William Kristol and Robert Kagan's vision of a Pax Americana helps further the ever unsettled debate over America's role in the post -Cold War world ("Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy," July/August 1996). But in attempting a conservative policy with a "moral clarity," they have offered an approach that is low on strategic clarity, and not very conservative to boot.

Kristol and Kagan are on target when they assert that conservatives need a foreign policy vision to achieve a lasting political realignment; no American political movement worth its name can succeed solely on domestic issues. Critics like us are sympathetic to their overriding purpose: to find an inspirational vision to sustain support for American engagement in world affairs.

Unlike some cheap-hawk conservatives, the authors advocate a much higher defense bill to make America a hegemonic power. They rightly worry that deep cuts in the military are putting the United States on the path to decline, and they understand that it is downright silly to propose, as the Clinton administration has, grand strategies of enlarging the world's democracies and becoming a global peacekeeper without embarking on a military buildup.


But Kristol and Kagan's vision of American foreign policy is without limits or constraints. It is somewhat confusing to discover that the government that runs too much of America runs too little of the world. It is fine with us if leaders use American power and influence to accomplish traditional foreign policy tasks like deterring aggression, defeating enemy nations, shoring up alliances, and expanding free trade. But we wonder what limits Kristol and Kagan would impose on their global democratic enterprise -- one that ultimately would have the U.S. government engineering the domestic transformation of nations around the globe.

The authors, dodge the central foreign policy question facing America in the post-Cold War era: how to develop an internationalist foreign policy disciplined by a framework for selectivity and discrimination. This has been the central question since the Soviet Union collapsed (along with U.S. containment policy) in 1991. Unless it is answered, America will lack a compass in an ever more complex and unpredictable world. This compass should ensure that the United States engages in neither a crusading activism that mindlessly diffuses vital resources nor an isolationism that eschews important opportunities to shape events. Such selectivity, especially in the case of military engagement, has become even more pressing given the precipitous decline in the military capabilities of America and its principal allies. By pretending that America need not be selective in its engagements, Kristol and Kagan are indulging in pure escapism.

The cure-all that is supposed to obviate the need for making choices is spending a lot more money on defense. Kristol and Kagan believe in "giving military planners enough money to make intelligent choices." But military planners are not the ones who decide important strategic questions, such as whether to expand NATO, intervene in Bosnia, grant most-favored-nation status to China, or buy 20 or 30 more b-2 bombers; the president and Congress are. But how can they make these and other important strategic decisions if, as Kristol and Kagan say, "Setting forth the broad outlines of such a foreign policy is more important for the moment than deciding the best way to handle all the individual issues that have preoccupied U.S. policymakers and analysts"? What is the point of a strategy if it cannot help a policymaker decide these issues? If it does not meet this most basic test, it is empty rhetoric.

Kristol and Kagan correctly assert that defense cuts have gone too far. But a $60 billion to $80 billion annual defense spending increase will not be enough to fund their ambitious strategy of Pax Americana. It would cost $30 billion more a year just to adequately fund Bill Clinton's rather small "Bottom-Up Review" force. That would allow the United States to fight just one major regional conflict and one minor conflict or large peacekeeping mission, while maintaining a skeletal presence to uphold its European and Asian alliance commitments. Add more money for missile defense systems and a modernization program that takes advantage of the military-technological revolution, and you're back in the hole. There would be little or no money left over for the arms buildup needed to support Kristol and Kagan's strategy of slaying the world's monsters. In other words, $60 billion to $80 billion a year or even more would not provide a military so capable that policymakers could avoid hard choices about where power is most needed and most effective.


Kristol and Kagan offer a false choice to the American people: either America attempts to remake the world in its own image or it once again seeks the dark cave of isolationism from which the Presidents Roosevelt led it. The American people apparently need a foreign policy crusade around which to rally or they will pull up the drawbridge and leave the world to its own devices.

