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Owens – America’s Role in the World: Republican Empire and the Bush Doctrine

Mackubin Thomas Owens
U.S. Naval War College

Role in the World: Republican Empire and the Bush Doctrine

Saturday Morning Session
The Philadelphia Society National Meeting
Philadelphia, April 1, 2006

he was elected to the American presidency in 2000, George W. Bush gave every
indication that he, like his father before him, was a conventional “realist”
in foreign affairs, committed to a grand strategy of selective engagement and
critical of the open-ended nature of the Clinton doctrine and its indiscriminate
use of military force in instances not involving vital national interests. In
his speeches, Bush stressed foreign policy retrenchment and military
"transformation" in preparation for the emergence of a future large
peer competitor in the vein of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Neither
Bush nor his advisers, most notably national security adviser Condoleezza Rice
and Secretary of State Colin Powell, spoke of spreading democracy throughout the

came 9/11. To the surprise of almost everyone, the president abandoned his
realism and embraced an approach to foreign affairs that seems to be nothing
short of revolutionary. The “Bush Doctrine,” was first enunciated in a
speech he delivered on 20 September, 2001, only nine days after the attacks, and
then refined and elaborated in three more speeches over the next nine months.

in the September 2004 issue of Commentary,
Norman Podhoretz identified four “pillars” of the Bush Doctrine. The first
is the unapologetic assertion of the need for and the possibility of moral
judgment in international affairs. The second is the repudiation of the
“social work” theory of terrorism: the belief that economic
factors—poverty and hunger—are the “root” causes of the phenomenon. The
Bush Doctrine is founded on the contention that the terrorism that spawned 9/11
and its precursors, both against the United States and Israel, is a murderous
ideology aimed at the destruction of Western liberalism. Accordingly, this
ideology is every bit as dangerous as fascism/Nazism and communism.  

third pillar of the Bush Doctrine is the right to undertake preventive
war. While international law and norms have always acknowledged the right of a
state to launch a preemptive strike
against another when an attack by the latter is imminent, it rejected any right
of preventive war. President Bush argued that in an age of globalization,
catastrophic terrorism, and weapons of mass destruction, this distinction had
become meaningless. If an attack had become imminent, it was too late to preempt

fourth pillar is the treatment of the conflict between Israel and the
Palestinian Arabs in the context of the war against terrorism. President Bush is
the first American president to officially endorse the idea of a Palestinian
Arab state. But the establishment of such a state is to be contingent upon the
repudiation of terrorism on the part of the Palestinian Arabs. 

The Bush doctrine is a species of primacy.
Primacy is based on hegemonic stability theory, which holds that a
“liberal world order” does not arise spontaneously as the result of some
global “invisible hand.”  Instead,
such a system requires, in the words of Ethan Barnaby Kapstein, a “hegemonic
power, a state willing and able to provide the world with the collective goods
of economic stability and international security.”  The United States, as Great Britain before it, took up the
role of hegemon not out of altruism but because it is in its national interest
to do so.  

Primacy can be caricatured as a
“go-it-alone” approach in which the United States intimidates both friends
and allies, wields power unilaterally, and ignores international institutions.
But the Bush Doctrine sees itself as “benevolent” primacy, an approach in
keeping with its liberal political traditions but which recognizes the world as
a dangerous place in which a just peace is maintained only by the strong.  

This form of primacy is based on the
assumption that U.S. power is good not only for the United States itself but
also for the rest of the world. The argument is that the United States can be
fully secure only in a world where everyone else is also secure. The existence
of liberal institutions is not sufficient. A liberal world order is possible
only if the United States is willing and able to maintain it. 
In the words of Sam Huntington,  

the maintenance of US
primacy matters for the world as well as for the United States…. 

