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Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

Pax Americana—What’s the Alternative

(In the interests of explaining the logic of the foreign policy agenda developed by the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) and of sparking...

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(In the interests of explaining the logic of the foreign policy agenda developed by the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) and of sparking informed discussion about an alternative agenda, Tom Barry offered to present a defense of the neoconservative policy agenda developed by PNAC. The defense was presented at the Brussels Tribunal, held April 14-17, 2004, in Brussels, Belgium. For more information about the tribunal, which targeted PNAC, visit: www.brusselstribunal.org.)

Where are the internationalists—on the left or the right—who say that absolute deference to national sovereignty should be the baseline for multilateral relations?

Where are the internationalists who say that foreign and military policy should be guided by national interests and realpolitik–rather than by a strong sense of moral clarity?

Where are the internationalists who believe that traditional diplomacy is the only effective instrument for advancing and protecting international cooperation and peace?

And where are the internationalists who believe that the United Nations can and will always act expeditiously and effectively to protect our mutual security and our common rights?

If internationalists who hold such beliefs are among us, let them cast the first stones against PNAC. But in doing so, they should understand that PNAC is not alone in its conviction that U.S. military, economic, diplomatic, and technological dominance require that Washington exercise global leadership. Neither does PNAC stand alone in its belief that global leadership should be guided by moral clarity, or in the belief that the U.S. government should use its superior military power to ensure world order and peace. These are convictions that are widely shared in the U.S. political community and by the U.S. public.

Appreciation Not Aspersion Instead of accusing the neoconservative internationalists of high crimes, we should be grateful that they were bold enough in the 1990s to tackle the most pressing question in international affairs—namely how to ensure that U.S. power and leadership have moral foundations and are used responsibly. PNAC stands accused by many liberals and progressives of laying out a set of principles and policy recommendations. Yet these principles and policies are based on universal values and on the reality of power relations in the post-cold war world. Rather than casting blame on PNAC, we should instead express our appreciation for its efforts to formulate a new foreign policy agenda—one that provides intellectual orientation to the new era in international relations and offers a practical roadmap to guide the international engagement of the sole superpower. Moreover, it’s an agenda that is explicitly tied to the defense and promotion of universal values.

In its 1997 Statement of Principles, PNAC expressed this challenge as follows: “As the 20th century draws to a close, the United States stands as the world’s preeminent power. Having led the West to victory in the Cold War, America faces an opportunity and a challenge: Does the United States have the vision to build upon the achievements of past decades?” Across the political spectrum in the 1990s, the end of the cold war and the rapid pace of globalization combined to cast the history of U.S. foreign policy into a memory hole. But PNAC’s charter signatories insisted that we not forget the lessons of history—the fundamental role played by the United States in leading the Allies to victory in two world wars and establishing the norms and institutions that finally brought political and economic order to the 20th century.

As PNAC declared: “The history of the 20th century should have taught us that it is important to shape circumstances before crises emerge, and to meet threats before they become dire. The history of this century should have taught us to embrace the cause of American leadership.”

As a politically engaged policy institute that aimed to address the lack of a post-cold war vision for international affairs, PNAC should be commended, not condemned. Its critics should consider the neoconservative institute as a model for successful agenda-setting. Indeed, PNAC’s detractors only highlight their own failures as political analysts and actors when they attempt to defame the Project for the New American Century.

Getting Back on Course In the 1990s, while other political sectors were floundering and unable to resolve contradictions in their own principles and policies, PNAC boldly charted a new course for U.S. international engagement. Four years into the “New American Century” heralded by PNAC, the traditional right, the liberal center, and the left have yet to formulate an international affairs agenda or ideology that approaches the cohesiveness and clarity of PNAC’s principles and policy framework. And these political pundits, 15 years after the end of the cold war, have yet to address the fundamental question about the responsible exercise of what William Kristol and other neoconservatives call “American preeminence.”1 In keeping with the historical practices of the left, the self-righteous critics of the “New American Century” agenda are content in dishing out indignant condemnations of U.S. policy and offering their utopian dreams as a substitute for prescriptive policy analysis.

