Seventeen years after the United States overthrew the government of Afghanistan, 15 years after we toppled the government of Iraq, and seven years after we deposed the government of Libya, neoconservative pundit William Kristol announced the goal of American foreign policy over the coming decades should be "regime change" in China, a nuclear power that also happens to have a population more than four times the size of the United States.
This is important — for several reasons.
It's important because it shows that Kristol, despite burnishing his mainstream reputation over the past few years by unwaveringly opposing Donald Trump, remains an unrepentant neocon.
It's important because, along with a tweet storm Kristol produced to explain and defend his endorsement of Chinese regime change, it helps to clarify exactly what's distinctive about neoconservative foreign policy thinking.
And it's important, finally, because it so clearly illustrates just how dangerous and deluded that way of thinking really is.
Yes, Virginia, there really are worse options than President Trump.
In recent years, the term "neoconservative" has been emptied of meaning — used either by anti-Semites to mean "Jewish conservative" or by journalists as a synonym for "foreign policy hawk." Neither is true to the history of the movement or what's distinctive about the evolution of its ideas.
The word was originally coined as an epithet to describe a group of liberal intellectuals who migrated rightward during the 1970s, eventually coming to support the presidency of Ronald Reagan. (Kristol's father Irving was among them.) At the time, these writers endorsed a range of domestic and foreign policy positions: They were tough on crime, defended the conservative side in the culture war, favored work requirements for welfare recipients, and endorsed a revival of the Cold War against the Soviet Union.
This first phase of neoconservatism faded during the 1990s, when Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress co-opted and implemented much of its domestic agenda and the collapse of communism seemed to render its foreign policy priorities superfluous. But a second generation of neocons had other ideas. With the founding of The Weekly Standard in 1995, Bill Kristol, John Podhoretz, Robert Kagan, Charles Krauthammer, and other likeminded writers banded together to rebrand the movement as advocates for what they originally dubbed a "Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy."
At first this mainly translated into support for American military interventions in the Balkans under President Clinton. But after George W. Bush was elected on a platform favoring realism and restraint, The Weekly Standard became more bellicose. During the new Republican president's first few months in office, the administration negotiated a peaceful resolution to a standoff with China after an American spy plane was forced to land by a Chinese fighter jet. Kristol's magazine responded with an editorial titled "A National Humiliation," clearly implying that the new president should have been willing to go to war with China over the incident for the sake of saving face.
Then there was 9/11.
Now the neocons joined the chorus of support for deposing the Taliban government in Afghanistan — and then helped lead the charge to overthrow Saddam Hussein in Iraq. While many emphasized Hussein's supposed defiance of United Nations resolutions restricting his development of weapons of mass destruction, the neocons emphasized a different consideration. For them the issue was the need for "regime change." Hussein was a ruthless dictator, an undeterrable fanatic. His government could never be trusted not to cheat on sanctions and U.N. strictures — or to refrain from passing along biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons to terrorists who would strike the American homeland or its allies around the world. There was therefore no choice: After the 9/11 attacks, Hussein needed to be removed from power.
The emphasis on changing Iraq's "regime" also implied that by removing Hussein's dictatorship and installing more benign political institutions and leadership in its place, the country could with ease and speed be transformed into a functioning liberal democracy that would serve as a beacon for reform throughout the region. This new Iraqi regime would help to usher in secular republics throughout the Greater Middle East. This would be good for America's aims in the war on terror, good for our allies (including Israel), good for the Arab-Muslim world, and good for global order more generally.
The neocons' belief in the imperative of regime change is one of the distinctive marks of neocon foreign policy thinking. It flows from the dubious assumption that peaceful coexistence is impossible between liberal and non-liberal governments. This constitutes a sweeping rejection of realism in international affairs, which holds that most governments, regardless of their form, pursue their own interests on the world stage and can often reach mutually beneficial agreements and avoid military confrontation through negotiation and compromise.
Neocons reject this, presuming that only liberal democratic governments can be considered rational. Others are dangerous, undeterrable adversaries who should never be accommodated. We can only get along if we overthrow the government of a non-democratic rival power and install a friendly one in its place. This assumption motivated the neocons' original confrontational stance toward the Soviet Union (which Reagan bucked in negotiating arms control treaties with Mikhail Gorbachev). It explains their refusal to accept the possibility that the Iran nuclear deal could have actually benefited the United States and Israel. And it's also behind their reflexively combative stance toward China.
In his tweet-storm follow-up to advocating regime change in China, Kristol claimed that he wasn't calling for war with China to forcibly overthrow its government. That's quite a relief. But what was he proposing instead? That the U.S. act as "a force for freedom in the world," which requires us to do whatever we can to change "un-free regimes to free ones, or freer ones. This means regime change…."
But why should the stated goal of American foreign policy be the overthrow of the government of a major rising power in the world? Why shouldn't we aim, instead, to prudently check China's rise and cultivate a mutually beneficial working relationship? Kristol's response points directly to the second and more ominous mark of neocon foreign policy thinking. The U.S. needs to affirm the goal of spreading freedom (understood, of course and without justification, in American terms) to "all people everywhere." But why should this be our goal? What national interest does it advance? Here is Kristol's answer: "The goal of freedom with its noble simplicity and even quiet grandeur … gives meaning and elevation to the American experiment."
That is neoconservatism in its essence — and what separates it from other varieties of hawkish foreign policy thinking: the U.S. should seek to destabilize governments around the globe, even in the most populous nation on Earth, not primarily because it will advance our international interests, or the good of the people of Asia, or the good of the Chinese people, but because pursuing a moralistically confrontational foreign policy will be good for the United States domestically. It will give Americans a grand moral cause to fight for, elevating us in the process. Or as Kristol (and his co-author Robert Kagan) put it in a programmatic essay from 1996, "the remoralization of America at home ultimately requires the remoralization of American foreign policy."
Rather than treating war as something bad, a last resort that often sows immense human suffering and results in a colossal waste of blood and treasure, neoconservatives treat war as something good — an occasion for ennobling displays of honor, glory, and national exaltation. That is what Kristol and his colleagues meant during the 1990s and 2000s, when, more than a decade before the rise of Donald Trump, they made the case for what they dubbed "National Greatness Conservatism."
Trump's very different (xenophobic and nativist) ideas about how to "Make American Great Again" might remind some, understandably, of fascism. But there's more to fascism than nationalism and racism. There's also the valorization of military courage and its elevation above other virtues.
So far at least, it is not Trump who appears eager to pursue a policy of military confrontation and destabilization around the world. It is some of his most stringent critics.