A world without
US primacy will be a world with more violence and disorder and less democracy
and economic growth than a world where the United States continues to have more
influence than any other country in shaping global affairs. 
The sustained international primacy of the United States is central to
the welfare and security of Americans and to the future of freedom, democracy,
open economies, and international order in the world. 

to the theory of hegemonic stability, the alternative to US power is a more
disorderly, less peaceful world. The precedent for the United States is the
decay of Pax Britannica, which, many believe, created the necessary, if not
sufficient conditions for the two world wars of the twentieth century. 
As British hegemony declined, smaller states that previously had
incentives to cooperate with Britain “defected” to other powers, causing the
international system to fragment.  The outcome was depression and war.  The decline of American power could lead to a similar outcome

It is an understatement to
observe that the Bush Doctrine has generated a great deal of criticism. The
criticism transcends the division between left and right in this country.
However, and unfortunately, much of the criticism from the left is a
manifestation of a simple and unvarnished disdain, even hatred for George W.
Bush. As one wag has noted, these critics would continue to heap opprobrium on
Bush even if it was revealed that he had discovered a cure for cancer.

The real debate over Bush
Doctrine today is on the political right. Indeed, according to Gary Rosen in his
introduction to a collection of essays that he edited entitled The
Right War?,
the debate over the Bush Doctrine on the right represents the
most interesting and consequential discussion of US foreign policy taking place
in the United States today.

on the right who support the Bush Doctrine are usually described as
neo-conservatives. Indeed for better or
worse, the Bush Doctrine is now inextricably linked to neo-conservatism.
Unfortunately for reasoned debate, the term “neo-conservative” has been
applied so promiscuously the press that it is in danger of becoming nothing more
than a meaningless term of opprobrium. But in foreign policy, the
neo-conservative enterprise is not that hard to grasp. In the words of Andy
Bacevich, the goal of neo-conservatism is “to fuse American power to American
principles, ensuring the survival of those principles and subsequently their
propagation to the benefit of all humankind.”  

Francis Fukuyama observes in his recent book, America at the Crossroads,
neo-conservatives, unlike realists, believe that “the internal character of
regimes matters and that foreign policy must reflect the deepest values of
liberal democratic societies.” And unlike liberal internationalists who seem
to believe that international law and institutions alone are sufficient to
achieve peace, neo-conservatives contend that there are certain problems that
can be address “only through the prudent exercise of [American] power.”

But the most important critiques
of the Bush Doctrine also come from the political right: realists, including
Henry Kissinger, Owen Harries, Robert Ellsworth, Dimitri Simes, John Mearsheimer,
and Stephen Walt; and those whom Rosen calls “traditionalists,” e.g. Patrick
Buchanan, George Will, Andy Bacevich, and James Kurth.

Realists stress the importance of
power and military security in international affairs and are most concerned
about maintaining stability and a peaceful balance of power. For the realist,
the state’s most vital interest—and its only meaningful goal, no matter its
form of government—is to maintain sufficient relative power to ensure its
security. Insofar as they are the heirs of Hans Morgenthau, realists also reject
the “crusading spirit,” eschewing ideology and defining the state’s
interests as narrowly as possible, making it less likely that will come into
conflict with the interests of other states.

Realists reject the Bush Doctrine
because, they claim, it endangers real US interests. For instance in his recent
book, Taming American Power, Steve Walt argues that the problem with the
Bush doctrine is not primacy per se, but the way in which the Bush
administration has pursued it. According to Walt, the Bush approach has been
counterproductive, creating a serious backlash against American power on the
part of both enemies and friends.

The traditionalists reject the
Bush Doctrine because they believe it violates American republican principles
and that ambitious foreign adventures such as Iraq damage the American body
politic itself. According to Rosen, the traditionalist view reflects “the
instinctive desire of many American conservatives to stand apart from the
seemingly distant, corrupting affairs of other nations, a position motivated in
part by a belief in American exceptionalism but also by fears about the size and
reach of the federal government.” The essence of the traditionalist
conservative perspective is captured by the title of one of Buchanan’s books: A
Republic, Not an Empire

problem with the critique of the Bush Doctrine based on realist theory, it seems
to me, is that it fails to fulfill the predictive requirements of that theory.
In fact, the dire consequences of the Bush Doctrine that realists have predicted
have not come to pass—for instance there has been no anti-hegemonic balancing,
even of the “soft” variety, which constitutes the realists’ fall back
position. This suggests that the realist practice of dismissing the “regime
question,” which, according to the reductionist logic of structural realism,
doesn’t matter when analyzing relative power within the anarchic structure of
the international political system, is a little too parsimonious.  

