Conservative Internationalism: Prospects and Pitfalls

Much has been made of the division between nationalists and internationalists within the Trump administration. But to set aside the Trump administration for a moment, one can fairly describe American foreign policy as being informed by both nationalist and internationalist sentiments. To simplify, I take nationalists to be those who believe the United States is best served by pursuing self-sufficiency, whereas internationalists believe that American national security and prosperity are best assured through a proactive shaping of the world political environment. While nationalist and internationalist labels are sometimes conflated with conservative and liberal views on foreign policy, Paul D. Miller’s American Power and Liberal Order makes the case that U.S. foreign policy has been, can be, and ought to be guided by “conservative internationalism.” By combining the realist’s emphasis on balancing power with the liberal internationalist’s attention to liberal norms and institutions, Miller aims to articulate a grand strategy that can safeguard American liberty, prosperity, and security well into the future.

In a brisk 283 pages, Miller, a National Security Council staffer during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies, and associate director of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin, clearly outlines and forcefully advances his argument. He defines grand strategy both “as organizing concept and as pattern of behavior,” which allows him to make two claims: that U.S. foreign policy has been defined by a grand strategy approximating conservative internationalism in the past, and that U.S. foreign policy as it is currently practiced lacks a coherent organizing concept.

For most of its history, Miller writes, U.S. foreign policy has been defined by its pursuit of secure liberal democracy at home and abroad. Policymakers have (if not always consistently) pursued this grand strategy, which uses the expansion of liberal democracy to alter the global balance of power and to create a more liberal international culture, on the basis of what Miller contends is an accurate belief: that U.S. security is indeed enhanced by democratization within an institutionalized liberal international order.

Miller assesses current dangers to the United States and the liberal international order, and he stresses threats in three categories: nuclear autocracies, armed nonstate actors, and the transnational jihadist insurgency. These threats, he writes, demand a vigorous response given the benefits of liberal order, and the United States can provide this response (without exhausting or bankrupting itself) by: 1) balancing against nuclear autocracies, 2) championing liberalism, 3) undertaking military operations against armed non-state actors, 4) investing in good governance abroad, and 5) securing the American homeland.

Much of this will sound familiar to those who have been paying attention to the various Republican academics, policymakers, and public intellectuals who have delineated similar visions of American foreign policy over the last 20 years or so (including those who have published their books since the 2016 release of Miller’s book). Charles Krauthammer outlined a similar approach to foreign policy (“democratic realism,” he called it) in a 2004 lecture, and there are echoes of Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan’s “Neo-Reaganite” foreign policy here. Miller is more directly building upon Henry Nau’s 2013 book, Conservative Internationalism, but in doing so, he also challenges and critiques some of the aforementioned authors. The end product is a standout within this crowded genre. Indeed, those currently working in the White House ought to put down Graham Allison’s most recent book and pick up Miller’s instead.

One of the book’s virtues is that it goes beyond the question of what constitutes an effective grand strategy and explicitly grapples with a thornier issue: What would a just grand strategy look like? Miller leans heavily on Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Christian Realism” as he thinks through these issues, and even if he cannot resolve the tensions between universal ideals and national interests, it is a pleasant surprise to see a scholar acknowledge and wrestle with the same moral dilemmas that often weigh on policymakers.

The book offers, moreover, a number of useful correctives to neoconservatives and to other conservative internationalists. This includes Miller’s assertion that the United States does not, in fact, have a special mission to spread democracy throughout the world. He contends that, yes, U.S. foreign policy should indeed spread liberalism and democracy because doing so helps ensure U.S. security; because, however, this is a national interest and not a God-given mission, American policymakers ought to encourage the growth of liberal democracy in “the cheapest, easiest, or most strategically relevant” places. This line of thought leads Miller to suggest an amendment to Nau’s framework, which is built on  the goal of increasing the number of democratic states in the world. Instead, Miller argues, the United States should focus on the proportion of global power possessed by democratic states without necessarily seeking primacy for itself.

American Power and Liberal Order concludes with another laudable feature: three chapters dedicated entirely to the question of how policymakers should seek to attain the five goals outlined above. Miller’s recommendations, as I have suggested, differ somewhat from those of like-minded scholars of U.S. foreign policy. Most notably, Miller urges a roughly tenfold increase of civilian foreign aid to about $400 billion a year, and he would like to see a reorientation of this aid to places where the United States can get the most out of the funding. “Democracy-promotion programs in Saudi Arabia and Equatorial Guinea,” he says, “are a waste of time and money,” which would be better spent “in the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Mexico, Eastern Europe, Turkey, and other influential [strategically relevant] regions with a real but fragile commitment to liberalism.”

Related proposals include reviving the shuttered U.S. Information Agency, the formation of an Eisenhower-style Planning Board within the National Security Council, and more coordination with the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping to improve the outcomes of stability operations, such as that in Afghanistan. These are just a few of the many “tweaks” Miller suggests making to U.S. foreign policy.

