The Neoconservative Persuasion, by Irving Kristol: Commentary

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...the world has room for only one, and the other must yield or be destroyed. Thus, carrying their idols before them, the nationalistic masses of our time meet in the international arena, each group convinced that it executes the mandate of history, that it does for humanity what it seems to do for itself, and that it fulfils a sacred mission ordained by Providence…little do they know that they meet under an empty sky from which the Gods have departed.
Hans Morgenthau[1]

What is known as "neoconservatism" is subject to differing explanations and on-going revisions. "The Neoconservative Persuasion: What it was and what it is" by Irving Kristol.[2]casts doubt on his previous utterances that the concept had its own distinctive qualities in its early years, or that it was absorbed into the mainstream of American Conservatism. Kristol maintained that it did have its origin among disillusioned liberal intellectuals in the 1970s, but was “one of those intellectual undercurrents that surface only intermittently”. For Kristol it is not a "movement," and he further asserts that this is the view of “conspiratorial critics”.

Neoconservatism is then a "persuasion," meaning a nebulous form of social influence, but also a process, a strategy which induces the adoption of doctrines, ideas, attitudes, and actions by various means - although coercion as a means of persuasion is never far from neo-conservative rhetoric. Defined as a persuasion, neoconservatism can also be viewed as a personal belief or judgment that is not founded on proof or any degree of certainty but has metaphysical aspects - moral authority derived from transcendent criteria. The term also seems to conjour up the notion of a general term for a closed-off community or secret society acting within but possesed of a desire to transform Conservatism - yet its vagueness also represents a mystique which is used to replace a critique of government power and its relation to small unaccountable controlling elite factions.

Indeed for Kristol it is a persuasion that manifests itself over time, but erratically, and one whose meaning we clearly glimpse only in retrospect - from its residues. This evasiveness in the face of analysis and the conception of a purely retrospective existence is reminiscent of author Ron Suskind’s description of a meeting with an official from the George W. Bush White House, which directly affected the ways in which policy scholars are able to assess matters:

The aide said that guys like [Suskind] were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really operates any more,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will— we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to study what we do.”[3]

Kristol's definition explains that the historical task and political purpose of neoconservatism would seem to be to convert the Republican party, and American Conservatism in general into a new kind of Conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy:

That this new conservative politics is distinctly American is beyond doubt. There is nothing like neoconservatism in Europe, and most European conservatives are highly skeptical of its legitimacy. The fact that conservatism in the United States is so much healthier than in Europe, so much more politically effective, surely has something to do with the existence of neoconservatism. But Europeans, who think it absurd to look to the United States for lessons in political innovation, resolutely refuse to consider this possibility.[4]

It could be observed that in contradiction to this, the UK's new labour project contained neo-conservative elements within its small controlling elite. For Kristol the majority of US Republican politicians know nothing and are ambivalent about neoconservatism, because:

(a) its inspiration and traditions are other than Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, and Barry Goldwater,
(b) it reaches out beyond financial bases and
(c) its public policies, not the traditional Republican ones, have resulted in popular Republican presidencies.

These are essentially thinly veiled attacks on the right of the Republican Party. For Kristol the most visible and controversial defining policy was cutting tax rates in order to stimulate steady economic growth and he adds a reference to how 'trickle-down' economics defeated the economic reality of the class struggle:

Neocons are familiar with intellectual history and aware that it is only in the last two centuries that democracy has become a respectable option among political thinkers. In earlier times, democracy meant an inherently turbulent political regime, with the "have-nots" and the "haves" engaged in a perpetual and utterly destructive class struggle. It was only the prospect of economic growth in which everyone prospered, if not equally or simultaneously, that gave modern democracies their legitimacy and durability.[5]

Yet cutting taxes would not seem to be particularly innovative, or stand in distinction to traditional Conservativism; and once more we see the entirely American-centric nature of this 'world vision'. And much the same could be said of the other defining features presented: a dislike of the concentration of services in the welfare state and an interest in alternative ways of delivering these services and so on. It would seem that neoconservatism is concerned with the ancient political art of taking the credit for success while distancing itself from falure.

