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Rand Paul’s Return To Foreign-Policy Realism

Neoliberals and neoconservatives have misunderstood human dignity and overreached accordingly. Time for a dose of realism.

Freshly ascendant, Republicans face a triple bind. First, though energized, the GOP lacks principled cohesion. Not even self-described conservatives are in firm agreement on how best to conceptualize—much less approach—key issues. Second, Tuesday’s astonishing triumph puts extreme pressure on Republicans to coalesce prematurely around ideas and policies that seem the easiest to mobilize from an institutional standpoint. Third, the one area where Republicans diverge most broadly is the one where they stand to regain the most of their damaged reputation: foreign policy.

Fortunately, Sen. Rand Paul put forth a promising foreign policy framework before the midterm hullabaloo fully set in. Now that their fortunes have improved in such a powerful yet perilous way, Republicans owe it to themselves—and to America—to consider Paul’s recent foreign policy address with new eyes. It is capable of breaking the triple bind that confines them and recasting America’s role in the world for at least a generation.

Two weeks ago, at the Nixon-founded Center for the National Interest, Paul answered charges that his foreign policy lacked a viable core by introducing a comprehensive vision for a new kind of “conservative realism.” But instead of blowing minds, or even raising tempers, the address brought a strange calm to the echo chamber that surrounds America’s most buzzworthy senator.

Paired with the temperate attitude, however, is an ill-fitting incuriosity. Paul’s unsurprised opponents have strengthened their resolve, and his strongest supporters have ratcheted up their cautious optimism. But no one seems to have noticed that Paul presented much more than a theme for his world affairs pudding.

In fact, he reopened one of the West’s most fundamental philosophical debates: How does human nature impose constraints and create possibilities in the realm of international politics?

No matter how lofty its aspirations or penetrating its insight, a single speech cannot unpack the terms of that millennia-old debate, much less present a full brief for fresh judgments on the matter. That goes double during the run-up to a presidential campaign. But even though Americans are crying out for the conversation Paul has started in earnest, all too few politicos and policymakers have reciprocated.

What gives? Although President Obama’s foreign policy has been almost as widely panned as his predecessor’s, the middling response to Paul’s address betokens an inability to think with much vigor about the reason for those bad reviews. Since 9/11—and the Battle in Seattle before that, and the fall of the Berlin Wall before that—the United States has struggled to make good on its self-understanding. To surpass the shallow and tentative reaction to Paul’s return to realism, we must revisit the sources of that struggle.

What Happened After The Cold War

Rather than a golden age, the triumph over Communism left a residue of intractable problems—and not just any problems. The United States set out to tidy up what few ashes didn’t quite make it into history’s dustbin: military juntas, post-Soviet kleptocracies, tinpot holdouts like North Korea and Iraq, and reactionary groups at the West’s frontiers that spawned everything from vague “extremism” to deadly specific ethnic cleansing. But for every token victory over a Slobodan Milosevic, there was a dumbfounding setback: slaughter in Africa; illicit nuclear proliferation; the stillbirth of Russian democracy; the rise of terrorism and the Axis of Evil. What started as a mop-up operation became a confused effort to sweep back an angry new sea.

What started as a mop-up operation became a confused effort to sweep back an angry new sea.

At the same time as our geopolitical failures slowly accumulated, the economic project meant to win the planet’s post-communist future began to crack apart with a frightening new speed. Networked worldwide capitalism was supposed to have accelerated globalization with a fresh, frictionless efficiency. Instead, shock waves of financial and currency speculation—behaviors that suddenly seemed hardwired into the system—set off a chain reaction of near-collapse. Zipping malevolently across the monetary web, the plague struck Mexico in 1994, Asia in 1997, and Russia in 1998. Ten years later, it moved from the periphery of the global financial system to the core.

If, in some important ways, twenty-first-century globalization routinized international commerce and smoothed it out, in another, more spectacular respect, it undermined the foundations of that stability. Suddenly, the scale and velocity of financial transactions had ratcheted up to uncontrollable, almost unimaginable, levels. So many vital parts of the New World Order moved at terminal speed that, in 2008, “no one saw coming” what logic, history, and anthropology all might have predicted.

I Know—Let’s Globalize, and Fast

Of course, elites had an answer to the slow-motion wreck of our foreign policy and the fast-track breakdown of the international political economy: they would buy our way out, with as much debt and freshly minted currency as necessary. Rather than rethinking our assumptions about the effect of human nature on international relations, America’s bipartisan elites deepened the worst of those assumptions in justifying their mind-boggling expenditures. In an equal-opportunity approach, one mistaken view endured from the dominant school of thought on the Left, and one from the complementary school on the Right.

In the neoliberal imagination, the only alternative to the tragedy of great-power politics was a network of international institutions.

