"Out of the decline of the West there will, I sense, emerge a rise in spirits. We have shortened our lines. We are under attack. There is nothing in the least in the culture that suggests we will not in the end defend ourselves successfully."
~ Daniel Patrick Moynihan, 1976
There was a "liberal consensus" in American politics following World War II. It was based on maintaining the reforms of the New Deal at home and trenchant anti-Communism abroad. The Progressives, the Communists and their fellow-travellers were soon marginalised in political life and gave way to those who supported containment. The political death of the Progressives, who found voice in Nation and the New Republic magazines, came with their opposition to the Marshall Plan. By 1950 the "vital center" had established itself as the dominant discourse on American foreign relations, and was characterised by confidence of American power abroad and a will to use it to stop Communism spreading.
Revisionism began in the mid-1950s, with people like William Williams (The Tragedy of American Diplomacy) stressing U.S. culpability in the Cold War, accepting a Leninist interpretation which had America perpetuating the war for imperial reasons. American policy was dominated by the need for markets abroad and revolution started to be seen by some as a virtue that the U.S. opposed for economic reasons. Those supporting this view looked approvingly at the accomplishments of the Soviet Union, and believed that the Third World could benefit by replicating them. This view was initially restricted to intellectual circles.
It gained popular support as Lyndon Baines Johnson's apparent inexperience in foreign affairs and his escalation of the Vietnam War came to be viewed as harmful to America's, and the World's, interests. The Vietnam War finally shattered the liberal consensus in foreign affairs, as the left split over whether the war was moral or even in America's interests. The election of Richard M. Nixon in 1968 put liberals in opposition, where they fragmented and sought fruitlessly for a new foreign policy consensus. Their inability to find it began the drift of one of their core constituencies to the right, and eventually to Reagan.
Neoconservatism before Reagan
The neoconservatives never stopped believing in anti-Communism. Liberals on domestic policy and members of the Democratic Party, they were the political legatees of the New Deal but had an uneasy relationship with Johnson's Great Society. Since 1945 most people in American political life had believed that the Soviet Union was the embodiment of evil, that it was hell-bent on world domination. Drawing on the Manichean writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, they saw a clear difference between liberal democracy and totalitarianism - between a society that was open, and one that was closed. They did not believe that the United States could co-exist with the Soviet Union or Communist China, because the constant Communist drive to world domination would eventually bring the two into conflict.
This did not mean they were utopian. Niebuhr's writings, while making a stark point about the dangers of totalitarian society, had an undercurrent of doubt about man's ability to transform his world and live in peace. Too much optimism in man's ability to control his environment and bring about positive change would ultimately undermine democracy by making false promises.
Neoconservatism emerged in the late 1960s amidst student riots by the New Left. Of particular relevence was the disturbance at Columbia University in 1968, when New Left radicals allied with representatives of the black nationalism movement. The latter was perceived as antisemitic by many Jews, particularly over statements made with regard to the Six Day War of June 1967. It was shortly after the 1968 disturbance that the first group of Jewish deradicalised intellectuals emerged as a coherent group.
These newly deradicalised thinkers opposed the New Left for a variety of reasons. They viewed it as inimical to moderate liberalism because of its apparent disrespect for law and order, which would soon become a neoconservative fetish. Furthermore, its very nature as a teleological movement focused on rapid reform made it dangerous as it was too idealistic. As Jeane Kirkpatrick would later write, such a movement was totalitarian and anti-liberal in its nature because it sought to control so many aspects of life. Finally, the New Left was seen as overly sympathetic to the USSR because of its opposition to the Vietnam War and ability to accomodate Soviet advances abroad. Some blamed the Great Society reforms of Johnson for awakening expectations that too much could be achieved too soon. While still trenchant believers in social reform, the neoconsservatives believed gradual evolution was the only safe way to proceed.
Norman Podhoretz led the defence of moderate liberalism throughout the 1970s in the influential journal Commentary. As editor, he wrote a monthly column and filled the rest of it with defences of American culture and society, as well as vigorous attacks on the New Left. The New Left became obsolete in 1973 after the American withdrawal from Indochina, but ever since 1968 the neoconservatives had a new target - Richard M. Nixon. Détente, the policy of accomodation with the Soviet Union - essentially accepting the fact of its existence - was viewed as a disaster by the neoconservatives. Retaining their image of the Soviet Union as a constantly dynamic and expanding force, they believed that if the United States failed to act it would gradually be overhwhelmed. It could not afford to allow the rest of the world to collapse into anti-liberal darkness, because then it could surely not survive.
The 1973 Yom Kippur War and Arab oil embargo highlighted to many neoconservatives the dangers of isolationism and the assumption of egalitarianism between states. The neoconservatives were unwilling to see the United States and the Soviet Union (along with its satellites) on the same moral level, and said that doing so would inevitably lead to the destruction of the United States. As a more inherently moral society (however imperfect), the United States could not let the malicious influence of the Soviet Union spread. Force must still be considered in international affairs to protect America's vital interests, but the foreign policy elite had lost their nerve to use it after Vietnam. Restorting this nerve would require a moral and ideological justification that the realist foreign policy of Nixon and Henry Kissinger lacked. Furthermore, a political weakness in the Allies of the United States prevented them from assuming global leadership and stopping the USSR.
