I was reading Mark Lilla’s review of Cory Robin’s new book on conservatism and came across a bit of widely accepted conventional wisdom that, while not Lilla’s main point, nonetheless is worthy of critical examination. Lilla says, in trying to defend what he sees as the complexity of conservative thought, “The right used to be isolationist, then became internationalist, and to judge by recent Republican debates may be tiptoeing back to isolationism again.” I think the conventional view is that conservatives were isolationist before World War II, but that position obviously failed, so they were forced to revise it and became internationalist thereafter.
Such a claim can only be made by reducing approaches to foreign affairs to a simplistic binary: internationalism vs. isolationism. But of course there are many more positions than that, and internationalism is more than merely avoidance of being locked up inside one’s own borders. Liberalism’s commitment to human rights since the eighteenth century, combined with the horror of the Napoleonic Wars, the World Wars, and other conflicts, produced an aversion and even revulsion to warfare that undermined the old feudal glorification of battle. This, combined with growing trade relations and movements of peoples across national borders, led to internationalist conclusions that a just, rule-based international order was a goal worth working towards, aiming at peace, cooperative security, promotion of human rights and democracy, and shared prosperity. This took the form of a growing body of international law as well as various international institutions, including the League of Nations and then the United Nations, to try to prevent major wars, promote development, and deal with the growing number of issues that crossed national boundaries. This internationalism has had its share of failures, to be sure, but it is a work in progress and not yet an achieved reality.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, conservatives never really accepted internationalism when they gave up isolationism. Instead they became unilateralists, as their preference for large military budgets and their record of UN bashing shows. By unilateralism I mean the idea that the United States should act as it sees fit on the international stage to promote its interests and values, going it alone when other countries disagree, although using alliances and coalitions when convenient. The aim is not true partnership that works toward a stable and just international order, but dominating the world stage in order to promote American security, liberalization of trade, and representative government when it doesn’t conflict with the first two. There is enough overlap between conservative beliefs and internationalist principles to sometimes allow cooperation. But according to this way of thinking, in the last analysis the US has a great deal of power to act unilaterally and should when it can, and this is justified both by national interests and by the myth that the US embodies universal liberal values and therefore will not abuse its power, much less become imperialist. These are, of course, questionable claims.
Conservative unilateralism parallels the authoritarian mindset that permeates conservative ideology generally: it is all about making others respect the authority of the powerful and privileged. Conservatives have never really accepted the internationalist premise that it is necessary to wholeheartedly engage and cooperate with other nations in good faith, and indeed to treat other peoples with respect as equals. But greater recognition of interconnectedness is precisely what is needed as the world becomes increasingly intertwined through technology and shared interests like ending climate change and global poverty. We are going to need real partners to solve future problems; we will not be able to do it alone or rely on coalitions of convenience. We will have to build real trust and cooperation internationally, and that will ultimately require revitalizing our international institutions and strengthening international law.
In short, when you hear conservatives claim that they are internationalist, don’t buy it. They are unilateralists, and engage with foreign affairs only so far as doing so is a way of projecting power and dominance. They are not internationalist in the sense of building a more just and cooperative international system that works even roughly for the benefit of the people of the world (i.e. you).