Neo-Conservatism and its transformations

Posted in United States | 25-Oct-05 | Author: Norman Levine

Irving Kristol - one of the intellectual founding fathers.
Irving Kristol - one of the intellectual founding fathers.
The Neo-Conservative Movement, specifically in the area of international relations, achieved national visibility in America simultaneously with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Neo-Cons, as the Movement is referred to in the current American political dialogue, were not only ardent supporters of this military intervention to overthrow Saddam Hussein, but also campaigned for additional incursions against Iran, and Syria. However, the Neo-Con Movement predates the preventative war in Iraq by about a decade, and in order to understand both its place in American diplomatic thought, as well as the mutations it underwent, an historical overview is necessary. The Neo-Con Movement is a rupture in American thinking on international relations, and a survey of its evolution will clarify this scission. I divide this historical summary into four parts:1) THE TRADITIONS OF AMERICAN DIPLOMACY; 2) THE HISTORICAL PRESUPPOSITIONS; 3) THE MANUFACTURE OF PUBLIC CONSCIOUSNESS; 4) THE PRESENT GENERATIONAL DIVISIONS.


Modern American thought on foreign policy generally divides itself into THREE categories: A) Wilsonianism; B) Realism; C) Left Messianism.

A) Wilsonianism

Wilsonianism is an expression of the cardinal principle of American self-definition: America is endowed with the providential mission of spreading democracy throughout the globe. Based on the assumption that the United States in 1776 resurrected the democratic ideal of ancient Athens the American ideology saw the next phase of this democratic rebirth as the global expansion of democratic society. In World War I when Pres. Woodrow Wilson talked of the need to” make the world safe for democracy” he became a spokesperson for the providential mission of the country.

Wilson, however, situated this democratic universalism within the institution of a League of Nations. Wilsonianism was based upon multilateralism, or the expansion of democracy was to be accomplished within the confines of an international congress, the League of Nations, and was not a mission to be monopolized by a single country. The idealism of Wilson was associated with the principles of the right of self-determination, or the respect for national sovereignty was a dimension of the democratic faith.

The US president believed that the basis of peace was international law, and that international law was only legitimate when approved by the community of nations. Legitimacy was not a function of the will of a single state, but was implanted into a decision through an international consensus.

The differences between morality and law were apparent to Wilson. The hope of a democratic universalism was a moral claim, while the commitment to international law as an avenue to peace rested on the belief that the multi-national community could reach a consensus on the rules governing the relations between states.

B). Realism

This school of foreign policy is linked to the name of Hans Morgenthau, deceased professor of international relations at the University of Chicago. Anti-Wilsonian, Morgenthau maintained that states were not motivated by moral principles, but rather by self-interest, and the desire for self-preservation. The activity of states in the diplomatic chess game was best explained as alliances of self-interest, or states cooperated with each other, or formed unions, when their self-interests were correspondent. The chess master was that state who could manipulate, or form a network of self-interests thereby allowing that alliance of states to hold the balance of power.

C) Left Messianism

The Founding Father’s of the Neo-Con Movement were Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol.

During the Great Depression of the 1930's, and World War II, both Podhoretz and Kristol were Trotskyites, and their biographies are stereotypical of those who moved from the radical Left to the radical Right.

As members of the Trotskyite movement Podhoretz and Kristol adhered to the strategy of “permanent revolution.” Communism was a universalist creed promising the transformation of the world in terms of the Marxist ideal. Even though it defined itself as “scientific socialism” communism incorporated a global messianic belief, the religion that its world wide triumph would usher in a new testament of universal peace and justice.

Trotsky’s program of “permanent revolution” was a tactical device to achieve this global transformation. The industrial proletariat was the agency to fulfill this communist millennialism.

Paul Wolfowitz - an influencial advisor.
Paul Wolfowitz - an influencial advisor.
Trotsky did not believe in a truce with international capitalism, but saw continuous proletarian insurrection as the means to reach a communist utopia.

