"Ideological self-confidence and ruthless power politics": Neo-conservatives, Charles Krauthammer and the real legacy of Ronald Reagan's foreign policy

Ascendent neo-cons battled with Kissinger-ian "realists" for the soul of a romantic. How things have changed

Published December 6, 2015 3:30PM (EST)


Excerpted from "Realpolitik: A History"

In Search of the “Reagan Doctrine”

The presidency of Ronald Reagan, which began in January 1981, brought new controversies, and a new set of tropes and doctrines, to the American foreign policy debate. In the first instance, Reaganism took its cue from the critics of détente, such as Paul Nitze, a key advisor, and George P. Shultz, his secretary of state from 1982 to 1989. They stood in a tradition of those who had always had a more overtly hawkish posture on the Cold War, dating back to the 1940s. Added to this was a pronounced skein of ideological anti-communism. This was chiefly, though not exclusively, associated with neo-conservatives, such as Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol. Also in the Reagan ranks were a number of supporters and staffers of Democratic senator Henry Jackson, such as Jeane Kirkpatrick and Richard Perle (once a student of Hans Morgenthau). This group rowed in behind the president, feeling that they no longer had a viable home in the Democratic Party.

In the 1970s, Commentary magazine had been the main incubator for this loose coalition. It offered both a critique of détente under Nixon and Ford, and of what was seen as a vague and half-committed emphasis on human rights under Carter. Jeane Kirkpatrick, then a professor at Georgetown, declared that a “realistic foreign policy that pursues ‘national interest’ without regard to morality, ultimately founders on its lack of realism about the irreducible human concern with morality.” Her famous essay of November 1979, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” won her the attention of Reagan, who hired her on its strength. It made a distinction between authoritarian regimes and the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union. Kirkpatrick argued that the United States should generally promote the liberalization and democratization of other states. That said, it should not do so in a way that destabilized those authoritarian regimes that were friendly to the United States, particularly if this meant that they fell into the hands of communists.

This mix of ideological self-confidence and ruthless power politics set the tone for much that came after. It became crucial to the neo-conservative conception of foreign policy. Robert Kagan, who started writing for Commentary as a twenty-two-year old in 1981, defined the approach as one that “combines an idealistic moralism, and even messianism, with a realist’s belief in the importance of power.” Irving Kristol, the figurehead of this group, rejected utopianism and bemoaned the naiveté of the human rights lobby. Yet he also insisted that “Realpolitik a la Disraeli” (Britain’s famously pragmatic Conservative prime minister of 1874–1880) was unthinkable in America. American foreign policy needed more ideological sustenance to sustain itself.

Ironically, neo-conservatism shared one striking similarity with postwar American realism. Both held foreign policy to be an indicator of the general state of the nation and the health of the American republic. The two were indivisible. As noted earlier, Kristol had initially been favorable to the “Europeanization” of American foreign policy under Kissinger and Nixon. In part, he viewed this as an antidote to what he saw as the vapid internationalism of the country’s intellectual elite in the 1960s. Yet his despair at the state of the American middle classes took him in a different direction in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In his view, American bourgeois culture had lost some of its moral and religious fiber. A realist foreign policy was a symptom of a broader sickness. It represented the “the vulgar substitution of expedience for principle,” and it had “no part of the American political tradition.” A similar point was made by Jeane Kirkpatrick. She argued that the notion that foreign policy “should be orientated towards balance of power politics, or realpolitik,” was totally alien to the American way of life.

It was Norman Podhoretz, a longer-term critic of Nixon’s foreign policy, who claimed to have convinced Kristol to come round to his way of thinking on this issue. For Podhoretz, writing in 1981, the failed war in Vietnam had proved—more than anything else—the hopelessness of pursuing a foreign policy without a convincing moral rationale, behind which the nation could rally. In the 1970s, the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations had robbed the conflict with the Soviet Union of its moral and political dimension. In Podhoretz’s view, this policy was doomed. A “strategy of containment centered on considerations of Realpolitik would be unable to count indefinitely on popular support” and would ultimately head toward isolationism.

Podhoretz expanded on this argument in a long review of Kissinger’s White House memoirs, Years of Upheaval, in Commentary in 1982. In Years of Renewal, it is worth noting, Kissinger had actually praised Podhoretz for offering the “subtlest” critique of détente. In return, Podhoretz, like Kristol, expressed his admiration for Kissinger. Nonetheless, he objected to what he saw as an element of ideological relativism on which détente was predicated. The Kissinger approach was based on a long view of history that held that “Communist China was not all that different from Tsarist Russia, the facts of geography, history, and ancestral culture being far more decisive than the ideas of Marx and Lenin.”

Was history so important after all? In complete contrast to Nixon’s, Reagan’s foreign policy was largely—one might even say defiantly—ahistorical. This is what surprised Kissinger more than anything else about the Reagan administration. He described, with some wonderment, how Reagan presided over an “astonishing performance—and, to some academic observers, incomprehensible.” A president who “knew next to no history” and who had “the shallowest academic background,” developed a foreign policy of “extraordinary consistency” and effectiveness.

