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Sobering up the Neoconservative pedigree: Irving Kristol's balance of Realism and ideology

Written by André Ken Jakobsson, Ph.D. Candidate at Center for War Studies

Neoconservatism has earned itself a tainted reputation since the Bush era wars in Afghanistan and especially Iraq. It was often presented as the ideological foundation for redesigning the Middle East and implementing democracy like a magical formula for peace. However, the neoconservative pedigree runs much deeper and longer than the Bush presidency. Diving into the intellectual history of the so-called Godfather of Neoconservatism, Irving Kristol, helps understand the movement that moved far away from its roots and unfortunately became synonymous with ideological blindness.

It will be remembered that prior to the Iraq war beginning, a plethora of Realist minded scholars, including John J. Mearsheimer and Kenneth N. Waltz, warned against the campaign, cautioning that "war with Iraq is not in America's national interest." Therefore the Realist warning against and the Neoconservative argument for the war must be considered to be in conflict. But here it is central to understand that the Neoconservatism of the Iraq war is different from the one professed for decades before. That part of the pedigree was more tempered and balanced. Kristol himself pointed to the Classical Realist work "The Peloponnesian War" by Thucydides as "the favorite neoconservative text on foreign affairs" in the 2004 book "The Neocon Reader". Kristol himself was a stark anti-Communist, influenced by the anti-revolutionary current of British political thinker and conservative Edmund Burke, the lessons of 1789, 1848 and 1917. He echoed the Realist warnings against Utopianism that Classical Realists such as E. H. Carr and Hans J. Morgenthau saw as fundamental to their Realism. Like them, Kristol had an innate skepticism towards social engineering and great respect for the limits to human nature and politics.

The Godfather of Neoconservatism spoke with a Realist vocabulary when addressing the hopes of progress in his time which made him warn against perfect solutions to the Cold War. Jonathan Bronitsky's portrait of Kristol attends carefully to this point: "Kristol rebuked scores of Cold War initiatives, including those that sought to export Western conventions to the Third World. “It is about time we recognized that not all the peoples and nations in the world want to be free and happy, as we in America understand those terms,” he averred in Commentary in 1956. “Democracy, heaven be praised, is not indivisible, any more than peace is; we need no perfect solutions to survive in an imperfect world.” Speaking on India the same year, he derided scholars and bureaucrats for viewing India “as a nebulous ‘underdeveloped country’ moving ineluctably towards a predetermined harmony with the West” rather than “an independent nation with its own life, its own ambitions, its own purposes.” He elaborated in the June 1957 issue of the Yale Review: “Why should they aspire to recreate themselves in the image of our particular traditions? It is understandable that Americans should regard themselves as the earth’s fixed center; it is also understandable that Asians and Arabs should look on this as an act of gross presumption.”

Read the sobering investigation of the Godfather of Neoconservatism and see if it will redefine your understanding of this important school of thought. The article can be found here.