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The Enduring Power of Neoconservatism

Despite some overuse, the label still means something, and neoconservative impulses remain extremely influential in American foreign policy.

Fighter jets being prepared for use in Syria (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

What is, or was, “neoconservatism?” Recently, military historian and columnist Max Boot, who previously self-identified as neoconservative, argued in The Washington Post that Americans need to “retire” the term “neocon.” For decades, as Boot and others have argued, leftist critics have used the word “neocon” as an intellectual smear, to discredit and denounce others as foolishly bellicose. Some have seen anti-Semitic overtones in the term, disproportionately applied to Jewish conservatives, with neocons often portrayed as a cabal leveraging American power to promote the interests of Israel or certain parties like the Likud.

Both neoconservatives and their critics have long struggled to make sense of neoconservatism. The movement’s “godfather,” the late Irving Kristol, characterized the ideology as more of a persuasion. “It is hopeful, not lugubrious; forward-looking, not nostalgic; and its general tone is cheerful, not grim or dyspeptic.” In the mid-1990s, he wondered whether neoconservatives—winning and losing debates over decades, shaping and being shaped by ideas—had just melted away into contemporary conservatism.

Does that mean, though, that neoconservatism is no longer useful as a label? Well, neoconservatism is, indeed, an impulse, current, or persuasion. It still exists now, as it did then, though it has of course evolved. American leaders—not just conservatives, but those of every party, faction, and clique—have adopted, adapted, and absorbed some neoconservative “attitudes” on foreign policy. They embrace patriotism. They maintain instrumental views of international institutional arrangements, which they deeply distrust or are frustrated with—even as some try to use them to amplify American power. They make clear distinctions between—and, thus, treat differently—friends and foes of the United States. They denounce and want to defeat totalitarians—great and small. They identify American interests expansively and include ideals and ideological affinity in their sense of these interests. And they believe that Americans can and should apply power—unilaterally, universally—to preserve their position, protect their interests, and promote their ideals around the world. Neoconservatives and the neoconservative impulse, attitudes, and policy proposals remain unignorably relevant and influential.

Neoconservatism was born in New York—specifically, at the City College of New York in the 1930s where Trotskyist-inclined students ate together in the cafeteria’s “Alcove I.” (Self-styled Stalinists claimed “Alcove II.”) “Arguing the world,” they opposed totalitarians abroad and isolationists at home. They remained liberal or even leftist during World War II, when some like Kristol served in Europe, and in the postwar period.

By the 1960s and 1970s, they were feeling “mugged by reality”—recoiling, above all, from New Leftist campus protests and counterculture, as well as reflexive Vietnam War opposition. In 1973, the socialist Michael Harrington slammed intellectuals put off by leftists and counterculture as “neoconservative ideologues.” His targets responded differently, in ways that naturally reflected their ideas. Kristol took the term and, with typical humor, tried to make it his own. Daniel Bell forever rejected the designation and described himself as “a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics and a conservative in culture.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was advising the Nixon administration, later drifted leftwards again and never embraced the term enthusiastically.

The term stuck, although the “neocons” hadn’t jumped all that far right yet. Remaining relatively liberal on social and economic issues and rejecting conservatives’ isolationist impulses, these neocons—and some younger, internationalist hawks such as Richard Perle—spent the 1970s in a space occupied by Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson. They wanted to engage the world, not “come home.” They wanted to confront, not contain or compromise with, communists. And they wanted to apply American power to pursue interests and ideals abroad.

Neocons truly migrated in 1980. They found, or thought they’d found, a savior in President Ronald Reagan. They celebrated his more aggressive and ambitious approach to the Cold War, although they also howled at any overtures to the Soviets they considered too friendly. When the Cold War came to a close and the Soviet Union began to collapse, neocons felt vindicated in preferring confrontation to containment, democracy to totalitarianism, and capitalism to communism.

With the end of the Cold War, however, neoconservatives lost their common cause. For decades, they’d cultivated ideas and attitudes in a garden of global threats to American ideals and interests. Those threats were gone. Some, especially elder, neocons believed that Americans could indeed now tend to their gardens—to say nothing of roads, schools, churches, hospitals, parks, and theaters. Kristol and Jeane Kirkpatrick—who served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under Reagan—believed that Americans could now live in “a normal country in a normal time.” Other younger neocons pushed for Pax Americana: Kristol’s son, Bill, who’d later establish The Weekly Standard and Project for the New American Century; Robert Kagan, who along with Kristol, tried to reinvent and rebrand the neoconservative impulse as a “neo-Reaganite” worldview; and Dr. Charles Krauthammer, who in his snappy, entertaining prose wrote that the world was in a “unipolar moment” which the United States could and should turn into a “unipolar era” by embracing power and exercising it properly. They wanted to forge a peaceful and prosperous world order built on the allure of American ideas, enriched by U.S.-driven economic growth, managed by U.S.-led alliances if and when possible, and preserved by American military might if and when necessary. Like other Americans, neocons disagreed within and across lines and labels.