In 1917 the world divided between two antithetical utopias: Wilsonian democratic internationalism, and Communist proletarian internationalism. Both, nevertheless, sought to convert the world.

In the 1950's Podhoretz and Kristol embarked upon their migration from radical Left to radical Right, and this transition can be understand by employing an ends-means analysis.

Podhoretz and Kristol remained utopians. In terms of ends after they moved from their 1930's communism to their 1950's anti-communism they still retained their millennial hopes of world transformation. They continued to be political idealists and moralists, and were true to their youthful dream of political messianism.

However, the means to implement this global conversion were totally altered. Neo-Conservatism was born when Podhoretz and Kristol substituted bourgeois democracy for the industrial proletariat, and market capitalism for the destruction of private property. Neo-Conservatism had its genesis when Podhoretz and Kristol employed the means of neo-liberal capitalism and constitutional democracy to achieve the goal of political utopianism.

As evidenced by Podhoretz and Kristol Neo-Conservatism is a counter-Bolshevism. Leninists and Trotskyites dreamed of transfiguring the globe by means of a proletarian conquest, while Podhoretz and Kristol dreamed that the earth could be morphed by means of bourgeois democracy. Lenin and Trotsky spoke the language of the Bolshevik left, while Neo-Conservatism uttered the vocabulary of an inverse Bolshevism. The goal of a metamorphosis could be attained via the strategy of the Left, or of the Right.

Not only did Podhoretz and Kristol bestow their intellectual estate to the Neo-Cons, but also to their genetic posterity. Podhoretz’s son, John, and Kristol’s son, “Bill”, are today’s leading advocates of the Neo-Con Movement.

2) Historical Presuppositions

The historical conditions for the emergence of the Neo-Con Movement arose when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, for that was the moment when the earth moved from a bipolar to a unipolar paradigm.

The Bipolar Paradigm was coincident with the rise of the Cold War, which Irving Kristol refers to as World War Three. With the collapse of Hitlerism two relatively equal powers were the recipients of global domination, the Soviet union and the US. These two powers divided the domination of the globe because of their possession of nuclear weapons, and their vast conventional military assets. The Cold War was synonymous with bipolar domination, for neither adversary would risk challenging the other because the threat of unacceptable nuclear damage.

The diplomacy of the bipolar world were the policies of containment, and detente. First articulated by George F. Kennan the policy of containment argued for both acceptance and limitation, or as long as the Soviet Union was constrained to its 1947 borders the US would recognize its sovereignty. The policy of detente, the brainchild of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissenger was a rationalization of nuclear terror, the attempt to achieve a balance of world power through the equality of nuclear power.

The diplomacy of a bipolar world also entailed multilateralism, or US membership in international organizations. Since warfare between the US and Soviet Union was excluded, the United nations, or other international bodies, were seen as pacific assemblies in which each side and its allies could arrive at compromises.

American multilateralism lasted from the end of World War II to the rise of the Neo-Cons, and the presidency of George Bush II. . This 53 year reign of multilateralism was a continuation of Wilsonian internationalism. Engagement in, cooperation with, multi-national organizations was seen as an indispensable way to mold an international majority, or global legitimacy, and this was the heritage of Wilson.

The evaporation of the Soviet Union ended the bipolar world and began the Unipolar Imperium, and for the sole remaining superpower the world existed as an open frontier for the expansion of American interests.

The Neo-Con Movement was a reaction to the Unipolar Moment, and it set forth a program on how the US should respond to this unique historical condition. No other empire in human history, Roman, Alexandrian, British, could claim such mastery over the destiny of the globe.


Bill Kristol - continuing the work of his father.
Bill Kristol - continuing the work of his father.
The apparatus of persuasion for the Neo-Cons began to take shape in 1997 when “Bill” Kristol founded the Project for the New American Century(PNAC). Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Elliott Abrams were co-founders, and with the exception of Kristol, all these men were appointed to vital positions in the Bush II administration. The PNAC acts as a policy planning committee for the Neo-Cons.

