A Republican foreign policy must read history and the present with clear eyes

A Republican foreign policy must read history and the present with clear eyes

Originally published as part of a roundtable discussion on an article by Danielle Pletka about the future of the Republican party.

It is not the best of times for Republicans on foreign policy. Having just lost another presidential election and being the minority party in the Senate (the congressional branch with the most involvement on foreign policy), the GOP finds its center of gravity relegated to the House of Representatives and state governors’ mansions, where foreign policy ranges from a secondary (the House) to non-existent (governorships) issue. Exit polls from the 2012 election show that the GOP has lost its historic advantage on national security to Democrats in the minds of the American people. It is an appropriate time for Republicans to take stock of where we stand on foreign policy, and Danielle Pletka’s article is a welcome spur to this effort.

A meaningful debate within the party is the logical next step. Here I would remind my fellow Republicans that our more partisan critics in places like the media and the Democratic Party have favored attack lines they will employ no matter what path we pursue. If the GOP unites around a particular national security platform, we will be derided for "squelching dissent" and "being hijacked by ideological extremists." Whereas if the GOP has a substantive internal debate on foreign policy and multiple camps emerge, we can expect stories about "the GOP in disarray" and "internal feuding and incoherence." The lesson in this? Have the debate because it is a constructive and needful thing to do; just don’t enlist persistent critics of the GOP as referees.

So what should a GOP foreign policy look like? An unappreciated but essential part of foreign policy is accurately reading the state of the world and the tides of history. Past Republican successes have come in part from enduring principles and competent implementation, but also from a proper appreciation for the state of the international system and America’s capabilities at that particular historical moment. Thus Teddy Roosevelt at the dawn of the 20th century accurately saw the opportunity for the United States to look beyond its continental preoccupations and assert itself as an emerging global power. Dwight Eisenhower at mid-century realized the need for America as a global superpower to build a Cold War strategy based on balancing domestic economic growth and national security needs with a prudential but still assertive international posture. Richard Nixon, taking office during a time of overextension and strategic vulnerability, perceived the imperative to reconfigure the global chessboard in ways more favorable to America’s diminished hand. Ronald Reagan, who won election amidst national decline and global diminishment, abandoned the conventional wisdom in pursuing a strategy of renewal at home simultaneously with a more assertive posture abroad. George H.W. Bush inherited a strong nation and presided over the end of the Cold War and restructuring of the international order while avoiding overreach. George W. Bush realized that the Sept. 11th attacks demanded a new counterterrorism paradigm, of both tools and doctrines. The twin facts that the United States has not been attacked since and that the Obama administration has maintained this paradigm testify to the success of this strategy.

Mindful of this history, the question for the future of Republican foreign policy should begin not with where we think the Democrats may be wrong, but with what we think the state of the international system is today and how it can be shaped in ways favorable to U.S. interests and consonant with American values. Like many other Republicans, I share Pletka’s reverence for Reagan’s presidency and agree that his values offer a good starting point for foreign policy today. But updating the Reagan legacy for the 21st century means appreciating how Reagan’s day differed from our own even as his principles endure.

This does not mean abandoning our critique of where the other party gets things wrong. Judging from recent trends, I suspect the Obama administration’s second term might present some particular opportunities for the GOP to offer a compelling alternative, especially leading up to 2016. As Peter Feaver and I have pointed out before, the Obama administration’s successes in the first term largely came when following the Bush playbook, such as preserving the policy and legal framework for the war against jihadist terrorism or a dual-track strategic posture in Asia of both balancing and engaging with China. The Obama administration’s failures in the first term, however, were generally sui generis, reflecting either poor judgment or deferred action on hard issues, and sometimes both.

Unfortunately, those hard issues are only getting harder. To take just one example, the White House should realize it has a serious problem with its Syria policy when senior French officials disparage its posture as "waiting from behind." Nor do other places look good: Iran, Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and North Korea are all situations where the Obama administration’s current policy lines and assumptions are not promising. Republicans have a chance to say how we think these things could be handled better.

William Inboden is a distinguished scholar at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law and an assistant professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. He previously served as senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council at the White House, and co-moderates the Shadow Government blog at