Neoconservative foreign policy is dead -- or so I infer from the first Republican presidential debate, held June 13 in New Hampshire. None of the seven candidates talked about the moral purposes of American power. Quite the contrary: Those who addressed the current bombing campaign in Libya opposed it as a distraction from "national interests." Those who talked about the war in Afghanistan spoke of getting out rather than winning. And none showed any eagerness to talk about foreign policy at all; the subject absorbed a bit under 10 percent of the two-hour debate.
How times have changed! Fifteen years ago, William Kristol and Robert Kagan wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs titled "Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy." They chided the conservatives of the day for embracing a "tepid consensus" on foreign policy consisting chiefly of Kissingerian realism, and proposed in its stead President Ronald Reagan's policy of "military supremacy and moral confidence." They argued that the end of the Cold War era had left America with unrivaled power; rather than retreating from a destiny thrust upon it by history, America should accept its new role as the "benevolent global hegemon." They concluded that the United States should marshal its military, diplomatic, economic, and, yes, moral force in order not only to preserve the global order but to make it more like our own: more democratic, more committed to free markets.
Kristol and Kagan wrote that "Republicans are surely the genuine heirs to the Reagan tradition." And in the 2000 election cycle, they found their candidate in the person of Sen. John McCain, an ardent proponent of democracy promotion abroad and a champion of American intervention in the Balkans. Gov. George W. Bush, by contrast, positioned himself as the realist advocate of a foreign policy of "interests" rather than "values." The terrorist attacks of 9/11, of course, changed all that: In his 2002 national security strategy, Bush called for the United States to preserve its position of military supremacy and spoke of using that strength, as well as diplomacy, to forge "a balance of power that favors freedom." In seeking to reshape the Middle East through regime change and democracy promotion over the next few years, Bush became the leader Kristol and Kagan had sought.
In 2008, John McCain returned to don the neo-Reaganite mantle. In the first of his debates with Sen. Barack Obama, McCain positioned himself as not only a military veteran who knew how to use American power but also a moralist who believed in using force to stop genocide, was prepared to stand up for democratic Georgia against autocratic Russia, and had called for "a league of democracies" to advance the cause of liberty. (It is worth noting that Obama criticized George Bush's recklessness, but not his, or McCain's, idealism.)
And who is the John McCain of 2012? No one. Neo-Reaganite foreign policy appears to have exhausted itself after only a decade. There are two extremely large and obvious reasons for this shift. First, the policy was given a good shot, and didn't exactly work out as planned. America wasn't greeted as a benevolent hegemon in Iraq or pretty much anywhere else, and regime change proved to be an extremely crude instrument for the shaping of a better world order. Reeling from the epic bender of the Bush years, the American public is in the midst of a foreign-policy hangover. The first question about the world from the New Hampshire audience was "Osama bin Laden is dead. We've been in Afghanistan for 10 years. Isn't it time to bring our combat troops home from Afghanistan?" The second was, Can't we start closing our military bases around the world? Can't we, in short, have less?