Against that backdrop, three U.S. Department of Defense officials—Paul Wolfowitz, Scooter Libby, and Zalmay Khalilzad—drafted the “Defense Planning Guidance” in 1992. In the innocuously titled paper, they jotted down some big ideas and grand designs. “Our first objective,” they wrote, “is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival.” With this “dominant consideration” in mind, American leaders would work to “prevent any hostile power from dominating [any] region”—including, for instance, Western Europe and Southwest Asia—“whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power.” Someone leaked the draft to The New York Times. Leaders on the right and left blasted the authors for what they saw as an imperialistic and impossible vision. Redoing their draft with closer supervision from U.S. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, the authors adopted a subdued style but stayed true on substance.

In the quarter-century after that controversy, however, leaders in successive American administrations essentially adopted that vision—despite differences in strategy, policy, temperament, style, rhetoric, tactics, or campaign promises. By force, diplomacy, restrictive measures, or some combination thereof, they’ve worked to prevent conceivable collections of regional, rogue, authoritarian, and non-state challengers—to say nothing of revisionist, potentially great powers like Russia or China—from replicating the extraordinary totalitarian threat of the bygone bipolar era. American leaders have more or less defined threats as challenges to their preferred position for the United States, that preferred position being American dominance within a certain order. Simultaneously, they’ve cast U.S. decline—relative, or absolute—or the order’s decay as dangerous. Building “new world order,” pushing for “democratic enlargement,” seeking treaty alliance “expansion,” driving the development of a world market, and speaking of their “indispensable nation,” leaders embracing this vision have engaged in at least six significant military campaigns in the 1990s: Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq (twice). Under the Bush administration in the mid-2000s, American leaders set their sights on an “axis of evil,” forged “coalitions of the willing,” and supported revolutions in places that other powers saw—rightly, wrongly—as their backyards. After that, even while “leading from behind” and “pivoting” under the Democratic leadership of Barack Obama, the U.S. intervened in Libya and cobbled together a “coalition to counter” the self-styled Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. None of these states or societies, and none of the vicious actors arrayed within them, threatened America’s survival—although groups like Al-Qaeda did undermine American security and interests. American leaders saw in all of these situations, however, challenges to the existing international order.

American leaders over the past three decades may not have crafted strategies or pursued policies as extreme as some neocons—the most bellicose of whom make a “Munich” out of every molehill—would have liked. But they have worked to promote American dominance—and the dominance of American ideals intimately intertwined with a largely U.S.-led world order—much more than they would have without the neoconservative impulse and associated attitudes.

Neoconservatism isn’t dead. For starters, neocons themselves have remained relevant. Many neoconservatives, generally on the establishment rather than the populist end of the conservative movement, rejected President Donald J. Trump during the 2016 campaign—reacting to him and his supporters, perhaps, as their predecessors reacted to New Leftists. Since then, they’ve lost influence and credibility in some senses while remaining relevant and rehabilitating themselves in other ways. On the one hand, the Project for the New American Century, The Weekly Standard, and the Foreign Policy Initiative have closed up shop. On the other hand, neoconservatives such as Robert Kagan, Max Boot, Bret Stephens, and current U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton—defending the Iraq War, arguing for more defense spending, linking military action to American power and prestige, and intermittently trying to extricate the United States from international institutions it has helped build and shape—continue to feature in The New York Times and The Washington Post; CNN and MSNBC; the Brookings Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Institute for the Study of War, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and the Council on Foreign Relations; The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, and other publications.

Despite some spectacular failures, neoconservatives have left the imprints of that impulse on almost all Americans leaders interested in foreign policy. Americans, by and large, seem to have accepted over the past decades that it is necessary and desirable to promote certain interests and ideals abroad, while projecting power to support an existing international order that can’t survive on pieces of paper alone. They believe that America—for all its struggles, at home and abroad—isn’t in decline. They believe that the United States, for all its faults or fundamental flaws, retains its promise—a promise fundamentally unlike that of other nations or states. And, even amid today’s frustrations, they sense that the United States should not, must not, and cannot turn its back on the world. Behind their enduring faith in American engagement—military, or otherwise—they still have faith in American exceptionalism.