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NeoconservatismReview - Neoconservatism
The Biography of a Movement
by Justin Vaļsse
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010
Review by Russell W. Askren
Aug 2nd 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 31)

Neoconservatism, as confusing a political movement as exists, has been the focus of several previous attempts to explain and understand the movement.  Translated from the original French, Neoconservatism: The Biography of a Movement by Justin VaÏsse, represents the most recent of these efforts.  VaÏsse, in a volume written for the knowledgeable reader, however, rejects the standard approach of utilizing a single lens to understand neoconservatism in favor of an approach which focuses upon the political concerns of the movement during different periods.  These overlapping "ages," of which there are three, are examined in light of the individuals, organizations and publications that are prominent, the central political concerns of neoconservatives during the period, and to a lesser extent, the central ideas that motivate the political positions held.  This approach is a promising one for understanding a movement lacking a central ideological commitment.  However, this historical approach is not meant to obscure VaÏsse's intention to "show concretely how ideas take hold and spread to the point where they influence political decisionmakers."

Neoconservatism was born out of reaction by disaffected leftists against the radicalization of the New Left and the liberal construction of society in the 1960s.  First age neoconservatism, extending from 1965 into the 1990s, focuses upon a critique of social policy of the welfare state.  The United States was in crisis, facing a loss of confidence in its institutions.  This crisis was of a moral nature caused by the decline of traditional values and the rise of a new set of leftist issues such as identity and minority rights.  The state, in its welfare role, had created an unreasonable set of expectations since the state's ability to act was limited.  Experts, using empirical data, rather than intellectuals should drive policy.  Unlike the later "ages", VaÏsse characterizes this first age as a period of development in which the movement has little direct influence upon policy.

Second age neoconservatism (which makes up over half the book), extending from 1972-1992, is no longer just an intellectual movement but is also politically active.   Neoconservative ideas on foreign policy were driven by a reaction to the failure in Vietnam.  Rather than focusing upon America's guilt and failure in the war, the focus turned to the evils of totalitarianism represented by the Soviet Union and America's need to defend the world from the Soviet's expansionist policies.  Neoconservative work on the nuclear weapon problem and the attachment to the Reagan administration receive significant treatment by VaÏsse.    Missing from this section is any detailed view of second age concerns regarding domestic policy.  These concerns are expressed largely as the remnants of first age neoconservatism and its influence upon Reagan Administration tax policies.

Third age neoconservatism (1995 through today) begins just as neoconservatives themselves were declaring the movement dead.  The motivating factor for its resurgence was concern over America's foreign policy stance with the end of the Cold War.   The message of neoconservatism was to be one of American greatness.  The United States must recognize and live up to its special responsibility as the bearer of freedom and democracy in the world.  Domestically, neoconservatives called upon Americans to be patriotic in support of America's unique role in the world, including the development of a large military and the willingness to use it unilaterally. The significant influence of neoconservatives in this period is due to the maturity of the movement, now possessing a more coherent intellectual foundation, existing political influence, greater media savvy and a convergence between the view of top office holders (e.g., Vice-President Cheney) and neoconservatism. Neoconservatism was now truly a conservative viewpoint rather than one held by disaffected liberals.  After laying out the core of third age neoconservatism, VaÏsse analyzes the movement's stance regarding world affairs, its influence in the younger Bush administration, the road to war in Iraq, and offers a critique of the neoconservative vision.  Each of these sections seems unjustifiably short and disconnected from the front half of the chapter that outlines the principles of the movement during this period.  A critique of third age neoconservatism is offered based upon the presumed failure of the Iraq war, which leaves open the question of what critique might be offered if the war is viewed as a success, as is possible. 

Although the "age" approach is a valuable contribution towards understanding neoconservatism, I found this book difficult to read at times.  Some sentences are oddly constructed, raising the possibility of translation issues.  Other oddities also make the reading uneven.  For example, Senator Henry M. Jackson is referenced sometimes with his official title, sometimes with his nickname (in quotes and without), and sometimes by last name alone.  There are good reasons for an author to do this, but the usages here seem random.   

The book suffers also in the balance between developing an historical account as opposed to an intellectual account.  An example of the failure to show the development of ideas is evident in the section on Jackson, when VaÏsse indicates that Jackson's view of China was "strangely non-ideological and romantic" and "apparently came from reading Pearl Buck."  No evidence of Jackson's view as "romantic" is offered nor is it obvious why this is important, as what immediately follows is about the Soviet Union.  A book about ideas should, particularly in the case of negative assertions, explain origins and importance of the relevant ideas.    

I wonder about the final message of this book.  Is it that neoconservatism is an important movement that has influenced, and still influences, American politics as VaÏsse claims in closing the book with the phrase "neoconservatism has a future"?  Or is neoconservatism just another voice in the wind, as indicated when VaÏsse writes regarding the second Iraq war that neoconservatives "were merely one source of inspiration among others for a complex, multifarious policy that was shaped largely by the course of events."  Statements like this, which occur throughout the book, undermine VaÏsse's claim that this is a book about ideas and their influence in politics. 

 

© Russell W. Askren

 

Russell W. Askren is a doctoral student in philosophy at the University of Utah and an Adjunct Instructor in Philosophy at Utah Valley University.  He may be reached at Russ.Askren@utah.edu.


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