Neoconservatism is a form of conservative thought that is particular, although not exclusive, to the United States. The term was introduced by socialist activist-academic Michael Harrington in 1973, referring pejoratively to a particular group of American intellectuals who had moved from the radical left to the right in the 1960s. Although the group turned out to be ideologically eclectic and individually fluid, with people moving into and out of it, the term stuck to a growing collection of members and institutions.
The term neoconservatism became widely used in the 1980s, describing the governments of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. In the late 1980s, various commentators declared the death of neoconservatism, and the term saw little use in the 1990s. This hiatus changed dramatically when President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq, an action widely seen as a move prompted by neoconservatives (now often called “neocons” for short) in his administration. In particular, deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz's doctrine of preventive invasion came to be known as the Bush Doctrine. In the post-Bush era, many neoconservatives have either denounced their former ideas or denied their influence within the administration. Some of the most prominent neoconservatives have even denied the very existence of neoconservatism. But although neoconservatism is once again declared dead, its most prominent individuals and institutions remain influential within the U.S. right.
Although the term neoconservatism is now broadly used in academic and nonacademic discourse, few clear definitions exist. In fact, the bare essence of neoconservatism is debated. Is it an ideology? Is it really conservative? (No, says populist Catholic conservative Patrick Buchanan .) Does it exist at all? Irving Kristol, the unofficial “godfather” of neoconservatism, famously described neoconservatives as “liberals mugged by reality.” Probably the most popular self-definition within the movement, this one is both vague and not, or no longer, accurate.
Most authors, academic or nonacademic, use the term neoconservatism to denote a movement of intellectuals who share a common ideology. Exactly who belongs to the movement and what constitutes the ideology, however, often remains unmentioned or vague. Although certain intellectuals and institutions seem beyond dispute (e.g., Irving Kristol and The Weekly Standard), the inclusion of others is debated or limited to certain time periods (e.g., social scientist Daniel Bell or politician Daniel Moynihan). Many neoconservatives themselves have long been unwilling to accept the term, but even those who do self-ascribe as neoconservatives problematize its meaning and usage. They argue that the neoconservative movement, if it exists at all, is deeply divided over almost all key issues and cannot be said to share a clear ideology. Hence, they speak of neoconservatism in terms of a “persuasion” (Kristol), a “tendency” (Norman Podhoretz), or even a “sensibility” (Joshua Muravchik).
In ideological terms, neoconservatism can be defined as a combination of neoliberal economics, social traditionalism, and democratic interventionism. Neoconservatives believe that the market is the best economic system, but its optimal functioning depends on the spread of specific virtues in society. The state has a key role to play in the fostering and protecting of these virtues (e.g., self-discipline and personal responsibility). Finally, neoconservatives want to make the world in general, and their own country in particular, safe for democratic capitalism by aggressively supporting it in the world.
However, this definition borders on a Weberian ideal type, as many self-ascribed neoconservatives do not support all three ideological features to the same extent. For example, Jeane Kirkpatrick, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, fit the neoconservative definition in terms of her stands on foreign policy stands; yet she held fairly liberal social views. Even Irving Kristol has at times expressed doubts about aspects of this neoconservative agenda, while at other times embracing them. For example, up until the 1980s, he argued that foreign policy was irrelevant to neoconservatism.
Neoconservatism combines key aspects of all three main tenets of postwar American conservatism. The two share the belief in the market with libertarians, the importance of virtue with traditionalists, and the active fight against foreign leftist dictatorships with anticommunists. This similarity notwithstanding, neoconservatives have always been distrusted by other conservatives (see below).
The origins of the neoconservative movement are to be found in a group of Trotskyist graduate students at City College of New York in the 1930s. Mostly children of poor Jewish immigrants, they engaged in fierce debates with their Stalinist colleagues in the City College cafeteria. Over the next few decades, the group, which included prominent social scientists like Daniel Bell and intellectuals such as Irving Kristol, would slowly but steadily drift to the right. Becoming staunch anticommunists, most neocons remained self-described Democrats until the late 1970s.
During the 1960s, the neocons grew increasingly critical of and disappointed with the Democratic Party and liberalism. They believed that the party had been overtaken by radicals, and they decried its soft position against communism both in the United States and abroad as well as its critical position toward Israel, a stance they held to be informed by anti-Semitism. They allied with liberal hawks such as Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-WA), whose young staff included many future leaders of the second generation of neoconservatives, including Bush officials Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle.
