LECTURE 3: THE RETURN OF GOOD FOREIGN POLICY
By Paul M. Weyrich and William S. Lind (source)
In 1951, one of America’s true conservatives, Senator Robert A. Taft, published a book titled A Foreign Policy for Americans. I think what Senator Taft wrote then applies to our own time as well. In discussing the purposes of American foreign policy, he said:
There are a good many Americans who talk about an American century in which America will dominate the world. They rightly point out that the United States is so powerful today that we should assume a moral leadership in the world . . . The trouble with those who advocate this policy is that they really do not confine themselves to moral leadership. . . In their hearts they want to force on these foreign peoples through the use of American money and even, perhaps, American arms, the policies which moral leadership is able to advance only through the sound strength of its principles and the force of its persuasion. I do not think this moral leadership ideal justifies our engaging in any preventive war . . . I do not believe any policy which has behind it the threat of military force is justified as part of the basic foreign policy of the United States except to defend the liberty of our own people.
Like the Founding
Fathers, Senator Taft valued liberty here at home above “superpower” status
abroad. The Founding Fathers understood that these two are in tension. To
preserve liberty here at home, we need a weak federal government, because a
strong federal government is the greatest potential threat to our liberties. The
division of powers between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of
government is intended to make decisions and actions by the federal government
difficult. But playing the great power game abroad demands the opposite. It
demands a strong federal government that can make decisions, including of peace
or war, quickly and easily. To a large degree, that is the kind of federal
government we now have.
But should we? In my view, the next conservatism needs to take a hard look at our foreign policy from exactly this perspective. Do we now have a foreign policy that requires a federal government, and particularly an executive branch, so strong that it is a danger to our liberties? If we do, then we have a fundamental contradiction at the heart of our foreign policy. Why? Because the most basic purpose of our foreign policy should be to preserve our liberties.
As Senator Taft understood, this touches on the most sensitive foreign policy question: to what degree should America be active in the world? Since his time, the whole Washington Establishment, the New Class, has come to condemn his position, which I think is the real conservative position, as “isolationism.” But the word is a lie. America was never isolated from the rest of the world. Rather, through most of our history, America related to the rest of the world primarily through private means, through trade and by serving as a moral example to the world, the “shining city on a hill.” That policy served us well, both in maintaining liberty here at home and in developing our economy. As Senator Taft wrote, “we were respected as the most disinterested and charitable nation in the world.”
Then, after World War II, we instead began to play the great power game, which the Founding Fathers had opposed. Because of the threat of Communism, that was necessary for a time. But when Communism fell in the early 1990s, we did not return to our historic policy. Rather, we declared ourselves the dominant power in the world, “the only superpower,” the New Rome as some would have it. We set off on the course of American Empire, despite the fact that empire abroad almost certainly means eventual extinction of liberty here at home.
The next conservatism needs a different foreign policy, a foreign policy designed for a republic, not an empire. It needs to recognize that the Establishment wants to play the great power game because it lives richly off that game. But the next conservatism is about throwing the Establishment out, not enriching it further. The next conservatism’s foreign policy should proceed from these wise words of Senator Robert A. Taft:
I do not believe it is a selfish goal for us to insist that the overriding purpose of all American foreign policy should be the maintenance of the liberty and peace of our people of the United States, so that they may achieve that intellectual and material improvement which is their genius and in which they can set an example for all peoples. By that example we can do an even greater service to mankind than we can do by billions of material assistance – and more than we can ever do by war.
Conservatives have always been for a strong national defense. America’s victory in the Cold War showed we were right on that point. Unfortunately, the world has not become a safer place since the Cold War ended. That means the next conservatism will also need to make a strong national defense part of its program.
However, conservatives need to recognize that the nature of the threats we face is changing. In the past, threats came from other states that were hostile to us - - Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan or the Soviet Union. But the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor, the events of 9/11, was not launched by any other state. It came from a non-state organization, al Qaeda. The next conservatism’s defense policy must take account of this fact. America must be prepared to defend itself against very serious threats that come from non-state organizations.
Let me add that what happened on 9/11 was only a beginning. Some people in Washington seem to think that we are now safe, because we have created a Department of Homeland Security and passed the so-called “Patriot Act.” Nothing could be further from the truth. We are going to get hit again, only harder. It may be with a nuclear weapon, smuggled inside a shipping container. It may be with something that could be even worse, a genetically-engineered plague. Creating new bureaucracies in Washington won’t stop terrorism, at least so long as we insist on poking our nose into every quarrel in the world.
