Neoconservatism as Discourse: Virtue, Power and US Foreign Policy

Chengxin Pan, Oliver Turner

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Neoconservatism in US foreign policy is a hotly contested subject, yet most scholars broadly agree on what it is and where it comes from. From a consensus that it first emerged around the 1960s, these scholars view neoconservatism through what we call the ‘3Ps’ approach, defining it as a particular group of people (‘neocons’), an array of foreign policy preferences and/or an ideological commitment to a set of principles. While descriptively intuitive, this approach reifies neoconservatism in terms of its specific and often static ‘symptoms’ rather than its dynamic constitutions. These reifications may reveal what is emblematic of neoconservatism in its particular historical and political context, but they fail to offer deeper insights into what is constitutive of neoconservatism. Addressing this neglected question, this article dislodges neoconservatism from its perceived home in the ‘3Ps’ and ontologically redefines it as a discourse. Adopting a Foucauldian approach of archaeological and genealogical discourse analysis, we trace its discursive formations primarily to two powerful and historically enduring discourses of the American self — virtue and power — and illustrate how these discourses produce a particular type of discursive fusion that is ‘neoconservatism’. We argue that to better appreciate its continued effect on contemporary and future US foreign policy, we need to pay close attention to those seemingly innocuous yet deeply embedded discourses about the US and its place in the world, as well as to the people, policies and principles conventionally associated with neoconservatism.
Original languageEnglish
JournalEuropean Journal of International Relations
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • Discourse analysis, discursive formation, Foucault, genealogy, neoconservatism, US foreign policy


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