SYDNEY, Australia — Since the nuclear deal with Iran was announced on July 14, Republicans have attacked it with fire-and-brimstone zeal. They have called it everything from appeasement to betrayal. President Obama has fired back, arguing that opposition to the deal stems from the same worldview that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq: “A mind-set characterized by a preference for military action over diplomacy.”
But this strain of thinking goes beyond Iraq. Although not all conservative Republicans share it, the tendency to reject diplomatic deals is rooted on the right of the American political spectrum. And while several Democrats — from Harry Truman to Henry “Scoop” Jackson during the Cold War — have embraced aspects of this hardline foreign policy, it is conservatives who are far more likely than liberals to stress confrontation over conciliation.
Since the early 1950s, many conservatives — conditioned to think in Manichean terms of absolute victory or total surrender — have opposed major peace initiatives on the grounds that they were forms of surrender and appeasement. Rather than making the world safer, they argued, such diplomatic deals weakened America’s global standing.
The antipathy toward diplomacy so often found on the right goes back to what conservatives see as the original sin of postwar diplomacy: the 1945 Yalta Conference. The meeting between Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin recognized Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe, where the Red Army had established itself in its westward march to Germany.
For hardliners, Yalta represented the sell-out of the “captive nations” of Eastern Europe and the start of the Cold War. Just as Neville Chamberlain had appeased Adolf Hitler at Munich in 1938, so the leaders of the Anglo-American alliance had capitulated to the Soviets, legitimating both Stalin’s rule and his expansionist appetites. The lesson: Diplomacy was a sign of weakness and a naïve expression of trust in an untrustworthy enemy.
More than anyone else, it was James Burnham, a Trotskyite-turned-conservative who co-founded the magazine National Review with William F. Buckley Jr. in 1955, who made antipathy toward diplomacy a cornerstone of modern conservative policy. Mr. Burnham saw the Soviet Union as uniquely evil and an existential threat to America. To him, negotiation with enemies was the same as surrender; co-existence was the same as defeat. Containment would never win the Cold War. What was needed was some sort of offensive war — what Mr. Burnham, and later Barry Goldwater, called “rollback.”
Defining foreign policy in such ideologically rigid terms helped set the litmus test for the conservative movement: no diplomacy with mortal enemies.
When Dwight Eisenhower invited Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to the United States in 1959, conservative hardliners reacted with anger and horror. They created the Committee Against Summit Entanglements to protest the visit and held a sold-out rally at Carnegie Hall. The great offense of the visit was not Khrushchev’s blood-soaked hands, Mr. Buckley argued, but that America had reached out for a handshake and stained its own.
This belief that diplomacy compromised America’s moral authority led these conservatives to oppose reflexively any negotiations with Communist countries — even when it meant turning on their own. Conservatives had long embraced Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan as fellow Cold Warriors and opponents of “Red China” and the “Evil Empire.” Yet both Mr. Nixon’s rapprochement to Communist China in 1971-72 and Mr. Reagan’s détente with the Soviet Union in 1987-88 provoked blistering criticisms.
When Mr. Nixon announced his decision in July 1971 to visit China, the right lashed out — so much so that 12 leading conservatives publicly suspended their support of the president, backing Ohio congressman John Ashbrook’s ill-fated campaign against Mr. Nixon in 1972. In his first term, Mr. Nixon had crossed conservative redlines by supporting affirmative action, creating the Environmental Protection Agency and implementing wage-and-price controls. But it was not until his China volte-face that conservatives broke ranks.
Likewise, when the once-hawkish Mr. Reagan pursued arms-control agreements with Mikhail Gorbachev 15 years later, hardliners were aghast. From the National Review to Republican Senator Jesse Helms, former supporters of the Reagan presidency felt a special sense of betrayal. Mr. Reagan defended the arms-control treaties by saying America would “trust but verify.” But for hardline conservatives, this phrase was nonsense: How could the Soviets ever be trusted? The Wall Street Journal published several editorials in the winter of 1987-88 condemning Reagan for being “snookered into letting the Soviets turn arms-control talks to their own purposes.” For the hardliners, Eisenhower’s summits, Nixon’s rapprochement, Reagan’s détente and now Mr. Obama’s nuclear deal all follow in the shameful tradition of the Yalta accords.
But for all the doomsaying, Mr. Nixon’s China opening turned out to be hugely significant. By breaking a 23-year-old taboo on negotiating with the leaders of the world’s most populous nation, America exploited the Sino-Soviet split to create a new global balance of power. Likewise, virtually all historians today recognize that the Reagan-Gorbachev summits helped end the four-decade standoff between the nuclear superpowers peacefully. When conservatives praise the Gipper for winning the Cold War, they’re praising policies they themselves opposed.
After a decade in the background, the 9/11 attacks brought back the hardline approach in the form of the Bush doctrine of unilateralism, pre-emption and regime change in a world divided between good and evil. And as the backlash against the Iran deal and the recent Republican presidential primary debates have demonstrated, the mind-set that began at Yalta has left a lasting imprint on Republican foreign-policy thinking.
Iran may be a radical and deeply anti-Western regime that has sponsored brutal militias across the Middle East. But in the face of such foes, American interests have in the past been advanced best through diplomacy, not isolation.
In hurling brickbats at the president, the modern-day inheritors of the hardline tradition — from the Republican leadership to Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer — are simply reminding Americans of earlier episodes of right-wing rejectionism. Today, those past backlashes against important diplomatic overtures appear discredited and foolish.
By Nicole Hemmer and Tom Switzer. They are research associates at the United States Studies Center at the University of Sydney.
This article was originally published in the New York Times