Thursday, July 17, 2008

Neoconservatism and Moral Nationalism

Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, one of the friendly academic bloggers at Duck of Minerva, has responded to my essay, "Neoconservative Moral Nationalism in U.S. Foreign Policy."

Jackson's post, "
Nationalism is Not Neoconservatism," takes exception to the notion that "moral nationalism" is an inherently neoconservative innovation in America's foreign affairs. For Jackson, this stretches credibility:
Moral nationalism - or, better, a moralistic tone or sympathy in American public policy - has in fact been characteristic of the United States since before its founding. But to call Alexander Hamilton and Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman "neoconservatives" is to strain the meaning of the term beyond all recognition, and certainly beyond any conceivable analytical utility.
This criticism serves only as an introduction to the larger critique, but by offering it Jackson attempts to knock down the notion that neoconservatism has a long heritage, dating back to the founders, thus discrediting not just Brian Rathbun's research (which I reviewed at my post), but Robert Kagan's as well.

Jackson, however, goes beyond the theoretical claim of moral nationalism in Rathbun's piece. As Rathbun argues, realist theory is essentially amoral and does not concern itself with moral superiority over international organizations (which are deeply distrusted by neoconservatives) because realism is fundamentally unconcerned with the possible threat from IOs, since states - as the primary actors in world politics - would not let them be threatening. Thus Jackson wants to wave away the moral bases of these perspectives, without a more satisfying probe of the comparative ontological egoism of the theories.

Jackson, however, spends more time on conceptual and research design issues. For example, he argues that Rathbun errs by equating "the analysis of elite opinion with the analysis of foreign policy."

I think this is a quick slight of the research. It's quite common to use "elite opinion" as a unit of analysis, and then compare how general attitudes in mass public opinion compare.

For example, Daniel Drezner, in "
The Realist Tradition in American Public Opinion," specifically argues that international relations scholars assume the disposition of elites as the driving orientation underlying the development of international relations theory. Thus, for Jackson, it's not clear why Rathbun should be forced to relax an assumption that is common practice in the discipline. Further, Rathbun, more importantly, is actually testing how well elite opinion conforms to the three conceptions of conserative foreign policy he discerns - realism, neoconservatism, and islolationism. Here's Rathbun, from the introduction:

I offer a conceptualization of the three types of egoism and connect them to the ideologies of realism, nationalism, and isolationism. I then briefly review the historical manifestation of these ideologies in American foreign policy ... The next section considers issues of measurement. I identify items in Ole Holsti and James Rosenau’s 1996 survey of American foreign policy elites that tap into the three different notions of egoism and offer hypotheses about how they might load in a factor analysis of the beliefs of American elites if foreign policy is indeed constructed along these three dimensions.
For Jackson, then, rather than dismiss Rathbun as confusing elite opinion with foreign policy "analysis," he might provide a better alternative measurement scheme than to what Rathbun's research specifiies.

What we really might discern
in Jackson review, however, is an antipathy to neoconservatism as an autonomously legitimate ideational foundation for theories of American foreign policy:

So if we shift our gaze from policies to policy debates, what do we find that might separate realists from nationalists, and from liberal internationalists and the other kinds of schools of thought we might find? I'd say that first of all we need to stop thinking in terms of "schools," since positions on foreign policy are rarely coherent enough for that moniker. Individual policymakers also pick and choose among the elements of the supposed "schools" when the occasion seems appropriate....

So what are those elements? ... The root of "distinction," I would argue, is a claim that the United States is both exempt from those rules and exempt from them on the grounds that the United States represents something special, distinctive, higher -- something that trumps the rules in force for merely ordinary polities. These two aspects combine to form a venerable commonplace in US foreign policy debates: exceptionalism.

Notice Jackson's stress on exeptionalism as a key element of legitimate differentiation, but he errs in arguing that neoconservatives can't raise the exceptionalist banner as their own, when he claims "multiple traditions" have aleady embraced it, for example, islolationism.

But to do this, Jackson moves far from Rathbun's own specification of isloationism, where he notes:

Isolationism attempts to separate the self from the other ... This impetus to disengage might be based on a sense of national superiority, but not necessarily. When it is, however, isolationists draw a different policy conclusion than the more assertive nationalists, one of retreat rather than dominance.

For Jackson, then, to say that America has a venerable tradition of "refraining from 'entangling' involvement in European political machinations," and intervening in world affairs "only reluctantly," and then to hold this up as casting aspersion on the particular neoconservative amalgamation of morality and power as a catalyst for international action, misses much of Rathbun's essential logic. Jackson wants to argue that neoconservatism can't be foundational in American foreign policy because if violates an inherent "liberal internationalist" conception of American exceptionalism that is purportedly the only legitimate kind.

But recall, Rathbun's key point: Neoconservatism is the only true nationalist persuasion of the "right-wing foreign policies" under consideration - and it's this frame, based on "the superiority of American ideals and values, a universal nationalism," which distinguishes the theory not just from conservative realism and isolationism, but from neoliberal institutionalism as well, because for neoconservatives the national interest always comes first.

Recall, neoconservatism is fundamentally differentiated from other internationalist theories seeking to restrain the American hegemon within a network of multilateral organizations.

That's all for now. Perhaps Professor Jackson might be interested in another interation of this exchange.


Addendum: Brian Rathbun has himself declaimed any personal affinity to the neoconservative theoretical outlook, saying in an online comment thread, "For what its worth, I am a fairly typical left-leaning academic, not a pacifist but definitely not a conservative or neoconservative..."

Thus, it's not accurate for Jackson to lump Rathbun together with myself or Robert Kagan, for example, when he says, "Unfortunately for all three of these folks, the equation between "moral nationalism" and neoconservatism just doesn't hold up."

There are normative and theoretical issues here of which one can tease. Or, in other words, one can make the case for neoconservative moral nationalism, without actually identifying oneself as a neoconservative.