America’s Role in the World: Republican Empire and the Bush Doctrine

Mackubin T. Owens

April 1, 2006

When he was elected to the American presidency in 2000, George W. Bush gave every indication that he, like his father before him, was a conventional “realist” in foreign affairs, committed to a grand strategy of selective engagement and critical of the open-ended nature of the Clinton doctrine and its indiscriminate use of military force in instances not involving vital national interests. In his speeches, Bush stressed foreign policy retrenchment and military “transformation” in preparation for the emergence of a future large peer competitor in the vein of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Neither Bush nor his advisers, most notably national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell, spoke of spreading democracy throughout the world.

Then came 9/11. To the surprise of almost everyone, the President abandoned his realism and embraced an approach to foreign affairs that seems to be nothing short of revolutionary. The “Bush Doctrine,” was first enunciated in a speech he delivered on 20 September, 2001, only nine days after the attacks, and then refined and elaborated in three more speeches over the next nine months.

Writing in the September 2004 issue of Commentary, Norman Podhoretz identified four “pillars” of the Bush Doctrine. The first is the unapologetic assertion of the need for and the possibility of moral judgment in international affairs. The second is the repudiation of the “social work” theory of terrorism: the belief that economic factors—poverty and hunger—are the “root” causes of the phenomenon. The Bush Doctrine is founded on the contention that the terrorism that spawned 9/11 and its precursors, both against the United States and Israel, is a murderous ideology aimed at the destruction of Western liberalism. Accordingly, this ideology is every bit as dangerous as fascism/Nazism and communism.

The third pillar of the Bush Doctrine is the right to undertake preventive war. While international law and norms have always acknowledged the right of a state to launch a preemptive strike against another when an attack by the latter is imminent, it rejected any right of preventive war. President Bush argued that in an age of globalization, catastrophic terrorism, and weapons of mass destruction, this distinction had become meaningless. If an attack had become imminent, it was too late to preempt it.

The fourth pillar is the treatment of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs in the context of the war against terrorism. President Bush is the first American president to officially endorse the idea of a Palestinian Arab state. But the establishment of such a state is to be contingent upon the repudiation of terrorism on the part of the Palestinian Arabs.

The Bush doctrine is a species of primacy. Primacy is based on hegemonic stability theory, which holds that a “liberal world order” does not arise spontaneously as the result of some global “invisible hand.” Instead, such a system requires, in the words of Ethan Barnaby Kapstein, a “hegemonic power, a state willing and able to provide the world with the collective goods of economic stability and international security.” The United States, as Great Britain before it, took up the role of hegemon not out of altruism but because it is in its national interest to do so.

Primacy can be caricatured as a “go-it-alone” approach in which the United States intimidates both friends and allies, wields power unilaterally, and ignores international institutions. But the Bush Doctrine sees itself as “benevolent” primacy, an approach in keeping with its liberal political traditions but which recognizes the world as a dangerous place in which a just peace is maintained only by the strong.

This form of primacy is based on the assumption that U.S. power is good not only for the United States itself but also for the rest of the world. The argument is that the United States can be fully secure only in a world where everyone else is also secure. The existence of liberal institutions is not sufficient. A liberal world order is possible only if the United States is willing and able to maintain it. In the words of Sam Huntington,

the maintenance of US primacy matters for the world as well as for the United States…

A world without US primacy will be a world with more violence and disorder and less democracy and economic growth than a world where the United States continues to have more influence than any other country in shaping global affairs. The sustained international primacy of the United States is central to the welfare and security of Americans and to the future of freedom, democracy, open economies, and international order in the world.

According to the theory of hegemonic stability, the alternative to US power is a more disorderly, less peaceful world. The precedent for the United States is the decay of Pax Britannica, which, many believe, created the necessary, if not sufficient conditions for the two world wars of the twentieth century. As British hegemony declined, smaller states that previously had incentives to cooperate with Britain “defected” to other powers, causing the international system to fragment. The outcome was depression and war. The decline of American power could lead to a similar outcome

It is an understatement to observe that the Bush Doctrine has generated a great deal of criticism. The criticism transcends the division between left and right in this country. However, and unfortunately, much of the criticism from the left is a manifestation of a simple and unvarnished disdain, even hatred for George W. Bush. As one wag has noted, these critics would continue to heap opprobrium on Bush even if it was revealed that he had discovered a cure for cancer.

The real debate over Bush Doctrine today is on the political right. Indeed, according to Gary Rosen in his introduction to a collection of essays that he edited entitled The Right War?, the debate over the Bush Doctrine on the right represents the most interesting and consequential discussion of US foreign policy taking place in the United States today.

Those on the right who support the Bush Doctrine are usually described as neo-conservatives. Indeed for better or worse, the Bush Doctrine is now inextricably linked to neo-conservatism. Unfortunately for reasoned debate, the term “neo-conservative” has been applied so promiscuously by the press that it is in danger of becoming nothing more than a meaningless term of opprobrium. But in foreign policy, the neo-conservative enterprise is not that hard to grasp. In the words of Andy Bacevich, the goal of neo-conservatism is “to fuse American power to American principles, ensuring the survival of those principles and subsequently their propagation to the benefit of all humankind.”

As Francis Fukuyama observes in his recent book, America at the Crossroads, neo-conservatives, unlike realists, believe that “the internal character of regimes matters and that foreign policy must reflect the deepest values of liberal democratic societies.” And unlike liberal internationalists who seem to believe that international law and institutions alone are sufficient to achieve peace, neo-conservatives contend that there are certain problems that can be address “only through the prudent exercise of [American] power.”