At the beginning, however, the neoconservative movement concerned itself mainly with domestic affairs. In 1965, Bell and Kristol founded The Public Interest, a journal that published critical analyses of liberal policies, mostly regarding welfare and affirmative action, by famous social scientists like Nathan Glazer and James Q. Wilson (both at Harvard) or Aaron Wildavsky (University of California at Berkeley). Unlike traditional conservatives, the neoconservative based their critiques on solid social science and emphasized the unintended consequences of state policies. They believed in the importance of ideas for politics and preferred a career as an intellectual over that of a politician. A key element of their ideology has been the importance of virtue, heavily influenced by the work on Victorian England by historian Gertrude Himmelfarb (Kristol's wife). According to the neoconservatives, virtue underlies both democracy and the market and should be protected and encouraged by the state.
In the 1970s, the neoconservatives increasingly moved away from the Democratic Party and extended increasingly beyond their urban, Jewish, former-Trotskyist base. Their relationship with the traditional right remained strained, and the movement's most prominent “converts” were liberal hawks from the Democratic Party such as Jeane Kirkpatrick (then a faculty member at Georgetown University) and politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan (New York), although the latter openly broke with the neocons soon after. The movement embraced the free market even more strongly and increasingly stressed the need for a strong anticommunist stand inside and outside of the United States. In 1985, Kristol founded The National Interest, which dealt primarily with foreign affairs. Until then, Commentary, the official magazine of the American Jewish Committee, edited by prominent neocon Norman Podhoretz, had been the major outlet for neoconservative foreign-policy analyses.
Ronald Reagan was the first Republican President to be largely and openly supported by the neoconservatives. Although the Reagan administration was broadly perceived as the high point of neoconservative power, at least until the presidency of George W. Bush, few neoconservatives held prominent positions within the administration, and many grew increasingly disappointed with Reagan. In the late 1980s, with the election of the moderate realist George H. W. Bush, the neoconservatives disappeared from the public eye, and both friends and foes proclaimed its demise. For example, in 1996, Commentary published an essay titled “Neoconservatism: A Eulogy,” written by none other than Podhoretz himself.
Although declared dead in the mid-1980s, neoconservatism came back with a vengeance in the early twenty-first century. Obviously, it had never truly disappeared; rather, it had left the administration and returned to its journals and think tanks. However, although first-generation neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz remained influential, it was their sons and daughters, like William Kristol and John Podhoretz, who became the leaders of the second generation, in part through their influential publication, The Weekly Standard. The second generation of neocons differs in important ways from their parents. First, they did not go through a left-wing phase. Second, they are much more partisan than their fathers. Although, like the first generation, many work for journals and think tanks, most are openly aligned with and involved in the Republican Party. A good example is Bill Kristol, who worked as Chief of Staff for William Bennett, Secretary of Education in the Reagan administration, and Dan Quayle, Vice President in the George H. W. Bush administration. Unlike many other second-generation neoconservatives, Kristol did not get involved in the George W. Bush administration, but he did function as foreign-policy advisor to the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, Senator John McCain, and his running mate, Sarah Palin.
A third aspect in which the second generation differs from their intellectual fathers is in the radicalism of their foreign policy. Not only is foreign policy their key concern, overshadowing economic and particularly social concerns, but they are also much more visionary in their goals and militant in their means. Although the first generation was anticommunist and demanded strength abroad and at home, most early neocons shied away from military and interventionist policies. Moreover, they had an innate skepticism toward the possibility of externally enforced regime change. The second generation also supported the extensive buildup of the military, and the increased vigilance toward internal threats, but also in addition pushed for an interventionist foreign policy, unilateral and military if necessary. Particularly under the Bill Clinton administration, neoconservative organizations like the “Project for a New American Century” (PNAC) would push for a significant increase in the defense budget and for military intervention and regime change in countries like Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq.
Although George W. Bush was elected on a platform of “compassionate conservatism,” which had little to say on foreign policy, his administration will forever be linked to neoconservatism. In fact, throughout his term, relatively few neocons served in the Bush administration. However, taken by surprise by the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the few, strategically placed neocons were able to define the response to the new threat, with the strong support of Vice President Dick Cheney.
The PNAC's report “Rebuilding Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources For a New Century” (2000) functioned as the blueprint of the Bush administration's response to 9/11. The neoconservative foreign policy, also referred to as “hard Wilsonianism” (Max Boot) or “Wilsonianism on steroids” (Walter Russell Mead), was built on the assumption that the United States and its allies were safest in a world of democracies. Its two main goals were (1) to extend the “unipolar moment” (Charles Krauthammer), i.e., American hegemony, as long as possible; and (2) to exercise benevolent hegemony, i.e., to use American power to advance the cause of democratic capitalism throughout the world. As neocons traditionally distrust international organizations like the United Nations, which it sees as dominated by nondemocratic, socialist-leaning, and anti-Israel/U.S. regimes, the United States was to achieve its goals unilaterally and militarily, if necessary. Key to the invasion of Iraq, long envisioned by neoconservative Paul Wolfowitz, was the belief that regime change in that country would lead to a domino effect, democratizing the whole region, making it and the world safer for the United States and its allies, notably, Israel.
