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Five premises of a bold Republican foreign policy

Five premises of a bold Republican foreign policy

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

I agree with the vast majority of what Danielle Pletka writes in "Think Again: The Republican Party." As a result, rather than joining the post mortem of last year’s election, I’m going to focus my attention on the agenda for the future.

Republican national security strategy has traditionally been characterized by a sober view of the international environment and strong support for national defense. In common with other conservatives, most Republicans believe that things could — and quite possibly will — be worse. But Republicans have been at their best when they have coupled wariness of potential foes with an abiding confidence in America and its values.

An emphasis on power and values is needed now as much as ever. In recent years, a new orthodoxy has taken hold among policy elites, including more than a few Republicans. That view argues that with the war in Iraq over and that in Afghanistan winding down, the United States should embrace a narrower (or, more politely, a more "selective") conception of its role in the world. Accordingly, the United States can afford to make major cuts in defense spending. Indeed, the new orthodoxy holds that resources spent on defense can be better — and more productively — spent elsewhere: That is, the United States should move from practicing nation-building abroad to building the nation at home.

This view, which often bleeds over into declinism, deserves to be challenged. A national security strategy built upon traditional tenets of the Republican foreign policy offers a potent counterpoint to the new orthodoxy. Five premises are central to such a policy.

First, the United States is an exceptional nation. The new orthodoxy errs in downplaying America’s strengths. These include our considerable (though neglected and decreasing) advantages in sea and air power, our alliances with some of the world’s most prosperous democracies, and our considerable domestic energy reserves. It also sells America short by downplaying the fact that for centuries the United States has been a magnet for the world’s best and brightest. The United States is truly exceptional in that it is one of only a handful of countries (with Australia, Canada, and Israel) that can attract talented individuals from across the world and make them productive, successful members of our society within the span of years. Republicans could make immigration a winning issue by backing measures to lower the barriers to skilled, educated workers becoming American citizens. Imagine, for example, if every graduate professional degree in the basic and applied sciences came with a green card attached.

The new orthodoxy also sells America short by downplaying the power of American values. Support for democracy abroad is in America’s strategic interest. Failing to foster democracy, or abandoning new democracies, is hardly a recipe for a safer, more secure world.

Second, the United States has an exceptional role to play in the world. Global leadership is a choice. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates cautioned shortly before leaving office, "The tough choices ahead are really about the kind of role the American people — accustomed to unquestioned military dominance for the past two decades – want their country to play in the world." However, if the United States chooses not to exercise its leadership, the best we will get is chaos; the worst we will get is leadership by those who do not share our values. The United States today does not have the luxury of Britain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — there is no like-minded great power to pass the baton to. Isolationists (or, more politely, "offshore balancers") assume miracles in arguing that if the United States pulls back, others will preserve a balance of power favorable to the United States.

Third, the world continues to be a dangerous place. America may be war-weary, but its competitors are not. If we do not look after our own interests, we cannot expect others to do so for us. Although some parts of the world (Europe, for example) are clearly safer and more secure than in decades past, other parts of the world, such as the Middle East and Asia, are less secure. Al Qaeda is busy setting up safe havens on the Arabian Peninsula and in North Africa. Iran continues its quest for nuclear weapons, and North Korea is advancing its nuclear and missile capabilities.  Of particular concern is China’s ongoing military modernization, a portion of which is aimed at coercing U.S. allies and denying the United States access to the Western Pacific. Moreover, the United States appears to have underestimated the scope and pace of China’s fielding of new weapons, including those designed to counter U.S. power-projection forces. Over the past decade the weapons most needed to respond to such developments have received short shrift in the Pentagon budget. As a result, the United States faces an increasingly unfavorable military balance in the Western Pacific.

Fourth, our investment in national defense is a net benefit, not a cost.  In historical terms, the United States spends relatively little on defense. We have also derived a lot from that investment. The new orthodoxy has the relationship between economic and national security wrong. It is not a case of a tradeoff between nation building at home and abroad. Rather, prosperity at home depends upon American engagement abroad.

Defense spending provides tangible benefits to the American people both internationally and domestically. Internationally, American military dominance has benefited the United States and the world as a whole. The fact that the U.S. Navy has commanded the maritime commons has allowed trade to flow freely and reliably, spurring globalization and lifting millions out of poverty. It is unclear whether the stability that American military dominance has yielded would continue in its absence. As Joseph S. Nye, Jr. famously noted, security is like oxygen: You don’t notice it until it begins to run out.

Domestically, defense does more to stimulate the U.S. economy than most things the U.S. government spends money on. The defense budget creates jobs and spurs the development of new technology. It is hard to think of other categories of government expenditure that do as much to stimulate economic growth.

Although the United States has spent considerable sums on defense, modernization has lagged. As a result, U.S. Air Force aircraft are on average more than 23 years old, the oldest in Air Force history, and are getting older. Many transport aircraft and aerial refueling tankers are more than 40 years old, and some may be as old as 70-80 years before they retire. The U.S. Navy is smaller now than it was before the United States entered World War I, and is getting smaller. Only full-scale recapitalization will reverse this trend.

Fifth, we need to show confidence in America. Republicans are right to be concerned about foreign threats, but they need to be alive to opportunities as well. Ronald Reagan was effective not only because he took the threat posed by the Soviet Union, but also because he was bullish on America — much more so than the so-called "realists" of his day.

There is much that the United States can do today to harness its enduring strengths to meet today’s threats. A recently published volume that I edited provides some ideas about how the United States can compete more effectively with China, but such an approach can also be adapted to meeting many of the other challenges we face.

A strategy based upon these tenets may run against the current political tide, but draws upon a deep tradition of American foreign policy. It is also the right strategy for the United States to preserve its historical role in the world.

Thomas G. Mahnken is a visiting scholar at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at The Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.