The American Conservative

By Tom Switzer

When the first issue of The National Interest was published in 1985, its editor, Owen Harries, proclaimed an affinity between realpolitik and conservatism. By this he meant that realism -- a foreign policy that respected the primacy of self interest as a motive and of power as a means in an anarchic international system -- reflected a conservative temperament. After all, both realism and conservatism put “their stress on what is, rather than what should or might be.” Both “emphasize the importance of circumstance and are suspicious of abstract theory and general principles as bases for action.” And both are “aware of the intractability of things and the difficulties and dangers involved in attempting sweeping changes.”

For Harries, realism was not decidedly incompatible with the strong American pull to incorporate moral principles into foreign policy; democratic values simply had to be treated as one among many interests. Looking back to George Washington’s Farewell Address of 1797, Harries pointed to the first president’s clear-eyed assertion that U.S. interests must not be compromised by “permanent alliances,” which in turn might compromise American diplomatic flexibility. Harries also reminded his readers that John Quincy Adams warned that freedoms at home would only tarnished by wars abroad. In Adams’ words, America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Were she to “become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the rule of her own spirit.” Not for Harries any ideological crusades or grandiose plans for global social engineering.

Yet when the foreign-policy magazine he edited was officially launched at the Sheraton Carlton (now St. Regis) in Washington on October 9 1985, guests included a Who’s Who list of leading neo-conservatives, including The Public Interest editor Irving Kristol, former UN ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, former chairman of Council of Economic Advisers Martin Feldstein, assistant secretary of state Elliot Abrams, Commentary editor Norman Podhortez, writers Gertrude Himmelfarb and Midge Dector and rising 35-year-old star columnist Charles Krauthammer. Writing in the Washington Post on October 9, 1985 to mark the event, future Hillary Clinton confidante Sidney Blumenthal wrote: “In an effort to influence the foreign-policy agenda, a group of neo-conservatives is rolling out what its members consider their ultimate weapon.”

Which raises a few questions: How could a realist magazine carry a torch for neo-conservatism? Why would realists be in cahoots with the very writers whose ideological affiliation came to define the very war that realists strongly opposed two decades later?

The answer lies in understanding that conservatives and neo-conservatives alike supported an activist, assertive, global policy in response to the geopolitical and ideological threat represented by the Soviet Union. By and large, the American right knew what it was and what it was about during the Cold War. But once the designated enemy collapsed, and the moral and strategic life-and-death struggle came to an end, things changed. Victory over Communism involved disorientation among conservatives. Harries called it “enemy deprivation syndrome.” In the absence of the Cold War’s zero-sum struggle between democratic freedom and totalitarian evil, there was no coherent world view nor was there a larger sense of purpose. Without an overriding strategic and ideological foe, the conservative foreign policy position was essentially up-for-grabs.

And so realists and neo-conservatives clashed. For National Interest realists, the end of the Cold War signaled a reordering of priorities in favor of restraint, discrimination and prudence. Foreign policy required cold-eyed calculation and a keen sense of limits of power in a messy world that did not conform to American expectations. For neo-conservatives, the collapse of the Soviet Empire represented the triumph of America’s mission. If foreign policy was not infused with some higher moral purpose, then the popular support necessary to export democracy and fulfill America’s destiny would not be forthcoming. 

The first generation of neoconservatives – who in certain cases had migrated from Trotskyism to Cold Warrior conservatism as the repressive nature of the Soviet Union became clear – gave way to a subsequent generation of neo-conservatives with different emphases. For the former, the lessons that flowed from the unanticipated negative consequences of grand social engineering -- think LBJ’s Great Society -- tempered their advocacy of imbuing U.S. foreign policy with moral content. Not so for their successors, however, among whom Irving Kristol’s son Bill was prominent. As Francis Fukuyama has explained, they instead focused laser-like on the Cold War victory, which meant America should press on and impose a Pax Americana. This triumph of the unhesitant crusaders within neo-conservatism widened the gulf between realism and neo-conservatism; if America’s “unipolar moment” after the Cold War was a problem for realists, it was an opportunity for the neo-conservatives.

In other words, the divergence between realist and neo-conservative views that was on vivid display in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003 became evident after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And it was Harries, a Welsh-Australian intellectual, who became the leading realist critic of American neo-conservative foreign policy thought in the decade leading up to the September 11 terrorist attacks. His views  often attracted high praise from distinguished strategists. George Kennan was one. So too was Henry Kissinger. After Harries had written a National Review cover article in 1997 on the perils of containing China, for instance, the former secretary of state wrote: “I can’t remember when I have read an article in which I have agreed with every word. I am only sorry I didn’t write it myself, but I will plagiarise it liberally.” 