In their 1996 essay in Foreign Affairs, William Kristol and Robert Kagan called for a “broad, sustaining foreign policy vision” that would fill the gap left by the realists, isolationists, anti-globalizers, and “peace dividend” progressives.2 The next year they founded the Project for the New American Century to flesh out the principles and policies of such a vision. While these neoconservatives unflinchingly set about forging the intellectual and policy framework of a new foreign and military policy for the world’s most powerful nation, traditional conservatives, progressives, and liberals floundered.

And what was the counterpart international affairs agenda of progressives in the 1990s? Although instinctively and historically anti-interventionist, many progressives in the 1990s advocated so-called humanitarian interventionism around the world—in Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Rwanda, and Kosovo. There was also some support for U.S. political aid to foster democratization in countries ranging from Cambodia to Mexico to the former Yugoslavia. For the most part, however, progressives ignored the conundrums and challenges of traditional foreign policy and security issues, concentrating instead on foreign economic policy. It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that in progressive circles before September 11, 2001, economic globalization was treated as a synonym for international affairs.

Kristol and Kagan observed that conservatives were badly “adrift” in foreign policy—swept back and forth by currents of “America First” isolationism and nationalism and by tides of a morally bankrupt Kissingeresque realism. In PNAC’s assessment, the leaders of political parties as well as Americans in general were ready to unshoulder the vast responsibilities that U.S. leadership had assumed at the end of the Second World War and instead concentrate energies either at home or in furthering U.S. economic interests abroad. PNAC aimed to wake up America from its “return to normalcy” slumber, to substitute reality for dreams about a globalized future, and to provide principles and a vision that would shape a new foreign policy while energizing the American public (and a revitalized Republican Party leadership team) behind the moral foundations of its New American Century policy.

However, it wasn’t until early 2002 that liberals and progressives began waking up to the fact that there were major, indeed radical, differences between the foreign and military policies of the George W. Bush administration and that of his predecessors. Despite public statements by PNAC associates, many of whom became high officials in the Bush administration, and the aggressive anti-multilateralism demonstrated during the administration’s first year, most observers failed to notice that Washington’s new national security strategy was a policy foretold.

Moral Clarity First Some criticize PNAC’s foreign and military policy agenda as being narrowly tied to U.S. economic interests. This is not a fair criticism, at least in light of PNAC’s published analysis and policy recommendations.

In its Statement of Principles, PNAC calls for a foreign and military policy driven by morals and values, not by profits. The statement complained that in the post-cold war administrations, “the promise of short-term commercial benefits threatens to override strategic considerations.” Moreover, PNAC observed that America and the world needed “a foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American principles abroad; and national leadership that accepts the United States’ global responsibilities.” This new foreign policy should be one defined by its “moral clarity,” declared Kristol and Kagan in 1996.

In marked contrast to foreign policy realists, PNAC has declared its commitment to reestablishing the United States as a “benevolent hegemon”—a global power whose leadership serves not only its own national interests but those of the entire world. Nowhere in the PNAC policy blueprints or in its statement of principles—or, for that matter, in the White House’s national security strategy document of 2002—does one find the argument that U.S. foreign and military policy should always serve the goal of securing U.S. economic dominance.

In their Foreign Affairs essay, Kristol and Kagan called for the “remoralization of American foreign policy,” arguing that only a morally based foreign policy could win the support of the American people. Moreover, a moral makeover of U.S. foreign policy would contribute to the “remoralization of America at home.” In public documents by PNAC and its associates, the moral fundaments guiding their foreign policy vision are those declared by America’s founding fathers. And they make the strong argument that the “principles of the Declaration of Independence are not merely the choices of a particular culture but are universal” or, as the founders themselves asserted, “self-evident” truths.

In its moral moorings, PNAC’s foreign policy agenda has far more in common with the international engagement principles advocated by the traditional left and progressives than it does with the tenets of the traditional rightists or foreign policy realists. Because of the moral principles on which it is based, the internationalism described by PNAC’s ideologues is eminently more defensible than the foreign policy objectives of European governments that prioritize commercial interests. If the Pax Americana envisioned by PNAC is regarded as an empire by its critics, then it is a new kind of empire, one driven at least as much by a moral mission as by national economic interests. As Kristol and Kagan advised in 1996, “The United States should not blindly ‘do business’ with every nation, no matter its regime.”

The virtue of American power is that it is morally anchored. Henry Luce, who coined the term “American Century,” said the purpose of U.S. power should be to establish “an international moral order.” Such an order, based on the belief of “freedom and justice for all,” would create the preconditions for global peace and prosperity. The architects of the new American century share this conviction and mission.