This agenda notwithstanding, most neoconservatives left the administration soon after the invasion and turned increasingly critical of Bush's war efforts. They believed that the administration had deployed too few troops, a deficiency primarily blamed on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and they were embittered that Bush was unwilling to act more forcefully against Iran. Moreover, the administration's increasing overtures to the international community were heavily criticized by neocon analysts, as well as by their main remaining ally in the administration, Vice President Cheney.
There is a paradox in neoconservatism's relationship with the larger conservative movement: Although it integrates the main tenets of American conservatism, it is considered to be not truly conservative by many on the right. Many neoconservatives believe that there are two key reasons for the hostile reception they have received within the larger conservative movement: their left-wing origins and their Jewish predominance. Another reason may be their essentially intellectual nature, which breaks with the rather strong anti-intellectual tradition of the American right.
Various conservatives give a more fundamental reason for their aversion to neoconservatism. They claim that neoconservatism is not really conservative. At first this seems a strange claim, given that neoconservatism integrates key aspects of the three tenets of postwar American conservatism (see above). However, the claim is not totally without merit. Most notably, neoconservatives do believe in reshaping society by state involvement, which is visible in their support of a “conservative welfare state” (Kristol), and they believe in enforced democratization and nation building. Their activist foreign policy stands in sharp opposition to the isolationalism of at least two tenets of American conservatism, i.e., libertarianism and traditionalist or paleoconservatism.
There is no doubt that neoconservatism is a distinctly American movement. However, Irving Kristol's claim of American exceptionalism exaggerates the singularity of the American experience. There are actually neoconservatives outside of the United States, albeit primarily in America's closest allies. However, particularly in the British context, the terms “new conservatism” and “new right” were more prevalent than “neoconservatism,” at least for the first generation.
The most important non-American representative of neoconservatism was Margaret Thatcher, Conservative British prime minister from 1979 to 1990, and a close ally of Ronald Reagan. Although not a neoconservative himself, Tony Blair, Labour prime minister from 1997 to 2007, supported much of the second generation's neoconservative foreign-policy agenda and is held in high esteem among American neoconservatives (one of his speeches is even included in The Neocon Reader, edited by neoconservative Irwin Stelzer). Outside of Britain, neoconservatism is mostly prominent within the Israeli mainstream right, notably, the Likud Party.
In addition, some non-American neoconservative intellectuals have received particular praise from the U.S. movement. For example, some American neoconservatives consider the French intellectual Jean-François Revel as one of the key founders of neoconservatism. Another relatively influential non-American thinker is the young British journalist Douglas Murray, author of Neoconservatism: Why We Need It (2005) and director of the think tank Centre for Social Cohesion, in London.
During the second term of the George W. Bush administration, many neoconservatives jumped ship, both from the administration and from neoconservatism as such. One of the first, and most prominent, defectors was political scientist Francis Fukuyama, whose disappointment with the Iraq War, which he had initially supported, led him to openly denounce neoconservatism and call for a new way. However, his proposed “realistic Wilsonianism” largely resembles the foreign policy of the neocons and differs primarily in means, not goals.
An even more unlikely defector is Richard Perle, Chairman of the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee under Bush (2001–03), seen by many as a key neoconservative mastermind of the Iraq War. In a 2009 interview with Vanity Fair, the “Prince of Darkness” even went so far as to deny the very existence of neoconservatism. Similarly, other prominent neocons have argued that neoconservatism is a creation of the liberal media, and/or the far right, and contains strong anti-Semitic currents. In the words of neoconservative New York Times columnist David Brooks: “con is short for ‘conservative’ and neo is short for ‘Jewish’” (Brooks 2004).
Despite the recent obituaries, neoconservatism is far from dead. First of all, neocons were among the key advisors of all major Republican presidential candidates in 2008. Second, they can still rely on a broad and well-funded infrastructure of journals and think tanks. Third, their key values find a growing resonance within the larger American public, as surveys consistently show. That said, the recent Bush administration, and particularly the highly contentious Iraq War, have made the term neoconservatism a liability in future political debates. Hence, although the key ideological features will likely remain influential among the American right, they will probably be put forward under new terms, such as Fukuyama's “realistic Wilsonianism” or William Kristol and Robert Kagan's “national greatness conservatism.”
See also American Political Thought; Conservatism; Economics and Political Thought; Friedman, Milton; Globalization; Hayek, Friedrich; Humanitarian Intervention; International Relations Theory and Political Thought; Isolationism; Liberalism; Libertarianism; Neoliberalism; Power; State, Theories of the; Twentieth-Century Political Thought; United Nations, Theories of the; War and Political Thought
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