Harries -- whom I’ve known well for two decades – edited The National Interest from 1985 to 2001, and his tenure illustrates the relationship between Cold War realism (which liberals denounced as too harsh, selfish and hawkish) and the wisest approach to realism in the post-911 era (which neo-cons have deemed too accommodating, compromising and dovish). As the magazine celebrates its 30 anniversary this year, it’s worth recalling that Harries’ brand of realism has not just been remarkably consistent but it has also proved a useful corrective to the fog with which neo-conservatism has shrouded American foreign policy in the post-Cold War era.

Born in a South Wales mining valley in 1930, Harries was educated at University of Wales and then Oxford where he came under the influence of political philosopher Isaiah Berlin. In 1955, Harries and his wife Dorothy moved down under to accept a position teaching political science at the University of Sydney. During the next few years the social democrat rapidly became a confirmed anti-communist as the intellectual life of Sydney divided into bitter argument over the Cold War. He also became a Burkean conservative, conscious that radical change can lead to loss as well as gain and is fraught with the danger of unintended consequences. 

Unlike most realists, such as Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan and Walter Lippmann, Harries was an unapologetic cold warrior. This had more to do with his newly acquired Australianness than with any Kennedy-esque desire to “pay any price” for freedom. In the 1960s, south-east Asia was the most unstable and violent region in the world. Indonesia – the largest state in the region and Australia’s nearest neighbour – had the third largest Communist Party in the world; and in 1965 it only narrowly avoided succumbing to a communist coup. Fear of the downward thrust of communism was based on something more substantial than paranoia. From Australia’s standpoint, Harries believed, there was a compelling interest in keeping Washington interested in and committed to the region, which meant actively supporting U.S. intervention in Vietnam.

That may explain why Harries and Kristol got on famously in New York at the height of the conflict in 1968 when they met for the first time. They both just had articles published in Foreign Affairs and, as Harries later wrote in a 1995 book of essays dedicated to Kristol, “Irving helped put me at ease by adopting the flattering fiction that the two articles were equally vital contributions to the intellectual life of Manhattan.” An enduring and greatly valued friendship had begun.

In 1975, after two decades in academia, Harries left the ivory tower – left, as Harries later put it, “with no regrets whatsoever, for the foolishness and cowardice of the American university scene had been faithfully copied in Australia.” He then went into the rough-and-tumble world of partisan politics in Canberra where he was the senior foreign adviser in the center-right Liberal government of prime minister Malcolm Fraser (1975-83). In 1982-83, Harries came to the attention of the American right as Australia’s ambassador to UNESCO, which he denounced, supporting the U.S. withdrawal. Then Kristol invited Harries to launch and run a new foreign-policy quarterly magazine, backed by Michael Joyce and the conservative Olin Foundation. So The National Interest was conceived.

In 1985, that journal could be fairly characterized as a Cold War magazine, and notable contributors included Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, Eliot Cohen and Michael Ledeen. But although the Cold War had united the Right, Harries and co-editor Robert Tucker distinguished themselves from neo-conservatives. “We’re both sort of Realpolitik chaps,” Harries told the Washington Times on October 3, 1985. By this, he meant that by and large TNI would see politics as a struggle for power in the world, and shy away from moralistic attempts to sway other nations, or the use of ideological criteria to judge them.

With the demise of Soviet Communism, Harries intended the journal to serve as a venue of debate on the future of a conservative foreign policy. He allowed space for not just realists and neoconservatives, but also paleoconservatives such as Pat Buchanan to pick up George McGovern’s plea “Come home, America.” Harries also examined the nature of the post-Cold War era more quickly and in more lively fashion than The National Interest’s two main rivals Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy. In the summer of 1989, several months before the Berlin Wall came down, Harries published a feature that hardly reflected realist principles: Fukuyama’s “The End of History?”, an essay that heralded the universalization of liberal democracy. As Harries proudly recalled, it was an overnight sensation: innumerable op-ed articles, translations into more than 20 languages, requests for copies from Thatcher’s No. 10 Downing Street and disparaging references in Gorbachev’s speeches.

While the magazine had always welcomed a variety of conservative views – small-l liberals, Harries once quipped, had hardly any decent ideas about foreign policy in decades – the prevailing editorial position had been one of restrained and measured realism, one that took account of the intractability of things, the limits of what most Americans were prepared to support and what in the longer term other states would tolerate.

During the 1990s, Harries kept highlighting the changing circumstances of the post-Cold War world and America’s place in it. He was fond of quoting both John Maynard Keynes (“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?”) and Edmund Burke (“He who does not take circumstances into consideration is not erroneous but stark mad.”) With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Soviet Communism, the “facts” of the international scene had changed dramatically and the “circumstances” were conducive to a new way of looking at the world.