When Carter entered office, things didn't get much better. In fact, they got markedly worse, because Carter wasn't a product of the GOP - he was a Democrat. As Carter's term in office wore on, the neoconservatives became increasingly convinced that the Democratic Party had abandoned its opposition to totalitarianism and anti-semitism. They renewed their assault on anyone who opposed containment, harking back to the 1930s and the Munich Pact. Only by being confronted with force would the USSR be forced to stop its global expansionism and turn inwards to justify itself to its own citizenry. The United States needed to assert itself in the world, and particulary in the United Nations, to make sure America's moral supremacy was defended. Verbal assaults on America's integrity, and hence the gradual sapping of her reputation, would no longer be tolerated.
Carter, inexperienced in foreign relations, rejected the neoconservative arguments. As many leaders who are weak on the matter do, he merely spouted platitudes about international co-operation and world order theory. Against this shallow and idealistic internationalism the neoconservatives began to become more pragmatic, drawing a distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. Authoritarian ones were ones that the United States could deal with, as they allowed some degree of political pluralism and, to an extent, an open society. Totalitarian ones, on the other hand, could never be expected to evolve into democratic societies and were a danger to free peoples everywhere. This was the Kirkpatrick Doctrine.
Jewish neoconservatives also believed that Carter was not pro-Israel enough and that he was tolerant of anti-semitism in American society. Unable to find an alternative Democrat to support in the 1980 election, they switched camps to Ronald Reagan and the GOP.
Neoconservatism under Reagan and after
At the start of Reagan's tenure, the mood was good among the neoconservatives. They believed that the man now in office had received a mandate from the population to follow a strategy that they could believe in. The time for them to exert an influence on public affairs en masse had come. Some would be bitterly dissapointed.
A fault of neoconservatives, which is still ascribed to them today, is being too ideological. At first this appears contradictory, but it reflects the somewhat fragmented nature of "neoconservative" opinion. For some neoconservatives, Reagan just wasn't anti-Soviet enough. All of the neoconservatives repudiated the more pragmatic of their earlier views in the light of America's apparent new found strength of will. So much accomodation with the totalitarian nations of the world was no longer needed with Reagan at the head, as he would endorse their policies more wholeheartedly. But this wasn't enough for Podhoretz, who continued to bash Reagan as he had bashed Carter. Reagan had embraced a strategy of rolling back Communism in the Americas and elsewhere, but for Podhoretz he wasn't radical enough. He gradually wrote his way, and Commentary's, into the wilderness.
Some of the neoconservatives were broadly happy with Reagan, but thought he was not making an effort to justify America's moral and ideological case enough. The same charge is levelled against George W. Bush today. Prominent neoconservative Walter Laquer thought that America should give more support to democratic movements around the world and use communications media in Europe to put out a message of hope to people behind the Iron Curtain. Moscow was on the ideological offensive, but Washington wasn't responding well enough.
Jeane Kirkpatrick served as Ambassador to the United Nations in the first Reagan administration. She believed that the assertion of democratic values was the core of America's foreign policy, and she did this vigorously from her seat. Because of her Manichean view of the Soviet Union as the greatest evil in the world, any victory over it was seen as a victory for human rights - even if it meant endorsing an authoritarian dictator. She increased accountability in the United Nations, threatening to punish nations that thought they could get away with bad-mouthing the United States while seeking its aid. They couldn't have it both ways, she said.
Elliott Abrams (under George W. Bush on the National Security Council as the determinant of Near East policy, i.e. the Middle East peace process) was Assisstant Secretary of State for Human Rights, and he followed Kirkpatrick's foot-steps in his goals here. Between them they brought a Wilsonian idealism to Reagan's foreign policy and represented the greatest triumph for the neoconservatives in power. Accepting that compromise was necessary in politics, they used their positions to spread their ideas throughout the foreign policy community. The idea of the intellectual in politics had had its first great triumph.
After the Cold War, the neoconservatives might have been expected to have lost their reason to exist. Towards the end of the war, faced with the fact Commentary was now in the political wilderness, Irving Kristol founded The National Interest. Its aim was to debate what sort of foreign policy was in the national interest, and towards the end of the 1980s it began to soften its stance to the Soviet Union as its increasing domestic weakness became clear. In The End Of History, Francis Fukayama declared the triumph of liberal democracy as an ideology over everything else.
After the USSR collapsed, the neoconservatives had to decide whether America's activist role in world affairs should now also come to an end. Some favoured a great degree of isolationism than others, but they all supported the first Gulf War out of a desire to contain the world's most odious and dangerous rogue nations. Attitudes towards Bosnia were more ambivalent. Most neoconservatives believed that active roll-back policy during the Cold War had only been necessary because of the aggresive nature of the Soviet Union. Seeing finally a world without threats, they stressed the parts of Niebuhr's philosophy that had focused on man's fallibility and his opposal to utopian schemes. They finally made their home for good on the right, attacking the left for "utopian lunacy" and shallow, contentless world order theories.
The neoconservatives were mainly in opposition under Clinton, although some supported him during his election campaign beause of an uneasiness towards George H.W. Bush. However, his perceived weakness in dealing with the growing terrorist threat turned them sour, as did his perceived inability to defend what they saw as America's core values, as well as its national security. He was especially criticised for weakness towards the North Koreans over the 1994 framework agreement. Then came September 11, 2001. The rest, as they say, is current affairs.