The Neo-Con engines of persuasion encompassed some major think-tanks in the K Street corridor of Washington, DC. The American Enterprise Institute is the major policy research center for the movement, and the Heritage Foundation is also the source of important policy papers underwriting the Neo-Con ideology.

Policy think-tanks play an enormously important role in the shaping of American public opinion. Research scholars working in these institutes are prolific and they not only publish articles in the print media but also monographs. Many of the think-tanks also operate their own publishing houses, and so the work of a resident scholar easily appears in book form. TV talk shows also have recourse to think-tank academia as discussants on their news analysis programs. Staff from the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation are recurrent faces on TV public affairs shows, and Neo-Con ideology receives prime time visibility.

The ideological program of the Neo-Cons is also disseminated through an extensive network of monthly and weekly opinion journals. COMMENTARY is the original Neo-Con tribune. Edited by Norman Podhoretz for several decades COMMENTARY remains a flagship for Neo-Con thought. Newer monthly additions to the Neo-Con ideological turbines are the PUBLIC INTEREST and the NATIONAL INTEREST, which was edited by Irving Kristol.

Competing for the weekly market is the WEEKLY STANDARD which is edited by “Bill” Kristol.

Journalistically, there are many Neo-Con columnists who write editorials for daily newspapers. “Bill” Kristol in addition to editing the WEEKLY STANDARD, also writes editorials which attain wide circulation in nationally distributed newspapers. Charles Krauthammer, one of the brightest of the Neo-Cons, also writes for national daily newspapers.

In terms of the TV media the views of the Neo-Cons is given ample exposure on Fox News. Owned by the media mogul Rupert Murdoch Fox News provides the Neo-Cons with abundant exposure to mass audiences.

In addition to researchers, middle-brow intellectuals, and the popular media, the outreach of the Neo-Cons extends to administrative officials. Before becoming President of the World Bank, Paul Wolfowitz was the Undersecretary for Defense. Before leaving government employment because of the taint of financial impropriety, Richard Perle, culminating a long career in government, was a member of the Defence Policy Board, an advisory group to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton was previously the Undersecretary of State for Nuclear Non-Proliferation. Bolton is a protégé of the retired US Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, and one of the major items of Helms political agenda was the serious weakening of the UN. Neo-Con influence extended from the battle of weltanschauung to the pragmatism of national policy.

In the warfare of ideas the world view of the Neo-Cons is armed with powerful instruments of communication. The apparatus of persuasion it has installed guarantees that its system of ideas is a presence in the battle for public opinion.


a) The First Generation

The theory of the Unipolar World was initially proposed by Prof. Francis Fukuyama in his 1992 book “The End of History.” Prof. Fukuyama cannot be classified as a Neo-Con, but his book was the original presentation of the possibilities that opened for the US in a Unipolar World. Today Prof. Fukuyama, a Japanese-American, is on the faculty at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, which is not a Neo-Con affiliated institution.

“The End of History” formed the basis of the Neo-Con philosophy of international affairs. The book was a paean to capitalist and democratic triumphalism. Building on the premise that communism had evacuated the world (leaving aside the question of the People’s Republic of China) Fukuyama asserted that capitalism and democracy were heirs to an endless open space into which they could expand. The title of the book, “The End of History,” suggested that the termination of the Bipolar World witnessed the end of historical development through the ultimate victory of democracy and free markets.

Francis Fukuyama - the end of history?
Francis Fukuyama - the end of history?
Fukuyama’s discovery of the open frontier for democratic imperialism assumed more pragmatic forms in the work of Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle during the 1990's. Wolfowitz disagreed with the decision of Bush I during the 1991 Gulf War not to advance on Baghdad and overthrow Saddam Hussein. In 1992 he helped write, along with Dick Cheney who was then the Secretary of Defense, a report arguing that the US should use the unipolar moment to preclude “the emergence of any potential future global competitor,” and throughout the 1990's Wolfowitz was an unyielding advocate of “regime change” in Iraq. In 1998 Richard Perle helped draft a document with an Israeli research center specializing in defense policy that called for the ousting of Saddam Hussein. Neo-Con policy planners were already situated in the government before America’s invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003. Neo-Con diplomatic pragmatics were circulating in government circles during the presidency of Bush II.

