The Diversity of Right-Wing "Anti-War" Sentiment
Notes toward a needed taxonomy
George F. Kennan testifying in front of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 1966 (Library of Congress)
Isaac Grafstein has a really good piece up at The Free Press called “The Rise of the Right-Wing Peacenik” that I encourage you to read. He’s writing about an important phenomenon: the substantial transformation of the American right over the course of the past 20 years. Once, the right was dominated by pro-war, maximalist forces that are typically identified as “neoconservative” (though, in fact, not all neoconservatives fit the mold and plenty of those who beat the war drums loudest weren’t really neoconservatives). Now, though that dispensation is still powerful, the rising and, arguably, dominant strain on the right is much more skeptical of the use of American military force. The extent of the change was exemplified by the fact that Donald Trump won the nomination in 2016 in part by attacking the Iraq War, and has been reflected more recently in the evolving foreign policy positions of the most prominent potential Trump successor, Governor Ron DeSantis.
I think the phenomenon Grafstein is writing about is real and important. But is it right to call this change the rise of right-wing peaceniks? I don’t think so. To explain why, I have to do a little history first.
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I’ve long been a fan of Walter Russell Mead’s taxonomy of American foreign policy into four persuasions: Jeffersonian, Hamiltonian, Jacksonian and Wilsonian. As I have previously described them, they vary along two different axes: introversion versus extroversion, and realism versus idealism. Jeffersonians are introverted idealists; they believe that standing armies and too much involvement in foreign affairs threaten America’s republican character. Hamiltonians are extroverted realists; they believe America’s prosperity depends on foreign commerce, which means first and foremost a large and powerful navy, but also engagement in foreign affairs and even alliances to protect and promote American business interests, potentially extending to outright imperial adventures as in the Spanish-American War. Jacksonians are introverted realists; they think America’s destiny lies in continental expansion, including expansion by force as in the Mexican War, and a vigorous rejection of foreign interference in any area we identify as our own sphere of influence, but have little use for entanglements in conflicts between foreign countries. Wilsonians, the last group to come on the scene, are extroverted idealists; they believe America has a providential role to play in building a more rules-based international order founded on American values and American ideas about political legitimacy, and are prepared to put American force behind such a project.
Any and all of these persuasions could be construed as “right-wing” or “conservative” under the right circumstances—or their opposite. The Mexican War was opposed by Americans who were appalled by its aggressive character, and also by Americans who may not have objected to expansion as such but who opposed the sectional power of the slave states and understood the war as serving the slave power’s interests specifically. It was also supported by people who went on to oppose the Civil War—or who fought on the secessionist side. The annexation of Hawaii and the Spanish-American War were opposed by Americans who didn’t like to see our country aping European imperialists, but also by people who didn’t like the idea of acquiring territories inhabited overwhelmingly by non-White peoples. Many Americans opposed our entry into World War II because of bitterness over the aftermath of World War I and the shattering of the ideals that had been put forward to justify our entry into that war, but there were certainly some who opposed it because of outright sympathy for the Axis powers. The first Gulf War was opposed by many left-wing Democrats—but also by Pat Buchanan and Robert Novak. Even opposition to the Vietnam War, which came overwhelmingly from a Jeffersonian left that found the war unjust as well as wasteful of American blood and treasure, also found a small sympathetic chorus from people like George Kennan who cannot properly be understood as left wing, but who saw the war as an imprudent and irrational outgrowth of America’s crusading mentality. There’s a reason that a radical revisionist historian and critic of American foreign policy like William Appleman Williams had so many relatively kind things to say about certain strains within American conservatism.
The notion that “conservative” was synonymous with “pro-war,” in other words, was an illusion spawned by an atypical moment in American history—the Bush years. But it represents something of a misunderstanding of that period as well.
In the historically-unprecedented unipolar moment of the Clinton years, it looked like the United States might actually be able to serve as the world’s policeman, venture capitalist and social worker all at once. We could end a genocidal war in the Balkans, resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, integrate China into the world economy and Russia into partnership with NATO, and establish international bodies like the World Trade Organization and the International Criminal Court that could bring law and order to the anarchy of international relations. The timetable for the complete triumph of democracy and a mixed economy was uncertain, but triumph was inevitable and would be American-led.
