A person would be hard-pressed to find a day in the Washington D.C. calendar where there isn’t some kind of conference. They’re typically small affairs with free lunches, and more useful at hitting a think tank’s spending quota than influencing policy.
As a libertarian Republican, my attention was grabbed by the prospect of a “national conservatism conference” in the most international (read: imperial) of capitals. With keynote speakers like Tucker Carlson, John Bolton, and others, the three-day event at least promised to be interesting.
After attending earlier this week, my reaction changed from interested to disappointed.
The conference is the brainchild of Dr. Yoram Hazony, a dual citizen whose 2018 book, The Virtue of Nationalism, uses Israeli nationalism as the gold-standard model. His cohost in the proceedings was David Brog, president of the newly-minted Edmund Burke Foundation, which organized the conference. Brog is the former director of Christians United for Israel, the largest Christian Zionist organization in the United States, and is the cousin of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The peculiarity of Israelis hosting a conference on American nationalism was not lost on attendees.
Donald Trump was elected on a nationalist-populist platform in 2016, a political victory that predated any kind of physical or intellectual movement infrastructure. Now, just as John Maynard Keynes’ 1936 General Theory was used to retroactively give justification to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first term economic policies, a coterie of conservatives want to give coherence to Donald Trump’s new Republican platform. The four legs of this stool consist of economic nationalism, immigration restrictionism, doubling-down on the culture war, and pulling back on foreign adventurism.
While Hazony has been skeptical of the efficacy of America’s twenty-first century wars, the conference lineup did not reflect that. Foreign policy was sidelined to only one panel, which, as one associate told me, would have been just as comfortable presenting at CPAC circa 2005. For a summary of Carlson’s and Bolton’s remarks, see my earlier reporting at The National Interest.
One attempt at explaining good-natured foreign policy was attempted by Michael Anton, former member of Trump’s National Security Council and author of “The Flight 93 Election.” Giving a speech called “Downsides of Hard & Soft Imperialism,” Anton used examples from the ancient world to demonstrate the adverse effects of imperialism on the home country. Using Xenophon’s fictional biography of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid Empire, as a case study, Anton described how imperialism leads to hubris, the erosion of liberty, political centralization, the loss of speech, and moral rot. He closed with a warning for the “soft Cyruses who run the world today.”
While well-researched and intellectually stimulating, the speech was more high-brow than explicitly germane to specific, ongoing U.S. actions abroad.
The foreign policy panel consisted of economist David P. Goldman, Hudson Institute Senior Fellows Rebeccah Heinrichs and Michael Doran, and Cliff May, founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Goldman argued that Red China is not a nation-state but an organizing principle. It has existed as an empire for thousands of years; the only difference now is that it has the ability to expand. While amplifying the threat of China to the United States, Goldman did clarify that they did not intend to replace us as the world’s superpower, a view often taken for granted in mainstream commentary. Instead of replacing us militarily, the Chinese would prefer to build a new Sino-economic order sheltered under American power.
Goldman concluded by emphasizing China’s growing professional class and our failure to compete with their economic expansion. His example was our inability to stop Europe from partnering with Huwei’s 5G telecommunications network, while not providing them with an alternative. “They won’t wait for us,” he said.
Cliff May condemned Barack Obama as a “non-interventionist,” who pivoted away from the Middle East, gave Iran a “pretend” deal, and left North Korea unmolested. This ignores the Obama administration’s decapitation of the Libyan regime and that country’s descent into civil war, training and funding Islamist rebels in Syria to exacerbate their own civil war, giving blessing to the 2009 coup in Honduras, coordinating the genocidal blockade of Yemen with Saudi Arabia, escalating tensions with Russia, reintroducing military forces into Iraq, and unleashing a global assassination campaign with unmanned aerial drones. Barack Obama was as much a non-interventionist as Cliff May is an honest operator.
Pretending that this is just the world we live in, May said that stopping “endless war” is as ridiculous as trying to stop the rising tide. That is quite a determinist view to take on America’s wars of choice. As Ron Paul as said so many times, we just marched in, and we could just march out.
To make sure our forever wars remain so, May gave endorsements to Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Congressman Dan Crenshaw of Texas as the future of the Republican Party. Both military veterans, Cotton is the personally groomed protégé of Bill Kristol and the Senate’s leading exponent of striking Iran, while Crenshaw is an unreconstructed Bushite who advocates remaining in Afghanistan in perpetuity.
Stealing a page from John Bolton’s unilateralist playbook, May called the United Nations an “expensive failure,” along with the whole concept of the international community. May’s observation is correct, in the sense that international institutions have been useless at reigning in American abuses of state sovereignty, or Israel’s colonization of Palestinian lands.
Michael Doran agreed with May’s characterization of Obama’s foreign policy as a “retreat,” while describing Trump’s foreign policy as “trying to do more with less.” Doran structured his entire talk around building a regional order in the Middle East composed of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. If the U.S. ever wanted to extricate itself from the region, it must empower these three allies “just to keep the wolves at bay.” He even pointed out Hazony in the audience to say that his recent op-ed calling the Turks a toxic ally was incorrect.
Congratulating Donald Trump on taking a wrecking ball to the foreign policy consensus, Rebeccah Heinrichs said the president was forcing people back towards first principles. She proceeded, in bullet point fashion, to propound her truths of American foreign policy.
“A flexible, credible, reliable nuclear deterrent in the hands of the American people has been a force for good,” she told the audience. While credible deterrence and the strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction have prevented a nuclear monopoly state from holding the world hostage, experts agree that the U.S. could achieve the same deterrent effect with as few as three hundred functioning nuclear warheads. This is far below the government’s stockpile of several thousand, which amount to dangerous overkill. But to make sure the U.S. can preserve this unnecessary payload, Heinrichs made sure add how liberating it was to leave the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the hallmark of Cold War disarmament.
In Heinrichs’ opinion, the Saudi-American alliance has been a good deal, and we should accept Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman “for all his warts.” Bin Salman’s warts include responsibility for the world’s worst humanitarian crisis happening in Yemen, the kidnapping of the Lebanese Prime Minister, and as the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
While the panelists were unredeemable, perhaps there was hope in the audience. A questioner asked these “experts” what their thoughts were on recreating Nixon’s 1972 trip to China, which split the Sino-Soviet alliance and helped win the Cold War. The question received applause from people who clearly weren’t represented on stage.
Cliff May responded that thinking Vladimir Putin could be any kind of strategic partner was “delusional.” After receiving an equal amount of applause as the questioner, Heinrichs agreed with the assessment.
During his keynote, Tucker Carlson warned that “A lot of the people we’ve been told are the good guy, are not, at all. I’ll let you figure out who.”
I think we figured it out.
In a previous article at the Institute I argued that by opening up the foreign policy conversation, Donald Trump had done a great service to libertarianism, other downsides notwithstanding. I still believe in the potency of strategic alliances with both the left and right on the most important of issues, war and peace. Short-term strategic alliances require compromise and ignoring a partner’s worse tendencies to achieve real, measurable progress.
However, a national conservatism that does not prioritize foreign policy, or outsources it to neoconservatives in a political deal with the devil, leaves nothing for libertarians. A significant portion of the audience was actively hostile to any kind of economic theory. A libertarian can appreciate traditional social values as much as a conservative, but not when it degenerates into right-wing social engineering. If conservative nationalists cannot deliver a foreign policy of peace and prosperity, libertarian supporters ought to jump from a ship that has changed its course.