Elephants in the Room

Looking Forward from the Sidelines

The Republican foreign-policy brain trust finds a new home -- and a new calling.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20:  U.S. President-elect Donald Trump arrives on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. In today's inauguration ceremony Donald J. Trump becomes the 45th president of the United States.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: U.S. President-elect Donald Trump arrives on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. In today's inauguration ceremony Donald J. Trump becomes the 45th president of the United States. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Welcome to the debut of “Elephants in the Room: The View from the Republican Sideline.” This is the new incarnation of our erstwhile Shadow Government blog. As with its predecessor, this is a group blog about U.S. foreign policy, written by people with experience working in Republican administrations or who support the Republican foreign-policy tradition — but are not currently working in the new Trump administration.

The post-Obama era has dawned. We now have a Republican president and a Republican Congress. While the executive branch may be under new management, the mission of our group blog will at its core remain the same: providing informed commentary on national security issues from the perspective of those who have served in responsible policy positions during earlier Republican eras. (Meanwhile, in keeping with the peaceful transition of power, Shadow Government has its own debut today as a Democratic voice under the capable new leadership of Derek Chollet, Colin Kahl, and Julie Smith). See the full list of their new contributors here.

Elephants in the Room will not take an official position on specific issues, and we expect that our contributors will sometimes, perhaps often, disagree among themselves about particular policy questions. Yet we are united by our commitment to what we would call the best of the Republican tradition of statecraft in American foreign policy. Think of Lincoln’s constitutionalism anchored in natural right; Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower’s deft integration of military power and diplomacy; Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush’s prudent realism and subtle management of the balance of power; and Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush’s principled support for liberty. This is the Republican tradition that has shaped this country, and that we continue to stand for.

We describe our perspective as “the Republican sideline” for several reasons. Most obviously, none of us currently holds a policymaking position, so we are on the sideline rather than in the proverbial arena. Being on the sideline enables us to offer support and encouragement for those who are in policy positions when we judge that they are getting things right. The sideline also affords us a different vantage point, from which we can offer advice and the periodic admonition when we think things can be done better. Finally, the sideline is where, on occasion, the next players are drawn from, and it may well be that some of our current contributors might in the near future return to policymaking roles in the executive branch or Congress.

It is a matter of public record that some among our ranks opposed President Donald Trump during the campaign, while others did not. The campaign is over. With his swearing of the oath of office on Friday, Trump is now the president of the nation — and president, too. We wish him success in dealing with the myriad challenges confronting America, because, as we have written before, when he succeeds, America succeeds.

As President Trump assumes the mantle of leadership, he inherits a geopolitical situation as vexing as any confronting U.S. presidents in the last 25 years. In the days and weeks to come, our contributors will have much to say on the various particulars of these challenges. For now, we observe that the dominant lesson of the last 100 years has been just this: When America led in the effort to rally friends and partners from around the world to confront global challenges, it went better for American interests in the long run. And when America retreated in the pursuit of short-term and parochial calculations of national interest, it went much worse for our nation in the long run.

We hear echoes of this principled insight in the testimony given by the key Cabinet officials tapped by President Trump: Secretary of State-nominee Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and U.N. Ambassador-nominee Nikki Haley. We expect that Director of National Intelligence-nominee Dan Coats will sound a similar theme in his confirmation hearing. As the Trump administration builds out its team of sub-Cabinet officials, we hope they will recruit professionals of those same convictions.

We are also determined not to forget Congress. The genius of the American Constitution includes the co-equal governing responsibility that it grants to Congress. In part because of Congress’s indispensable role in national security policy, our Shadow Government blog enjoyed a devoted readership on the Hill. We hope that as the 115th Congress takes up its work, our new blog and forthcoming posts will be equally useful for members and staff. Both chambers, it bears remembering, contain significant Republican expertise and leadership in the realm of national security policy. We think here of figures such as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, and numerous newer members who are rising stars and in many cases already exerting considerable influence on foreign and defense policy. So also with congressional staffs, where some of the most experienced and able Republican foreign policymakers are to be found.

While most of our efforts will be devoted to analysis, commentary, and advice on emerging foreign policy issues, we are mindful that the debate over the Obama foreign-policy legacy will continue, and in many ways is just beginning. Our Democratic friends over at Shadow Government 2.0 will no doubt be offering their assessments and defenses of the Obama legacy. We look forward to adding our voices and perspective to that emerging debate.

It bears repeating: we are Americans first and partisans second, and so are our colleagues at the new Shadow Government. We are all united by patriotism and devotion to the best for our beloved nation, and are mindful that some of the most enduring foreign-policy accomplishments in American history enjoyed a strong bipartisan foundation. Hence we also look forward to discovering areas of agreement and common ground with our Democratic friends, and perhaps on occasion joining together to offer shared policy recommendations.

One of the areas where Democrats and Republicans were able to reach agreement 70 years ago was on the importance of wise, prudent, and vigorous American leadership in global affairs. Our geography might tempt our leaders to pursue the short-term advantages of retreat, but those advantages proved illusory as other actors, with a more parochial vision of global affairs, created mischief in the vacuum caused by America’s absence. This insight — if America is going to be great, it must be prepared to shoulder the burdens of leadership — is at the heart of what this blog stands for.

And, perhaps fittingly, it is a quote from a non-American, Winston Churchill, who offers a suitable mission statement for our new blog venture: “The price of greatness is responsibility.”

Photo credit: WIN MCNAMEE/Getty Images

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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