However within Kristol's conceptualisation of the term real distinctions are made, the Hayekian notion that we are on "the road to serfdom" thanks to state planning, is questioned in that the growth of the state in the past century, is seen as natural, indeed ‘inevitable’. Similarly Herbert Spencer's "The Man Versus the State," is deemed a ‘historical eccentricity’. The intellectual guidance is found in the “democratic wisdom of Tocqueville, rather than in the Tory nostalgia of, say, Russell Kirk.” In some sense this is a disparaging allusion to the attempts to merge the differing strands of Conservatism that emerged with organising the support and in the aftermath of the defeat of Goldwater's presidential ambitions in 1964; as represented by Frank Meyer's advocation of a "fusionism" of libertarianism and conservatism as promoted by William F. Buckley and the National Review's mission to make Conservatism 'respectable'.[6]

The uniting factor with more traditional Conservatism is said to be cultural: the sharing of the perception that the decline in US democratic culture has sunk to new levels of vulgarity.

Kristol argues that since the Republican party now has a substantial base among the religious this gives neoconservatism its levels of influence and power; thus libertarian conservatives are excluded, while secular intellectuals, and religious traditionalists are included. Correspondingly, it is argued, neoconservative potential is weak in Europe because religious conservatism is weaker.[7]

Kristol also argues that there is no set of neoconservative beliefs concerning foreign policy, only a set of attitudes derived from historical experience. What is cited, with regard to Leo Strauss of Chicago and Donald Kagan of Yale, is Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War.[8] Kristol's summation of the influence of this text's influence is thus:

1. Patriotism is a natural and healthy sentiment and should be encouraged by both private and public institutions.
2. World government is a terrible idea since it can lead to world tyranny.
3. Statesmen should, above all, have the ability to distinguish friends from enemies.
4. For a great power, the "national interest" is not a geographical term, except for fairly prosaic matters like trade and environmental regulation.

These tenets are more or less designed to engender conflict with those who do not concur with their rationale, Kristol also argues that: "International institutions that point to an ultimate world government should be regarded with the deepest suspicion" and that "the number of intelligent men who could not count the Soviet Union as an enemy, even though this was its own self-definition, was absolutely astonishing." Kristol draws on the abstraction that a larger 'nation' has more extensive interests which are (again) a priori:

And large nations, whose identity is ideological, like the Soviet Union of yesteryear and the United States of today, inevitably have ideological interests in addition to more material concerns. Barring extraordinary events, the United States will always feel obliged to defend, if possible, a democratic nation under attack from nondemocratic forces, external or internal. That is why it was in our national interest to come to the defense of France and Britain in World War II. That is why we feel it necessary to defend Israel today, when its survival is threatened. No complicated geopolitical calculations of national interest are necessary.[9]

Kristol provides a post World War II, list of US military engagements: the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the Kosovo conflict, the Afghan War, and the Iraq War, where this protectorate of "nondemocratic forces, external or internal" was in evidence. Kristol argues that traditional elements in the Republican party have difficulty coming to terms with this new reality in foreign affairs because they cannot reconcile economic conservatism with social and cultural conservatism. He also adds that with the George W. Bush administration neoconservatism began enjoying a second life, "at a time when its obituaries were still being published."

