Foreign Policy

Conservative US Statecraft for the Twenty-First Century

American Flag Foreign Policy Ship
Sailors salute the American Flag during morning colors aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Ross on June 11, 2017, at Naval Station Rota in Spain. (US Navy photo by Robert S. Price)

American conservatives should be pleased. They hold a set of beliefs and assumptions that, when applied to current policy challenges, will enable the United States to navigate a difficult and complex global environment. The principles that undergird a conservative foreign policy—the primacy of liberty, national sovereignty, military power, and a realistic appreciation for the inherently competitive nature of the international landscape—have implications for a range of policy choices.

Faced with a world that is fragmenting and strained by competing political systems, conservatives can drive needed corrections in US foreign policy and place the United States in a strong position for the future. Not all policy choices will derive perfectly from these principles, but policymakers should use them as a guide to make hard choices. A realistic look at the world, in turn, can help policymakers narrow the gaps between rhetoric and reality. These gaps matter: When thinking is detached from reality, it creates cynicism, reduces the chances of achieving outcomes, and lowers confidence in democracy. Conservatives have a fundamental confidence in the 246-year-old American experiment, but their idealism is tempered by a realistic understanding that the United States will always be imperfect. Perfectionism is the business of dreamers and tyrants.

Conservatives, of course, are not all in agreement. There is no “model conservative,” as the historian Russell Kirk put it, but there is a distinctly conservative way of “looking at the civil social order.” This extends to the realm of foreign policy, where conservative principles provide a framework to assess challenges and opportunities and make choices that are biased toward liberty.

There are four principles driving conservative foreign policy.

First, the belief in liberty lies at the core of conservative foreign policy because it offers a necessary skepticism about the encroaching nature of power and is a corrective to unrestrained and unaccountable government. At home, conservatives therefore prefer solutions that begin at the local level. In international politics, this translates into a bias toward national and regional solutions as opposed to global or supranational ones. It’s the principle of subsidiarity—a larger entity shouldn’t do what a smaller one can do just as well or better. A critical aspect of liberty is economic freedom; conservatives know that no country has prospered that has not moved toward greater economic freedom.

Second, a respect for national sovereignty is central to the preservation of liberty and maintenance of a stable international order. After World War II, the key institutions that formed the bedrock of the liberal international order all acknowledged that state sovereignty was inviolable and essential to peace and prosperity. The sovereign equality of nations is enshrined in the founding charter of the United Nations. Conservatives believe that individual states remain the best way of providing agency and order. Democracy without national sovereignty is impossible.

Third, an understanding that the international landscape is competitive—and will remain so—is fundamental for conservative realists. As the 2017 US National Security Strategy noted, a “central continuity in history is the contest for power.” Many foreign-policy commentators—especially the liberal internationalists—recoil at this framing. “To many in the modern world, the word power has an unpleasant ring,” wrote the historian Donald Kagan. But the reality is that there are still competing political and economic systems and divergent views on how countries order the lives of their citizens.

Fourth, a strong US military is necessary to prevail against these competing systems, defend US interests, and project power. Not because the United States seeks to wage war, but because a strong military is necessary to preserving peace. Military power is also a necessary foundation for other forms of influence and statecraft.

These four principles—liberty, sovereignty, competition, and power—undergird the architecture of a conservative realist strategy. The overall goal of such a strategy is to preserve US power so that Americans can safeguard their national economic and political interests, check those who seek instability and domination, and keep the peace.

Today, we see a world that is fragmenting politically, economically, militarily, and technologically. Conservatives are better positioned to deal with these forces of change because their assumptions and principles are better aligned with the way the world actually works. They do not assume that global political convergence is inevitable—or even possible. In the euphoria of the so-called Unipolar Moment, US leaders, basking in the triumph of liberal democracy, abandoned many of the principles that had made the country successful in the first place. These principles are a part of the US conservative tradition and the basis for a strategic mindset.

Strategy starts at home, of course, and the safety and well-being of the American people must take precedence. But this does not mean conservatives should adopt a Fortress America mindset. As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, spiking energy prices, and widespread supply-chain disruptions demonstrate, the United States must engage with the world for the simple reason that Americans are personally affected by geopolitical events and other things happening across the globe.

Authoritarian states such as China are actively working to undermine US interests. While the United States no longer enjoys the same preponderance of power as in the past, its strengths remain considerable. Used wisely, this strength can influence geopolitical developments in ways that favor US interests.

A conservative national security strategy would embody the principles outlined to build a policy architecture along four lines of statecraft: diplomatic, economic, military, and technological.

1. Conservative diplomatic statecraft should work to catalyze positive political alignments around the world. This does not mean leading with military power or imposing US values. It means working with local actors who, in turn, create the foundations for these alignments. The more friends and allies the United States has, the better. This contributes to growing a sphere of stability, diminishes the resources and choices available to rivals, and sustains an international order that helps preserve US power.

Some conservative isolationists reflexively equate US engagement abroad with forever wars that promote democracy. This view presumes that the United States’ default position is to impose its values on others and ignores the fact that millions around the world aspire to live better lives.

There is no reason the United States should not offer support to those who aspire to freedom and prosperity—so long as it does not harm US strategic interests. Support for grassroots movements seeking liberty is neither cultural aggression nor militarism. At the same time, there will be many instances when US strategic interests require temporary cooperation with regimes that are less supportive of freedom than Americans might like.

Sovereignty is worth protecting, particularly against infringement by global multilateral institutions. Conservatives rightly approach international organizations with a healthy dose of skepticism: Many international institutions have had a decidedly mixed record of dealing with critical global problems, from migration to climate change to COVID-19. Although the United States should still act with like-minded countries to address shared challenges, it should not bestow on unaccountable organizations what is within the proper authority of elected governments.

