Amid the Groundhog Day-like conflagrations in Iraq and Gaza, some of the most significant geopolitical developments in years have gone largely unnoticed in recent days. In case you missed them, here’s a brief rundown.
- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a reinterpretation of constitutional restrictions on the use of military force, signalling that the days of his country’s strict pacifism could be numbered.
- Chinese President Xi Jinping visited South Korea, a staunch U.S. military ally, signalling Beijing’s intention to assert dominance in its own backyard.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged to increase arms exports, signalling a desire to increase his country’s military ties with China and India.
Whether you think any of these developments constitutes a potential threat to Western security probably has a lot to do with where you come down on President Barack Obama’s latest foreign policy thrust. In a speech in May, Mr. Obama said the United States would henceforth use military force only “when our core interests demand it – when our people are threatened, when our livelihoods are at stake, when the security of our allies is in danger.”
After the costly and ultimately inconclusive invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr. Obama’s position seems entirely in sync with U.S. public opinion. For the first time since 1964, according to the Pew Research Center, more than of half of Americans believe their country should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.”
Yet, at the same time, a record proportion of Americans disapprove of Mr. Obama’s handling of foreign policy. The apparent rise in isolationist sentiment among Americans belies their unease about the new world disorder and their President’s strange passivity in the face of it.
Enter, or rather re-enter, the neo-cons.
The neo-conservative movement, fatally associated with George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003, is making a comeback of sorts. At the heart of their doctrine is the idea that U.S. national interests must be defined in the broadest terms, that other countries’ aggression must be nipped in the bud and that a more democratic world is a safer world.
Mr. Bush’s minions sought intellectual cover from the neo-cons to justify the invasion of Iraq, irredeemably discrediting the movement, many thought. But the growing feeling that Mr. Obama erred in refusing to intervene at the outset of Syria’s civil war, specifically by failing to arm moderate rebel forces, has provided an opening for the neo-cons to reassert themselves.
The neo-cons argue that the failure to back the Syrian opposition created the vacuum that allowed the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant to thrive. That threatens Western security by creating a safe haven for terrorists to congregate and the potential for an all-out regional conflict.
The leading voice of neo-conservatism 2.0 is Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, whose recent essay in the New Republic continues to reverberate in Washington. Titled Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire, it draws parallels between the run-up to the Second World War and the Obama years, both characterized by an isolationist mood in the U.S. and a series of acts of aggression abroad that went largely unchallenged by the West.
Russia’s seizure of Crimea, the proxy war Iran and Saudi Arabia are waging in Syria and rising Sino-Japanese tensions are being similarly underestimated, Mr. Kagan argues. “From the point of view of strict ‘necessity’ and narrow national interest, the United States could survive all of this,” he says. But “there is no democratic superpower waiting in the wings to save the world if this democratic superpower falters.”
Mr. Kagan isn’t wasting much time trying to influence Republican politicians. After all, the top foreign-policy voice in the post-Bush GOP isn’t the old war horse John McCain; it’s isolationist Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator who may just be the favourite to win the party’s 2016 nomination.
Instead, Mr. Kagan is cozying up to Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee. That’s not so surprising. He served on an advisory panel when she ran the U.S. State Department and her current memoir subtly reveals her differences with Mr. Obama, including on Syria. The books also sets out an approach to foreign policy that marries idealism and realism in a manner neo-conservatives in search of a political home can warm to.
Ms. Clinton would never call herself a neo-con, of course. That may be why Mr. Kagan now plays down the label, too. He prefers the term “liberal interventionist.”