Conservatives at the time expressed their skepticism of this formulation in multiple directions. Some were concerned about the potential erosion of American sovereignty. Some worried that treating foreign policy as social work meant taking our eye off the ball of genuine threats. And many worried that America was being too cautious in bringing rogue states specifically to heel. It may not have always been clear at the time, but the common thread between these criticisms was nationalist in the sense that it valued America taking charge of its own destiny and policies, whether that destiny took it abroad in search of monsters to destroy or brought it home to tend to our own garden.
Those fundamentally nationalist criticisms of the Clinton years were strongly reflected in the Bush administration’s policy. Bush’s foreign policy response after the September 11th terrorist attack on America was fundamentally unilateralist even when it operated in tandem with allies, because of how it reconceived the nature of those alliances. When you put the world on notice that you were either with us or with the terrorists, you can’t really have “allies” in a traditional sense of separate and sovereign states voluntarily joining forces to pursue a common interest and purpose. You only have clients, or vassals. And while we never actually operationalized that kind of simplistic dichotomy (we maintained strong relationships with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia all through the Bush years, despite their obviously compromised positions in the context of the War on Terror), we absolutely did make dubious foreign policy decisions on its basis.
This aggressive unilateralism, much more than being in favor of “democracy promotion,” was what being a conservative in foreign policy meant circa 2002, and for quite some time thereafter. But there were always dissenters from this extremity. From 2012 through 2017, I wrote for a magazine, The American Conservative, that was ground zero for right-wing opposition to the Bush-era foreign policy. At the time I joined, I no longer considered myself to be on the right, but I thought the project of building opposition to the excessive militarism and unilateralism of the Bush administration within all political persuasions and in both parties was a matter of national importance, and from that perspective I was very happy to contribute to TAC’s efforts as their (sort of) house liberal.
One thing that became clear to me almost immediately was that there was great diversity among the dissenters. Another thing that became clear is that very few of them could be described as “peaceniks” as we usually think of the term. There were some who could fit that bill—libertarians who were skeptical generally of government and recognized that the military was part of the government, or localists who wanted to restore small communities and distrusted national power. Daniel Larison was a consistent skeptic of almost any American military action, and a consistent supporter of diplomacy and negotiated solutions. But most were some variety of realist who felt America was pursuing policies contrary to our own interest, and some were aggressive nationalists who wanted America to set a vigorous and active course in foreign affairs, just one that was sharply different from the one set by Bush. (A decent number were specifically critics of America’s relationship with Israel.)
You see something of the same diversity of thought today, as Grafstein delineates. There are conservatives who oppose the war in Ukraine, for example, because they think it is a distraction from the far tougher and more important fight we need to be preparing for with China. There are others who are simply skeptical of the framing of defending democracy, or who are wary of over-identifying our interests with those of a client, something America has had trouble with many times in the past. And there are those who gripe that Europe needs to be capable of handling Russia without our help—they certainly have a big enough GDP and a big enough population to do so, though they have almost none of the necessary institutional structures for collective self-defense (in part because we’ve discouraged them from building them). These are all “realist” objections to the war, and they deserve to be taken seriously even if you disagree with them. But they aren’t really “anti-war” much less “peacenik”—they are perfectly compatible with being pro-war in other contexts.
There are also, to be fair, still libertarians and localists and even flat-out conservative pacifists. (Trump won Amish country by overwhelming margins.) There are also conservatives animated simply by the desire to end the loss of life, just as there were conservatives who strongly opposed America’s support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. On the other hand, a great many people on the right are unreconstructed American primacists who are more worried that Biden won’t do enough to support Ukraine than that he’s doing too much. America did far more to arm Ukraine during the Trump years than it did during the Obama years, after all. None of these perspectives is actually new, though, and I don’t think any of them are particularly on the rise.
But there are other strands of thought on the right that are on the rise that are harder to assimilate to these perspectives. While I wouldn’t call them “peaceniks” either, they are something genuinely new.
