Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy

THE TEPID CONSENSUS

In foreign policy, conservatives are adrift. They disdain the Wilsonian multilateralism of the Clinton administration; they are tempted by, but so far have resisted, the neoisolationism of Patrick Buchanan; for now, they lean uncertainly on some version of the conservative realism of Henry Kissinger and his disciples. Thus, in this year’s election campaign, they speak vaguely of replacing Clinton’s vacillation with a steady, adult foreign policy under Robert Dole. But Clinton has not vacillated that much recently, and Dole was reduced a few weeks ago to asserting, in what was heralded as a major address, that there really are differences in foreign policy between him and the president, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. But the fault is not Dole’s; in truth, there has been little attempt to set forth the outlines of a conservative view of the world and America’s proper role in it.

Is such an attempt necessary, or even possible? For the past few years, Americans, from the foreign policy big thinker to the man on the street, have assumed it is not. Rather, this is supposed to be a time for unshouldering the vast responsibilities the United States acquired at the end of the Second World War and for concentrating its energies at home. The collapse of the Soviet Empire has made possible a return to normalcy in American foreign and defense policy, allowing the adoption of a more limited definition of the national interest, with a commensurate reduction in overseas involvement and defense spending.

Republicans and conservatives at first tended to be wary of this new post-Cold War consensus. But they joined it rapidly after 1992, in the wake of the defeat of the quintessential foreign policy president by a candidate who promised to focus like a laser on the domestic economy. Now conservatives tailor their foreign and defense policies to fit the presumed new political reality: an American public that is indifferent, if not hostile, to foreign policy and commitments abroad, more interested in balancing the budget than in leading the world, and more intent on cashing in the peace dividend than on spending to deter and fight future wars. Most conservatives have chosen to acquiesce in rather than challenge this public mood.

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