What does a National Conservative foreign policy look like in practice?

In this post, I linked to a New York Times op-ed by three leading National (or Common Good) Conservatives on foreign policy. The piece, called “Hawks Are Standing in the Way of a New Republican Party,” was written by Sohrab Ahmari, Patrick Deneen, and Gladden Pappin.

My post didn’t discuss the merits of the New York Times op-ed. Instead, I cited it as an example of what looks like a trend — the mainstream media using conservatives to attack other conservatives. I also said the op-ed is noteworthy for the authors’ acknowledgement that many conservatives whom the authors view as sympathetic to National Conservatism (attendees of the movement’s convention, Sens. Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio, etc.) don’t agree with them on foreign policy.

What about the merits of the “Hawks are Standing in the Way. . .” article, though? First, the article is meritorious enough to deserve being read. But second, I think this article by Klon Kitchen of the American Enterprise Institute effectively takes on three National Conservatives’ argument.

Kitchen views their argument as advocating a restrained U.S. foreign policy. That’s fine, he says, as far as it goes.

He finds, however, that the National Conservatives’ call for restraint is predicated on an “overly binary conception of US foreign and security policy,” in which crusading neoconservatives serve as pantomime villains. Moreover, in Kitchen’s view their foreign policy of restraint becomes incoherent when applied to specific foreign policy questions.

Regarding the Ukraine, for example:

The Biden administration has made clear that it will not be sending military forces to help repel a Russian invasion and is instead deploying troops only to existing NATO countries in the region as a political signal of where Putin’s aggression must stop (as a part of our treaty obligations to these countries). These actions are the bare minimum of meeting our “formal treaty obligations,” and yet even these seem too unrestrained for the authors.

Regarding China:

[T]he authors concede that “the United States has real differences with Beijing. We must punish industrial espionage. We must defend treaty allies. And we must seek a more balanced trade relationship.” But they quickly add, “we should also find areas of cooperation, exchange and shared interests, seeking to avoid any future wars and instead communicating with mutual respect for a civilizational equal.”

Let me start with that most heinous moral equivalency of China being our “civilizational equal.” These men indeed have an exceptionally low estimation of our nation’s current state if they believe that we have an “equal” in the People’s Republic of China—a nation currently imprisoning more than 1 million members of just one religious minority, a government who still implements a systemic program of forced sterilization and abortion, a country where political dissidents, journalists, and anyone who dares criticizes the government is jailed, tortured, or killed. . . .

But let us. . .engage the rest of their prescription for American policy toward China.

Regarding their call for “cooperation, exchange and shared interests,” what do they think the United States has been doing for the last 40 years? Our challenges with Beijing are not rooted in a lack of engagement or cooperation. They are the result of an uncritical assumption that by enriching that nation it will inescapably become more democratic.

This was dead wrong, and we now have a totalitarian government that is a near peer militarily and which is increasingly belligerent toward American interests. Even noted restraint advocates John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt admit that China “is likely to seek hegemony in Asia” and that the United States will need to “throw its considerable weight behind” a regional balancing effort.

Kitchen then quotes Michael J. Mazarr, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and author of an essay called “Rethinking Restraint: Why It Fails in Practice.”

A serious US effort to contest Chinese hegemony will demand significant and growing regional presence in an operationally demanding theater. It will likely require continued US troop deployments in Japan and Korea, deep engagement including extensive security cooperation activities with regional partners, and major financial commitments to counter Chinese economic statecraft.

In sum, if the United States intends to balance Chinese power, it is not clear how restrained it will be able to be. The global outline of restraint would begin to look not unlike a supercharged version of the “rebalance to Asia” announced by the Obama administration, with reduced posture in the Middle East and Europe but a renewed commitment to the Indo-Pacific region.

If that is all restraint amounts to in the most geopolitically significant region in the world, it would not imply much of a change.

Kitchen concludes:

I have tried to deal honestly and seriously with the proposals of Sohrab Ahmari, Patrick Deneen and Gladden Pappin. As noted above, their offerings fit within an established set of international relations theories that have been argued by serious people for a long time.

But, while they are serious, they are not compelling. Their entire argument is predicated on a neoconservative boogeyman, galloping around the globe wantonly sowing death and destruction. Such a notion is false and simply another manifestation of the authors’ proclivity for “us” versus “them” arguments.

They also fail to move beyond the soft edges of self-righteous rhetoric by not offering even the most basic practical proposals or accounting for what their implementation would require. They claim “restraint” for themselves and condemn all others as “crusaders.”

In short, last week’s essay in the New York Times is swollen with rhetoric but starving for applications to the real world.

I think Kitchen’s piece is fair and mostly valid.

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