ignoring the differences between a liberal democracy such as the United States
and other states, realists miss the point that, apparently, even countries
unhappy with the Bush Doctrine don’t really believe that Bush (and the
neo-conservative cabal that Walt claims has hijacked American foreign policy on
behalf of Israel) wants “to govern vast areas of the world by force.” These
countries also see the need to confront radical Islamic terrorism. If one of the
goals of a theory is to predict behavior, realism has come up short with regard
to the Bush Doctrine.  

problem with the traditionalist view is that it mistakes the vision of Thomas
Jefferson for that of the Founders as a whole. In their view, there is no room
for Hamilton’s vision of a “republican empire.” An early version of the
debate between today’s traditionalists and neo-conservatives took place in
June of 1787 at the Federal Convention here in Philadelphia. 

On June 25, Charles Pinckney of South
Carolina asserted the predominance of domestic policy in a republic. 

We have unwisely
considered ourselves as the inhabitants of an old instead of a new country. We
have adopted the maxims of a State full of people& manufactures &
established in credit. We have deserted our true interest, and instead of
applying closely to those improvements in domestic policy which would have
ensured the future importance of our commerce, we have rashly& prematurely
engaged in schemes as extensive as they are imprudent. Our true situation
appears to me to be this—a new extensive Country containing within itself the
materials for forming  a Government
capable of extending to its citizens all the blessings of civil and religious
liberty—capable of making them happy at home. This is the great end of
Republican establishments. We mistake the object of our government, if we hope
or wish that it is to make us respectable abroad. Conquest or superiority among
other powers is not or ought not ever to be the object of republican systems. If
they are sufficiently active and energetic to rescue us from contempt &
preserve our domestic happiness and security, it is all we can expect from
them—it is more than al most any other Government ensures to it citizens.


Hamilton replied several days later to Pinckney: 

It had been said that
respectability in the eyes of foreign nations was not the object at which we
aimed; that the proper object of republican Government was domestic tranquility
& happiness. This was an ideal distinction. No Government could give us
tranquility & happiness at home, which did not possess sufficient stability
and strength to make us respectable abroad. 

the realists and the traditionalists reject the Bush Doctrine’s emphasis on
expanding liberal democracy, mocking this enterprise as "muscular
Wilsonianism." But the expansion of like regimes can be found in
Thucydides, who noted that an important goal of both Athens and Sparta was to
establish and support regimes similar to their own, democracies in the case of
Athens and oligarchies for Sparta.

the Bush Doctrine endorses this very Thucydidean perspective. As the president
declared during a June 2004 speech at the Air Force Academy:

who call themselves “realists” question whether the spread of democracy in
the Middle East should be of any concern of ours. But the realists in this case
have lost contact with a fundamental reality. American has always been less
secure when freedom is in retreat and more secure when freedom is on the march.

and the neo-conservatives understand, like Thucydides, that the security of a
state is enhanced when it is surrounded by others that share its principles and

the content of American foreign policy is important, we cannot ignore the role
of prudence. According to Aristotle, prudence the virtue most
characteristic of the statesman and is concerned with deliberating well about
those things that can be other than they are (means). In foreign affairs,
prudence requires the statesman to adapt universal principles to particular
circumstances in order to arrive at the means that are best given existing

We cannot say with any certainty whether or not the Bush Doctrine will
succeed. But critics of the doctrine should note that adherence to a particular
theory is no guarantee of success. In the recent past, American foreign policy
has been informed by realism (Nixon) and traditionalism (Carter), and both
failed. The Bush Doctrine too will fail, if it is not applied with prudence and
blessed with a certain amount of good fortune.

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