In the neoliberal imagination, the only alternative to the tragedy of great-power politics was a network of international institutions—one that used capital finance to create a degree of interdependence so complex and comprehensive that only marginal “rogue states” and “non-state actors” would resort to violence. Wherever globalization was opposed, neoliberalism counseled that the proper remedy was more globalization. Where globalization faced an internal threat, like a speculative currency collapse, neoliberal doctrine led to doubling down on the key feature of complex interdependence—the ability to move vast resources in real time between foundational institutions. That meant massive, instantaneous borrowing and bailouts. The one thing the system could not afford was time—the time that deliberative democracy demands. Its innocence lost, a system first conceived to economically emancipate the many wound up depending on the financial autocracy of a very few.

Neoconservatism, meanwhile, made a similar about-face. As George W. Bush explained in his second inaugural address, neoconservatives believed that because the longing for freedom was to be found in every human heart, peace and security were to be found only after tyranny was vanquished from the earth. The mission was not just to depose dictators, but to prevent any new ones from rising to power. And if tearing down tyrants was costly, replacing regimes was extravagant. In Iraq and Afghanistan, vast sums of money were almost literally thrown at the problem—partially out of a frustrated belief that this was “how business was done” in “that part of the world,” but even more so because of the habits that financial autocracy had instilled into policymakers. As Mitt Romney soon argued in 2007, true neoconservatism demanded an open-ended policy of financed spending on institution-building in progress-averse parts of the world. Hezbollah, he revealed, could not be allowed to win adherents and allies by supplying local populations with basic goods and services like health care. Not only would the globalized market, fueled by the West’s core competence of internationally leveraging debt, do better; it had to do better. Otherwise, humanity’s oppressors would win. In a mirror image of the neoliberals’ retreat from political liberty and broad-based, freely-developed commercial growth, neoconservatives accepted financial autocracy as an enabler of our last, best hope in the post-communist age.

In the past several years, the anthropological assumptions behind this twin turn have been violently debunked. From Iraq to Afghanistan, financial autocracy has not remade once-rogue, now-failed states in the West’s image. From Libya to Yemen, financial autocracy has not reliably increased peace and security. And from Wall Street and London to Brussels and Berlin, financial autocracy—whether comparatively profligate or austere—has not adequately reduced the structural risk of another economic collapse, whether touched off by the petrodollar, the Euro, or some third currency, like the rotted-out rouble. Today, banking is more centralized, banks larger, and their connections with government deeper than before the financial crisis. Rather than fulfilling humanity’s yearnings and salving its deep-rooted dismay, financial autocracy has superficially asserted greater control while exacerbating the experiences that subvert its authority—mass frustration, anxiety, unpredictability, and hopelessness.

The Non-Realism of Neo- Fantasies

In a word, both neoliberalism and neoconservatism have collapsed into fantasy. What the American people now detect—and what Paul’s vision of “conservative realism” should be understood to address—is the fundamental unrealism of our elites’ theory of governance. Most Americans now agree on the need for a new approach to international relations because we sense that, no matter how sophisticated, our dominant schools of thought depend on conceptual frameworks that match up poorly with reality.

Not only are massive applications of money or force inadequate to reassert international order, they’re inadequate to nourish people’s basic psychological and spiritual needs.

It’s not just that Clinton-Obama neoliberalism or Bush-era neoconservatism has fallen so far short of our expectations. It’s that both those ideologies are rooted in worldviews that seem to have misapprehended the human condition. They’re wrong about what makes people tick, and they’re wrong about what makes peoples work. Not only are massive applications of money or force inadequate to reassert international order in accordance with America’s basic political and economic needs, they’re inadequate to nourish people’s basic psychological and spiritual needs—both abroad and at home.

Unfortunately, it has been exhausting for us to accept this harsh realization. So we lack a consensus about what kind of anthropology, or understanding of human nature, should motivate and organize our international political economy and our behavior on the world stage. Indeed, there’s hardly any understanding of where to begin. On one side, stalwarts from the still-dominant schools warn that abandoning their projects will trigger a full-blown collapse of global order—right now, not at some unknowable point in the future. On the other, genuine isolationists warn that the international system is so flawed that the only sane choice is to abandon ship.

Because Americans instinctively reject these apparent alternatives, they must think through Paul’s speech and its deep implications.

What Conservative Realism Offers the World

Fortunately, Paul has given us ready access to that process. There are two dead giveaways that Paul’s “conservative realism” harbors fundamental claims about how to redeem our international political economy by recapturing a sound understanding of what it means to be human. Both giveaways are key concepts distilled into simple terms. Although not as sensationally as a promoter at a prize fight, Paul makes clear their fierce opposition. Today, he warns, the primary threat to international peace and security is the conflict between dignity and corruption.

Today, Paul warns, the primary threat to international peace and security is the conflict between dignity and corruption.