The fact that our country faces a new kind of threat has two important implications. First, it may be possible to re-create a national consensus on defense, like that we had early in the Cold War. I am not certain that will be possible, but the next conservatism should at least try. It would be better for our country if conservatives and liberals could agree on maintaining a strong national defense. Personally, I don’t know any liberals who want suitcase nukes going off in American cities. The next conservatism should make clear that our door is open to liberals who want to put national defense above politics. We should prefer consensus, so long as it is the right consensus, over seeking partisan advantage on this issue. It is just too important to play politics with.
Second, I think conservatives need to reconsider how we approach building a strong national defense. In the past, during the Cold War, we accepted the idea that so long as we spent enough money for defense, our defenses would be strong. From what I see in Washington, I don’t think that is true anymore - - if it ever was.
History warns us that you can spend heaps of money on defense and still be weak, if you buy the wrong kinds of things. France spent billions on the Maginot Line between the World Wars, but the Germans just went around it.
Today, America spends more for defense than all the rest of the countries in the world put together. But that does not seem to make us more secure. Most of the $500 billion we spend for defense every year seems to go for weapons and strategies that may be outdated. We still keep hundreds of thousands of troops stationed in places like Europe and South Korea, long after the Cold War ended. We keep buying the kinds of tanks, planes and ships that may have made sense for fighting the Soviet armed forces but have little if any use in places like Iraq or Afghanistan. At the same time, our troops in those places go without basic gear they need to stay alive.
The next conservatism needs to recognize that the Pentagon is a government bureaucracy like any other government bureaucracy. Bureaucrats who wear uniforms behave the same way as other bureaucrats. They do what benefits their bureaucracy, not necessarily what works in the outside world. Conservatives need to be both supporters of a strong national defense and skeptics about the Pentagon, if the money America spends for defense is really to buy security against the new threats we face.
In the 1970s and 1980s, a bi-partisan group of Senators and Congressmen put together something called the Military Reform Movement. I supported that effort, and I think it may be time to start it up again. The next conservatism should recognize that military reform is necessary for a strong defense, not opposed to it.
My colleague Bill Lind is an internationally-recognized expert on military theory and doctrine. I have asked him to write the next column in this series, to explain in more detail the changes in war the next conservatism must address.
Paul Weyrich asked me to write this column to lay out a framework conservatives can use to understand the threats America faces. It is a framework I developed in the 1980s, when I was working closely with the United States Marine Corps on questions of military theory and doctrine. I call it "the Four Generations of Modern War."
Modern War began with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the Thirty Years' War. Why? Because in that treaty, the state established a monopoly on war. We now automatically think of war as something fought between states, using armies, navies and air forces with uniforms, ranks, and specialized equipment, designed to fight other state armed forces like themselves.
But before 1648, many different kinds of entities fought wars,
using many different means, not just formal militaries. Family, clans and tribes
fought wars. Cities and business enterprises fought wars. Religions, ethnic
groups and races fought wars. They did so using many different means, including
hiring mercenaries, employing assassins, offering bribes and making dynastic
marriages. For the most part, there were no standing armies; when war came, you
just hired people who would fight. In times of (relative) peace, those fighters
roamed through the countryside, taking whatever they wanted from anyone too weak
to resist them. In most places, ordinary people's lives and property were at
But around the middle of the 19th century, the battlefield of order began to break down. That created the central problem facing state militaries ever since: the military culture of order came increasingly to contradict the growing disorder of the battlefield.
Third Generation war, also called maneuver warfare, was developed by the German Army during World War I, not World War II, although most people know it as Blitzkrieg. The Germans broke with the First Generation culture or order and created a highly decentralized military that focused outward on results, not inward on rules and processes; prized initiative over obedience; and relied on self-discipline, not imposed discipline. One of the purposes of the Military Reform Movement was to move the American armed forces from the Second to the Third Generation, an effort which, sadly, for the most part failed.
Fourth Generation war is often called "terrorism," but that is more misleading than helpful. Terrorism is merely a technique, and Fourth Generation war is very much more. It marks an end of the state's monopoly on war and a return to war as it was before the Peace of Westphalia. Once again, many different kinds of entities, not just states, are waging war (gangs and invasion by immigration are two obvious examples). They use many different means, not just formal armies or navies. Fourth Generation fighters wear no uniforms, have no ranks, and are indistinguishable from civilians. Rather than engaging an enemy state's armed forces, they try to bypass them and strike directly against his civilian society, even his culture.
The framework of the Four Generations of Modern War offers the next conservatism a way to evaluate whether America's defense policies make sense. To the degree they move our armed forces from the Second to the Third Generation, and help them face the Fourth, they are helpful. But if they just provide fancier weapons for Second Generation war, they probably are not. If the next conservatism is to help the American state survive in the Fourth Generation 21st century, it needs to make adapting to Fourth Generation war our top defense priority.
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