Foreign Policy: A Truly Conservative Defense Policy Some conservatives have argued that the goal of U.S. defense policy should be to spread democracy and freedom. But Elbridge Colby of Foreign Policy argues that a truly conservative policy would be more concerned with those things that are vital for our national security.
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Foreign Policy: A Truly Conservative Defense Policy

US army officers salute the boots, gun, helmet and dog-tags of a fellow soldier who was killed in Afghanistan. Some argue that the army's purpose should not be to build democracies abroad. Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

Elbridge Colby has served in several national security positions with the U.S. Government, most recently with the Department of Defense. The views expressed herein are his own.

In a recent Washington Post op-ed article, those paladins of muscular interventionism Danielle Pletka and Thomas Donnelly argue that American conservatism calls for placing the advancement of freedom abroad at the center of our foreign policy. This is surely a policy that is stirring and vigorous and one that calls upon traditions deeply rooted in U.S. history. But is it conservative?

The answer has to be no. Of course there is no single "conservative" foreign and defense policy. But there are certain fundamentals of a conservative approach, fundamentals consistent with a conservative approach to domestic policy or the law or social life. Condensed, the conservative approach is animated by a deep sensibility for and humility in the face of the limits of what can be achieved by government and other organs of social rationality; by the central importance -- but difficulty -- of preserving and advancing liberty, order, prosperity, and good values in a complex and imperfect world; by an awareness of the often unpredictable dangers of excessive ambition; and by a profound sense that government is the servant of the people's interests, and thus should never risk its citizens' lives or resources lightly.

The Pletka and Donnelly article does not stem from these principles. Instead, their expansive policy approach emphasizing the paramount importance of promoting freedom abroad and the need to make an enormous expenditure of resources and lives in service of that goal very much resembles the aggressive liberal internationalism that President Kennedy eloquently summoned in his 1961 Inaugural Address, when he said that the United States would "pay any price, bear any burden, support any friend, oppose any foe in order to ensure the survival and the success of liberty." Conversely, whereas Pletka and Donnelly see the United States' interests as almost boundless, a conservative approach would see not all interests as vital and would be willing to make the tough choices to distinguish the vital interests of the United States from the peripheral; whereas they dismiss the deleterious impact of the fiscal burdens of wars and large defense expenditures, a conservative approach would view these huge outlays with great concern; whereas they laud the ready willingness to spend American blood for international leadership, a conservative approach would emphasize that no government should risk the lives of its citizens save in cases of necessity.

So what would a truly conservative foreign and defense policy look like? Such a policy would focus on separating the wheat from the chaff of what is truly important for protecting and advancing the vital interests of the United States rather than focusing on objectives, which, while worthy, do not have a significant impact on those interests. This would follow Dwight Eisenhower's guidance, given at the outset of World War II, that we should distinguish the essential from the merely important. (In this interconnected world, no one can credibly argue for old-school pre-World War II isolationism, both because it would be unsafe and because it would impoverish Americans financially and culturally.) This would mean giving priority to dealing with the grave threats to our security and to shoring up our long-term international position as well as our domestic fiscal and social health as opposed to seeking to expand (often vainly) the domain of liberal democracies and maximizing U.S. power and leadership today.

So, under this logic, the United States could focus on deterring and containing Iran rather than insisting on near-term regime change in Tehran, as desirable as that may be. And Washington could concentrate on minimizing the terrorist threat from Afghanistan and Pakistan rather than aiming for the wholesale political, economic, and social transformation of the region. And we could emphasize our historical support for democracy and free markets, but see their spread as a good among goods (and often in conflict with other goods) but not the sole good and prioritize its promotion accordingly. The Pentagon could focus its modernization efforts on shoring up the capabilities we need to deter the gravest threats, such as with new nuclear delivery forces; to enable our continued dominance of the high-tech battlefield, such as with appropriate conventional strike and missile defense assets; and to combat the most serious terrorist threats, such as with advanced UAVs and persistent surveillance capabilities -- rather than on those capabilities suited for spreading freedom abroad, such as those designed for long counterinsurgency campaigns. And we could press our allies to shoulder far more of the burden of our collective security than they traditionally have, including, for instance, a Japan that increasingly perceives itself as under threat from China.

Such an approach would have a distinguished pedigree to look back upon: to Washington and the Federalists opposing the commitment of the infant United States to the cause of revolutionary France, Eisenhower relying on our nuclear superiority to deter Communist aggression while sharply curtailing defense expenditures and avoiding unnecessary interventions, Nixon calling upon our allies to take up a greater share of regional defense in the early 1970s, and Powell and Weinberger enunciating a doctrine underlining that American military might would not be used without the greatest seriousness of purpose. Even President Reagan, whose rhetoric often suggested a broader conception of the United States' role in the world, in practice husbanded U.S. power and was extremely chary about intervening abroad. In all of these instances, American leaders distinguished what needed to be done for the nation's security and what did not, firmly and vigorously defending our way of life but seeking to avoid costly, unnecessary involvements.

Pletka and Donnelly have offered an ambitious vision of what the United States' purpose in the world should be. It is magnificent, perhaps, but it cannot be called conservative. In an age in which we must get our fiscal house in order, restore the sources of American prosperity, and face swiftly rising powers whose future courses are uncertain -- above all China -- a conservative foreign policy would focus relentlessly on investing our strategic effort, money, and time to serve our long-term vital interests most effectively. Distinguishing what is important from what is not and making the corresponding tough choices about commitments, spending, and our focus abroad is the heart of a conservative foreign policy. This is the essence of strategy. By contrast, confusing our own future with the fate of freedom in every corner of the world is an invitation to waste, disillusionment, and, quite possibly, disaster.