Americans are not as unsophisticated as Kristol and Kagan believe. They understand that global leadership need not be global gendarmerie -- two ends that are easily confused in practice when policymakers build policy around "a sense of the heroic." In fact, the American people are rightly suspicious of military missions that are ill defined, open-ended, and unimportant to the national interest. When faced with losing propositions that seem to serve no discernible national interest, such as the military mission in Somalia when it began to fail, the public turns against military interventions. When, on the other hand, the national interest is obvious and the operation well run, as in the Persian Gulf War, the American people overwhelmingly support the sacrifices required by military interventions. Americans need a mission for their foreign policy, not manufactured crusades to fool them into supporting something that they may not understand.

Kristol and Kagan mistake for isolationism the relative indifference of the American public and Congress to foreign affairs. Many conservatives in Congress are not as engaged in foreign policy issues as they should be, but Congress is not the place to look for new ideas and leadership in foreign policy. Those must come from the president, whether a Republican or a Democrat. Americans, indeed, do not care much for foreign policy, so long as things are going well. But as Jimmy Carter found out after the Iranian hostage crisis, they care very much when a president bungles a foreign policy issue or is perceived to be weakening the country.


One of the more puzzling aspects of Kristol and Kagan's thesis is their narrow interpretation of the Reagan legacy. Ronald Reagan certainly deserves much praise for bringing down the curtain on the Cold War, and Kristol and Kagan are right to credit him with courage, vision, and will. But they are wrong to take part of his legacy -- the moral crusade against the "evil empire" and his campaign for democracy -- and blow it up as if it were the whole show. The other side of the coin was the Reagan military buildup, which pressured the Soviet Union into making decisions that were ultimately self-destructive. This was hardheaded realism at its best. It was not some diffuse, open-ended campaign for democracy wherever it was threatened, but a concentrated strategy that mobilized all American resources, moral and military, to eliminate peacefully the threat to democracy at its source: the Soviet Union and, in effect, communism. Anyone who doubts the hardheadedness of the Reagan administration needs to remember not only the sharp focus of Reagan's strategy but the highly discriminating and limiting conditions that Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger imposed on military interventions.

Kristol and Kagan have tried to apply their particular understanding of Reagan's legacy to an inappropriate historical situation. Reagan mobilized a successful moral crusade against Soviet communism not only because it was anti democratic but also because he saw it as a mortal danger to American security. There is today no single antidemocratic movement that possesses the power and ideological challenge of Soviet communism. To be sure, there are plenty of threats to U.S. interests, but they are scattered and come in many different stripes, from Cold War holdover regimes like North Korea to radical Islamic states like Iran. Because the threats they pose are philosophically, geographically, politically, and even militarily diverse, they are not amenable to the kind of single-minded crusade for democracy that Kristol and Kagan propose.

It is a mistake to attempt to apply the heroic aspect of the Reagan legacy to the present. Ronald Reagan did indeed offer a new and comprehensive vision of American strength and leadership in 1980, but it was driven by the twin specters of Soviet expansionism and American weakness. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the communist insurgencies nibbling through Central America combined with America's demoralized post-Vietnam forces, the humiliation of the hostage crisis, and the debacle of the failed Desert One rescue attempt to help sustain his worldview. Compare the consequences of Reagan's legitimately heroic vision -- legitimate because the times demanded it -- with the less than heroic tasks required under Kristol and Kagan's conception of America as the world's policeman: more failing peacekeeping missions in venues like Bosnia, Haiti, and Somalia; more American military involvement in bloody civil wars fueled by ancient ethnic and racial hatreds rather than by disagreements over the fine points of democracy; and billions more in foreign aid to prop up shaky "democratic" regimes like those in Russia and Haiti.

Kristol and Kagan seem to imply that anyone proposing limits on the purposes and means of American foreign policy is a defeatist or a declinist ...a la Paul Kennedy. Worse for conservatives, they seem to say that concern about selectivity and discrimination amounts to apostasy. This is nonsense. Being a conservative is all about pursuing principles in a world constrained by human nature. It is not defeatist to ground strategy in what Walter Lippmann called the "controlling principle" of American foreign policy: to keep America's purposes equal to its means and its means equal to its purposes. Far from apostasy, that approach is the logical fulfillment of Reagan's vision in the post-Cold War world.

