Was Irving Kristol a Neocon?

Nathan Glazer has an article about Irvin Kristol in TNR that, on its second page, makes the interesting argument that Kristol, despite being the “grandfather of neoconservatism,” didn’t actually hold the beliefs about national security policy that we now identify with that term:

Irving found the limitation of The Public Interest to domestic affairs confining and founded The National Interest, recruiting the wonderful Owen Harries from Australia to edit it and hoping it would provide a platform for a more realistic (I think that is the term he favored) approach to foreign policy. Oddly enough, such an approach was in contradiction with what came be known as “neoconservative” foreign policy: Irving was skeptical early on about imposing or promoting democracy in South Korea or Vietnam (he was wrong about South Korea), and, undoubtedly, he would have been equally skeptical about its prospects in Iraq and Afghanistan. The term “neoconservatism” was hijacked. In its early application, in the 1970s, it referred to the growing caution and skepticism among a group of liberals about the effects of social programs. It was later applied to a vigorous and expansionist democracy-promoting military and foreign policy, especially in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. There was some reason to the hijacking — after all, a second generation of “neoconservatives,” some of it literally second-generation, was promoting this policy. But some of us who were labeled early as neoconservatives, a characterization not of our choosing, such as Daniel P. Moynihan, Daniel Bell, and myself, found it astonishing and unsettling.

Justin Vaïsse takes a more scholarly approach and reaches a similar conclusion in an FP article written about a month ago. I think this conclusion is pretty hard to square with the final five grafs of Kristol’s article on the “neoconservative persuasion” in the August 2003 Weekly Standard.


I think the way you put this together is with the observation that even though the high-level theoretical content of the realpolitiker 70s version of neoconservatism and the Wilsonian 2000s version of neoconservatism seem very different, the operational content is extremely similar. You have support for higher defense budgets, a tendency toward threat-inflation and hysteria, a belief in an aggressive military posture and extensive saber-rattling, hostility to negotiations, and hostility to international law both in theory and in practice. This was initially presented to the world as a “realistic” alternative to lefty critiques of US support for anti-communist dictators and more recently appeared as an “idealistic” critique of lefty reluctance to launch wars, but the continuity between the views is enormous.