Conservative Internationalism: Armed Diplomacy under Jefferson, Polk, Truman, and Reagan -Book Review

In Conservative Internationalism, Henry R. Nau - a former Reagan administration official and Professor - has set himself a peculiar challenge.

In Conservative Internationalism, Henry R. Nau – a former Reagan administration official and Professor Emeritus at George Washington University – has set himself a peculiar challenge. Namely, establishing a brand new normative theory of American foreign policy from scratch. Nau is committed to retroactively pulling from the examples of four U.S. presidents in order to build this theory. Specifically, Nau suggests that presidents who have been historically willing to use force in diplomacy in a defensive manner – while nevertheless adhering to classical liberal principles – are “Conservative Internationalists”. Written in 2013, the reader is left to wonder if this book has aged sideways. It very much has. Chief among Conservative Internationalism’s flaws is that it presents little more than a few old ideas given a new coat of paint.

Nau begins by justifying his project with the persecution delusion all too common among conservatives in academia and the media. Yet right wing think tanks consistently peddle their wares to academic institutions, while some of the most cited academics in the social sciences include the likes of right wing ideologues ranging from Charles Murray to Niall Ferguson; the latter of whom had plenty of free reign to – with help – conspire to censure a liberal student critical of his worldview. Any student who has seen universities choose to entertain guest speakers like James O’Keefe or James McCloskey (the latter of whom cynically coats his rabid transphobia in the rhetoric of traditional values) on their turf can attest that conservatives are not some counter-hegemonic vanguard against the status quo in these circles; rather, they are among the status quo’s most virulent and tyrannical champions. Yet, operating under the easily disproven assumption that free-market, faith-and-family conservatives are some sort of put-upon ideological minority in academic and media circles, Nau chooses to equivocate over the definition of “Liberal Internationalism”, suggesting that this terminology signifies that his imagined boogeyman – liberal academic bias – maintains a reign of terror over the academy. Thus, Nau embarks on a quest to establish a theory of “Conservative” (rather than “Liberal”) Internationalism.

Since this theory does not already exist, Nau attempts to conjure it into being through some truly questionable revisionist historical takes. Specifically, Nau chooses the examples of Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James K. Polk, Harry S. Truman, and Ronald Reagan to work backwards and validate his argument that these presidents were proto-“Conservative Internationalists”. His evidence for this dubious claim is already quite thin. Thomas Jefferson was a competent statesman in a young republic; James K. Polk was an Imperialist who oversaw a violent land grab of a foreign territory, which Nau performs all manner of intellectual somersaults to justify; Harry S. Truman was simply a Liberal Internationalist who recognized the necessity of the use of force, and a similar argument could be made for Reagan as a Realist who at times skeptically accepted the influence and existence of multilateral institutions.

Among the flimsy evidence that Nau provides: Jefferson favored small government and limited federal institutions. Nau, tastelessly, favorably compares Jefferson’s politics to the Anti-Obama Tea Party movement that thrived contemporaneously with the writing of Nau’s book. Nau tries in vain to claim Harry S. Truman for his team retroactively by citing Truman’s religious faith – consisting of folksy references to God in his speeches – and Truman’s hardline Anti-Communism. The irresponsible conflation of Cold War liberals with conservatives based solely on their Anti-Communism is undoubtedly one of Nau’s more dubious analyses. Nau similarly attempts to claim Washington Senator Henry M. Jackson – another Anti-Communist liberal Cold Warrior – as a neoconservative. Senator Jackson would more than likely roll in his grave at the thought. 

Of the historical figures cited by Nau, the only one who was without a doubt “conservative” in any meaningful sense is Ronald Reagan, who Nau cites as the most crucial figure for his theory of “Conservative Internationalism”. Like most of Reagan’s hagiographers, Nau attempts to elevate Reagan into the role of a moral paragon and master statesman – never mind the corruption of the Iran-Contra affair, the malice evident in Reagan’s abuse of International Financial Institutions (IFIs) to push Market Fundamentalism abroad, or Reagan’s wishy-washy stance on nuclear weapons.

The last is an aspect of Reagan’s career as president that Nau, unconvincingly, attempts to operationalize to build a case for Reagan as a leader who was able to play his cards correctly. Nau points out that the press of Reagan’s time built up concern over the late Cold War nuclear arms race, even while Reagan made his ultimate aim complete disarmament. It is the latter, not the former, that should disturb any student of Reagan’s legacy. The suicidality of Reagan’s hopes for disarmament in a nuclear world reflect the suicidality of Reagan’s administration more broadly. Like most of Reagan’s dedicated apologists, Nau believes that Reagan – in his worldview something akin to Thomas Carlyle’s Great Man of History – was the driving force between the favorable end of the Cold War. A more compelling argument holds that the Cold War ended favorably for the United States not because of Reagan’s toxic melange of dangerous incompetence and political sadism, but in spite of those reprehensible character traits.

This is only one of the many flaws in Nau’s brief volume. As with any work of theory that builds on history, a reader has a choice of focusing on either the forest or the trees. Yet Nau’s book is less a forest than a tree farm in which all the trees save a few are dying at a young age of a grotesque congenital defect. Of the few live and healthy trees, Nau’s book boasts a few insights: that George W. Bush’s ostensible neoconservative policy of democracy promotion was rooted more in American Nationalism than in a Liberal Internationalist notion of making the world safe for democracy, as is so commonly claimed; that radical critics of foreign policy are impotent side-line commentators who offer few or no better options than extant discourse; and, surprisingly, Nau prophetically foresees the dangerous rise of Nationalist populism building on rhetoric similar to that of interwar isolationists. But these rare moments of clarity alone can not save Nau’s “Conservative Internationalism”, a theory fatally deformed from the moment of its birth.

Nau, throughout the book, struggles to define “Conservative Internationalism”. At best, he elaborates on the idea as the notion of diplomacy backed by force. This is quite similar to President Theodore Roosevelt’s famed adage about speaking softly and carrying a big stick – a narrative that already supports a worldview of Defensive Realism. Nau fails to articulate how his “Conservative Internationalism” is at all different from such well-established ideas. As such, the reader is left to watch – baffled – as a has-been minor elder statesman and politically motivated academic bumbles and stumbles along his thoroughly meaningless quest to reinvent the wheel.

Adam Arthur
Adam Arthur
Adam Arthur holds a graduate degree in Asian Studies from Florida State University, along with a Graduate Certificate in Intelligence Studies. He is an alumnus of internships with Horizon Intelligence and the U.S. Department of State's Virtual Student Foreign Service program. He is a regular contributor to short-term projects for Wikistrat and for United Nations Volunteers online assignments.