The book’s weaker aspects also merit attention here. Perhaps most conspicuously, American Power and Liberal Order suffers from trying to do too much in too little space. It is hard to know if the history of U.S. foreign policy fully supports Miller’s interpretation thereof when it takes only 16 pages to go from 1776 to the present. Similarly, some of the policy recommendations proffered in the last few chapters receive less attention than they probably should. The case for more spending on missile defense, a proposal that has sparked much debate since the 1980s, could surely be more persuasive if it received more than a single page, and when determining where to spread democracy, it is not entirely clear how policymakers ought to assess the reality of any given state’s commitment to liberalism. While this criticism may not be fair to Miller himself—I do not know the extent to which the publisher placed constraints on the length of the book—some of his ideas did not have room to fully develop.

More substantively, let us consider the democratic peace theory (DPT) on which Miller partly rests his argument. As he writes, “The democratic peace theory—that established democracies rarely, if ever, fight each other—is true, or true enough, to inform policymaking.” His case for (selectively) spreading democracy appears to stem from this belief in the validity of DPT as well as from a belief in the normative value of democracy.

Recent scholarship, however, suggests that we should be less sanguine about DPT (not to mention many earlier criticisms of this theory). The most compelling argument of this sort, I believe, comes from a recent article by Patrick McDonald—affiliated, as is Miller, with the University of Texas—that is worth quoting at length:

The robust empirical relationship between democracy and peace collapses once the consequences of great power politics and hierarchy on both regime type and peace are explicitly modeled. . . . The evolution of hierarchical relationships in the aftermath of World War I, particularly those constructed by the United States, has helped to generate what has been known as the democratic peace. These hierarchical orders help set the number of states in the system, shaped the regime types of subordinate states, limited their participation in military conflict, and altered the conflict behavior of a few outlying countries that play a disproportionate role in generating the statistical relationship between democracy and peace.

Beyond the relationship between democracy and peace, however, there is also evidence to suggest that in some important ways (and keeping in mind the limitations of the available data), democracies are not necessarily more virtuous or more effective than autocracies or mixed regimes. Political scientists have found, for example, that democracies are no more likely to win their wars than are autocracies; that democracies do not make more effective compellent threats;  that democracies do reduce tariffs but simultaneously increase non-tariff barriers; that democracies, in war, victimize civilians at the same rate as autocracies; and that democracies receive no advantage in bond ratings from credit-rating agencies. Supporting and spreading liberal democracy abroad may indeed provide some benefits to the United States and to the citizens of those countries, but the results may not be as uniformly positive as Miller suggests.

While the author uses DPT to support his argument, there are other niches in the scholarly literature that he criticizes. His book is, in no small part, a rejoinder to advocates of two other types of grand strategy. One target is liberal internationalism; the other is restraint, or retrenchment. (He sometimes equates the latter with realism, though I suspect that not all realists are restrainers and vice versa.) In crafting his variant of conservative internationalism, Miller seeks to extract what he sees as the strengths of these two—the restrainers’ focus on the “irreducibly important role of power in international affairs” and the liberal internationalists’ understanding of “how norms, especially liberal norms, shape the environment in which power is exercised.”

This effort at synthesis is worthwhile. But the notion that one can take the good from liberal internationalism and restraint “while avoiding their weaknesses” at times strays dangerously close to the sort of utopianism that Miller says he is trying to avoid. There are likely to be weaknesses in any grand strategy, and this book could use a more sustained discussion of its own potential pitfalls.

Some of the criticisms of liberal internationalists and restrainers nonetheless ring true. I agree, for example, that Barry Posen’s Restraint unnecessarily restricts its conception of and prescriptions for grand strategy to military affairs, and that G. John Ikenberry, a prominent proponent of liberal internationalism (or “deep engagement”), was surely overly optimistic when predicting that a post-Cold War United States would not provoke counter-balancing. As is usually the case when trying to highlight the commonalities among various authors, however, I imagine individuals from both camps will feel that their positions are being unfairly maligned or at least too narrowly associated with certain scholars.

Ikenberry and Posen, for example, are frequent stand-ins for liberal internationalism and restraint writ large. The discussion of liberal internationalism’s weaknesses thus feels like a recitation of things Ikenberry has gotten wrong. (If Miller were to update the book to cover developments since 2016, he might also want to address the increasingly public attempt on the Left to work out a “progressiveforeign policy as something distinct from liberal internationalism.) Restrainers, for their part, would surely dispute the characterization that theirs is a less “morally defensible” or “farsighted” grand strategy than conservative internationalism. A useful point of reference here is a recently released book (which originated with a 2011 article) by Joseph M. Parent and Paul K. MacDonald, which enters this debate by discussing the question of retrenchment by declining great powers. “Our headline finding,” as they put it, “is that states that retrench recover their prior rank with some regularity, but those that fail to retrench never do.”

Let me conclude by noting that the current administration’s foreign policy has been anything but conservative internationalist. Indeed, Miller was one of many former national security officials to sign an open letter during the 2016 campaign arguing that then-candidate Trump was not fit for office, and he has since frequently criticized President Trump’s nationalistic policies (on Twitter and elsewhere). The question, as Miller has acknowledged, remains whether future Republican leaders will stay the Trumpian course in foreign policy or whether they will revert to something more closely approximating conservative internationalism. If they opt for the latter, they would do well to read American Power and Liberal Order for a thoughtful and clarifying reminder of what a more disciplined Republican foreign policy could look like.