As Kristol and Kagan note, “A hegemon is nothing more or less than a leader with preponderant influence and authority over all others in its domain.”3 PNAC’s agenda is not to establish a new empire—or a “new imperial world order”—but only to ensure that the widely acknowledged American hegemony is not squandered by a post-cold war America turned inward, lacking a moral compass, and concerned only about markets and consumption. As PNAC’s founders correctly observe: “The United States achieved its present position of strength not by practicing a foreign policy of live and let live, nor by passively waiting for threats to arise, but by actively promoting American principles of governance abroad—democracy, free markets, and respect for liberty.”4

A Radical Break Voices within the Democratic Party, from Europe, and among progressive global networks routinely charge that PNAC’s foreign policy agenda for a new world order represents a radical break with traditional frameworks. But given the sad state of those traditional frameworks and the absence of other effective global leadership, shouldn’t PNAC be commended for its effort to establish new frameworks? Should the tattered frameworks have been retained, or is a radical revisioning needed?

Traditionally, U.S. hegemony has entailed close association and consultation with Western European allies. But why should the world order of the 21st century remain a construct of 20th century Atlanticism? Traditionally, the world order has assumed that the Middle East would remain a region impervious to democracy and controlled by dictators aligned with Western elites. Neoconservative ideology holds that certain cherished political and religious rights should be universal. Furthermore, that until these rights take hold in the Middle East and North Africa, international peace and prosperity will remain at risk. A clean break is needed from the old frameworks in the Middle East. Who will argue authoritarian regimes in the Middle East should not be restructured? The casualties in the terrorist attacks in New York City and Madrid were victims of a traditionalism that mires the Middle East in fundamentalism, anti-intellectualism, and authoritarianism.

Most frequently cited in critiques of PNAC’s ideological radicalism is the neoconservatives’ failure to support the post-cold war framework of multilateralism. First, it should be recognized in PNAC’s writings its founders pay homage to the visionary leadership of the liberal internationalists of the first American century—the Democratic Party statesmen who broke the back of the Republican isolationism of the 1940s and 1950s and formulated the political, military, and economic multilateralism that established global order and spurred economic progress from the devastation left by the Second World War. Chaos thus having been averted in the second half of the 20th century, improvements in the internationalist model were in order. In its efforts to craft a modern, more effective global order, PNAC cast aside the retrograde nationalism and militarism of the traditional right, and it dismissed the center-left’s knee-jerk defense of a post-WWII multilateralism that was increasingly ineffective and gutless. Instead, PNAC called for a radically new internationalism—one that refused to bow to the sanctity of failed policy frameworks and that soundly criticized those who would retreat to isolationism or an economistic foreign policy.

The PNAC team advanced a new policy framework in which international affairs are restructured by coalitions of the willing, inspired by U.S. leadership and fortified by U.S. might and resolve. No longer would rogue nations, obstructionist great powers like Russia and China, or outdated international rules that unduly revere national sovereignty stand in the way of groups of nations determined to protect themselves from national or subnational threats to regional and international peace. Some Western European governments condemn the neoconservative agenda and the Bush administration for advocating such a framework of international engagement. But their vision is clouded by their own naiveté and hypocrisy.

Western Europe and the United Nations stood idly by as ethnic fratricide surged on its borders in the former Yugoslavia. Only when the United States signaled its political will to intervene did Western Europe act to secure the peace and foster the political restructuring of the Balkans. Although Western European nations often condemn the U.S. internationalists for their militarism and expansionism, they remain willing partners in a U.S.-led North Atlantic military alliance that perfunctorily acknowledges the United Nations and plays to the region’s nativist fears of Russia and other Eastern nations.

New political ideologies and policy frameworks are needed to address the challenges of the new century. No doubt PNAC’s agenda is a radical one, but there is no virtue in holding on to flawed and outdated processes for managing ever-evolving international affairs.