The purpose of foreign policy, Paul tells us, is to advance not just peace and security but “human dignity.” To be sure, this is a tall order. The nature of the global challenge we face is not fundamentally political or economic but anthropological. “The world has a dignity problem,” he says, pointing, by way of illustration, to the “millions of men and women across the Middle East being treated as chattel by their own governments.” The Mideast case is essential because it reveals how mistaken neoconservative and neoliberal assumptions about human nature led to decades of American foreign policy failure. “The truth is, you can’t solve a dignity problem with military force,” Paul cautions. What’s more, he says, you can’t do it with financial force. Many of the same governments that deny the dignity of their people “have been chronic recipients of our aid,” he warns. When the persistent loss of dignity finally causes popular fury to “boil over” the lid of despotism, “the anger is directed not only against” the local despot “but also against the United States[.]” Neither a militaristic, neoconservative honor culture nor an oligarchic, neoliberal money culture can comprehend the human situation—especially in the Muslim world.

That situation runs deeper than partisans of either culture imagine, as shown by the double failures neoconservatives and neoliberals alike have experienced.

First, neoconservative policy fails by pursuing military intervention more out of an anxious longing to preserve American greatness than out of a canny desire to preserve American interests. Believing that the worldwide denial of dignity creates crises only America can confront with sufficient military strength, neoconservatives hope to use that challenge as a last-ditch effort to infuse the American people with a purposive strength of honor—without which, they believe, America cannot remain united in prosperity. Second, however, neoconservative policy fails in executing this plan. Having succumbed to the overgeneralization that American-style life is the best pathway to full human dignity, neocons proceed to wrongly imagine that foreigners deprived of dignity want to rush onto that path. Because they characteristically do not—and some, as the Mideast shows, are intractably opposed—America fails to remake nations in its image, even when money is no object.

Neoliberals repeat this pattern of double confusion and double failure. First, they mistakenly believe that massive public and private “financing” is the only way to democratize dignity in a way consistent with peace and security. Then—even as the folly of that vision reverberates in the cities and states of the West—they export the practice around the world, intransigently convinced that the fiercer the local opposition, the more aggressively their false remedy must be applied.

Corruption Erases Human Dignity

Paul is explicit that the blowback we face is a consequence of American financial support for dignity-denying regimes. Implicitly, however, his vision of dignity extends his critique to the idea that financial autocracy can achieve global democracy.

Should America slip into the same corrupt politics of patronage embraced by elites in the world’s failing states, our lot will be the same as theirs.

It is true that Paul, like centuries of classical liberals before him, presents free markets as a source of dignity that neither proud militarists nor arrogant oligarchs can foster. “We can’t and shouldn’t engage in nation building,” he admits, but insists that “we can facilitate trade and extend the blessings of freedom and free markets around the world.” Indeed, he goes further. “Free trade and technology should be the greatest carrot of our statecraft,” says Paul. And why? “The only long-term strategy that will change the world is fostering successful capitalist economies that increase living standards and connect people through trade.” At first blush, such a prescription seems not much different from the neoliberal and neoconservative view that only the globalization of markets will foster the globalization of shared peace in equal dignity.

Here, however, is the great difference: much unlike neoconservatives and neoliberals, Paul does not portray tyranny, religion, sectarianism, extremism, tribalism, ancient hatreds, or even class inequality as sources of the world’s dignity problem. Instead, he blames corruption. “If the long war is ever to end, we must understand the frustrations of the street,” he argues. “It isn’t always abject poverty or religion that motivates recruits or sets off conflict.” Rather, the culprit is “the injustice of overbearing, corrupt governments.” For 26-year-old Tunisian street merchant Mohamed Bouazizi, the only escape from the systemic corruption defining his life was to end that life. Setting himself on fire, he began the conflagration we initially and hopefully termed the Arab Spring. For Paul, the purpose of American foreign policy is not to stamp out any reactionary social force that so much as tries to delay or buffer full-blown commercial progress toward global equality. Instead, it is to articulate, demonstrate, and advance the radical alternative to corruption—the inherent dignity that includes what he quoted Bouzazi’s brother as calling “the right to buy and sell.”

Again, the temptation is to suspect Paul of leading us back to the failed promises of our dominant schools of thought. On closer inspection, it is clear he is not, for two main reasons. First, the foreign corruption he blames for the world’s dignity problem is all too reminiscent of the domestic corruption that has sprung from the fertile ground of today’s financial autocracy. Paul does not come right out and blame America’s own elites for creating a dignity problem here at home. But when he pointedly contrasts foreign “cronyism” with “America in the late nineteenth century” instead of America in the early twenty-first century, he alludes to a palpable threat. Should America slip into the same corrupt politics of patronage embraced by elites in the world’s failing states, our lot will be the same as theirs. And should neoliberalism and neoconservatism continue to distort our view of the human condition, that sad fate will come to pass—sooner rather than later.

