The Revolutionary Imperative and US Foreign Policy
In foreign policy, it often becomes somewhat difficult to apply the categorizations of left and right, particularly as they concern domestic politics. These contradictions can become particularly apparent in the United States, where the right wing, as LFC notes, has a strange relationship with the past when compared to its foreign counterparts. This is a point with deep roots in the ideas of American exceptionalism. It means that much of the American political right is engaged not in a conservative (in the sense of reactionary or counterrevolutionary) foreign policy, but a revolutionary and radical one, differing in tempo and tenor from that of some of its liberal counterparts.
Quite simply, American conservatism has long ceased to harbor any truly reactionary component. In the sense that American conservatism aims at limiting the size of government at home, it is more radical than reactionary. After all, a return to the founding principles is different than the preservation of institutions and order, for the demographic and material stuff of the American country and economy will necessarily change, and the Constitution makes no attempt at preserving that order. Indeed, it was the inadequacy of the Constitution to effect such an orderly and stable preservation of that peculiar institution of slavery and the broader ideal of Southern plantation life that triggered the Civil War.
After all, what many American conservatives seek to conserve is liberalism, which is a system, not an institution or an order per se. The institutions of American life are now broadly part of the government, and identifying their locus elsewhere, as some do, is something of a radical redefinition of the institutions Americans ought seek to conserve. The American social welfare system, particularly Medicare, smacks more of inherited privilege than many elements of the right’s economic platform, and in the right’s most reactionary moments, it protects Medicare from the more radical efforts to impose a classical liberal alternative.
This radical form of conservatism is actually within the American mainstream. America is a liberal country, it is necessarily founded on a sense of experimentation and individualism foreign to most forms of reactionary thought, and is particularly hostile to it today. This matters for foreign policy as well: more reactionary or genuinely conservative foreign policies may often be found on the left as well as the right, while revolutionary foreign policies appear both among liberal internationalists and their conservative counterparts.
Consider that during the Cold War, Kennan’s vision of containment and his later adaptations were far more similar to America’s more reactionary foreign policy tradition than were later right-wing ideas of rollback and seeking victory against the “Evil Empire.” Kennan was indeed something of a reactionary thinker on domestic politics, and a survey of his views on industrialization, desegregation, the structure of American government, and other topics confirms this (were Kennan judged on the merits of his domestic politics, he would be a fringe figure, not a respected elder statesman). As part of his vision of containment, he variously opposed NATO, the recognition of Israel, US involvement in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, or a generally muscular attempt to liberate conquered Soviet territories. Containment was designed to let the US survive and thrive while waiting for the revolutionary Soviet edifice to collapse from within.
Compared to the idea of rollback, democracy promotion, and the liberating imperatives of American ideals, at least as national greatness-school conservatives see them, this is a profoundly reactionary idea. To adherents of this muscular, interventionist form of American exceptionalism, and to many of their liberal internationalist counterparts, America’s world-historic duty, if not its destiny, is to usher in the completion of a global revolution in human history. This is not conservative in any traditional sense of the term, and previous generations of conservatives with stronger reactionary inclinations would find it appalling.
The fundamental conflict between the desires for small government at home and an assertive foreign policy posture is less a contradiction or a hypocrisy, as some critics often claim, than a feature of the necessarily radical nature of some schools of modern American conservatism. Although radicalism, like reaction, is a pejorative term in American political discourse, in a world-historical sense, American internationalism and exceptionalism is radical in its premises. The differences between the methods of its implementation and the US role in overseeing that sweeping effort are less substantive than either side would prefer to proclaim. That the corrective alternatives introduce doses of reaction, whether through realism, non-interventionism, or appeal to the founders’ vision of foreign policy (which is not an innate feature of the Constitution, but a sort of order or tradition to preserve), perhaps explain why those with more progressive inclinations might feel self-conscious in advocating their positions and situating them with an often radicalism-prone American foreign policy discourse.