The First Generation of Neo-Con ideology was essentially outlined in two books. “Bill” Kristol published “Present Dangers” in 2000, and Robert Kagan issued “Of Paradise and Power” in 2003. Kagan is a research fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which is not a Neo-Con institution.

In his book “Present Dangers” “Bill” Kristol writes about America’s “benevolent hegemony,” and he meant the providential joining of morality and power. The monopoly of world power by the US will be used to globalize democracy, and the globalization of freedom is a moral good. The US was the beneficiary of a unique historical moment which must not be squandered, because through its exercise of raw power it was to fulfill the moral goals of extending liberty.

In order to achieve this “:benevolent hegemony” the US must use the tools of “regime change.” If necessary the US must act unilaterally. It must place its national mission above the interests of multilateral institutions such as the UN: It must not seek international legitimacy. Wherever necessary it should use the instruments of both preemptive and preventive wars to effect “regime change”. A “benevolent hegemony” was morally sanctioned to act outside international law for the purposes of democratic universalism.

“Present Dangers” did not see the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as the final war in the campaign to democratize the globe. In the closing sentences of the book “Bill” Kristol wrote of the need to carry the war to “Iraq and beyond,” or he espoused a “permanent” war to evict the Shi’a in Teheran, and the Baathists in Damascus.

Robert Kagan’s book was a counterpoint toward European criticism of the Neo-Cons, and the Bush II Doctrine. Concerned about the rupture between the US and its European allies Kagan attempts to justify American actions in Iraq on the basis of its world domination. “Of Paradise and Power” is a study of the different mentalities that currently operate on the different shores of the Atlantic.

Europe was the primary battlefield of World War I, and World War II, and the Cold War, and as a casualty of all these conflicts the contemporary European mentality wishes to resolve conflicts within the procedures of international organizations. Europe became Wilsonian after Bismarck, because it suffered from the unilateralism of Hitler and seeks to transcend poisoned nationalism through multilateral institutions. The US is today a colossus that carries the formidable burden of making decisions that will shape the world. It has global responsibilities and since it is today the center of power it must act. Unilateralism, “regime change,” preemptive and preventive warfare are necessary tools of this global responsibility, and ones which Kagan thinks the US must employ.

Unilateralism is not limited to American military intervention. It also means American withdrawal from international bodies.

In his article, “Does America Need the UN?”, Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the Neo-Con American Enterprise Institute, argues that America’s presence in the UN is a deterrent to the fulfillment of America’s “benevolent hegemony.” Neo-Cons view the UN as a hindrance to the realization of US global leadership and although they do not call for the disbanding of the UN they do call for its weakening. The UN is the central target for the Neo-Con assault on multilateralism, and John Bolton, who is presently the US Ambassador to the UN, is a strategically placed voice calling for the curtailment of UN authority.

Neo-Cons also reject American entry into the International Criminal Court, the signing of the Biological Weapons Convention, the Land Mines Treaty, and the Kyoto Accord. Neo-Cons also applauded when Bush II did not renew the ABM Treaty with Russia thereby permitting the US to continue to develop its anti-missile strategic defense system.

The doctrine of unilateralism is used by the Neo-Cons to justify American intervention in Iraq, and it is also used to rationalize America’s retreat from international commitments. Just as the US seeks to reshape the Middle East through its invasion of Iraq, so it seeks to follow its own national interests in terms of international criminal law, environmental issues, nuclear and biological weapons. The Neo-Cons favored the annulment of must multilateral laws that are at variance with American interests, and defended America’s right to set its own international procedures.

