Hard Line: The Republican Party and US Foreign Policy Since World War II, Colin Dueck.

Princeton University Press, New Jersey ISBN 978-0691141824

It is widely assumed Dick Cheney and Bill Kristol think alike on American foreign policy. After all, the former US Vice-President and Weekly Standard editor represent what is widely known as "neo-conservativism". Both were leading supporters of the Bush doctrine of preventive war, democracy promotion and US unilateralism. Both, too, were closely associated with the Iraq war in 2003: Cheney strongly believed regime change was justified by the alleged connection between Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction as well as terrorist groups; Kristol gave an eloquent defence of the Bush administration's policy of democratising post-Saddam Iraq.

But dig deeper and you find some serious foreign policy differences. Not only did Cheney and Kristol clash over Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo during the Clinton years, they have disagreed more recently over the Egyptian uprising. At the height of the democracy protests in early February, Cheney called the former president of Egypt Hosni Mubarak "a good man, a good friend and ally of the United States" who helped achieve regional stability and whom Washington should not publicly push out. This argument—put forward by other conservatives such as Donald Rumsfeld, John Bolton and Charles Krauthammer—was that Islamic extremists could exploit the political chaos created by any quick collapse of Mubarak's regime. In these circumstances, instability could lead to more unintended consequences than intended ones.

Kristol, on the other hand, warned that it was unhealthy that "Americans are so fearful of a popular awakening that they side with the dictator against the democrats. Rather, it's a sign of fearfulness unworthy of Americans, of short-sightedness uncharacteristic of conservatives, of excuse-making for thuggery unworthy of conservative tradition".

This argument—put forward by other conservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz, Elliot Abrams and John Podhoretz—was that Washington should strongly support the democracy protesters who are on the right side of history. In these circumstances, any short-term instability is outweighed in the long term by the emergence of liberal democratic governments that share American values.

All of this is a reminder that American conservatives have long been divided on how to balance stability and the US interest in avoiding radical consequences against the Wilsonian ideals of democracy and human rights. It is also a reminder of the various conservative schools of foreign policy thought over the past century, something diplomatic historian Colin Dueck highlights in great detail in this excellent book.

For those who crudely put all US right-wingers into one ideological pigeon hole, Hard Line is must reading. Dueck sets out a detailed analysis of the foreign-policy thinking of Republican presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush as well as that of several high-profile conservatives such as Robert Taft (the Republican senator who lost GOP presidential primary to Ike in 1952) and Barry Goldwater (the Republican senator who lost the presidential election to Lyndon Johnson in 1964).

Although they express themselves in different ways, Republican presidents and leading conservative figures have been guided by one overarching theme: a hawkish and hard-line American nationalism. "Republicans," Dueck argues, "believe in American exceptionalism, have sought to preserve their country's freedom of action in world affairs, and have tried to avoid what they view as excessive accommodation toward hostile or threatening nations."

To be sure, different policy tendencies have still been possible within this framework: realism, hawkishness, nationalism and anti-interventionism. And the recent tensions between Cheney and Kristol over Egypt reflect this diversity of opinion. But the crucial factor in shaping these specific tendencies has been presidential leadership. "The triumph of one foreign policy-type over another," Dueck concludes, "is crucially shaped by the president's own choices."

Thus, rhetoric has not always matched reality: although conservatives invariably talked tough about rolling back communism or liberating the Eastern bloc states from Soviet communism, the foreign policies of Republican presidents recognised limits to American power. Dwight Eisenhower (1953-61) disappointed cold warriors when he ruled out US intervention at the height of the Hungarian uprising. (He said that "Hungary was as inaccessible to us as Tibet".) His administration even sent out subtle diplomatic signals to Beijing within a few years of the communist revolution.

Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger (1969-74) epitomised foreign policy realism—China opening, arms control, detente with the Soviets—which infuriated GOP conservatives and anti-communist foreign policy hawks.

Even Ronald Reagan (1981-89), although he was a genuinely intransigent anti-communist hawk, was generally cautious and careful regarding direct US military intervention overseas. He cut and ran from Lebanon in 1983, refused to send troops to fight communists in Central America, and his accommodation with the Soviets in his second term drew fire from several neo-conservatives including Norman Podhoretz who dismissed Reagan's policies as "appeasement".

George H.W. Bush (1989-93) was temperamentally rather than ideologically conservative: witness his cautious response to the dismantling of the Soviet empire, his refusal to invade Baghdad following the liberation of Kuwait in 1991 and his failure to enforce economic sanctions on China for Tiananmen and to move against ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.

We are reminded that when the Cold War ended, even the old-guard neo-conservatives suggested a more prudent and cautious worldview. Writing in Owen Harries's The National Interest in the early 1990s, Irving Kristol said "the function of the United States is not to spread democracy around the world" and Jeane Kirkpatrick called for the US to become "a normal country in a normal time".

Hard Line is brilliantly done and is a valuable corrective to what passes as the conventional wisdom about American conservatism and US foreign policy. But Dueck's thesis is also overdone, both in terms of his treatment of the recent Bush era and the predicament of American conservatives today.

Dueck argues that "Bush was building on long-standing conservative and American foreign policy ideas". But while it is true the Bush doctrine had deep roots in the "pre-emptive warfare" thinking of Goldwater and his National Review supporters such as James Burnham, one should also recognise that the Bush administration marked a radical departure from previous presidents. None of Bush's Republican predecessors—Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, or his father—put into practice a policy of preventive war. Unlike Bush, all were sophisticated realists who used the balance of power to protect the American national interest. No doubt American outrage over September 11 played its part in changing Bush's thinking about US foreign policy. But taken together with American hegemony and American exceptionalism, these conditions constituted a combustive mixture, one not conducive to the calm deliberation or alertness to the danger of unintended consequences that all too often defined previous Republican presidents.

Moreover, although it was not a novel idea for Bush to include the promotion of democracy as one goal among many in US foreign policy, it was novel for many American conservatives to believe, as they did during 2001-09, that democracy can and should be the overriding purpose of policy—one that can be achieved in quick time and by application of US force.

Nonetheless, Hard Line is an impressive account of the history of Republican and conservative foreign policy thinking over the past 60 years. Today's internecine battles among neo-conservatives, realists, nationalists and non-interventionists are nothing new. But with the end of the Cold War, increasing multi-polarity abroad and mounting economic problems at home, the US should start recognising limits to transform a complicated world instead of fulfilling a mission to enact a Pax Americana.

That is what in essence a new breed of foreign policy thinkers (think Rand Paul, John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, Andrew Bacevich, Gideon Rose, Fareed Zakaria, Anatol Levien and John Hulsman) have said in recent years. For their pains, they are denounced as isolationist by the gung-ho and dismissed as unserious players by the Republican establishment.

But this is arguably what the next Republican presidential candidates should be saying on the record in the most forceful and coherent language they can find. As Dueck points out, only with a better grasp of the true history of Republican foreign policy alternatives, can we understand the future direction of conservative thinking about America's role in the world.