 1950 or why he tried to seize the steel industry in 1952.
Reagan is the book's climactic figure—"the quintessential conservative internationalist." In the author's telling, Reagan's worldview had four guiding principles: The world works through a competition of ideas; there is no peaceful coexistence between freedom and totalitarianism; the competition of ideas is the basis for negotiation in a morally contested world; and the goal of American foreign policy is to tilt the balance of power toward freedom and democracy. Reagan was willing to travel a sometimes bumpy road of alleged provocations against the U.S.S.R., among them the dispatch of defensive missiles to European allies and the 1987 "tear down this wall" speech in Berlin. But all the while, he kept the lanes of diplomacy open.
Reagan's critics saw a dangerously lazy and provocative president. His advocates, more accurately, discerned a determined activist bent on winning the Cold War and advancing the cause of freedom. Reagan himself admired many of Truman's policies. It is much more speculative to argue that he is the product of a tradition that includes Jefferson and Polk, leaders who pursued the national interest in greatly different times. As a policy intellectual, Mr. Nau seems prone to conceive of foreign policy as something based in ideas alone, overlooking the importance of temperament. The most important element in Reagan's diplomacy was Reagan.
Mr. Hamby, a professor of history at Ohio University, is the author of "Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman."