In his latest book, “The Last Best Hope,” political risk analyst John Hulsman offers a succinct, understandable guide to uniting the disparate wings of conservatism behind a realist foreign policy.

While pitched at the interested layman rather than foreign policy nerds, Hulsman’s vignettes might even teach the most savvy readers a new thing or two. Such as, “After the Jay Treaty vote (1794), Washington never spoke to Jefferson or Madison again.” A healthy reminder, lest we think our own times and leaders are the most polarized in American history.

Before I describe the book further, a disclosure: John is one of my oldest friends, as well as a former fellow at The Heritage Foundation, where I work.

Conservatives are unable to unite in the relentless way that the Left doesthese days in Congress, but parsing them into specific tribes is a pointless exercise. Hulsman simplifies this by dividing them into Jeffersonians and Jacksonians. Roughly speaking, the former are the more traditional, corporate, intellectual types, and the latter are lower information, populist, gut-instinct conservatives. As he pithily puts it, “Jeffersonians like Johnny Cash; Jacksonians are Johnny Cash.” What should unite them is patriotism, suspicion of globalism, and, in foreign policy—realism.

From Hulsman’s first book in 2006, “Ethical Realism,” to his biography of Lawrence of Arabia to his amusing short book “The Godfather Doctrine,” realism and “prudence as a policy-making virtue above all others” is a thread running through his work. The nine “precepts of American realism” Hulsman cites in “The Last Best Hope” are each provided with a parable and a great American who embodied it.

For his first precept, that “alliances should be entered into when they advance specific and primary American interests,” Hulsman starts with our first president, George Washington. So popular that he could have been the first king of the United States, Washington left office deliberately after two terms, setting an example that endured until Franklin Roosevelt in 1940.

Washington used his unique national eminence and enormous personal capital to convince Congress—barely—to pass the wildly unpopular Jay Treaty with the British. The treaty certainly favored Britain in the short term, but it also created the scope for the westward expansion of the United States and allowed our commerce to prosper under the British naval umbrella.

Washington saw that the fledgling U.S. must stay out of encumbering foreign alliances and “remain neutral in the face of Europe’s great revolutionary wars” rather than siding with France as Thomas Jefferson and others advocated. Washington’s farewell address warned, in Hulsman’s words, that “America’s national identity must come to supplant sectional attachments, law and order must be strictly maintained, and something must be done about the evils of political parties.” Seeing the state of our union today, this seems very prescient.

To illustrate the maxim “no more stupid wars,” Hulsman looks at how John Quincy Adams kept us out of potentially catastrophic foreign interventions while advancing the national interest. As secretary of state for an emerging United States in the context of a decaying Spanish Empire and rising Britishone, Adams said that “America … goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy”—or as Hulsman sums up his philosophy: “American political beliefs must not be imposed on other countries whose specific history might be very different” from ours.

In the 50 years following the end of World War II, America ignored this wisdom and “frittered away its dominant position in the world, spilling copious amounts of blood and spending trillions of dollars for no real strategic gain,” Hulsman concludes. 

As to Hulsman’s admonition that “to act, or not to act, depends on the national interest,” he illustrates it with the story of how Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state, William Seward, kept us from going to war with Great Britain while we were engaged in the Civil War and possibly losing the Civil War. In a nutshell: “One war at a time.” These are lessons Napoleon and Hitler never learned, and which America needs to remember when staring down China, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and others all at once.

For the precept “sovereignty is real—and everything,” Hulsman resurrects Sen. William Borah from relative historical obscurity and describes his successful fight to stop the U.S. from joining Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations. Not becoming part of the League of Nations is generally described in grade school history books—which is as far as 99% of Americans ever go in this subject—as a tragic failure. Instead, Hulsman argues convincingly that it was a brilliant and perspicacious campaign to prevent the thin end of the globalist wedge from entering our polity.

That wedge, which Hulsman has opposed as “Wilsonian” foreign policy for many years, is now firmly up the national backside and sinking deeper, prodding the foreign policy “blob” to try to do everything, everywhere, all at once. It is this interventionist, utopian progressivism, for example, that will soon have us building—and likely protecting—a pier to bring supplies into Gaza at the same time our ally, Israel, is attempting to wipe out a terrorist group committed to its destruction. Comparisons with Somalia in 1992 and “Blackhawk Down” hang over this latest Wilsonian interventionist enterprise.

Hulsman’s fifth precept is that “America must never shirk using force to fight wars when its primary interests are at stake but … never go abroad looking for a fight over lesser interests.” (One minor quibble I have with the book is that this lesson seems a bit duplicative of others in his canon, but though he could easily have made it seven or even six precepts, that would have left out some crisp historical chapters that make this book entertaining and more popular history than political tract).