PNAC Distills the Essence of American Internationalism Exceptionalism Paralleling America’s messianic internationalism is its sense of exceptionalism, which also has political and religious dimensions. The U.S. government—and the PNAC neoconservatives—have long advocated a system of international norms and rules. However, as officials of the world’s sole superpower with role of enforcing both global security and international rules and values, the political leaders of both parties have argued that U.S. global management should not be constrained by the rules that apply to powers of lesser responsibilities. In the United States there is also a deep and commonly expressed belief that U.S. power and wealth reflect a divine approval and sense of purpose. America has assumed the burden of fostering and protecting the global common good, and it needs room to maneuver to accomplish this often self-sacrificing goal.

Life magazine publisher Henry Luce believed that “no nation in history, except Israel, was so obviously designed for some special phase of God’s eternal purpose.” This belief in the special civilizing role of Judeo-Christianity, as embodied in U.S. values, is one that pervades PNAC’s own arguments for American exceptionalism and is frequently articulated in President Bush’s references to “ America’s special mission.” 1

Isolationism PNAC’s foreign policy agenda is driven by internationalist impulses, but it is an internationalism featuring, as one of the cornerstones, traditional American isolationism that dates back to the country’s colonial and revolutionary period. At its heart, this historical isolationism harbors a deep distrust of Europe, engendered by the immigrant nation’s experience of a European proclivity for war, colonialism, and religious repression. This isolationism was manifest in the oft-repeated warning by America’s first president against “entangling alliances,” and it was reinforced by the 19th and 20th century observation of the imperial and world wars that arose in the heart of Europe. Like its nationalism, American isolationism was unique and was aptly captured by PNAC’s founders, especially Robert Kagan. 2 Though exhibiting a reluctance to entangle itself in European infighting, this American isolationism retained for the United States its own extraterritorial prerogatives—especially, its exclusive right to intervene in hemispheric affairs and its early claim to predominant influence in the Pacific.

Nationalism Though many populists of both the left and the right espouse a reactionary and nativist “America First” nationalism, PNAC’s nationalism, as described by its founders, is a “uniquely American variety—not an insular, blood-and-soil nationalism but one that derived its meaning and coherence from being rooted in universal principles first enunciated in the Declaration of Independence.” 3

Messianism What are the political and religious roots of America’s messianic foreign policy? Politically, there is a deep belief that the values enshrined in the Declaration of Independence—the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—and in the Pledge of Allegiance—“with liberty and justice for all”—are (or should be) universal values. The idea of a special mission has deep roots in the religious history of the New World. In the early 17th century, the Puritans believed that they had entered into a covenant to establish a domain that would be a model for the Christian world. The Puritans’ sense of mission, together with their deep conviction that daily life was a constant interplay between the forces of good and evil, has long reverberated through American society and politics. U.S. politicians, in advocating their various brands of internationalism, often describe the redemptive value of U.S. international engagement in bringing peace, prosperity, and modern value systems to less-privileged countries.

Realism PNAC follows a course that navigates midway between moralism and idealism. In the tradition of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, neoconservatives often hold that their political philosophy is one of “idealism without illusions.” Though they always stress the moral imperatives of their internationalism, neoconservatives recognize that ideological flexibility and selectivity are key to successful politics. With this sense of realism, neoconservatives carefully pick their priorities. Fortified by their moral foundation, PNAC associates are unapologetic in their advocacy of a political philosophy whereby common-good ends justify means. With this sense of realism, the neoconservatives carefully pick their priorities. While considering China as a strategic competitor and North Korea as a pariah state, PNAC has outlined a foreign policy agenda blends idealism and realism, targeting for regime change or intervention those nations considered the least defensible and against which there is the most political will in the broader community.

Jack Kobler, Henry Luce: His Time, Life and Fortune (London: MacDonald, 1968).

2 See Robert Kagan, Of Power and Paradise: America and Europe in the New World Order (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003). Kagan opens his book with these lines: “It is time to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world. On the all-important question of power—the efficacy of power, the morality of power, the desirability of power—American and European perspectives are diverging.” Kagan observes that the “ United States remains mired in history” because of its power and sense of responsibility for maintaining the liberal world order. Meanwhile, the Europeans have opted for a Kantian “post-historical paradise of peace and relative prosperity,” leaving the dirty work of enforcing law and order to the Americans.

3 William Kristol and Robert Kagan, “National Interest and Global Responsibility,” in Kagan and Kristol, eds., Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2000), p. 23.


Tom Barry, "Pax Americana-What's the Alternative?," IRC Right Web (Somerville, MA: Interhemispheric Resource Center, April 21, 2004).

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