Financial autocracy is not just a corruption of morals, but a corruption of the very idea of market commerce, which so captivated the free-thinkers (and -doers) of the nineteenth century.

Paul’s quietly sharp indictment of America’s own political culture illuminates the second reason why he departs from the doctrines that fostered it. We have, more than an ethical problem, an intellectual problem. Financial autocracy is not just a corruption of morals, but a corruption of the very idea of market commerce, which so captivated the free-thinkers (and -doers) of the nineteenth century. The history of our two-century transformation is complex, but the reality of our current situation is plain. In times past, though many varieties of inequality prevailed, we developed a culture of entrepreneurship organically, over time. It calmed the passions as it disciplined the interests, cultivating habits of honesty, frugality, forbearance, prudence, and scrupulousness. Now, although myriad kinds of inequality have been reduced, a uniform type of socioeconomic inequality has come to define the experience of many; perhaps not coincidentally, the slowly-nurtured culture of entrepreneurship has given way to the fast-born culture of financial autocracy, where non-transparency, high velocity, high volume, systemic risk, and arbitrary action become second nature.

The West’s Many Visions of Human Dignity

Rather than a simple story of mushrooming greed and exploitation, our socioeconomic transformation reflects a more nettlesome development. Some theorists have suggested that the concept of human dignity has itself suffered a certain kind of corruption. In fact, the West has inherited several competing concepts of dignity, as political theorist Peter Lawler, among others, has pointed out.

Some theorists have suggested that the concept of human dignity has itself suffered a certain kind of corruption.

The ancient pagans of Greece and Rome, he explains, associated dignity with fealty to their city’s civil theology. The stoic philosophers of antiquity rejected that view, concluding that true human dignity was attainable only by the precious few able to comprehend their earthly brilliance and cosmic insignificance. For the founding Christian theologists, that impersonal doctrine was a delusion; human dignity arises from our supernatural uniqueness as ensouled individuals created by a loving God. Enlightenment-era friends of liberty, such as John Locke, countered that we, not the heavens, determine our degree of dignity on Earth, through the self-conscious assertion of our identity as autonomous persons with the right to be who we choose. Finally, some scientists and gurus insist that we really don’t have dignity, even if we might deserve pity, because we’re all just parts of an endlessly changing cosmos with no ultimate meaning.

Who’s right? Americans, Lawler argues, have improvised a messy but workable compromise between the Christian and the Lockean views. There’s evidence that this modus operandi is still holding firm in many parts of the country. But the anthropological assumptions behind today’s financial autocracy tilt firmly in the direction of a modern, but in Lawler’s sense not very American, idea of dignity. As Lawler puts it, the essence of the “modern project” is to “eradicate human mystery and misery and bring history to an end.” Rationalistic and instrumental, modern philosophy tells us that real human dignity is found by using technical social science to maximize everyone’s autonomy and equality—and minimize their suffering and superstition. American financial autocracy came into being and extended around the world because it was considered perhaps the most powerful of means to those ends. Precisely because our financial autocrats believe so strongly in the modern, secular vision of human dignity, they have been willing to tolerate very high levels of systemic risk and corruption. In their minds, there really is no alternative; in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, it’s in that sense people think they accurately say “the system worked.”

Our elites have set a dangerously low bar for human dignity—one Paul suggests we ought to raise. Paul implies that if we do not raise the bar, we run a preeminent risk. At home and abroad, we may be overwhelmed by a shared public sensation that corrupt governance has deprived us of our dignity, no matter how much autonomy or equality it has awarded us in the process.

At home and abroad, corrupt governance has deprived us of our dignity, no matter how much autonomy or equality it has awarded us in the process.

For Lawler, reflecting in this humane sort of way “on the failure of the modern project” takes us beyond the confining and mistaken modern view of dignity—into, surprisingly, the realm of “postmodern thought rightly understood.” A genuinely postmodern anthropology, Lawler says, actually marks a “return to realism.” There, we reconcile ourselves to the “intractable limits” facing any “pragmatic project to make human existence predictable, tranquil, secure, and carefree.” If neoliberals and neoconservatives have misunderstood human dignity and overreached accordingly, postmodern realists—conservative realists, in Paul’s phrase—approach the relationship between dignity and politics in a wiser yet humbler way.

Following this approach, America would champion market commerce, but oppose financial autocracy. It would cultivate leadership and strength, but refrain from instigating war. And it would help ameliorate the ongoing cultural war in America that pits different visions of dignity against one another.

Americans are ready for this kind of vision. But if we only catch a glimpse, or an image distorted by rhetoric and prejudice, we won’t recognize it for what it is. 2016 will come and go, and the task of presenting it anew will fall to a candidate who faces a world, and a county, even worse off than today.

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