Hulsman illustrates this lesson by describing how Franklin Roosevelt slowly brought a reluctant nation around to his view that (in Hulsman’s words) “no scenario for the elimination of Hitler was ever credible without the full involvement of the United States.” Hitler and Imperial Japan were existential threats to the U.S. that required all possible measures to resist, unlike any scenario since—underscoring the historically illiterate comparison President Joe Biden made in his 2024 State of the Union address between Europe in 1941 and today’s situation in Ukraine.

Precept six is that “furthering the specific interests of the American people” must be the touchstone of American foreign policy. Yes, it does sound rather like “America first,” but then what sensible country does not put itself, and its people, ahead of others? Charity begins at home.

For this lesson, Hulsman cites underrated President Dwight Eisenhower, who resisted communism through a “containment” policy while avoiding being sucked into wars in Egypt and Vietnam in support of the fading British and French empires. In his final speech, Ike warned us that a permanent war party and “military-industrial complex” would, if not stopped, trap the United States in a series of perpetual wars while impoverishing the country. Hmm.

Precept seven is that “American national interests … should always drive U.S. foreign policy.” This rather repeats the last one, but it allows Hulsman to tell the tale of the Cuban Missile Crisis, John F. Kennedy’s best moment on the presidential stage. Kennedy, despite relative youth and inexperience, played a legendary hand of poker against the Russians, ending the crisis with a secret deal to remove U.S. missiles in Turkey in exchange for the Russians taking theirs from Cuba. All the while, he fended off the Joint Chiefs of Staff who, “to a man, favored a U.S. airstrike to destroy the missiles, followed by a ground invasion of Cuba.”

In criticizing the Wilsonian “endless laundry lists as to what America should do in the world,” Hulsman evokes Frederick the Great, who said, “He who defends everything, defends nothing.”

The eighth precept is the pragmatic lesson of Hulsman’s earlier book, “The Godfather Doctrine.” Sometimes, he argues, “the U.S. must be ruthlessly prepared to cut deals with the devil” when our national interests so require. This used to be obvious, but in today’s social-media-driven, nuance-free age, where there are actually Queers for Palestine, it has to be spelled out. Hulsman does so using President Richard Nixon’s “masterstroke in going to China,” which split the Russian-Chinese communist axis and allowed the U.S. to defeat Russia in the Cold War.

Hulsman admires the partnership of Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, and their “shared realist principles that American foreign policy should be about doing good rather than feeling good.” That boils down, these days, to the principle that the U.S. “must be ruthlessly prepared to cut deals with less than savory leaders and countries if doing so furthers basic U.S. interests … .” Today’s morally Manichaean environment makes it harder for our leaders to do so, but the lessons of thousands of years of history can’t be undone by 20 years of activism on social media.

Hulsman’s ninth and last lesson is that the U.S. should remain an example for the world, “a shining city on a hill,” in the words of Pilgrim father John Winthrop so eloquently adopted by Ronald Reagan. We should never be, as we have been for much of the past 50 years, “in the foolhardy business of trying to impose democracy on the rest of the world at the point of a gun.”

Reagan knew that America, as “a country not founded on race, but on a way and an ideal,” had to cherish the history, laws, and traditions that made us special and such a magnet for freedom-loving people. As he said, “If we lose freedom here, there’s no place to escape to. This is the last stand on earth.”

The Gipper would be saddened to see the state of America’s campuses, companies, and government today, where identitarian politics are paramount and history, capitalism, family, and tradition are reviled by a good portion of our self-appointed elites.

How should Hulsman’s nine “lessons and carols” be applied in practice? His recommendation is as simple as “The Last Best Hope” is short. U.S. foreign policy should be realist, that is, “guided by questions of security and survival” with “prudence as a policy-making virtue above all others.”

Hulsman’s record on predicting political events is impressive, from calling the Russian invasion of Ukraine to the month to his predictions (so far) on the 2024 U.S. election campaign. He warned of the consequences, early and often, as neoconservatives led us into wars we could not win, at prices we could not afford.

The central thesis of Hulsman’s work is that “today’s foreign policy blob has cared more about what is going on in faraway places of limited importance to Americans rather than America itself.” As we survey a divided nation with an essentially open border, zero fiscal responsibility, and disastrous progressive experiments tanking everything from education to public safety, his words could not be more pertinent. 

At home, our house is falling apart, and there’s diminishing (and borrowed) money to fix it, even if we can agree on how. Eisenhower, still faced with the debt load of World War II, balanced three of his eight annual budgets. The last time we had a run that long was Bill Clinton’s final three fiscal years. And today, Biden’s proudest fiscal boast is not that he ever came close to a balanced budget, but that he’s slightly lowered the annual deficit compared to the worst year of the COVID-19 crisis.

Abroad, there are too many dragons to slay for our limited capability. From Ukraine to Taiwan, Haiti to Mali, we will either make tough, responsible choices about national priorities or have them forced on us. If conservatives ever get back in power and want to return U.S. foreign policy to realism and pragmatism, Hulsman’s “The Last Best Hope” provides them with the map to do so.