Neocons Don’t Understand the Conservative Foreign Policy Debate

Neocons Don’t Understand the Conservative Foreign Policy Debate

There is a debate about foreign policy happening within the “conservative movement.” The problem is that neoconservatives—who, maddeningly, still occupy the most prominent perches in public discourse—are actively misrepresenting what the debate is about.

The Washington Post recently ran one such piece—which is why I feel the need to beat this drum again—but it sure as hell wasn’t the first. Expect more of this. It seems like everyone gathered with brandy snifters in a backroom at the American Enterprise Institute and agreed on a singular way of talking about this new debate.

The way neocons tell it, the Republican foreign policy debate is about “internationalists versus isolationists.” That’s self-flattering B.S. whereby neocons present themselves as globally concerned and everyone who’s not them as isolationists.

As I’ve written at Duck of Minerva very recently, there are three camps: nationalist militarists; neoconservatives; and realpolitik restrainers.

Nationalist Militarists

a constituency that wants the benefits of empire without any of the obligations of its maintenance… These guys don’t go in for nation-building projects, are skeptical of alliances, and have no intention of waging war against Russia…But are invested in a clash-of-civilizations worldview that rationalizes inflating the threat from Iran and pursuing a racially charged rivalry with China. Crucially, and perhaps ironically, such foreign enemies of “civilization” have become a reason not to pursue Keynesian economic policies, full employment at home, or divestment from fossil fuels.


They are the most imperial instantiation of what it means to be liberal… In spite of their clash over Ukraine, the nationalist militarists and the neocons largely agree on China and defense spending. The neocons were among the first to call Sino-US relations a Cold War, for instance, and, recently argued that Biden’s $813 billion defense budget—which exceeded even Trump’s largest defense budget—was short-changing the Pentagon. Both also sought to torpedo the Iran nuclear deal.

Realpolitik Restrainers

It’s a straightforward power-prudential realism, and you see it among some paleocons, libertarians, and once-conservative moderates who were uncomfortable with the neocon foreign policy playbook… fine supporting deal-making with adversaries, worried about the risks of entangling alliances, and skeptical of military interventions of any kind.

I also did this little explainer in a recent episode of the pod:

I think the neocons are shook. They’re in a defensive crouch. They have no policy agenda that hasn’t been thoroughly discredited by the past 20 years. And the emergent fascist energy in the Republican Party is no longer on their side.

I don't know if the neocons are actively lying about their party's foreign policy debate, or if they just don't get it. The title of this post suggests I'm leaning toward the latter, because they also don't get how the neocon War on Terror gave us Trump, as Spencer Ackerman documented so well.

What concerns me, then, is that the failure to grasp this debate for what it is risks making the Democratic Party the new home of neocons (it was the original home of neocons, after all). I believe we're in a Popular Front-type moment, and that means we need a big political coalition. But we don't need military superiority, a national security surveillance state, arms races, or small wars--you know, all the stuff the neocons have championed the past 20 years.