Reagan’s Conservatism and U.S. Foreign Policy

The tragic deaths of over two hundred Marines in Beirut and the American invasion of Grenada have sparked a lively debate over President Reagan’s foreign policy. Critics of that policy have attacked Mr. Reagan’s apparent enthusiasm for displaying American power and committing U.S. troops abroad. The President’s decision to invade Grenada is, for them, the most extreme manifestation of a general policy of relying on force and the threat of force as much as on diplomacy and negotiation. El Salvador, the covert war in Nicaragua, naval demonstrations off the Libyan coast, Lebanon and now Grenada are seen as part of a larger pattern of American assertiveness abroad. These critics have particularly reacted to the administration’s reluctance to consult with Congress over the presence and purpose of U.S. forces in Lebanon and American ‘aid to the anti-government guerrillas in Nicaragua. With respect to the former this criticism has centered around the administration’s attitude to the activation of the War Powers Act.

Commentators have interpreted the President’s foreign policy as a reflection of his conservative political principles. Mr. Reagan has indeed been one of our most ideological presidents and his domestic policy has been based to a large degree on his well-known conservative belief that the best government is the least government, that the growth of federal bureaucracy and interventionism (beginning in 1933 and accelerating in the 1960s) threatens the Republic and must be halted and ultimately reversed. While the President’s conservatism can be seen as a plausible basis for his domestic policy, problems arise when one attempts to find a connection between his conservative political philosophy and his foreign policy.

In commenting on the accuracy of the label “conservative” with respect to Mr. Reagan, two facts should be kept in mind. First, the expansion of the federal government chiefly benefited the executive branch at the expense of a Congress either unwilling or unable to check its operations and, second, this expansion of presidential authority occurred in both domestic and foreign policy. The “imperial presidency,” in short, encompassed both internal and external largesse, both the Great Society and Vietnam. While there is no necessary parallel between the expansion of state power domestically and its extension abroad (Sweden and Great Britain, for example, have greatly expanded the role of the state in the domestic sphere without a concomitant expansion in the foreign or military areas and the first eight years of the New Deal saw a militarily weak United States), it appears that since the Second World War such a parallel does exist in America and must be taken into consideration by conservatives who desire the limitation of governmental power.

A consistently conservative approach, therefore, must address the over-expansion of presidential power abroad as well as at home. Most modern conservatives, however, seem to lack such consistency (witness Mr. George Will’s criticism of Congress and the War Powers Act vis-a-vis Lebanon). One must look back to the late 1940s and early 1950s, to Herbert Hoover’s “Fortress America” proposal and the Bricker Amendment, in order to find a conservative critique of and response to the perceived over-extension of executive power on both the domestic and foreign fronts. More recently, Senator Eugene McCarthy’s challenge to Lyndon Johnson’s war-making authority in the 1968 Democratic primary elections and his attempt, since then, to reassert the Senate’s role in foreign affairs could be construed — when coupled with his criticism of some domestic government bureaucracies like the I.R.S. and the Federal Election Commission — as a consistently conservative approach to state power. But most conservatives today, while expending much rhetoric on the danger of “big government” at home, seem curiously sanguine about it abroad. They fail to see that both the domestic and foreign variants of presidential interventionism are threats, in the long run, to our constitutional system and prefer to concentrate their fire (usually missing their target anyway) on only the domestic side.

The reluctance of the Reagan administration to share responsibility for maintaining troops in Lebanon with Congress through the activation of the War Powers Act should therefore be considered disappointing from a conservative point of view. Certainly, there is nothing “bigger” about big government than the power of a chief executive to send troops into another country without even bothering to consult with Congress, to involve this country in a war before its representatives have had a decent opportunity to debate the issues involved. While such an action could be expected from a president like Lyndon Johnson, who believed in the almost unlimited use of executive power to solve problems both at home and abroad, it should not be expected from a president who — as a conservative — does not believe in the omnipotence or omniscience of his office. Even L.B.J., at that, brought Congress into the picture with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as he sought to involve America in one civil war; President Reagan, the “conservative,” seems intent on involving this nation in three — El Salvador, Nicaragua and, now, Lebanon. Mr. Reagan’s apparent attempt to transform what was initially a non-partisan peace-keeping contingent into an ally of President Gemayel’s government needs to be vigorously debated. Yet the opportunity for such a debate, both nationally and in Congress, has been frustrated by an administration that fears sharing its decision-making with any other body, even one so designated by the Constitution and American history. Such an attitude cannot be called conservative.

Conservatism, if it is anything, is an attitude of healthy skepticism towards the state. A conservative should recognize the necessity and utility of government but should never wholeheartedly embrace it. This skepticism must apply to the foreign as well as domestic policies of a government, perhaps even more so to the former since, as John F. Kennedy once remarked, while a government’s domestic policy could at worse offend or impoverish us, its foreign policy could kill us. More specifically, a conservative — recognizing the fallibility of all men and institutions — refuses to acquiesce in the centralization of power in any one individual or office. Instead, conservative statesmen have sought to distribute power among several centers in order to ensure that no one individual or group of individuals could become so powerful as to be rendered unaccountable for their actions. For this reason, the framers of our Constitution determined that while the President would be the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, Congress would be responsible for their maintenance and would have the power to declare war. They believed that an instrument as powerful as the military should not be entrusted to only one branch of government or one individual.

The above digression into history and political theory would be unnecessary if it were not for the fact that some recent conservatives, like Mr. Reagan and Mr. Will, seem to have forgotten what conservatism is about. It is not simply the preservation of the status quo by the institution of social programs and the wise use of power, as Mr. Will seems to think (as a conservative he should know that power has rarely been used wisely), nor is it simply the desire to limit the role of the central government at home, as Mr. Reagan believes. It is also a desire for a foreign policy that is based on consultation and cooperation between the executive and legislative branches instead of one where the latter must continually react to the initiatives and actions of the former.


  • Michael P. Ambrose

    When he wrote this article in 1983, Michael P. Ambrose was a graduate student in Political Science at the University of Pittsburgh.

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