Shadow Government

Reasons for optimism on GOP foreign policy

By Will Inboden Fellow contributor Dan Drezner’s current National Interest column laments what he regards as the prevailing lack of strategic thinking on foreign policy coming from Republicans. And he follows up by asking if any of us here at Shadow Government (about whom he has some kind words) care to respond, particularly to "disabuse me ...

By Will Inboden

Fellow contributor Dan Drezner’s current National Interest column laments what he regards as the prevailing lack of strategic thinking on foreign policy coming from Republicans. And he follows up by asking if any of us here at Shadow Government (about whom he has some kind words) care to respond, particularly to "disabuse me of my pessimism." I am happy to respond, though I begin by mostly agreeing with Dan’s main point: the current state of foreign policy discourse among Republicans is anemic. But only saying "you are right, Dan — but hey, we’re trying" would amount to the shortest and least-interesting post in the hallowed annals of Shadow Government. [Admit it, you were tempted to go that route anyway just to tempt Dan to link to this response. Which is why you are also shamelessly employing this Drezner-Kaus mock-editor gimmick, right? – Ed.]

While I won’t disabuse Dan of his pessimism, I would like to disabuse him of a few of his premises. First, at this very early juncture in the Obama administration, the lack of a strong GOP voice on foreign policy is not that much of a story. The GOP is only a few months removed from holding power in the executive branch — which has primary constitutional responsibility for national security policy — and many former senior Bush administration officials are taking much-needed sabbaticals of various sorts. The current GOP congressional leadership is understandably focused on domestic and economic policy. Other emerging Republican leaders are in the gubernatorial ranks, which by the nature of the office have little involvement in foreign policy. And in general, this lack-of-ideas is not limited to foreign policy, as leading Republicans also rightfully lament our party’s relatively stagnant thinking on domestic and economic issues as well. In the still-recent aftermath of being taken to the electoral woodshed in 2008, the Republican party is just beginning its sojourn in the wilderness, and just beginning to grapple with developing new ideas.    

Second, the GOP does not have a monopoly on insipid foreign policy thinking. The current state of foreign policy discourse among Democrats is equally anemic, if not more so. One can easily substitute the word "Democratic" for "Republican" in the opening sentence of the Drezner essay so that it reads thus: "Does the Democratic Party have a foreign-policy strategy?" (Not tactics, which are evident, but its strategy?) Democratic foreign policy thinking seems to careen among neo-realism, liberal internationalism, doctrinaire multilateralism, and neo-isolationism (especially on trade) — and all those camps are represented just within Obama’s cabinet and national security team. Then added to the mix is the quasi-pacifism of large swaths of the Democratic base. Even Obama himself doesn’t seem to have identified what school he adheres to — and given his still-evolving and still-forming thinking, he may not care to be so pigeonholed. While to be fair he is still just a few months into office, thus far his foreign policy seems to be a curious amalgam of maintaining the basic strategic framework developed by the Bush administration (cf. Iraq, Afghanistan-Pakistan, Iran, China), mixed with Obama’s reliance on his rhetoric, instincts, and personality to create a new packaging.  

The third dubious Drezner premise is that "the GOP was traditionally the party of realpolitik." But even a glance through the past six decades of the foreign policy views of leading Republicans (primarily presidents and presidential candidates) shows that rarely has one view held sway, and realism in particular was only the dominant GOP position from 1969-1977 under Nixon-Ford-Kissinger, and perhaps again from 1989-1993 under Bush-Baker-Scowcroft. Otherwise, GOP views have been diverse and often divergent, emblemized by intra-party debates from Taft v. Eisenhower in the 1950s (hawkish isolationism against anticommunist internationalism), Rockefeller v. Goldwater in the 1960s (liberal internationalism against hawkish nationalism), to Ford v. Reagan in the 1970s (realism against hawkish anticommunism with a twist of neo-conservatism). And neither of the most recent GOP presidents who served two full-terms, Reagan and George W. Bush, fit into the realist camp. Nor does the most recent GOP nominee, Senator John McCain. 

This brings me to the fourth questionable premise: "it is difficult to mount a unified and loyal opposition when there is an absence of consensus about first principles." While there is some truth to this as a matter of political tactics, it erroneously seems to imply that a party needs to adhere only to one foreign policy school in order to generate coherent critiques and creative ideas. But this has manifestly not been the case with Republicans in the past, nor does it need to be today. Even the gallery of Shadow Government writers represent a gamut of foreign policy convictions and likely a fair amount of our own internal disagreements.

If this sounds like confusion and disarray in Republican ranks, it can just as easily indicate creative ferment and exploration, especially during our wilderness years out of power. Republicans are beginning to engage in vigorous debates about what America’s global posture should be, how the Republican party should articulate that position, and when we should support and when we should oppose the Obama administration’s policies. Moreover, that the GOP is not currently pledged to one school of thought does not mean that GOP thinkers cannot offer creative and constructive ideas on specific issues. Nor does it prevent us from critiquing decisions or policies by the Obama administration — especially when realists and neoconservatives can agree that some particular decisions are wrong-headed from any number of vantage points.

Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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