A Return to Hamilton and Roosevelt

Great Seal of the United States (obverse)

No image better captures the essence of conservative realism than that which graces all formal U.S. documents: the Great Seal of the United States. A united, vigorous nation, represented by the strength and grace of the bald eagle, ascends into the heavens to take its place among the nations of the Earth. Its commitment to the prudent management of power is depicted in its clutching the olive branch of diplomacy in its right claw, and in its left, the arrows of war. U.S. Government (Wikimedia Commons)

The Republican Party of 2014 is in a predicament. On the one hand, it is opposed by a lame-duck Democratic administration, many of whose policies might justifiably be described as “failed.” It is energized by massive grassroots populist waves unseen since the 1980s. And, it continues to attract some of the keenest political operators in the United States.

On the other hand, the party is below Democrats in national approval rating. In terms of legislation, it has largely behaved as the “Party of No” its critics deride it as. Perhaps most shockingly, largely due to its present deep internal divisions, the Republican Party has articulated several contradictory and rather arbitrary economic strategies, and no creative new foreign policy strategies.

This shortage of intellectual capital does not bode well for a party with such advantageous opportunities as the transition out of the “Old Blue Model Fordist” economy, the rapidly rising presence of socially conservative Hispanics in the Southwest, and the gradual commercialization of space. In each of these areas (and many others), the Republican Party could adapt its principles and policies to take advantage of present trends to better America’s future prospects; yet, in the party’s present state, it seems ever less likely that necessary reformers and insurgents will have a voice.

Currently, the GOP is internally divided, with each of its factions competing for the mantle of the legacy of Ronald Reagan. In truth, none of the various factions or leaders resembles the Gipper’s legacy either in policy or charisma. But even if any of them followed Reagan’s policy and philosophy, they could not save the Republican Party – different times call for different measures and different ways of thinking. Principles may remain the same, but policies never should.

Generally, there are two main camps struggling for control of the GOP, with innumerable interest groups and factions influencing their trajectories. In a nutshell, there are the main-line “establishment” Republicans, including John Boehner, John McCain, Chris Christie, and others occupying higher positions in Washington and elsewhere, while competing against them are the insurgent Tea Party-affiliated Republicans, including Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, and Marco Rubio, as well as many other relative newcomers to the political scene. The establishment Republicans tend to stick to the classic party line of deregulation, heavy-handed foreign policy, and moderate social conservatism; the Tea Party and the candidates it endorses tend to focus on fiscal responsibility and a cutback in the size of government. Thus, establishment Republicans are far more conciliatory towards Democrats than their Tea Party counterparts, who often brand themselves as the “true” conservatives battling a decadent national GOP establishment. Meanwhile, various subgroups, including religious social conservatives, foreign policy isolationists, and large corporate interests play prominent roles in the policymaking and discourse of the GOP, though none hold power themselves.

Theodore Roosevelt-Pach

Theodore Roosevelt. Pach Brothers (Wikimedia Commons)

The current squabbles over the true definition of “conservatism” exclude a tradition which has, for a century, been far underrepresented in American conservative discourse: the conservative realist tradition, best exemplified by Alexander Hamilton and Theodore Roosevelt. This pragmatic brand of political thought has proven to be as timeless as America’s ideals themselves, as it has undergirded America’s unity as a nation and its rise to power on the world stage in most of the country’s most transformative epochs. Though its followers have never held power for more than a decade or so, its opponents have always grudgingly (or unknowingly) adopted its most basic precepts and tenets in order to maintain America’s status as a united world power. It is therefore written into America’s political DNA as firmly as the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, though in most times it remains unspoken.

The core principles of conservative realism are the same core principles any would-be powerful nation-state must follow: a commitment to internal order and unity, effective external security, and sustainable national prosperity. These are the core elements of power – the meat of politics. The ligaments holding them together, especially a healthy civil society and social trust, are highly valued and praised by conservative realists, but are not the core of conservative realist philosophy. Meanwhile, conservative realists tend to have a particular view of how the three core objectives are to be attained and preserved: a strong and unitary government (as opposed to a confederation or an extreme decentralization) in order to maintain unity and order; a prudent, pragmatic realism based on the balance of power in foreign policy to secure an advantageous security situation; and effective government regulation, and investment in infrastructure and technology, to most efficiently and lucratively manage national resources. Though most political thinkers would not oppose the three primary objectives of conservative realism, many would oppose the means by which conservative realists seek to attain them.

Alexander Hamilton portrait by John Trumbull 1806

Portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbell, 1806. Washington University Law School (Wikimedia Commons)

Those following and practicing this mode of thought were effective in times of fracture and weakness, when the United States needed internal consolidation and external heft. The presidency of George Washington, and to a lesser extent that of John Adams, saw intense federal investment in infrastructure, along with unitary policies and a very pragmatic foreign policy. Thomas Jefferson and his successors, though they largely condemned such policies while out of office, invariably wound up practicing conservative realism when in office. The Jacksonian Revolution, and its subsequent weakening of the federal government and increasing regionalism in American politics, set the stage for the Civil War, regardless of Henry Clay’s neo-Hamiltonian policy proposals. Abraham Lincoln, another great nationalist, sought to save the Union by the same methods as those offered up by Alexander Hamilton decades before. America’s rise to prominence as a world power in the late 19th Century was largely due to the influence of statesmen and thinkers like Alfred Thayer Mahan, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Theodore Roosevelt, whose emphasis on pragmatic foreign policy and active economic involvement on the part of the federal government effectively created the America we know today. After the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, the movement died down quite a bit; however, come the Second World War, conservative realists in the State and War Departments crystallized their precepts for national security strategy, while corresponding trends in government, such as the establishment of New Deal programs, rendered basic manifestations of the imperatives for united governance and economic involvement essentially unquestionable. To a certain degree, the United States has been run on conservative realist principles for the better part of its history, if only explicitly at certain points.

