The last few days—as President Donald Trump has savaged America’s allies over trade, demanded that they readmit Russia to the G7, and embraced North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un—make something clear: Cold War conservatism is dead. What’s replacing it resembles less the foreign-policy outlook that has animated conservatives since World War II than the sentiment that prevailed before it.
In the 1920s, conservative Presidents Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover rejected both binding alliances and the notion that America should make economic sacrifices to uphold the geopolitical order. They saw little difference between Britain and France, which were more democratic, and Germany, which was more authoritarian, and insisted that America remain independent from them all. They opposed Woodrow Wilson’s dream of requiring America to aid European nations threatened with aggression through the League of Nations. And, among some conservatives, this fear of binding international commitments continued well into the 1940s. As late as 1949, Ohio Senator Robert Taft—dubbed “Mr. Republican”—voted against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization because NATO, like the League, restrained America’s freedom of action. “It obligates us,” Taft warned, “to go to war if at any time during the next 20 years anyone makes an armed attack on any of the 12 nations.”
But over time, the impact of World War II, and fear of the Soviet Union, largely overcame these anxieties, and Cold War conservatism was born. To justify America’s struggle against virulently anti-democratic powers, conservatives began defining America’s global role ideologically. The United States would lead the free world against its despotic foes.
The narrative created by World War II—of America heroically joining its allies to save the world from Nazi tyranny—countered conservative fears about binding commitments. And, Taft notwithstanding, a 1948 poll found that two-thirds of Democrats and Republicans alike supported the creation of nato. “Politically speaking, isolationism has disappeared as far as mutual treaties against aggression are concerned,” explained the pollster George Gallup. Not only did most conservatives support NATO, by the 1950s most supported the Eisenhower administration’s effort to replicate it in regional pacts like SEATO (the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization) and CENTO (the Central Treaty Organization). Cold War conservatives still took a dim view of the United Nations, which, in their minds, sapped America’s sovereignty while amplifying the voices of its foes. But they became staunch defenders of America’s military alliances. Sovereignty was important, but defending the nations menaced by Soviet communism came first. [Continue reading…]