What do the ideas of neo-cons explain?
Building on Tom Farer’s insights, my friend Chris Borgen asks if “what we have is more like a grid with varying degrees of multilateralism and unilateralism as well as degrees of interventionism and noninterventionism.” Chris’s grid helps to explain intervention, i.e. when and how to intervene. He implies that policy is made to reflect and implement ideas about the relationships between and among states and the role that force plays in shaping them. Now, historians and social scientists have been trying to explain the expansion of the American empire for decades. Their insights are frequently based on sophisticated methodologies – tested with historical case studies in which the passion associated with current events has had some time to cool. Many traditional historians will agree with Chris that the power of ideas explains foreign policy.
For instance, my first major article examined interpretations of the War of 1812. In the late 19th century, proponents of a more aggressive foreign policy rewrote the history of this previously obscure war to illustrate the importance of power projection. Historians such as Theodore Roosevelt and Alfred Thayer Mahan used their own new interpretations of the earlier conflict to establish an inexorable law of international relations: sea power = national greatness. In 1898, as acting Secretary of Navy, TR issued orders for the new navy to sink the Spanish fleets, thereby opening the doors to the conquest of Cuba and the Philippines. He converted his scholarly theories into self-fulfilling prophecies. Here is a fine example of the power of ideas to shape policy. Or is it?
Let’s pause the discussion for a moment to ponder some alternative views.
Ideas, Interests or Intuition?
Much like Tom and Chris, I have generally ascribed aggressive foreign policies to the power of ideas: including Manifest Destiny, navalism, liberal internationalism, la Mission Civilisatrice, and even the Four Freedoms. However, it is important to understand that other historians and social scientists have derived equally compelling but different kinds of explanations for aggressive foreign policies.
Materialist historians have explained America’s foreign adventures in terms of greed. William Appleman Williams viewed them as intended to preserve “a capitalist frontier safe for America’s market and investment expansion.” Others point to religion and quote William McKinley’s account of his decision to annex the Philippines in order to Christianize (the mostly Catholic) Filipinos.
Social psychologists, such as Jon Haidt, would take us still further from the notion that foreign policy is driven by rational thought – by ideas. For Haidt, people make most decisions based on intuition, and then build a rationale that supports their “gut feeling.” I suspect that Tom Farer would agree that this perspective goes some way to explain President Bush’s foreign policy – and perhaps the roar we heard emanating from the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul last night.
So, how are these perspectives helpful? As lawyers, we are accustomed to placing motive and intentions into a box. We can more or less agree about what is knowable, based on fairly well established standards of proof. But when we seek to explore why a group of people establish and implement a long-term strategy, we’re confronting new kinds of issues about what is knowable and what is provable.
I think that Tom is fully aware of these limitations. Early in his book, he describes George Bush’s view of the terrorist threat, noting limits in his own ability to understand the President’s perspective. “To the President, if we take him at his word, this conflict, like the preceding one against the Soviet Union, is an ideological battle of world-historical dimension” [at 2, emphasis added]. Tom is saying 1) the President articulates the issue in terms of ideas. 2) We may or may not believe the President intends to tell the truth about his perspective. And 3) the President may or may not fully comprehend why he views the conflict this way. Tom is right to note these limitations.
To uncover the essence of the neo-cons’ foreign policy, therefore, I’d argue we need look beyond their words. What we can learn about their material interests, their religious views, and their subconscious may actually provide more enduring explanations.