The Decline of Conservative Internationalism

The election of Donald Trump is a stunning, if potentially salutary, event. Ever the outsider, Trump seemed incapable of capturing enough support nationally to defeat Hillary Clinton at the polls. But now he has, and his policies, unencumbered by opposition in either Congress or the Supreme Court, are soon going to become those of the United States.

This result is also surprising because Trump’s victory represents something without precedent: the election of a man to the highest office who says explicitly that he will break with American foreign policy orthodoxies, a man willing to put an end to the post-Cold War consensus.

Because of his unpopularity among many centrist Republicans, Trump is now surrounded by his own people – men and women in his image; many of them are true believers, who joined his campaign when it was a fringe movement and he was a laughing-stock. Many of them are not moderate. Their views are divergent; and they diverge in particular from a now imperilled tradition: that of conservative internationalism, which is under threat in both the United States and here in Britain.

After he had dropped out of the race to become the Republican presidential nominee, Marco Rubio conversed with Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute; in the course of this conversation, the latter spurred the former to define his foreign policy. The phrase used was ‘conservative internationalism’; and though it may seem nebulous at first, this crystallises a broad worldview which unites certain ideas.

Conservative internationalism, simply defined, includes: a belief in the value of American strength, both military and moral; faith in democracy and liberty as positive agents in the world; and a willingness, if necessary, to use diplomatic and military means to promote the aforementioned. Though the necessity of American primacy was stressed in the course of this exchange, variants of this philosophy can be found in many countries. Its essence is the goodness – moral and material – of the liberal, democratic system which exists in mature democracies, and a continued sense that the defence of such ideas, as well as their spread, is worthwhile and vital.

Part of this is derived from what used to be orthodox, but which has come under increasing pressure on the Left in recent years. President Obama’s foreign policy, which includes attempting to win the support and friendship of the Iranian regime, diverges from it strongly.

All across the Western world, especially with the election of Donald Trump and the British referendum on leaving the European Union, these values are in retreat. Where once there was a conservative voice in opposition to the increasing isolationism of much of the Left, this is now silent. It has been comprehensively defeated, proven to be unpopular, and replaced.

In Britain, David Cameron was conservative and internationalist; he supported democracy in Libya and attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to defend the Syrian revolution. He wanted there to be effective sanctions after the Assad regime used chemical weapons; he wanted to protect the Syrian people from the war crimes committed by the regime. In this he was unsuccessful. Defeated in the House of Commons by a Conservative rebellion and bullish Labour party, Cameron was limited to inaction, having signalled his intention to, in his words, acknowledge ‘the British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people’.

The British government now, led by Theresa May, has dramatically altered its priorities, turning inward and proposing to spend the next few years at least hashing out Britain’s exit from the European Union. It has no time for the outside world. As if to demonstrate this about-face, the new prime minister has actively turned her back on internationalist rhetoric, suggesting, in a telling phrase, that anyone calling themselves a ‘citizen of the world’ is in fact a ‘citizen of nowhere’. Though the former is something of an absurdity, this betrays something of a serious shift in attitude in British politics.

Not too long ago, British politicians used to fall over each other to demonstrate their willingness to accommodate the results of globalisation. For many this was about more than economic advantage; it was a profoundly moral benison derived from the interconnected nature of contemporary world. Britain then was more outward looking, more internationalist in essence – and not only because Tony Blair saw it as his role to assume the posture of a global statesman. Blair was not a conservative, but his conservative opponents, despite something of a right wheel in opposition, maintained a broadly internationalist position. To do otherwise would, or so they thought, have consigned them to irrelevance.

Now this has all changed; the referendum has demonstrated that the public mood is, on the whole, opposed – which to many internationalists, once sure of dominance, may feel as though the nation is entirely opposed to their position. Its axioms have been disregarded; its roots have been found to be shallow, and torn out.

In the United States, the ascent of Donald Trump represents the antithesis of conservative internationalism. His foreign policy is not pro-democracy; it is pro-dictator. He is in favour of conciliating Russia’s Putin and Syria’s Assad in order to focus on fighting ISIS, in a move which is both self-defeating (Assad and ISIS have a virtually symbiotic relationship) and also a departure from the recent foreign policy orthodoxy of the United States.

Other presidential candidates for the Republican party, for example the above-mentioned Rubio, and Lindsey Graham, articulated an American policy which could counter both ISIS and Assad. This vision is now off the table, and unlikely to be resurgent for a long time. In the light of current events, in Aleppo especially, this likely means the Syrian Civil War will continue for years to come. The moral crisis of our age presented a test, a challenge, to our politicians; and they failed, and they will continue to fail.

Furthermore, while Trump’s opposition to the Iran deal is muscular and necessary, it seems almost reflexive – something he had to say in order to criticise the Obama administration and target Hillary Clinton, who supported it to the hilt during the election campaign. There is no way of telling whether he will follow through on his promise, not least because his potential ally, Assad, is an Iranian asset and proxy.

In many ways, Trump could simply continue aspects of Obama’s foreign policy, something which many conservatives had desired to set right for eight years. And all the while, in both Europe and the United States, the conservative internationalism which is both necessary and vital slips further from view.

This piece was originally published at NOW News.