Editor’s Note: This is the second of a three-part series on Conservatarianism, the blending of conservative and libertarian ideologies within the new Republican party. In the first part, Charles C.W. Cooke of National Review, author of The Conservatarian Manifesto, discussed the areas of agreement between the two sides. This section examines their major differences on the US role in the world.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s victory last November, the Republican party has become the political equivalent of the United Colors of Benetton. The traditional moderate and conservative factions inside the party have been joined by proponents of populism, nationalism, and libertarianism to form an ideological rainbow of thought within the GOP.
Liberty Nation bills itself as Conservatarian. Per our discussion with Charles C.W. Cooke on Liberty Nation Radio featured in the first part of this series, there is good reason to believe the two most dominant ideologies within the GOP – conservatism, and libertarianism – will stand united in their fundamental beliefs about the Constitution and free market economics. But when it comes to their views on the proper role of the US in the world, they could hardly be more polarized.
Can conservatives and libertarians set aside their vastly different views on foreign policy enough to form a durable coalition inside this fractured GOP? Mr. Cooke is cautiously optimistic.
LN: Libertarians famously abhor virtually all foreign involvements by the US unless there’s a demonstrably vital national security interest, while conservatives are known to be more aggressive on foreign military action. And yet there are many conservatives, including the great William F. Buckley himself who, for example, opposed the Iraq war. Are libertarians as dovish and conservatives as hawkish as they’re made out to be?
Mr. Cooke: I do see, in the post-Iraq world, conservatives displaying a greater skepticism towards foreign entanglements than would have been the case, say, ten to fifteen years ago. I think that’s in part the product of how much of a mess that conflict turned out to be. I think it’s in part the product of changing coalitions. It is the case that you have a non-interventionist wing in the Republican party that either didn’t exist or was very quiet just after 9/11.
Most famously, of course, that has recently been populated by Trump and his supporters. Donald Trump not only put forward a vision of America first, but he stood in South Carolina at the Republican debate in that state and said that George W. Bush had lied us into war. You also have this among libertarians. You have this wing represented by Rand Paul, by Justin Amash, by many within the (House) Freedom Caucus. This is really the first time that Republicans have had a strong anti-interventionist wing since the 1950s under (Robert) Taft. That is a shift and it’s a shift in the direction of non-interventionism, not in the direction of hawkishness. There’s probably less space between the two ideological groups then there was a decade ago.
While libertarians have persisted in their non-interventionist views over the years, one cannot get a full sense of the “conservative” view of foreign policy without dividing conservatives into two distinct sub-groups. The first is traditional paleo-conservatives who believe in projecting American strength and leadership in the world but are cautious about direct foreign entanglements. The second is the neo-conservatives, who instinctively favor aggressive US involvement in foreign conflicts to promote American-style democracy.
Libertarians have something in common with the first group of conservatives, but little with the second. How, for example, can John McCain’s hyper-aggressive foreign policy views square with Rand Paul’s non-interventionist instincts?
The neo-conservatives were in ascendancy during the administration of George W. Bush, but have since been widely discredited because of neo-conservative Vice-President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, among others, who pressured Bush to prosecute America’s ultimately disastrous war of choice in Iraq.
That fall from grace for neo-conservatives created a vacuum in GOP foreign policy that is being now being filled by the more non-interventionist wing of the party, including the paleoconservatives, libertarians, and populists. Candidate Trump positioned himself as a non-interventionist, but it is worth noting that three of the most hawkish neo-conservative members of the US Senate – McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio – were among the first to applaud President Trump for his airstrike in Syria.
It is fair to say that most libertarians believe, as once stated by Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, that the Constitution is not a suicide pact. They understand there are times when America’s national security is truly threatened to the point where military action is required. And even neo-conservatives have recognized potential foreign interventions that should not involve the US.
The question is whether the polarized views of conservatives and libertarians on foreign policy are compatible enough to allow them to march forward under the same banner.
In the final part of this series, we will discuss with Mr. Cooke the two issues beyond foreign policy that most divide conservatives and libertarians: immigration and the federal war on drugs.