The Big Question: What is neo-conservatism, and how influential is it today?

Why are we asking this question now?

David Cameron yesterday delivered a major foreign policy speech warning against the spread of anti-Americanism, yet distancing himself from the neo-conservatives who have dominated US foreign policy under President Bush. Mr Cameron describes himself as a "liberal conservative" rather than a neo-conservative.

But what is neo-conservatism?

The ideology is difficult to define. It used to be a blend of liberal democracy and hawkish foreign policy. Today the term refers to idealistic hawkishness. The philosophy has been around since the middle of the 20th century, if not earlier. Some trace its origins to the liberals and social progressives who strongly backed the Second World War. One of its founders was the US intellectual and writer Irving Kristol, a former Trotskyist who later described himself as "a liberal mugged by reality". In the 1950s and 1960s the neo-conservatives adopted a similarly robust view towards the Soviet Union, breaking first with the anti-capitalist New Left, then with the Washington foreign policy establishment that came to support Cold War détente with Moscow.

How did it become identified with the Republicans?

For a long period it wasn't. Harry Truman and John Kennedy in some respects could have been labelled neo-conservatives. What changed things was the more dovish national security stance of the Democrats, after George McGovern won the party's presidential nomination in 1972. Thereafter Democratic Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson of Washington, an anti-Soviet hawk, became a focus for the movement. Among his staffers were Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, intensely pro-Israeli and later two of the most influential neo-cons under Ronald Reagan and George W Bush. They opposed not only the McGovernite Democrats, but also the "pragmatist" détente policy of Nixon, Kissinger and Ford.

What happened after that?

The neo-conservatives first really came into their own under Ronald Reagan, who decided to challenge the Soviet "evil empire" head on. But they gradually parted ways with Reagan as he shifted towards détente with the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. More idealistic neo-conservatives were also dismayed by President Reagan's backing for anti-democratic regimes simply because they were US allies and anti-Soviet. Reagan's support for Israel also fell short of neo-con expectations.

Why did the neo-cons triumph?

Ideologically, because of the collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union. This was seen as vindication for the neo-conservatives - even though the great moment came when the supremely pragmatic George Bush senior was President. They remained in opposition under Bill Clinton, but in the 1990s quietly came to dominate Republican foreign policy. Their manifesto was A Project for the New American Century, their mouthpiece the Weekly Standard magazine, edited by Bill Kristol (son of Irving). Among the signatories of PNAC were Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld the present Defence Secretary, as well as Wolfowitz and Lewis Libby, chief of staff for Cheney when the latter became Vice-President. PNAC called for higher defence spending, the promotion of democracy and freedom around the world, and the creation of a world order "friendly to our security, prosperity and values". George W Bush's victory in 2000 gave them power; 9/11 and the "war on terror" gave them their cause.

What effects has it had?

Enormous, and most would say, disastrous effects. The ousting of Saddam Hussein had been on the mind of Paul Wolfowitz, for one, since the early 1990s when he was a senior Pentagon official under the first President Bush. The decision to allow Saddam to stay in power after the 1991 Gulf War was a mistake, he believed. The "war on terror" gave Wolfowitz - now deputy Defence Secretary - and his fellow believers their chance. Neo-cons at the Pentagon and the Vice-President's office twisted the intelligence to prove that Saddam had WMDs and imply he had a hand in 9/11. For neo-cons, Iraq was to be a test run for the reform of the entire Middle East and the spread of democracy in the region.

By any yardstick, the policy has been a failure. Iraq is in chaos, and the Middle East has become less rather than more stable. Around the world, anti-Americanism has increased hugely. Neo-conservatives in their turn have been "mugged by reality" - the reality being that even the sole superpower America is not omnipotent, and that ancient civilisations are not to be transformed by elections alone. Above all, they stand guilty of naivete.

How does George Bush fit in?

After September 11, the administration's security policy was powered by the alliance of Cheney and Rumsfeld (both, incidentally, hardline "realists" rather than conservatives with an ideological mission), who dominated an inexperienced President. But the balance shifted as Iraq went wrong. Bush realised the US could not go it alone. Condoleezza Rice, a more moderate figure, gained influence, as the stars of both Cheney and Rumsfeld waned. Wolfowitz left to become chairman of the World Bank, while Libby resigned after his indictment in the CIA leak affair.

Have the neo-cons been discredited?

Not necessarily. Their credibility has been shredded by Iraq, but Kristol and others blame the failure not on the original grand design, but on the poor organisation of the occupation by Rumsfeld and his minions at the Pentagon. The original principles of PNAC are still very much the cornerstone of US foreign policy.

The crucial test case of neo-con influence is now Iran. In contrast with Iraq, Bush's instinct seems to be to let diplomacy run its course in the dispute over Tehran's suspected nuclear weapons programme. But neo-cons are urging him (and/or Israel) to take no chances and bomb Iran, just as Iraq was attacked three years ago.

Do the neo-cons have a British equivalent?

Most certainly, in the person of Tony Blair. The Labour leader is in many respects an identikit US neo-con. Obviously Britain, unlike America, doesn't have the power to reshape the world. Nor is Mr Blair as unabashedly pro-Israel as Mr Bush. But he is a left-of-centre politician who espouses a robust and ideals-driven foreign policy, despite being fully aware of the unpopularity of his chief ally, and of UK domestic opposition to the neo-cons' main policy, the invasion of Iraq. If that isn't neo-conservatism, what is?

Has neo-conservatism proved successful in practice?


* The neo-cons have to their credit the expulsion of Saddam from Kuwait, and the defeat of Slobodan Milosevic in Bosnia and Kosovo

* The "war on terror" has largely destroyed al-Qa'ida - or at least its capacity to strike directly at targets on US soil

* It cemented Republican dominance in the battle of ideas in the US, and helped the party win the elections of 2002 and 2004


* Neo-conservative policies have led to a geo-strategic disaster for the US in Iraq and, possibly, in Afghanistan

* It is responsible for a worldwide surge in anti-Americanism, giving the impression the US did not care what anyone else thought

* It inspired the US tilt towards Israel which has made a settlement of the Palestinian dispute all but unimaginable

Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleThe idea has been greeted enthusiastically by the party's MPs
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012
voicesAnd nobody from Ukip said babies born to migrants should be classed as migrants, says Nigel Farage
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
i100(More than you think)
Brendan Rodgers seems more stressed than ever before as Liverpool manager
FOOTBALLI like Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
Benjamin Stambouli celebrates his goal for Tottenham last night
Life and Style
Dishing it out: the head chef in ‘Ratatouille’
food + drinkShould UK restaurants follow suit?
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML, CSS, SQL

£39000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML,...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey


Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game