However, the job today is quite different than it was in Reagan's time: not to contain or defeat an ideologically hostile superpower, but to prevent rogue states and terrorists from threatening American values and interests in key regions. America could be the world's policeman, if it wanted to be. It could spend $500 billion a year on defense, turn its alliances into vast peacekeeping institutions, put half the developing world on the international dole, and agree to engage in more or less perpetual warfare for decades to come. But why would the United States want to do this? It does not have to do it to protect its interests and values. Americans accept limits on their interventions and interactions with other nations not because they lack confidence or because they are too stingy to pay the price of glory. Rather, they do it because that is all that is required to get the job done.


This prudent approach is the essence of conservatism. As they have recognized the inherent shortfall in the means of American power, Kagan and Kristol's call for a hegemonic crusade does little beyond assuaging their desire for moral clarity. In his book The Vision of the Anointed, Thomas Sowell says that seeking moral clarity within one's own mind, often without concern for unintended consequences, is the fundamentally flawed basis for many liberal social policies. Kristol and Kagan make a similar mistake in foreign policy. It is ironic that Kristol, one of the most eloquent critics of the large administrative state in America, proposes a comparable role in the world for an imperial America. All the elements of an overwhelming government that conservatives deride as counterproductive and morally bankrupt are writ large in this vision of benevolent hegemony. Yet Kagan and Kristol argue that their strategy represents the third pillar of a conservative America that is already dismantling the modern welfare state and "reversing the widespread collapse of morals and standards in American society."

William F. Buckley, Jr., following in the footsteps of other venerable conservatives from Edmund Burke to James Madison, has said that the defining element of conservatism is realism -- realism about national sovereignty, human nature, and an international system of competing nation-states. That realism does not have to manifest itself in the guise of an amoral accountant tirelessly calculating quantifiable national interests and constructing cost-benefit tables for American engagement. But conservative realism demands some recognition of the need to engage selectively in efforts that further American values and interests around the globe. Otherwise, one succumbs to a utopian temptation that has bedeviled nonconservatives since the French Revolution.


Kristol and Kagan's vision is billed as a foreign policy for candidate Bob Dole. Apparently somebody forgot to consult with Dole and his foreign policy team. While Senate majority leader, Dole supported a modest $11 billion increase in defense spending over Clinton's request for the 1997 fiscal year. Candidate Dole may or may not wish to spend more, but President Dole will not spend $60 billion to $80 billion more a year on defense. Neither will House Speaker Newt Gingrich or even the most conservative member of the House.

Which raises a question: Who is out of touch here, conservatives in Congress who will not vote for huge defense spending increases, or Kristol and Kagan? The authors of "a foreign policy for candidate Dole" would like to move the debate toward accepting the need for more defense spending. That is indeed a laudable goal. Unfortunately, their essay may have the opposite effect. It will be easy prey for opponents of a strong national defense, who will now dismiss legitimate calls for more defense spending as part of some new hawkish conservative strategy, when in fact more defense funds are needed just to maintain the United States' current strategy. The New York Times has already begun to use this tactic, calling Kristol and Kagan's defense plans "dangerously aggressive." Demands by conservatives for $20 billion or

$30 billion more merely to fund the Clinton force could be lost in a howl of complaints about how conservatives want to create a vast global empire not for the good Kristol and Kagan intend but to advance some nefarious imperialistic design. Far from clarifying the debate, Kristol and Kagan will have only muddied the waters.


The two are right in their belief that America must lead or be led by others. And they are correct that the United States must maintain a "benevolent hegemony" of sorts in the world. But it must adopt a strategy of selective engagement that establishes priorities among American interests and clearly adapts means to ends. There is simply no other way to protect American security and values in this age of chaos. Where Kristol and Kagan ultimately fail is in believing that the moral demands of mobilizing public opinion force America to abandon the hard work of selecting and discriminating in foreign policy. This they dismiss as the tawdry labor of beleaguered realists. That is not only false, it is an extremely unwise strategy for conservatives to pursue.’

Kim R. Holmes is Vice President and Director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies and

John Hillen is Defense Policy Analyst at The Heritage Foundation.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now