There is in centre-right political parties a strand of thought known as “neo-conservatism”. Like socialists, neo-conservatives talk about freedom but believe in power, not liberty under law. We have seen their influence in the words and actions of the past few days.
Today’s neo-conservatives unite around three common themes:
- A belief deriving from religious conviction that the human condition is defined as a choice between good and evil and that the true measure of political character is to be found in the willingness by the former (themselves) to confront the latter.
- An assertion that the fundamental determinant of the relationship between states rests on military power and the willingness to use it.
- A primary focus on the Middle East and global Islam as the principal theater for American overseas interests.
In putting these themes into practice, neo-conservatives:
- Analyze international issues in black-and-white, absolute moral categories. They are fortified by a conviction that they alone hold the moral high ground and argue that disagreement is tantamount to defeatism.
- Focus on the “unipolar” power of the United States, seeing the use of military force as the first, not the last, option of foreign policy. They repudiate the “lessons of Vietnam,” which they interpret as undermining American will toward the use of force, and embrace the “lessons of Munich,” interpreted as establishing the virtues of preemptive military action.
- Disdain conventional diplomatic agencies such as the State Department and conventional country-specific, realist, and pragmatic, analysis. They are hostile toward nonmilitary multilateral institutions and instinctively antagonistic toward international treaties and agreements. “Global unilateralism” is their watchword. They are fortified by international criticism, believing that it confirms American virtue.
No doubt there is absolute truth and virtue, but we can approach them in this world only imperfectly. That knowledge demands humility about power. It is a humility missing from the doctrines and policies of both socialists and neo-conservatives.
Michael Gove is possibly the best-known member of the Cabinet in the neo-conservative camp. Before the debate yesterday, we had a pleasant philosophical conversation. I think we agreed that different honourable conclusions could be drawn from our different intellectual assumptions and traditions. I was therefore surprised to read in the Mail, You’re a disgrace: Gove rages at the Tory rebels for voting down Syria intervention.
We’re all utterly repulsed by the atrocities committed on all sides in Syria, but how these things are dealt with matters. Criminals should be brought to justice in courts; it’s not for nations to punish nations. We do not support vigilantism at home; we ought not to practice it abroad. Moral obscenities must be met by the full force of law; the course of world events ought not to depend on the opinions of a few in authority. There is a time to kill without the authority of duly constituted institutions; in relation to Syria, this is not it.
Every diplomatic channel should be used to secure a ceasefire in Syria, hard and imperfect as that would be. There must be a peace conference. The cultural foundations of political and religious tolerance must be developed. Nationalism and socialism – two of the pillars of Ba’athism – must be fought and the institutions of a free society built up.
Like socialism, neo-conservatism has been a predictable failure despite the honourable intentions of its followers. Maybe the events of the past few days signify further stages in the death of this ideology. I hope so.