Where Does Republican Foreign Policy Go From Here?

by Bruce S. Thornton


The GOP’s continuing analysis of last November’s debacle has now sparked a debate about foreign policy. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s 16-hour filibuster and his speeches at the Heritage Foundation and CPAC have reignited the perennial conflict between isolationists and interventionists of various stripes. As the headline in the New York Times read last week, “Republicans Are Divided on Proper Role for US Abroad.” War-weariness among voters, the perceived failures of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the alleged need to pare back military spending, have contributed to the angst.

Recently Walter Russell Mead neatly formulated the importance of the issue for the future electoral success of Republicans: “If the struggle over the future of the GOP is seen by independents to be a battle between neocons and isolationists, the party will lose national support no matter which faction wins. Those are hard truths, but they are real: the country doesn’t want more of either George W. Bush or Ron Paul on foreign policy and until Republicans can develop a new and different vision of the way forward, they are unlikely to regain the high ground they once enjoyed on this issue.” So what should be a Republican foreign policy — isolationism, international idealism, neocon interventionism, or realism?

Isolationism has always been an attractive option for Americans. Enjoying the protection of two oceans, in the 19th century Thomas Jefferson could preach “entangling alliances with none” of the world’s nations. John Quincy Adams famously announced that America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” Later, James Monroe would say, “In the wars of the European powers, in matters relating to themselves, we have never taken part, nor does it comport with our policy, so to do. It is only when our rights are invaded, or seriously menaced that we resent injuries, or make preparations for our defense.” In 1863 Secretary of State William H. Seward declined to join France’s protest against Russian intervention in Poland by evoking the US “policy of non-intervention — straight, absolute, and peculiar as it may seem to other nations,” and “forbearing at all times, and in every way, from foreign alliances, intervention, and interference.”

Such a policy was in part weakened by the increasing technological and economic advances of the 19th century that shrank the world and more closely bound nation to nation, redefining what a phrase like “seriously menaced” could mean. Our national interests now faced threats not from invading armies, but from disorder and wars abroad that disrupted an increasingly globalized trade and sparked violent competition for global resources and markets. Now internationalist idealism began to gain traction, the notion that a “federation of free states,” as Kant imagined in 1795, could “forever terminate all wars.” International organizations, laws, and treaties would bind states together based on universal mutual interests like peace and prosperity, maintaining global order and helping backward states to progress beyond war and zero-sum competition. Given that some states would lag behind this evolution, wars would still be necessary to hasten this development by eliminating despotic illiberal regimes. However, these would be wars not of conquest or nationalist aggrandizement, but of spreading the benefits of democracy and prosperity to the whole world.

The US embraced this vision, of course, in the idealism of Woodrow Wilson. In his 1917 speech asking Congress to declare war on Germany, Wilson said that the purpose of the war was “to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power,” for “peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations. . . . The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty.” Americans “are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.” The League of Nations was created after the war as the transnational organization tasked with maintaining global order and deterring violent threats against it.

The failure of the League of Nations, the weakness of which facilitated the violent adventurism of Germany, Italy, and Japan in the 20s and 30s, culminated in the carnage of World War II. But internationalist idealism lived on in the United Nations and numerous other international organizations, treaties, and courts that have done little to stem the civil wars, invasions, ethnic cleansing, and terrorist violence that have troubled the world for the last 70 years.

Yet despite that failure, the jihadist terrorist attacks of 9/11 created a neocon iteration of such idealism, the Bush Doctrine. President George W. Bush, in the 2002 National Security Strategy, defined the foreign policy of the United States as promoting a “single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise,” for “these values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society.” Thus the US will strive “to extend the benefits of freedom across the globe. We will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world.” Bush returned to these themes in January 2005 in his inaugural speech, in which he linked US security and global peace to the “force of human freedom” and the expansion of democracy: “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.” The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were managed and fought in part to achieve this ideal of creating democratic Muslim nations whose eventual peace and prosperity would “drain the swamps” in which jihadist violence spawned. And despite setbacks in those countries, the current bipartisan support for the “Arab Spring” regime-changes is predicated on the same notion.

This neo-Wilsonian foreign policy suffers from questionable assumptions. It posits that all people universally desire peace and prosperity and political freedom to the exclusion of all other motives or goods such as obedience to their god, revenge for dishonor, or the lust for domination and territory. It particularly downplays the power of religious faith and the profound differences between Islam and Christianity, most important being the theology of violence inherent in Islam and expressed by Mohammed in his farewell address, when he said, “I was instructed to fight all men until they say there is no god but Allah.” That failure to take seriously religion partly explains Obama’s feckless support of the Muslim Brotherhood and its illiberal, anti-American, and anti-Semitic agenda. Finally, it underestimates just how complex are the foundations of liberal democracy, a product of a long historical development to which Greek, Roman, and Hebraic influences contributed. Such idealism forgets that while all peoples are capable of becoming liberal democrats, certain complex cultural and ethical influences are necessary for them to realize that capability and to prize political freedom over other gods such as fealty to religion or power.

This leaves realism, which Rand Paul claims as his foreign policy philosophy, one that avoids the extremes of interventionism and isolationism. In facing the threat of jihadism and its most potent state sponsor, Iran, fast approaching possession of a nuclear weapon, Paul seemingly prefers “containment” and diplomacy to military intervention. Any war must be clearly predicated on a clear, imminent, direct threat to our interests and security, and should eschew fuzzy goals like bringing democracy to countries that may not want it, or preempting vague threats. Despite assurances that force remains an option in narrowly defined circumstances, a policy like Paul’s can look suspiciously like isolationism, and as such will be attractive to those sick of wars fought for ungrateful nations like Iraq and Afghanistan. It will attract those who suspect military adventurism creates an imperial presidency that increases the power of the federal leviathan and threatens the constitutional balance of power and individual rights. And it suggests that the Republican brand, damaged by the Bush-era wars, will be more attractive once the party abandons costly searches for foreign monsters to destroy.

But this sort of realism underestimates the challenges a global hegemon faces in a world connected by media, the Internet, jet travel, and increasingly interdependent economies. As Robert Kagan put it, the interconnected global shopkeepers need a sheriff to maintain order. In such a world, threats to our interests and security are more diffuse and indirect, and thus easily ignored until they ripen into catastrophe — as happened in the 90s when we half-heartedly responded to the terrorist attacks of al Qaeda. Moreover, foreign policy choices usually aren’t between the clear-cut good and the bad, but the more murky bad and the worse. They require an acceptance of what Abraham Lincoln called the “awful arithmetic,” the hard fact that some must die today so that more don’t die tomorrow. They must face the eternal realities of unforeseen consequences, bungling strategies and bad planning, and good intentions gone horribly awry. In short, foreign policy choices are usually politically costly, for voters ultimately have to accept the tragic consequences of our necessary global role and be willing to accept those consequences.

Whatever “new and different vision of the way forward,” as Mead puts it, for a Republican foreign policy, the political price will always be the determining factor. This means that the real question is whether or not the American people are willing to shoulder the responsibility and price for global order that history has laid upon us.

©2013 Bruce S. Thornton

Share This