Republican Reincarnation

Republican Reincarnation

There is much that I agree with in Danielle Pletka’s article on the future of Republican foreign policy (“Think Again: The Republican Party,” January/February 2013). Like her, I welcome a searching foreign-policy debate within the party and an exacting critique of the record of Barack Obama’s administration: the botched reset with Russia, the mishandled withdrawal from Iraq and even worse handling of Afghanistan, the dangerous self-congratulation on al Qaeda’s supposedly imminent “strategic defeat,” the lack of a policy on Syria, the abandonment of trade diplomacy, the imminent crisis with Iran, and more.

But on two points I do not agree. It is not helpful to perpetuate the caricatured differences between “realists” and “neoconservatives.” In U.S. foreign policy, American ideals and interests often coincide, and while they are occasionally at odds, it is the task of statecraft to handle those differences. From the Bahraini protest movement to the killing of American terrorists abroad, most policy dilemmas cannot be resolved by merely referring to principles, and they do not involve easy choices. Accepting the labels makes it easier for the other side to caricature one Republican camp as unprincipled and heartless, the other as naively feckless. To cast the Republicans’ foreign-policy debate as a knock-down, drag-out fight between realists and idealists does not yield a useful discussion, which in the end is about coming to a sound conclusion.

More profoundly, it is a mistake to think that all the GOP needs is a reincarnation of President Ronald Reagan in the candidate of the Republicans’ dreams. Without detracting from his achievements, we do not live in Reagan’s time, we do not face his challenges, and we do not have his resources. The fact of the matter is that America is not quite what it was in 1980. To take just one example: The Soviet Union that Reagan faced was entering terminal decline; today, China’s economy is growing fast.

So the first order of business is coming to grips with the nature of the more complex challenges that the United States now faces: the Arab turmoil, an ascendant China, middle powers that are not necessarily America’s friends, the metastasis of Islamist movements well beyond al Qaeda, Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons, and much more.

Republicans should not skirt around their errors, including those of the most recent Republican administrations, from Reagan onward. Without pillorying those who had difficult decisions to make, there is a lot to think about, from waterboarding to targeted killing to the handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That does not mean, however, giving Obama’s administration a pass on any of its mistakes or giving up on the importance of American leadership in an increasingly disorderly world.

The internationalist consensus in the Republican Party is strong, but under increasing pressure; the same can be said of the Democrats. Invocations of a heroic (and partly mythic) past will not meet the needs of a different day. As that greatest of Republicans said 150 years ago, “As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.”

Professor of Strategic Studies
School of Advanced International Studies
Johns Hopkins University
Washington, D.C.

FP invited Eliot Cohen to respond as part of an online roundtable it convened on Danielle Pletka’s article and the future of the GOP’s foreign policy. 

Danielle Pletka replies:

As I would have expected, Eliot Cohen provides a thoughtful response to my article on the question of a new foreign policy for the Republican Party. He also makes an important point about the Reagan era and my somewhat reflexive reference to it in order to frame a set of principles for a new conservative foreign-policy agenda.

Here’s the rub. The reason so many of us fall back on the quotes and the principles articulated by the Great Communicator is similar to the reason we hark back so frequently to the soaring speeches — and even greater resolve — of Winston Churchill: because no one since has articulated so compelling a philosophy of freedom. The challenge at hand is not realism or idealism, but rather the prudent application of those principles, which stand the test of time.

Sure, Ronald Reagan and Churchill had their faults. Conservatives are far too prone to polish over the tarnished spots in Reagan’s record. And we absolutely need new ideas about how best to carry forward America’s ideals in a new era. The Cold War is over. But is life really more “complex,” as Cohen suggests? Perhaps. But I would counter that the challenges we face are different, rather than qualitatively more complicated. The 20th century was complex enough for my taste.

As to the issue of labels, yes, they are rubbish. I believe firmly that it is the neoconservative wing of the conservative movement that embraces a true realism about the world, rather than head-in-the-sand paleoconservatives, who believe America should not mix principle with foreign policy. But these are the terms of reference for today’s internecine fights, and as much as we dislike such false distinctions, they are here to stay. I suspect that Cohen, like me, would find it easier if the euphemisms were set aside and those who use the term “neocon” would simply say what they mean. But after more than a quarter-century in what is increasingly a mealy-mouthed and nasty town, my hopes are low.

Finally, let’s agree: However you slice it, the time has come for the Republican Party to “think anew and act anew.”