But the most important critiques of the Bush Doctrine also come from the political right: realists, including Henry Kissinger, Owen Harries, Robert Ellsworth, Dimitri Simes, John Mearsheimer, and Stephen Walt; and those whom Rosen calls “traditionalists,” e.g. Patrick Buchanan, George Will, Andy Bacevich, and James Kurth.

Realists stress the importance of power and military security in international affairs and are most concerned about maintaining stability and a peaceful balance of power. For the realist, the state’s most vital interest—and its only meaningful goal, no matter its form of government—is to maintain sufficient relative power to ensure its security. Insofar as they are the heirs of Hans Morgenthau, realists also reject the “crusading spirit,” eschewing ideology and defining the state’s interests as narrowly as possible, making it less likely that will come into conflict with the interests of other states.

Realists reject the Bush Doctrine because, they claim, it endangers real US interests. For instance in his recent book, Taming American Power, Steve Walt argues that the problem with the Bush doctrine is not primacy per se, but the way in which the Bush administration has pursued it. According to Walt, the Bush approach has been counterproductive, creating a serious backlash against American power on the part of both enemies and friends.

The traditionalists reject the Bush Doctrine because they believe it violates American republican principles and that ambitious foreign adventures such as Iraq damage the American body politic itself. According to Rosen, the traditionalist view reflects “the instinctive desire of many American conservatives to stand apart from the seemingly distant, corrupting affairs of other nations, a position motivated in part by a belief in American exceptionalism but also by fears about the size and reach of the federal government.” The essence of the traditionalist conservative perspective is captured by the title of one of Buchanan’s books: A Republic, Not an Empire.

The problem with the critique of the Bush Doctrine based on realist theory, it seems to me, is that it fails to fulfill the predictive requirements of that theory. In fact, the dire consequences of the Bush Doctrine that realists have predicted have not come to pass—for instance there has been no anti-hegemonic balancing, even of the “soft” variety, which constitutes the realists’ fall back position. This suggests that the realist practice of dismissing the “regime question,” which, according to the reductionist logic of structural realism, doesn’t matter when analyzing relative power within the anarchic structure of the international political system, is a little too parsimonious.

By ignoring the differences between a liberal democracy such as the United States and other states, realists miss the point that, apparently, even countries unhappy with the Bush Doctrine don’t really believe that Bush (and the neo-conservative cabal that Walt claims has hijacked American foreign policy on behalf of Israel) wants “to govern vast areas of the world by force.” These countries also see the need to confront radical Islamic terrorism. If one of the goals of a theory is to predict behavior, realism has come up short with regard to the Bush Doctrine.

The problem with the traditionalist view is that it mistakes the vision of Thomas Jefferson for that of the Founders as a whole. In their view, there is no room for Hamilton’s vision of a “republican empire.” An early version of the debate between today’s traditionalists and neo-conservatives took place in June of 1787 at the Federal Convention here in Philadelphia.

On June 25, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina asserted the predominance of domestic policy in a republic.

We have unwisely considered ourselves as the inhabitants of an old instead of a new country. We have adopted the maxims of a State full of people & manufactures & established in credit. We have deserted our true interest, and instead of applying closely to those improvements in domestic policy which would have ensured the future importance of our commerce, we have rashly & prematurely engaged in schemes as extensive as they are imprudent. Our true situation appears to me to be this—a new extensive Country containing within itself the materials for forming a Government capable of extending to its citizens all the blessings of civil and religious liberty—capable of making them happy at home. This is the great end of Republican establishments. We mistake the object of our government, if we hope or wish that it is to make us respectable abroad. Conquest or superiority among other powers is not or ought not ever to be the object of republican systems. If they are sufficiently active and energetic to rescue us from contempt & preserve our domestic happiness and security, it is all we can expect from them—it is more than al most any other Government ensures to it citizens.

Hamilton replied several days later to Pinckney:

It had been said that respectability in the eyes of foreign nations was not the object at which we aimed; that the proper object of republican Government was domestic tranquility & happiness. This was an ideal distinction. No Government could give us tranquility & happiness at home, which did not possess sufficient stability and strength to make us respectable abroad.

Both the realists and the traditionalists reject the Bush Doctrine’s emphasis on expanding liberal democracy, mocking this enterprise as “muscular Wilsonianism.” But the expansion of like regimes can be found in Thucydides, who noted that an important goal of both Athens and Sparta was to establish and support regimes similar to their own, democracies in the case of Athens and oligarchies for Sparta.

Indeed, the Bush Doctrine endorses this very Thucydidean perspective. As the president declared during a June 2004 speech at the Air Force Academy:

Some who call themselves “realists” question whether the spread of democracy in the Middle East should be of any concern of ours. But the realists in this case have lost contact with a fundamental reality. American has always been less secure when freedom is in retreat and more secure when freedom is on the march.

Bush and the neo-conservatives understand, like Thucydides, that the security of a state is enhanced when it is surrounded by others that share its principles and interests.

While the content of American foreign policy is important, we cannot ignore the role of prudence. According to Aristotle, prudence the virtue most characteristic of the statesman and is concerned with deliberating well about those things that can be other than they are (means). In foreign affairs, prudence requires the statesman to adapt universal principles to particular circumstances in order to arrive at the means that are best given existing circumstances.

We cannot say with any certainty whether or not the Bush Doctrine will succeed. But critics of the doctrine should note that adherence to a particular theory is no guarantee of success. In the recent past, American foreign policy has been informed by realism (Nixon) and traditionalism (Carter), and both failed. The Bush Doctrine too will fail, if it is not applied with prudence and blessed with a certain amount of good fortune.

Mackubin T. Owens is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center and an associate dean of academics and a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military relations.