For Harries, the new era not only justified, but also demanded, a profound reassessment of foreign policy -- a scaling down and a reordering of policies and priorities in Washington. “If we spend 40 or 50 years saying the Cold War was a tremendously important event, a critical life-and-death struggle, then for Christ’s sake, the end of the Cold War must also be important,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald in 1997. “You can’t say ‘Well, it’s finished but that doesn’t mean much; the world goes on pretty well as it is.’ When life-and-death struggles end, it is supposed to make a very large difference, and I think it has.”  

The message from Harries and like-minded contributors such as James Kurth, David Hendrickson, Andrew Bacevich, Michael Lind, Jonathan Clarke and former Nixon-Ford-Carter cabinet secretary James Schlesinger, was clear: it was time for America to recognize even a global hegemon, however “benign” and “indispensable,” is not immune to the historic tendencies of power politics, that rising (and declining) great powers had legitimate interests to protect and that democracy was “not an export commodity,” but a “do-it-yourself enterprise” that required special circumstances and conditions. That meant, among other things, opposing NATO expansion into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, ending the isolation of Castro’s Cuba and keeping out of the civil war in Yugolsavia.

Most neoconservatives disagreed. According to the likes of Robert Kagan -- writing in Commentary in the early-to-mid 1990s, then the Weekly Standard from the mid-1990s onwards -- anyone who argued for any scaling down could not possibly be making a rational response to radically altered circumstances, but was suffering from a collapse of confidence. So-called realists, charged Joshua Muravchik, are really “neo-isolationists.” The only plausible foreign policy was to embrace American global leadership, which of course was another way of saying the U.S. is a “benign hegemon” or “indispensable nation.” Realists, on the other hand, had no qualms about using military force to protect vital interests, but their goal was -- and remains -- carefully attending to the balance of power and seeking to share initiative with other states.

All of this explains why Harries gave a qualified defense of the Clinton administration’s foreign policy. The TNI editor carried no brief for Bill Clinton or his first-term secretary of state Warren Christopher. But his point in a cover article in the New Republic in 1994 was that Clinton, bereft of serious purpose, had inadvertently provided a counter to the dangers associated with the kind of muscular Wilsonianism that characterized the writings of neoconservatives.

The argument was sound: although the U.S. armed forces were maintained at a high level, new commitments, over and above the maintenance of U.S. alliances, were scrutinized mercilessly, and any undertakings were kept limited in time and scope. In the 1990s, the Pentagon often seemed more concerned with effective exit strategies than with implementing ambitious, open-ended foreign-policy projects -- whether that concerned Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia or places entirely avoided, such as Rwanda.

By the time Harries had retired as National Interest editor in the early 2000s, congressional Republicans were largely opposed to U.S. intervention in the Balkans, most notably Kosovo. “We’ll have a foreign policy that is humble,” declared Republican president candidate George W. Bush in 2000. “By that, I mean… the country cannot try to impose our prescriptions on nations.” It looked like Harries’ brand of realism was making converts in Washington.

All that changed on 911. Outrage over the terrorist attacks, combined with American exceptionalism and the mental habits of American global hegemony, suddenly gave the American people and their political leaders a clear, overriding sense of mission, one that reflected the thinking of Krauthammer, Kagan and Bill Kristol. In an instant, realists were on the back foot. The result was the Bush doctrine of aggressive unilateralism, pre-emption and regime change in a world divided between good guys and bad guys, which culminated in the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003.

Whereas a broad cross section of Americans, especially rank-and-file Republicans, enthusiastically supported the “liberation” of Iraq, Harries voiced scepticism and caution from the outset. “What would worry me about Iraq is what America would do after the downfall of Saddam Hussein,” Owen Harries told the Sydney-based Policy magazine in March 2002, precisely one year before the invasion. “To be responsible for a country of that size, and to put something together that would work with the Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis, would involve America in nation building, and I doubt it could be brought off successfully.” He was right. Iraq had shown the limitations of America’s vast military power: its capacity to destroy was enormous; its ability to control what it had defeated much less so. And so America found itself wrong-footed by medieval warlords and sectarian thugs.

Clearly a rejection of realism remains ingrained in the consciousness of those who make U.S. foreign policy, even when the drift of events – as in the Clinton era, for example – leads them temporarily in the direction of restraint. Yet the “ultimate weapon of neo-conservatism,” as The National Interest was dubbed three decades ago, became something quite different thanks to Owen Harries and those who have followed in his spirit. If the American right or the foreign-policy community had likewise embraced Harries’s brand of realism at the turn of the century -- a modest, measured, prudent and discriminating response to national security threats – the U.S. would have avoided the kind of foolish foreign adventures that have tarnished its prestige and credibility and thus its ability to lead and persuade.

This article was originally published in The American Conservative