February 11, 2004,
Charles Krauthammer received the Irving Kristol Award or was it the other way around? at the American Enterprise Institute's annual dinner last night. He was introduced very generously by Dick Cheney, who noted that Krauthammer had worked as a speechwriter for one of his predecessors (Walter Mondale). My wife and I had the pleasure of attending, and of being seated next to a very proud college freshman named Daniel Krauthammer, who had flown in for the event and was, touchingly if unnecessarily, nervous for his father.
I must confess that as much as I admire Krauthammer, I listened to the first half of his speech with a sinking feeling. It was a nicely written speech, livelier than many of the speeches at previous years' events. But he seemed to be telling the audience only things it already knew: American military action does not require approval from France and China to have moral legitimacy; the United Nations is nearly useless; the war on terrorism cannot be treated primarily as a matter of law enforcement; treaties that amount to promises from dictators aren't worth the paper they're printed on; the example of Iraq is more valuable to us in dealing with countries such as Libya than any number of such treaties. But the speech then turned more interesting. (In what follows, by the way, I'm going from memory. I'm sure the AEI website will soon have the full text of the speech up.)
Krauthammer does not believe that it is wise to speak of an American "empire." No real imperial power begins its foreign adventures by looking for "exit strategies." We are a commercial republic, not an empire, but one that has more power than any empire ever has. Our global position means that isolationism is not an option. But liberal idealism is also a dangerous fantasy. Its ambition to replace the Hobbesian international order with a "Lockean" one is chimerical, if noble. In the service of that illusion, however, liberals are willing to abjure the use of force in the international interest and to see the American Gulliver tied down by international restrictions and multilateralist inhibitions.
Realism is a sounder guide to foreign policy, but it too has its limits. Krauthammer's criticisms here are the familiar ones: Realism reduces American interests to American power, and provides no noble vision capable of inspiring Americans. America is, after all, not just a nation but a proposition. In a battle between liberal idealism and realism, liberal idealism will win.
So Krauthammer turns to "democratic globalism," which is often, wrongly in his view, called neoconservatism. Democratic globalism teaches realism to have a broader view of American interests and to see the spread of democracy abroad as a "means," and not just an "end," of American foreign policy. I have to say that I found this comment mystifying. Shouldn't it be the other way around? Surely realism, at least in its non-academic varieties, is capable of seeing that the promotion of democracy can sometimes be in America's interests. Has Henry Kissinger ever denied that Americans would be better off if every nation in the world were a commercial republic? What realism is uncomfortable with is precisely the promotion of democracy as an end in itself.
Now our promotion of democracy cannot be indiscriminate. Krauthammer argues that we cannot promote democracy everywhere and sometimes need to ally ourselves with authoritarian regimes (he mentions Pakistan and Russia as examples). To find the criteria for when to promote democracy, he turns to "democratic realism" the final, victorious contender in the grand-theory-of-foreign-policy sweepstakes. We have to promote democracy where it is most important for American interests to do so. In the present circumstances, that is in the Middle East. The younger members of the audience, Krauthammer said, would have to deal with the rise of China and the demographic collapse of Europe. To make sure that they have the chance to deal with it at all, however, the current generation will have to win the war in the Middle East. The speech ended with Krauthammer's expression of confidence in our resolve to do that.
Now for my own two cents. I agree with almost all that Krauthammer had to say. I disagree with the idea that we are a "proposition, not a nation," but I think his basic argument can dispense with that claim. I would also quibble with some of his labels. But in principle, the prudent pursuit of democracy or, better, liberty in places where that pursuit will serve American interests is an idea that ought to be able to win the support of neoconservatives who are conservative and realists who are realistic.
In attempting a marriage of "neoconservatism" and "realism," Krauthammer is performing a very useful public service. One sometimes has the impression that the Bush administration cannot bring itself to make either the neoconservative or the realist case for its policies, and therefore splits the difference in an unconvincing way. Krauthammer instead synthesizes.
My major complaint about the speech and here I go back to that sinking feeling I mentioned above is that Krauthammer is insufficiently appreciative of the value of alliance. His basic formulation, that we should work in concert when we can and alone when we must, is obviously correct. But Krauthammer seems to have written off Europe, or at least old Europe. He shows no interest in searching for allies to replace the old ones: in, for example, James Bennett's idea of an "Anglosphere." The rhetorical mood is defiant, yearning to be able to act alone if we can. After all, as Krauthammer noted in one of the biggest applause lines of the night, it is America that is the line between civilization and barbarism.
Now America is certainly a force for great good in the world, and an indispensable one. But that does not mean that its force cannot be increased by allies. Moreover, we should think harder about Krauthammer's point about the democratic sustainability of a foreign policy. It may be absurd for an American to base his view of an American policy on whether Germany approves it or not. No doubt we should try to argue him out of it. But it is also simply a fact that there are plenty of Americans who take this view, which means that America will have a freer hand to do what it wants when it can bring such countries on board.
I am reminded of one of Krauthammer's odder columns in recent years, in which he complained that the administration was talking too much about the humanitarian benefits of the Afghan war. We had gone to war for our own interests, he said, not for the freedom of Afghan women. Now this was a kind of hypertrophic realism. From the principle that a nation should follow its interests it does not follow that it is in its interests always to make its case in terms of its interests. That is a truth that this administration appreciates too little, not too much.
Krauthammer's realism keeps him from stressing the arguments that will win allied support. His neoconservatism keeps him from thinking about the dangers of a European Union since it is superficially democratic. What conservative and neoconservative foreign policy has most lacked in the last three years has been a creative strategy for dealing with the European Union and rescuing what we can of the transatlantic alliance. Krauthammer's American triumphalism reduces the psychological impetus to devise one.