Specifically, a certain fraction of the socially-conservative right opposes America’s support for Ukraine, and more generally opposes an internationalist framework for American foreign policy, less because they fret about corrupting America with foreign entanglements (something Jeffersonians have always worried about), than because they think America is already too corrupt, and can only make the world worse. This perspective overlaps but isn’t identical with outright enthusiasm for Vladimir Putin as a defender of traditionalism and Christianity against secularism and decadence, which is also a phenomenon. Some of these people transparently long for American humiliation as a necessary prelude to national reconstruction on lines they prefer; others long for the overthrow of the existing international order in favor of an alliance with Russia, willfully ignoring the absurdity of this idea. I’ve even heard supposed conservatives voice enthusiasm for the idea of a Chinese victory over America, on the grounds that China still espouses national and martial virtues that we have allowed to decay, and for which we therefore deserve to lose.
How prevalent are these sentiments on the right, actually? I don’t really know. They are very visible online, but Twitter is wildly unrepresentative of real people. I can’t imagine most right-of-center folks harbor these kinds of feelings—but they are definitely present among certain influential right-wing intellectuals, including some quoted by Grafstein, and that can have the effect of tainting other arguments by association and can even, at the margins, influence people who hold less-clear views. Regardless, though, they aren’t the views of “peaceniks.” They are something else, and something I, personally, find quite ominous.
Of course, there are other countries in the world besides China and Russia, and conservatives of nearly all stripes have fairly predictable views about many of them—including some of those who have been vocal in their skepticism about the war in Ukraine—and those views generally do not support the notion that the right has become “peacenik.” I’m unaware of a contemporary conservative faction that has been similarly vocal about how we shouldn’t worry about Iran, for example—or about Venezuela. Vivek Ramaswamy, who is gearing up to be the GOP’s answer to Andrew Yang, is running for president on a platform of invading Mexico. Reflexive militarism and unilateralism remain alive and well or the right side of the aisle, in other words, and more than a little bit of the rising conservative opposition to arming Ukraine may be simply about the fact that it looks like something we’re doing “for” someone else as a kindness as opposed to something we’re doing “to” someone else as retribution—or about the fact that the president is not named Donald Trump.
So if we wanted to tease out the different strands within conservative skepticism about the war in Ukraine or about war in general, the taxonomy would look something like this:
Realists worried about getting more deeply embroiled in an unwinnable and open-ended conflict with a nuclear-armed rival
China hawks worried that we’re distracting ourselves from a far more pressing and dangerous threat
Libertarians and localists who distrust the military, the national security establishment, and Washington generally
Social conservatives who admire Putin and/or think America as currently constituted is too corrupt to do anything but cause harm
Ordinary conservatives who are instinctively suspicious of any military involvement that looks like it springs from generous or idealistic impulses
Pure partisans who don’t trust anything a Democratic administration is up to
I wouldn’t call most of these types peaceniks. Frankly, I wish I could classify more of them as such. I’m not a peacenik myself, but I think it’s a good thing if a decent percentage of people on both the left and the right are presumptively opposed to the use of force, and need a lot of convincing to overcome that presumption, because war is baseline bad for people but good for the state, and so the people need to act as a check on the state’s natural bias in favor of war. I’m skeptical that the rising dispensation on the right can provide that check when it is still tainted by a love of force and increasingly tainted by a disgust with America itself. I’m also skeptical that Ukraine is proving the test case for this skepticism, when it is a clear instance of defensive opposition to an act of blatant aggression, and where the Biden administration has been assiduous about respecting a red line that keeps NATO out of the fighting. We’re about as far from the Iraq War as a war could be. Nonetheless, echoing "we shouldn’t be opening firehouses in Baghdad as we’re closing them in Ohio” as John Kerry (not a peacenik; he voted for the Iraq War) famously said, is at least a place to start.
And I’ll say one last thing. Jonathan Chait wrote a piece recently attacking Governor Ron DeSantis for going “full Trump” on Ukraine. All’s fair in love and politics, and if DeSantis wants to clarify the nuances of his position he can certainly do so. I don’t think he will, because his careful phrasing is designed to straddle a divide in his party, and I think is doing so effectively. But what is more important, I think, is that by doing so DeSantis has assured that Trump will not be out on his own attacking Biden for his conduct of the war. I can think of very few eventualities that could do more to boost Trump’s chances at renomination than if he could position himself that way. If war skepticism really is rising in the GOP, then that skepticism needs more champions than one erratic and dangerous demagogue.
Now we need to find a way to channel that sentiment into something more like genuine advocacy for peace than mere distrust of the other team’s war.
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