Cowboy 20060805173639

Cowboy in Montana, 1910. Grant-Kohrs Ranch Historic Collection, bought by the National Park Service in 1972 (Wikimedia Commons)

In most situations in which conservative realists rose to power, the might of America increased, her cohesiveness was strengthened, and she reached new levels of prosperity. Moreover, she became increasingly capable of shaping and leading the liberal international order that has graced and cursed the world with ever-expanding trade, communication, and cultural exchange. In 2014, as America’s power stagnates while powers around the world rise and anarchy beckons, nothing could be more desirable than an America united at home, pragmatic abroad, and generating sustainable wealth.

There has been ceaseless talk about governmental and party reform in American politics. Most proposals have been doomed from the start, as they either long for the improbable (the redemptive electoral success of a moderate Third Party) to the downright impossible (the elimination of money from politics). Some pragmatic solutions have been offered, but none promise more than baby steps to remedy small aspects of America’s political dysfunction.

It is time for a practical and proven solution to be considered. The only executable events that have ever shifted the course of American politics have been party realignments. (Of course wars, elections, and economic crises have done their share, but for the most part, those happen on their own, impervious to human agency.) Why not create an insurgent force within a conservative party and strive to influence policy and politics from there, as the Tea Party movement has done? The difference between the Tea Party movement and the conservative realist voice, however, is that the Tea Party enjoys widespread grassroots support, while conservative realists think in line with many in the intelligence, diplomatic, and military establishments. Such populist support as the Tea Party enjoys would be crucial for the crafting of a national strategy based on alternative principles of politics; support from the foreign policy establishment, the most avowedly conservative realist faction in government today, is an essential starting point.

And ultimately, though Democrats would assuredly be involved, the GOP is at present the party most amenable to the proposals conservative realism would demand. Change ought to start from within.

Unfortunately, no major voices in the Republican Party today voice the aforementioned philosophy. Perhaps with time, as stress builds up on the system and around the world, new voices will emerge, and the true conservative realism will again shape our nation’s destiny.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

A Brief Reminder about International Law

 

There are always those Realists who, vigorously pursuing the intricacies of power politics, laugh down the very notion that international law holds any bearing over the foreign policies of states. The world, they assert, is inherently anarchic and international law tends to be a tool of subversion by dominant powers in those few cases when it has been effective. They point to the dramatic spectacles of the Versailles Treaty, and more laughably the Kellogg-Briand Pact, and note the increased occurrence of interstate wars in the 1990s when the international system was supposed to be at its height. At the moment many of them are busy writing editorials condemning the international-law-upholding rationale of a possible U.S. intervention in Syria.

While it is probably prudent statecraft to stare unblinkingly into the cold realities of the world, these Realists nonetheless are unfortunate in that they possess an unrealistic understanding of how international law works and functions. In fact, it has been around in varying forms since Thucydides, and disputes about it have usually taken up the majority of the resources of every country’s diplomatic services. Just as war and the balance of power are not final ends or goals in and of themselves, international law is more an aspect of the international system than its solution. Critically, it is nonetheless very real and those who disregard international law do a great disservice to themselves and their countries.

Like domestic law, international law is most effective in those affairs in which it is not noticed. The multinational leagues banning war are merely the sensationalist tips of the iceberg. An imperceptible web of treaties, norms, and gentleman’s agreements forms the bulk of international law, and the historical record seems to show that more often than not, states have followed it when it serves their interests.

It rarely comes to mind that immigration policies and trade arrangements between countries, while perhaps unduly influenced by disparities in power, are nonetheless conducted rather civilly. Exchange rates, tariff policy, immigration quotas and limits, border security, regulation of exports, and other similar affairs must be hashed out in agreements and molded to fit the realities of each bilateral relationship. In our modern world, many states must have diplomatic establishments able to regulate these low-level policies and many more with almost two hundred other countries around the world. And it is rare to see a newspaper flash reporting “Singapore and Liechtenstein embroiled in bitter tariff dispute!” though such conflagrations undoubtedly occur, largely  unbeknownst to the global public. It is true that states seem to let self-interest guide their conduct in these matters, especially given the immense domestic significance of foreign trade and immigration policies. But states wage these battles in fields of gavels and not of swords.

At a more systemic level, it must be noted that the existence of an international system, however anarchic, implies some advanced degree of international law. The celebrated Westphalian way of doing things enshrines sovereignty as prime, and is, in its essence, a method by which states can conduct their disputes without annihilating each other- a system of international law. It has developed standards by which foreign policy ought to be conducted, and while the “sausage making” is occasionally messy it is not nearly as messy as historical forays have been. The civilizations of the Middle East, East Asia, Central Asia, the Americas, and the Indian Subcontinent each appear to have developed their own international systems and methods of international law –before the Modern era – to regulate the relationships between their polities. I contend that the same qualities of these civilizations dramatically aided in the setting of norms and following of customs which led to relative stability. Nowhere is there less international law, and more chaos and destruction, than in the relationships between nations of widely separate civilizations. Where was international law in the Spanish and American conquests of the New World,? When a primitive people and their industrial conquerors face off, the Thucydidean dictum is validated, and the strong take what they can, while the weak accept what they must.

In sum, international law does not seem to stand on its own, but rather become imposed by cultural similarity and the eternal reality of the balance of power. As such, it is an organic phenomenon endemic to international politics and therefore must be included in any realistic analysis of why states do what they do. If we were entirely inclined to destroy each other at every given opportunity, we would have done so by now, and no laws could govern us. But international law, however mild, has affected us and guided the hands of our policy. Realists forget this fact at their own peril.