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The partisan impeachment follies consuming Washington, D.C., are a convenient sideshow to the real battle shaking U.S. politics, namely which vision of the American future, and particularly its role in the world, will prevail? The socialistic Elizabeth Warren, suddenly hawkish on Syria, competes with old-time liberal internationalists Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, while GOP isolationists represented by Rand Paul are opposed by Republican traditionalists such as Marco Rubio. Above them all hovers Donald Trump, whose presidency is both a symptom of the tectonic changes in American public opinion as well as a shaper of it. At stake, some say, is the very future of the post–World War II “liberal international order,” and the greatest danger comes from Donald Trump’s unprecedented ripping up of its basic tenets.
What most observers miss, according to George Mason University professor Colin Dueck, is that in some ways, we’ve gone back to the future. The tectonic upheavals of 2016 laid bare a long-buried but previously dominant stratum of U.S. foreign policy attitudes: conservative nationalism. In Age of Iron: On Conservative Nationalism, Dueck mines the history of this stratum to precipitate out its essential elements and examine its enduring properties (full disclosure: I’ve known Dueck for half a decade). Trump, in Dueck’s telling, is not some sort of simplistic, accidental president, but rather is the most recent, and successful, manifestation of conservative nationalism.
Conservative nationalism, on Dueck’s view, can be traced back to the founding of the Republic. Far from a quixotic attempt to isolate America from the world around it, conservative nationalism aimed at protecting the infant country’s sovereignty while encouraging republicanism abroad, in line with American ideology. In this approach, Dueck modifies Robert Kagan’s thesis in Dangerous Nation, which argued that the ideological mission trumped a prudent focus on limitations to the American role abroad. Yet Dueck also differs from Walter McDougall, who in Promised Land, Crusader State argues that 1898 and the beginning of the American imperial moment marked the definitive break with traditional U.S. foreign policy. Dueck rather sees the change coming two decades later, with our entry into World War I and the emergence of a Wilsonian liberal internationalism that soon became the dominant foreign-policy orientation of 20th- and early-21st-century America.
There has been, however, no single Republican response to liberal internationalism. Dueck identifies three strands of the larger GOP foreign-policy tradition: noninterventionists, conservative internationalists, and hardline unilateralists. Mapping these varieties onto today’s conservatives would roughly equate the noninterventionists with the isolationist “paleocons” of the John Mearsheimer variety; conservative internationalists with the free-trade, nation-building “neocons” that ostensibly dominated the George W. Bush administration; and the hardline unilateralists with Trump. Age of Iron therefore contextualizes Trump’s differences not merely from Democrats, but from much of the Republican party, as well.
The core chapters of Age of Iron trace the history of Republican foreign policy from Teddy Roosevelt through Trump. Most of these decades Dueck characterizes as the “global versus national” approach, as successive Republican presidents and party leaders reacted to Democratic policies, especially those of FDR and Truman, and also to America’s dramatically changed position in the world after 1917 and especially 1945.
Only in the era of Trump does the script appear flipped, as he is the first Republican leader, in Dueck’s view, to adopt a “national versus global” orientation, one that appears superficially transactional but is often tactically nuanced. Dueck’s final chapter attempts to understand Trump in the context of U.S. populism, ascribing his rise as a response to frustration with globalization and America’s endless wars since 9/11. But Dueck also argues that on many core issues related to the country’s role in the world, public opinion has not changed as much as the headlines suggest.
In asserting that conservative nationalism is a tradition stretching back to the 18th century, Age of Iron makes a bold claim about American history, not least that the neocon foreign policy that has dominated the last quarter-century of Republican security thinking is actually outside the mainstream of GOP tradition.
Dueck is at his most provocative in championing a third path for GOP foreign policy. For too long, the debate has focused on the paleocon and neocon positions, ignoring the question of whether there remains a Republican center on foreign policy. Dueck argues that there is such a center, if not the “centrist” position that is regularly attributed to politicians such as George H. W. Bush. Instead, the center is conservative nationalism currently as represented by Trump.
What Dueck seems to be positing, without using the term, is a “mesocon” (“middle conservative”) position: one that accepts the necessity of American engagement in the world but is jealous to privilege national sovereignty above all, and that respects limitations on America’s ability to change the world, especially in terms of nation-building and participation in international institutions. Such a mesocon approach values the role of traditional U.S. allies and demands a dominant military, so as to respond to direct threats to American security. But mesocons also eschew endless war and quixotic attempts to protect the “liberal international order” at all times and in all places.
Some readers may find a tension in Dueck’s account, which often conflates domestic nationalism with conservative nationalism abroad, sometimes leading to a confusing focus. Others may regret that Age of Iron fails to engage more explicitly with the burgeoning literature on nationalism and liberalism, in works by Yoram Hazony, Michael Anton, and Patrick Deneen, among others. Those who are more policy-oriented will question whether Dueck’s laundry list of potential policies offers anything new; all have been suggested many times before, and the problem seems to be a lack of will to adopt them, rather than that they are a new approach. And some of Dueck’s proposals, such as a continued robust U.S. presence in the Middle East, will strike some readers as a traditional internationalism, rather than a bold redrawing of American foreign policy.
These criticisms aside, Age of Iron is a serious attempt to grapple not only with Trump’s rise but also with the larger question of American foreign policy in the post-9/11 world. Attempts to reorient the U.S. role in the world faltered after the Cold War, have focused on counterterrorism for nearly two decades, and now face the challenge of dealing with China and Russia. The more restrained, if unyielding, U.S. approach reflected in a “mesocon” conservative nationalism may turn out to be the balance best suited to navigate a complex, increasingly dangerous yet not always existentially threatening world.