This First Generation of Neo-Conservatives, the Paleoconservatives, established the major theoretical principles of the Movement. Its world view has unleashed a flood of concepts that revolutionized traditional American thought on international relations. Responding to the emergence of a Unipolar World they have compelled Americans to rethink their diplomatic mission in the world, and placed a new agenda for American diplomacy before the American people.

Charles Krauthammer: "French opposition to the USA is not about Iraq but about who runs the world."
Charles Krauthammer: "French opposition to the USA is not about Iraq but about who runs the world."
B) The Second Generation

The persistence of the Iraq insurgency forced the Movement to address the question of “nation building.” When American armies initially invaded Iraq the administration of Bush II stated that US forces would be greeted as “liberators,” but the protracted guerrilla warfare now in process altered the dialogue: The major question was no longer should America invade, but how to build a stable nation in Iraq.

Two schools of thought divided the Movement, democratic globalism and democratic realism. Although the Movement is still relatively young the Paleoconservatives embrace democratic globalism, and the Second Generation abides by democratic realism.

Irving Kristol claims that the 20th Century witnessed four world wars: The first was 1914, the second was 1939, the third was the Cold War and the fourth is the War on Terror, and Iraq was an inseparable part of the War on Terror.

Kristol I puts forth a 21st Century version of democratic Manifest Destiny. Just like it was Manifest Destiny for the US to reach the Pacific Ocean in the 19th Century, so it is today’s American Manifest Destiny to seed democracy around the world. Based upon this messianic view of American purpose, Kristol I is committed to the school of democratic globalism because he thinks the US should carry its intervention beyond Iraq to Iran and Syria.

Charles Krauthammer represents the school of democratic realism. Responding to the difficulties of “nation building,” reacting to the diplomatic isolation of the US, Krauthammer accepts that American millenialism must adjust to the realism of the international alignment of power. Krauthammer does not surrender to the missionary goal of democratic Manifest Destiny, but realizes this vision must be tempered by the realities of power. Democratic realism does not agree that World War IV calls for a subsequent invasion of Syria and Iran, but aware that the guerrilla war in Iraq will probably continue for at least five more years advocates a more tempered assessment of the possibilities of future intervention. Democratic realism is an adjustment on the part of the Movement to the fact that American interventionism would give rise to an international Islamic anti-American jihad.

The perils of “nation building” also affected the thought of Francis Fukuyama. Although never a Neo-Con, Fukuyama in 1992 first signaled the opportunity for democratic universalism created by a Unipolar World, but his recent writings are critiques of Neo-Con ideology.

Fukuyama voted for Kerry in 2004, and his new book, “State Building,” dissects the conditions necessary for “nation building.” Among the more important factors for the construction of a democratic state is a broad middle class, and an agreement to abide by the legal and constitutional procedures proscribed in secular law. According to Fukuyama Iraq does not possess these prerequisites for a democratic state and so he is pessimistic about America’s “nation building” in Iraq.

Fukuyama steps forth as a critique of the theory of democratic universalism. It is wrong to assume that a democratic state can be imposed from above by an imperialist power, no matter how well intentioned, can surgically implant a form of government alien to the traditions of an existing nationality. Conversely, certain preconditions and socio-culturo-economic requirements must be in place before a democratic state will be accepted. Fukuyama is an opponent of the Neo-Cons because they defend an external imposition, while Fukuyama demonstrates that democracy will take root only when the requisite internal conditions are present

The dilemma of the Neo-Con cabal arises from the contradiction between morality and law. The Movement is driven by an ethical imperative, the global conversion of the world to democracy. But this moral mission springs from different sources than the principles of law. In order to arrive at laws that regulate the behavior of nations such laws must be legalized, or there must be a consensus among states. Morality is the result of internal convictions, but legitimacy is the result of constitutional procedures. The Movement is driven by a sense of moral superiority, while international organizations regulate themselves in accordance with parliamentary majorities.