When most of the foreign policy analysis in Washington produces more heat than light, Colin Dueck’s new book Age of Iron: On Conservative Nationalism successfully presents a sophisticated outlook on both the present but also the likely future of conservative and Republican foreign policy. The unconventional and tumultuous tenure of the Trump administration led experts on both sides of the partisan divide to issue grave warnings about the dangers of abandoning the “liberal internationalist” framework guiding US foreign policy. But as Dueck shows at the grand strategic level, many of Washington’s recent moves are generally sensible and grounded in a venerable and perfectly reasonable alternative school of US foreign policy, conservative nationalism. Together with the writings of Wall Street Journal columnist Walter Russell Mead on the “Jacksonian school” of US foreign policy and Yoram Hazony’s recent book on the virtues of a nationalist foreign policy, this book joins a resurgence of creative thinking about grand strategy on the right side of the political spectrum.
Arguably the most important conceptual contribution of this book to our understanding of US foreign policy is the way the author sketches out conservative American nationalism as a coherent school of thought. Each of the three terms is important in distinguishing it from both the liberal internationalist alternative still dominant in many Washington circles and what one could call a European-style conservative nationalist approach, such as the ones of Margaret Thatcher or Charles De Gaulle. The conservative aspect of this approach relates to the importance placed on tradition and order: “conservatives tend to be skeptical of transformational possibilities, and doubtful that international organizations, political reforms, or written treaties will bring about an era of perpetual peace.” Critically, conservatives place a great premium on defending “their nation’s independence of action in relation to external challenges.” Lastly, they are “reluctant warriors, cautious in resorting to armed intervention, and disinclined to see the military as a tool for social transformation.”
The American aspect of Dueck’s conservative nationalism relates to the hope that “the American example of popular self-government would spread.” There, unlike their European counterparts, US conservative nationalists by and large agree that America “embodies the idea of freedom,” and the US should encourage freedom in other places. However, unlike liberal internationalists and many neoconservatives, the nationalist aspect of this tradition leads to much more skepticism about democracy promotion to faraway lands, particularly by military force, due to the fear that such interventions might undermine US national interests, the American position in the world, and even the “material, human and autonomous foundations of the American republic.” In strong contrast to many contemporary liberals, conservative nationalists view the United States not as an “idea” but as a “nation-state, with a material integrity, boundaries, autonomy, and an internal order worth protecting,” and the American citizens as possessing a “distinct national culture, society, identity, traditions, and way of life worth defending.”
At this point, some readers may wonder whether the American conservative nationalist tradition is coherent enough internally given the likely competing impulses described above. In fact, the tensions between its ideational aspect and the nationalist instinct of this tradition led other scholars to draw a distinction between those who favor democracy promotion, a group labeled by Henry Nau and Paul Miller as conservative internationalists in their recent respective books, and those who do not, term simply as nationalists by Yoram Hazony in his book. Is Dueck right to group these two categories of foreign policy thinking into one broader “American conservative nationalist” school? The author makes a compelling argument in favor of his framework by introducing three sub-traditions that describe three particular types of views under the American conservative nationalist “umbrella”: how each of these coalitions interacts with each other determines the flavor of US foreign policy conservative (and most often Republican) presidents end up pursuing.
First, there are the conservative internationalists, who favor extensive military, economic, and diplomatic engagement overseas, even though not primarily through international institutions (which makes them conservative, not liberal, internationalists). Second, at the other end of the spectrum, there are the noninterventionists, whose main focus is resisting US military interventions overseas, which they regard as costly and usually counterproductive. Somewhere in the middle, and also the most in tune with the grassroots Republican electorate nowadays, are conservative hardliners, or what Mead describes as Jacksonians. This group is strongly supportive of the military, but also disdainful of “soft power” tools such as foreign aid, humanitarian intervention, or efforts at “global governance.” A useful way to understand the shift in the tone of Republican foreign policy in the Trump era is the rise of a coalition of conservative hardliners and noninterventionists to the detriment of the previously dominant conservative internationalist subgroup.
This book would have been a useful contribution to the scholarship on US grand strategy at any time, but it is particularly so now as we entered what Dueck terms the Age of Iron, or what the national security establishment refers to as GPC (Great Power Competition). We are now in a realist world of intense security competition with China and Russia, and therefore the return to a conservative nationalist foreign policy grounded in realism represents a much needed grand strategic adjustment. One relatively unexplored area of this book is the extent to which America’s main great power rivals, China and Russia, also pursue foreign policies very much grounded on realist and nationalist principles.
Therefore, it is imperative for Washington to abandon the liberal internationalist dreams of the last few decades and recognize the need for a realist shift in America’s grand strategy. As Dueck makes clear, however, this realist framework will be one with particular American characteristics such as a concern for morality and values. The combination of realist principles with moral and ethical concerns is of course what many Christian realists have been advocating for a long time, so in many ways the American conservative nationalist grand strategy recommended in this book should come across as familiar to many of them. Whether the current administration’s good grand strategic instincts will be harmed by tactical errors in implementation remains to be seen, but the principles of conservative nationalism should remain a fixture of the US foreign policy debate for decades to come.