Republican foreign policy and the New START treatyPower and ideas
Nov 23rd 2010, 17:09 by D.L. | PHILADELPHIA
YESTERDAY I wrote that Republican opposition to ratification of the New START treaty with Russia could be traced to the influence of delusional neoconservative ideas about America’s strength—or rather, its invincibility. Instead of formulating policies suited to “a world governed by economic, budgetary, military, and diplomatic limits”, neocons indulge in magical thinking, pretending that America is so exceptional that it need never “sit at a negotiating table, entertain a mutually beneficial compromise, or ratify a treaty with any nation that would dare to pursue interests contrary to our own in any region of the world.” This is a fantasy dangerously detached from the reality of a world in which “the United States is very powerful but far from free to do whatever it wants without constraint.”
Shortly after my post appeared, Stephen Walt wrote a post at Foreign Policy that made something close to the opposite argument. According to Mr Walt, Republicans are opposing ratification not because they believe America is more powerful than it is; they are opposing ratification because America is in fact more powerful than it should be. The US is, in Mr Walt’s words, “too secure for its own good.” Facing no serious external threat, being “as secure as any state could ever expect to be”, America has grown reckless, permitting “politicians to use foreign policy as a partisan political football, and to indulge special interests and other ideological fixations.” The problem isn’t delusional ideas, in other words, but rather the practical consequences of the country’s status as a hyperpower.
Mr Walt is surely right, up to a point. The international context—and above all America’s enormous military and economic might within that context—is a necessary condition for explaining Republican opposition to the New START treaty. But it is far from sufficient. To go further, we must take ideas more seriously than Mr Walt and his fellow realists typically do. We need to ask why neoconservative ideas about the proper exercise of American power have won out among Republicans over the far more sober and sensible ideas of realists like Richard Luger, Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, and, yes, Stephen Walt.
Since the attacks of September 11th, neocons have found a receptive audience for their ideas within the Republican Party in Washington and among its populist base. That audience is receptive because the neocons are telling it what it wants to hear: America is both powerful and good—so powerful and good, in fact, that the ordinary rules of international relations need not and ought not apply to us. But neoconservatism doesn’t just encourage the “perpetual utterance of self-applause” to which Alexis de Tocqueville said Americans are always prone. It also gives voice to intense anxiety about America’s capacity to defend itself against a handful of stateless terrorists, which neocons judge, beyond all plausibility, to be an existential threat to the United States. Many Americans clearly share that anxiety while also finding comfort in the nationalist bravado that neoconservatism offers as an antidote.
Mr Walt laments the foolishness that would lead us to undermine relations with a major power (Russia) while vastly overreacting to the threat of Islamic extremism. I share his concern and dismay. But the source of America’s foolishness isn’t its strength—or, at least, not simply. The source is a constellation of ideas about American national identity that neoconservative intellectuals have masterfully marketed to a portion of the public which seems all-too-eager to swallow it whole. If we wish to see these ideas exercise less influence, it is our responsibility to provide a more persuasive and compelling alternative.