Contribution to symposium on the future of conservatism

U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Sarah Wolff-Diaz

Marine Corps Master Sgt. Christopher May, left, and Marine Corps Sgt. Mark Rawson carry an American flag to honor fallen Marines as they prepare to drag a 250-pound Zodiac raft across the finish line of the 4th Annual Recon Challenge on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., Sept. 15, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • What was true before the election about America’s proper place in the world remains true after the election.

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  • A strong US presence is a prerequisite for whatever international stability may exist and the benefits that flow from it.

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  • The US again faces the grave and rising risk that our hard-won heritage will be ignored or forgotten. @AmbJohnBolton

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What was true before the election about America’s proper place in the world remains true after the election, despite the lamentable outcome. A strong U.S. presence is a prerequisite for whatever international stability may exist and the benefits that flow from it, particularly the globalized trade and financial system. If America abdicates its role, either international disorder will increase or, what may amount to the same thing, other powers will enter the vacuum to pursue their own hegemonic aspirations. Neither situation is conducive to our interests. The Reaganite policy of “peace through strength,” by contrast, is designed precisely to avoid these outcomes, achieve our international objectives, and reduce the threat of armed conflict.

Today, however, we again face the grave and rising risk that our hard-won heritage will be ignored or forgotten. We have a neo-isolationist president who thinks world events are not as pressing as his domestic agenda, and a not inconsiderable paleo-isolationist element among conservatives. Neither apparently comprehends the inextricable linkages between foreign policy and domestic prosperity; neither seems terribly concerned by the continuing threat of global terrorism and nuclear proliferation; and neither wants to spend adequately on defense.

We have repeatedly encountered the delusion that turning inward saves money and reduces risk: after the Vietnam War; after the end of the Cold War in pursuing the illusory “peace dividend”; and today, “after” the global war on terror. To make matters worse, even following a century in which three world wars (two hot, one cold) were required to save freedom, and just over a decade after the first 9/11 terrorist attack, we are constantly told by political experts that Americans don’t care about foreign policy. This confluence of leftist and libertarian isolationists and political operatives confidently insists that the American people are too feckless to keep more than one idea (e.g., concern for the economy) in their heads at any given time.

But these prejudices all radically underestimate our fellow citizens. Of course, American strength is a necessary but not sufficient condition for protecting U.S. interests around the world, and of course military programs and expenditures must survive exacting scrutiny in difficult economic times. Nonetheless, Americans understand that national-defense budgets are not fungible with Medicaid or other entitlement spending, but undergird the basic survival and self governance of the country itself.

Conservatives must win two related arguments: the philosophical case that a globally strong America is the best way to avoid conflict, and the political case that effective advocacy of U.S. strength is a surrogate for the essential quality of leadership so lacking in many contemporary politicians. We need to reaffirm that conservatism prospers politically when it implements the three-legged stool analogy, encompassing traditionalist, free-market, and national security conservatives.

Conservatives largely ignored these truths during the 2012 campaign and also in the preceding four years. While much else remains to be done, we must first correct our own mistakes.

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