Further Reading

1. Conflict between power and idealism: in that "A national interest defined as ‘global hegemony’ does not always converge with the ideal of democratic self-governance."
2. ‘Benevolent global hegemony’ lacks requisite strategic depth: in that "Just precluding the rise of a rival power does not deal with all threats because it does not account for transnational problems." This draws on Joseph Nye's identification of three levels of power in international relations: the military level, the economic level, the transnational level.
3. Backlash against ‘hegemony’: in that "not all countries welcome American leadership and therefore it is not always a stabilising factor."
4. Imperial Overstretch: in that "The first generation of neoconservatives in the 1970s were much more cognizant of the limits on American power", whereas "the second generation is much less aware of the limits on US power and so its strategy is much more susceptible to overstretch."
1. A Theory of History: This theory finds its point of origin in the depression decade of the 1930s, a decade that for Podhoretz and other neoconservatives serves as a parable.
2. Power: In international politics there is no substitute for superior military power.
3. America has a mission: Alternatives to or substitutes for American global leadership simply do not exist. American values are by definition universal values.
4. Appreciation for Authority: This is at the centre of the relationship between politics at home, especially cultural politics, and America's purpose abroad.
5. The US after Vietnam confronted a permanent crisis: Absent decisive action to resolve that crisis would result in 'unspeakable consequences'.
6. The antidote to crisis is leadership: As exemplified by Ronald Reagan.

Bacevich also notes (p.91):

When James Burnham had argued in the 1940s that the only alternative to the communist World Empire is an American Empire which will be... capable of exercising decisive world control," critics had denounced him as unhinged. But with 9/11, neoconservatives had come fully to embrace this imperial vision. Waging preventive war to overthrow recalcitrant regimes and free the oppressed-this had become the definitive expression of America's calling.


  1. Hans Morgenthau, Politics among nations: the struggle for power and peace, 4th ed. (1967), p.249.
  2. Irving Kristol (2003) The Neoconservative Persuasion: What it was, and what it is, August 25, Weekly Standard, Volume 8, Issue 47.
  3. Frank Fischer, Gerald Miller, Mara S. Sidney (2006) Handbook of public policy analysis: theory, politics, and methods, p.3.
  4. Irving Kristol (2003) The Neoconservative Persuasion: What it was, and what it is, August 25, Weekly Standard, Volume 8, Issue 47.
  5. Irving Kristol (2003) The Neoconservative Persuasion: What it was, and what it is, August 25, Weekly Standard, Volume 8, Issue 47.
  6. Daniel McCarthy (2007)The Failure of Fusionism, January 29, The American Conservative. See also: Enrico Peppe (2003)Frank Meyer: In Defense of Freedom: A Conservative Credo, Intellectual Conservatism, 12 October. For Buckley's revisionist review of Conservative revisionism see: Interview with William F. Buckley Jr., Judy Woodruff, broadcast Mar. 22, 2006, Truthdig, accessed 21 April 2009. See also: William F. Buckley Jr., Israel Frenzy: Neocons in the middle, National Review March 02, 2004, 11:34 a.m., accessed 21 April 2009. Here Buckley seems remarkably sympathetic to that Richard Perle and David Frum.
  7. Steve Dorril (1984) American Friends: the Anti-CND Groups, Lobster No. 3, noted that Richard Viguerie, regarded as the Godfather of the New Right and editor of Conservative Digest, and who worked under the auspices of the Coalition For Peace Through Strength (CPS-US) developed direct mail techniques with computerised access to millions of names and expertise in mobilising a vast network. Viguerie was was a key institutional link in getting the European Right behind the 'Soviet Threat' campaigns of the 1980s with the same fervour shown for the so-called pro-family, anti Equal Rights Amendment, anti-gay, anti-abortion movements that arose in reaction to the 1960s.
  8. Thucydides (431BC) The History of the Peloponnesian War is the history of the war between Athens and Sparta with the accent on the need for empire. This is noted for Pericles' Funeral Oration, something of a classic statement of Athenian ideology. The Social Affairs Unit's William Charles (2006) Why Thucyides?, September 13, aims to explain, from a European context, why the Histories are important to neoconservatives - and how they have been misinterpreted by neoconservatism's opponents. This also centres on the concept of the "noble lie" and aims to respond to Adam Curtis' 'The Power of Nightmares' and Shadia Drury's work on Leo Strauss. See also: Donald Kagan (2003) The Peloponnesian War.
  9. Irving Kristol (2003) The Neoconservative Persuasion: What it was, and what it is, August 25, Weekly Standard, Volume 8, Issue 47.