To class Reagan as a neo-conservative would be misleading; he is perhaps better described as a “hard-line romantic.” Nonetheless, there were important points of convergence between neo-conservative discourse and the administration’s foreign policy. A clear statement of intent from the Reagan administration came in January 1981 in the testimony of secretary of state-designate Alexander Haig before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As Soviet spending was outstripping American spending, Haig signaled his desire to break from the arms limitation treaties of the 1970s. While Haig did not last long in office, his choice of language before the committee was significant. It seemed to herald an idealist turn in Republican foreign policy: “An American foreign policy of cynical realpolitik cannot succeed because it leaves no room for the idealism that has characterized us from the inception of our national life,” he stated. Foreign policy was the “ultimate test of our character as a nation.”

As ever, statements of intent were not always translated into policy. In fact, in pushing back against some Carter administration policies—in Latin America, for example—the Reaganites actually found themselves reverting to positions that were more characteristic of the Nixon-Ford years. The ambassador to Bolivia, Samuel F. Hart, claimed that within a matter of weeks of Haig’s appointment, the new secretary of state wanted to release him and bring an end to the existing policy—which had been to lean on the military junta to force it to either reform or leave office. Instead, it was felt that Haig wanted to “throw the policy of supporting democracy out the window, and to go back to something approaching a Cold War realpolitik in Latin America.”

From the outset, Reagan’s foreign policy juggled these competing instincts. Despite their increasing prominence, the neo-conservatives were not always happy with the direction of policy in the administration. Again, like the realists perhaps, they were hard to satisfy. In a 1986 group profile in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, it was suggested that many of them—including Kristol, Podhoretz, and George Will—were “not policy practitioners by nature; they tend to be conceptualizers, opportunists and pamphleteers.” They were critical of both George P. Shultz (who replaced Secretary Haig in 1982) and even Paul Nitze—notwithstanding his reputation as a hard-liner—for the suggestion that the United States was prepared to engage in a “live and let live” approach to the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, they had “shaped the terms of the political debate” in Washington, even if they did not always get their way on arms control and other issues.

Any attempt to put a name on Reaganism is fraught with difficulty then. The notion of a “Reagan doctrine” was put forward by the conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer, of the New Republic and Time magazine, to denote the policy of supporting anti-communist movements across the world in Africa, Asia, and Latin America (also, in fact, known as the Kirkpatrick doctrine). In a famous 1986 essay, “The Poverty of Realism,” Krauthammer argued that the goal of American foreign policy was not just security but “the success of liberty.” This meant a foreign policy that was “universal in aspiration” but also “prudent in application.”

Like many foreign policy doctrines, the Reagan doctrine seemed more coherent with the benefit of hindsight. In the 2004 Irving Kristol Lecture at the American Enterprise Institute, Krauthammer described it as “democratic realism.” Unlike some Reagan partisans, Krauthammer did not reject the American realist tradition at its core—he even praised Hans Morgenthau. Instead, he suggested that Reaganism was the next stage of its evolution. Realism was a “valuable antidote to the woolly internationalism of the 1990s,” but it lacked a fundamental goal. Its basic problem lay in the narrow way in which Morgenthau had defined the national interest. Accoding to Krauthammer, Morgenthau postulated that what drives nations was the will to power. For most Americans, this “might be a correct description of the world—of what motivates other countries—but it cannot be a prescription for America. It cannot be our purpose.” Ultimately, America “cannot and will not live by realpolitik alone.” US foreign policy must be driven by “something beyond power.”

In some ways, however, this was a post facto rationalization of Reaganism, viewed through the prism of victory in the Cold War. In fact, if one returns to the mid-1980s, Krauthammer’s version of the Reagan doctrine was much more haphazard and selective. It was less a grand strategy than a posture or an attitude—one in which hard-nosed and unsentimental military and political maneuvers were to be celebrated as proof of virility and power. At the simplest level, it was enough to remind the world that America was as ruthless as it was powerful—that it, too, could play rough with the best of them.

Thus, in the midst of the Cold War, Krauthammer was quite willing to celebrate instances of naked realpolitik. In 1985, for example, he praised the administration for its willingness to deal with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, an old enemy, in the Iran-Iraq war. The rapprochement with Iraq showed that Americans “can play as cool a game of Realpolitik as anyone. ... And who can blame us? ... We must take our allies where we find them,” he wrote in the Washington Post. In 1988, when the Iran-Iraq War ended with Saddam in the ascendant, Krauthammer argued that it was time to tilt back toward Iran, and against Saddam, for precisely the same reasons. Iran was “no less odious a place today” than it was during the Iran-Iraq conflict. It was “only more useful,” he wrote.

Power projection was the single most important factor in this understanding of foreign policy. It was the old realists who tended to urge restraint and probity. In an article in Foreign Affairs in late 1985, which defended the legacy of the realist tradition from attacks by Reaganites, George Kennan made the familiar point that “in national as in personal affairs the acceptance of one’s limitations is surely one of the first marks of true morality.” Against this was set an interpretation of the national interest in which virility and self-confidence were paramount. What was really at issue here were two contending versions of American nationalism, both born at home and tested abroad.

Excerpted from "Realpolitik: A History" by John Bew. Published by Oxford University Press. Copyright 2016 by John Bew. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By John Bew

John Bew teaches history and foreign policy at the War Studies Department at King's College London. Previously he was a Lecturer in Modern British History at Cambridge. In 2013 he was named to the Kissinger Chair at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. He is the author for four books, most recently Castlereagh: A Life.