With support from Robert Golan-Vilella, Daniel Larison returns to a familiar theme, ridiculing Victor Davis Hanson for pushing the idea that President Obama is a “neo-isolationist.” As Larison notes, and has noted many times, applying the label “isolationist” to a mainstream liberal internationalist and multi-lateralist like Obama, or even to much stronger critics of the “Washington Consensus” like Andrew Bacevich, Ron or Rand Paul, or Larison himself, seems somewhat absurd, or at minimum a poor use of language. What Hanson really means when he refers to a “Diffidence Doctrine,” but is constrained by traditional American political practice from saying, is that Obama seems unwilling to assert an American imperial interest.
A coherent argument for this interest, and for related actual divisions between nominally left and right internationalisms, remains generally unarticulated. For a moment around the turn of the century, it almost became acceptable to speak of the American empire positively or at worst impartially, as in the writings of pundits like Fouad Ajami and Robert Kagan, but further development of that discourse was stalled by gross political-military miscalculations. Neoconservatives and fellow travelers have been forced to retrench, to explain all over again why an American imperial policy is in a narrowly defined American national interest, against a current conventional wisdom decisively against any such belief or claim. The ideology still operates in almost pure form in Republican Party foreign policy circles, however, if under misleading labels, awaiting a cyclical or conjunctural shift in popular opinion, presumably to be brought on by the rise of some intolerable foreign threat or the occurrence of some major setback generally perceived as such. In the meantime the charge that is really being laid against Obama and the contemporary mainstream Democratic Party, and the argument that the right internationalists hope and expect someday to be able to exploit again, is that Democrats like Obama are too passive in defense of the empire, and insufficiently interested in expanding it. The Democratic alternative is not, however, clearly anti-imperialist in its intentions, though it does at least allow for an anti- or non-imperial potential. The Obama-Clinton Democrats stand for a first-among-equals internationalism that, much to the frustration of American Conservative conservatives, leftists, and others, aims to maintain the imperial or neo-imperial political-economic architecture indefinitely, and even to elaborate it by other means or along less centralized lines. This more defensive, more temperamentally conservative stance holds open at least the possibility of a gradual or eventual dissolution of American hegemony.
The Republican neo-imperialists believe that the empire needs to be more aggressively defended and wherever possible expanded. The Democratic neo-imperialists believe that the empire needs mainly to be secured, or, if expanded, expanded via collaboration or cooperation more or less exclusively. The citizenry appears somewhat agnostic or passive on the main questions, except when unsettled by events suggestive of a possible un-managed and abrupt rollback that would also entail a downward adjustment in consumption and other disruptions of accustomed expectations – a possibility or set of possibilities that few outside the neo-imperial mainstream seem equipped to analyze concretely. The tendency for the moment – awaiting the next crisis worthy of the name – remains in favor of the “stationary state” in its globalized form, accompanied by a public discussion of high volume and intricacy, but of little noticeable or perhaps even conceivable significance.