November 23rd, 2003
What is meant by the term “neoconservative” or “neocon” in the United States? The definition of this term has become a subject of serious debate among American intellectuals.
Given that neocons are believed to have had a lot of influence over the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, and in light of the vociferous criticisms of Bush’s policy toward Iraq, the question of who should be called neoconservatives is an item of interest to both those who label others and those who are labeled neocons.
First of all, there can be no argument about how neoconservatism was born. What distinguishes that political philosophy from the older U.S. conservatism lies in the fact that neocons were liberal intellectuals who used to support the Democratic Party, but were disillusioned with conventional liberalism.
The starting point for neoconservatism was skepticism about such factors as movements against the Vietnam War that were prevalent around the beginning of the 1970s in the United States and excesses in liberalism as shown by the hippie lifestyle, in addition to the U.S. detente policy that was especially conspicuous in the middle of the 1970s and was, in the eyes of the original neocons, thought to ignore the realities of the Cold War.
Representative among neoconservatives in the political world in those days was Democratic Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson. Known as the “godfather” of neoconservatism among scholars and critics is Irving Kristol, the father of today’s neoconservative leader Bill Kristol.
These figures left the ranks of the Democratic Party and subsequently grew to be potent forces supporting the administration of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
When it comes to the philosophical background of neoconservatives, the main intellectual influence on them is said to be Leo Strauss, a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago.
Regarding Strauss’s thinking, Bill Kristol has presented explanations in the form of quoting passages of writings by Strauss. One of them reads: “A social science that cannot speak of tyranny with the same confidence with which medicine speaks, for example, of cancer, cannot understand social phenomena as what they are.”
Strauss started his life anew after leaving Germany in 1937 to flee the Holocaust, and he later became naturalized as an American citizen. Here lies the so-called Jewish background of neoconservatism.
At the core of neoconservative thought is an absolute rejection of Marxism and fascism. Neoconservatives believe man’s natural rights of freedom and democracy cannot be compromised by dictatorial rule or relativism. This, however, is why neoconservatism is often confounded by the simplistic, U.S.-style veneration of democracy.
It is noteworthy that Strauss’s praise of the democracy of the United States stems in part from his knowledge of the classics.
Reflecting on Plato’s ideal of rule by a philosopher-king, Strauss said: “The wise do not wish to rule and the unwise do not wish to be ruled.” From this it follows, “The political problem consists in reconciling the requirement for wisdom with the requirement for consent.” The best way to give wisdom its due in a manner that meets the necessity for consent is for a wise legislator or founder to draft a code, one that the citizen body can be persuaded to adopt without coercion, according to Strauss. His philosophy extols the constitutional framework on which was founded the United States, his new homeland.
How do Strauss’s philosophies mean for U.S. foreign policy?
As Irving Kristol puts it, there is no set of neoconservative principles concerning foreign policy, but there only are a “set of attitudes” that have been derived from historical experiences, especially those pointed to by Thucydides, an ancient Greek historian. (Incidentally, “The History of the Peloponnesian War” by Thucydides is one of my favorite books to the extent that I gave copies of the book to my colleagues while I was a section chief at the Foreign Ministry 35 years ago.)
According to the neocon line of thought expounded by Irving Kristol, patriotism, first of all, should be considered a natural and healthy sentiment.
Second, world government is a terrible idea since it can lead to world tyranny.
Third, politicians should, above all, have the ability to distinguish friends from enemies, according to Kristol.
Finally, neoconservatism upholds a down-to-earth, common-sense point of view regarding national interests, saying national interests in the eyes of a great power transcend national boundaries.
As long as neoconservative attitudes concerning foreign policy are in line with such classical, commonsense ways of thinking, neocons view it as essential to judge for them the evolution of today’s world as accurately as possible.
It is in this context that analyses of the world by such specialists as Robert Kagan get a high profile.
According to Kagan, the emergence of a unified Europe was first expected to affect greatly the world’s balance of power, but it later became evident that traditional European powers have lost the will to have truly effective military might, instead giving up the military roles they once played. As a consequence, the United States has become the sole military superpower, Kagan said. ===
Power brings responsibilities
Here, differences emerge between the views of neoconservatives and traditional conservatives, who have remained undecided yet about what to do with such vestiges in U.S. history as isolationism.
According to Irving Kristol, “With power come responsibilities, whether sought or not, whether welcome or not. And it is a fact that if you have the kind of power we now have, either you will find opportunities to use it, or the world will discover them for you.”
“The older, traditional elements in the Republican Party have difficulty coming to terms with this new reality in foreign affairs,” he said.
Such neoconservative thought has been strongly influential on the Bush administration’s foreign policy.
What is referred to as U.S. unilateralism and views in favor of preemptive strikes, for instance, recall the neocon theory that national interests of a great power are not limited by national boundaries.
The speech Bush made just before the beginning of the Iraq war at the American Enterprise Institute, a leading think tank in Washington, declared the objectives of the war, pledging to bring down the dictatorial regime of then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and pursue the goal of realizing freedom and democracy in the entire Middle East, including Palestine. Bush’s speech on Nov. 6 on his intent to act for the cause of democracy is of the same effect as the AEI address.
Early this month, I attended a meeting in Washington with a small number of people taking part, including Bill Kristol, Kagan and U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton.
What impressed me was that the participants were all serious-minded and philosophical, with both their written and spoken words beautifully clear cut and refined.
As mentioned above, there are dangers of neoconservatism being misunderstood as simplistic, out-and-out imperialistic, self-centered or excessively pro-Jewish, though in terms of the philosophy behind it that is far from the case.
I could not help but be struck with awe and respect for the intellectual vitality of the United States to know that a group of people imbued with a new philosophy and new mode of thinking had got its turn to participate in a great transformation of the world. Furthermore, their philosophy is not a mere casual idea, but is rooted in a profound understanding of the classics. ===
Japan’s intellectual decay
There can of course be objections to neocons. That’s the way democracy works. A new direction of the United States can be paved through the checks and balances of proponents and opponents of a wide range of views. Neoconservatism is undoubtedly one of the key elements in the course of finding a balance of ideas.
How about Japan, for that matter?
None of those who were at the forefront of the radical student movements as symbolized by Zengakuren (the National Federation of Students’ Self-Government Associations) and Zenkyoto (all-campus joint struggle committees of universities) can explain, to younger generations, why they resorted to those extremes. If any, the exceptions would be limited to the perpetrators of the 1970 hijacking of a Japan Airlines plane, who are still in North Korea.
To be sure, soul-searching about those days led to the emergence of such distinguished thinkers as the late Kenichi Koyama and Seizaburo Sato.
A large majority of the former Zengakuren-Zenkyoto activists and their sympathizers seem to have done nothing but have their onetime anti-U.S., anti-Japan-U.S. security treaty position replaced by a nationalistic version of anti-Americanism and substituted their former leftist, anti-establishmentarianism for environmentalism. They do so on the pretense of ensuring continuity of their views, but in doing so they only ignore their past misdeeds.
Nothing new can be born out of such sterility.
Can there be any possibility of movements for a new Japan by doing away with the decay of thought that has plagued this country since its defeat in World War II?
Of essential significance for us in tackling this challenge is to return to the wisdom of the classics and the treasury of history, I believe.
We should recall that the renaissance that opened up the door to the modern world began with the revival of the classics.