Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its aftermaths
Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its aftermaths

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4.2 Neoconservatism and the Bush Doctrine

(The course team would like to thank Dr. Simon Bromley for his invaluable contribution to pages 4.2, 4.3 and 4.4 of this section. You can read an interview with Simon in section 4.4.)

For both the US’s critics and supporters, foreign policy under Bush has been marked by what is called a neoconservative agenda. The neoconservative moment in US foreign policy marked a departure from the interregnum presided over by Presidents George Bush Snr and Bill Clinton. The interregnum began with the dissolution of communism in Eastern Europe and the break-up of the Soviet Union (1989–91). It was marked by an apparent triumph of liberal democracy and market capitalism as the only viable models of politics and economics. 9/11 posed a stark challenge to that optimistic reading of historical and geopolitical development. In the context of the shock of 9/11 and the fears it generated, a distinctive neoconservative interpretation of international politics was able to gain a wide audience in US society.

The political analysts Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke argue that the neoconservative vision and its resonance with US political culture after 9/11 was ‘one of fear’ (Halper and Clarke, 2004, p178). It was based on the view that, notwithstanding the US victory in the Cold War, liberal values and institutions were not widely shared outside the US and had to be (if necessary forcibly) imposed if the US was to have a benign, long-term geo-strategic environment. This was a ‘fear’ grounded in a premonition of potential future challenges: a recognition of the fact that the dissolution of the Cold War on US terms was not at all the same thing as the rest of the world adopting liberal–democratic and US values.

The basic premise of the neoconservative reading of international politics was that with the collapse of the Soviet Union (and hence the end of the Cold War) there was a single and unifying source of order in the international system – the combination of universal values and unrivalled military power embodied in the US. A prominent European analyst of international relations and US power, Christian Reus-Smit, says that neoconservatives believed that ‘America’s material preponderance and universal values [gave] Washington the means and the right to reshape world order’ (Reus-Smit, 2004, p3).

The degree to which neoconservatism represented a break with previous frameworks of thought about the US’s role in the world should not, however, be overstated. Nonetheless, the emerging geostrategic predicament that animated both the neoconservatives and (at least after 9/11) nearly all conservative US nationalists, centred around three principal concerns.

  1. The ability of the most powerful states in the world to maintain more or less exclusive control over the means of mass destruction.

    Proliferation of nuclear weapons threatened to undermine the nuclear oligopoly of the major powers, thereby creating a more competitive environment in which less stable powers eager to challenge the status quo gained access to nuclear (and other) weapons and ballistic missile systems. In addition, a rising level of general technological competence and capacity meant that technologies of mass destruction were becoming more widely accessible, including to non-state actors. This latter concern was not merely an artefact of 9/11: President Clinton had identified the prospect of non-state actors gaining access to weapons of mass destruction as early as 1995. These worries were the origins of the notion of preventative action, since both kinds of proliferation were seen as a threat not just to the US, but to the international system as a whole. As Robert Cooper, diplomat and sometime adviser to Prime Minister Blair, explained: ‘A system in which preventative action is required will be stable only under the condition that it is dominated by a single power or a concert of powers. The doctrine of prevention therefore needs to be complemented by a doctrine of enduring strategic superiority’ (Cooper, 2004, p63).

  2. The recognition that the rise of new regional powers, in addition to the emergence of a global terrorist threat, was likely to be a source of instability and potential conflict in the international system.

    While the neoconservatives were confident of the ability of the US to maintain its role as the sole global military power, the fall of the USSR and the rise of China (and, to a lesser extent, India) were seen as profoundly unsettling to the balance of power. The future alignments of such powers as Turkey, Ukraine, Iran and the like were also of concern, states that were themselves not of the first rank but whose strategic choices and alignments were crucial for the system as a whole. The fear was that there were ‘many countries that could become too powerful or too aggressive for regional balance’ (Cooper, 2004, p64).

  3. The concern that the unitary leadership of the US that was forged during the Cold War was unravelling.

    The most specific concern, articulated most clearly by Robert Kagan (2003), was that Europe – that is the European Union – was set on a perilous course of internal indulgence and external neglect. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) had always had an important element of internal Western confidence building about it, but during the Cold War it was also a functioning strategic and military alliance. However, NATO’s war against Serbia over Kosovo convinced US policy makers that NATO was now only a means of extending the zone of peace in Europe, a loose form of collective security. Even staunch defenders of the US commitment to Europe through NATO lamented the fact that it was no longer a functioning military alliance. More reassuringly from the neoconservative point of view, there was considerable confidence that – for the foreseeable future – Japan would stick to its alliance with the United States (given its potentially threatening competition with China). However, neoconservatives worried that Europe was becoming less pro-US than it had once been.

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