Regional balances of power that favor the United States and its allies and partners are the building blocks of maintaining a global balance that is favorable to US interests and values. In this new era of deglobalization, region-specific policies will be critical to US success, rather than global, one-size-fits-all policies.

Sustaining regional balances in the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East will require cooperation with allies and partners—and their active participation. Every president since Ronald Reagan has consistently called upon our allies to do more. Conservatives must make clear that allies and partners need to devote resources to their own defense and should advocate the deployment of military power only if local actors are invested as well. Allies such as Taiwan, Japan, and Germany need to increase their commitments to their own defense. It is the resolve of local actors that matter.

Not being beholden to multinational organizations for the sake of it, conservatives can focus on building coalitions that solve problems more quickly—not least because the solutions to many problems, such as carbon emissions, must begin at the local and regional levels.

2. Conservative economic statecraft should grow the United States’ advantages, avoid empowering its adversaries, and create a sphere of prosperity for like-minded countries. Keeping its place at the frontier of innovation requires the United States not only to preserve the free-market system at home, but also to structure international economic policy to cultivate US advantages.

Most important, the US government must ensure a strong, innovative domestic manufacturing base in sectors critical to national security. Offshoring in a relentless drive to maximize efficiency, as US companies have done in the past 30 years, means that the United States today lacks the firms and labor force in key manufacturing sectors, such as semiconductors. Rectifying this requires a commitment to expanding the number of science and engineering students in the United States, promoting skills-based immigration, and providing adequate resources for research and development. Washington should also prevent adversaries from reaping the benefits of US innovation. US technology companies should not be supporting research centers in China to develop artificial intelligence and other capabilities.

Conservatives should insist on genuine reciprocity in trade agreements, not only among friends but also vis-à-vis adversaries. Revisionist powers should have their access to the free world’s economies strictly regulated. Sanctioned Chinese firms and those connected to Beijing’s military and intelligence services should be banned from Western equity and debt markets. US investors should not be funding their country’s adversaries—not even through third-country markets. There is also a consensus across the political spectrum that supply chains should be restructured to avoid dangerous dependence on rivals such as China. Diversification improves resilience: The entire world should not depend on microchip factories concentrated in Taiwan.

Some conservatives will warn against crossing the line into industrial policy, which will not only undermine efficiency but also lead to rent-seeking by interest groups. These debates aren’t new. During the 1980s, the Reagan administration intervened to protect the US semiconductor industry from competition with Japan. Reagan was right to recognize the need to balance markets and national security.

The ideal would be a federal government that catalyzed and set favorable conditions without concentrating power. It’s a hard balance to strike, but a conservative approach to industrial policy might be guided by the following principles.

First, it should enable competitive and efficient markets domestically. The United States needs to cut regulations to allow infrastructure, new mines, and industrial facilities to move forward more quickly. It can take well over a decade to initiate and complete complex projects.

Second, government agencies need better data and information about key sectors, especially dauntingly complex ones like semiconductors. These days, there are hedge funds with better economic data than the US government.

Third, conservatives should emphasize state-level approaches. While the federal government can provide strategic focus, it is at the state and local levels where new facilities will be built and incentives can be directed. Fourth, national security considerations must override economic efficiency. US policymakers need to identify sectors crucial to military and economic security and preserve or build domestic capability, even if that requires tariffs, domestic sourcing regulations, or other market interventions. The playing field is not level.

Abroad, the United States should pursue policies that expand the freedom of Americans to participate in the international marketplace. To this end, conservatives should catalyze the growth of a sphere of prosperity encompassing the United States and its allies and partners.

After the Cold War, US policymakers pressed for global economic openness, exemplified by the World Trade Organization. With the rise of revisionist powers such as China and Russia, this approach must now give way to developing an exclusive sphere for economic engagement among the countries of the free world, centered on the industrial democracies. Others would be encouraged to adopt the values and institutions that would qualify them for membership.

A conservative approach also offers opportunities to develop a more realistic climate policy, whose current version endangers prosperity and contributes to energy crises at home and abroad, which in turn weaken economies even more. The United States should not impose its domestic climate agendas on developing countries. Conservative realists should take their cues from Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, who has explained that the energy transition is “multidimensional” and must take “into account the different realities of various economies.” Conservatives are well positioned to advance a climate agenda consistent with economic prosperity and growth, grounded in local and regional approaches and able to reduce carbon emissions in a realistic time frame.

3. Conservative military statecraft is based on a long and healthy tradition of supporting a strong military, which requires predictable defense budgets and the activities and capabilities required to maintain regional balances of power. This includes maintaining a forward presence abroad of sufficient scale and capability to deter conflict. These broad objectives do not mean that military power is a tool of first resort—rather, they represent an understanding that military power is a necessary foundation for keeping the peace and undergirding other forms of US influence and statecraft.

Predictable defense budgets are especially important as inflation soars. The 2023 increase of roughly 4 percent is below inflation, which translates into a significant budget cut in real terms. This, in turn, means reduced readiness and less room to procure equipment—something the administration has neglected for two consecutive budget cycles.

Some conservatives (and liberals) allege that there is a trade-off between spending on Americans at home and on defense. This is a strawman. There is no correlation between a reduced US role in the world and, for example, better schools, health care, or infrastructure. The weakness of domestic institutions is typically not about money. Conservatives know that these problems are due to flawed policy choices, stultifying regulations, and bureaucracies that stifle innovation and penalize risk-taking. The United States can both deter external threats and improve its citizens’ quality of life.

Read in Foreign Policy.