Terms of Engagement

Country First

After a turbulent decade abroad, the Republican Party turns inward.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Neoconservative foreign policy is dead — or so I infer from the first Republican presidential debate, held June 13 in New Hampshire. None of the seven candidates talked about the moral purposes of American power. Quite the contrary: Those who addressed the current bombing campaign in Libya opposed it as a distraction from "national interests." Those who talked about the war in Afghanistan spoke of getting out rather than winning. And none showed any eagerness to talk about foreign policy at all; the subject absorbed a bit under 10 percent of the two-hour debate.

How times have changed! Fifteen years ago, William Kristol and Robert Kagan wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs titled "Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy." They chided the conservatives of the day for embracing a "tepid consensus" on foreign policy consisting chiefly of Kissingerian realism, and proposed in its stead President Ronald Reagan’s policy of "military supremacy and moral confidence." They argued that the end of the Cold War era had left America with unrivaled power; rather than retreating from a destiny thrust upon it by history, America should accept its new role as the "benevolent global hegemon." They concluded that the United States should marshal its military, diplomatic, economic, and, yes, moral force in order not only to preserve the global order but to make it more like our own: more democratic, more committed to free markets.

Kristol and Kagan wrote that "Republicans are surely the genuine heirs to the Reagan tradition." And in the 2000 election cycle, they found their candidate in the person of Sen. John McCain, an ardent proponent of democracy promotion abroad and a champion of American intervention in the Balkans. Gov. George W. Bush, by contrast, positioned himself as the realist advocate of a foreign policy of "interests" rather than "values." The terrorist attacks of 9/11, of course, changed all that: In his 2002 national security strategy, Bush called for the United States to preserve its position of military supremacy and spoke of using that strength, as well as diplomacy, to forge "a balance of power that favors freedom." In seeking to reshape the Middle East through regime change and democracy promotion over the next few years, Bush became the leader Kristol and Kagan had sought.

In 2008, John McCain returned to don the neo-Reaganite mantle. In the first of his debates with Sen. Barack Obama, McCain positioned himself as not only a military veteran who knew how to use American power but also a moralist who believed in using force to stop genocide, was prepared to stand up for democratic Georgia against autocratic Russia, and had called for "a league of democracies" to advance the cause of liberty. (It is worth noting that Obama criticized George Bush’s recklessness, but not his, or McCain’s, idealism.)

And who is the John McCain of 2012? No one. Neo-Reaganite foreign policy appears to have exhausted itself after only a decade. There are two extremely large and obvious reasons for this shift. First, the policy was given a good shot, and didn’t exactly work out  as planned. America wasn’t greeted as a benevolent hegemon in Iraq or pretty much anywhere else, and regime change proved to be an extremely crude instrument for the shaping of a better world order. Reeling from the epic bender of the Bush years, the American public is in the midst of a foreign-policy hangover. The first question about the world from the New Hampshire audience was "Osama bin Laden is dead. We’ve been in Afghanistan for 10 years. Isn’t it time to bring our combat troops home from Afghanistan?" The second was, Can’t we start closing our military bases around the world? Can’t we, in short, have less?

And of course the wish for less is also a consequence of the economy. The United States had a surplus to play with in the late 1990s; now it has a massive deficit, with prospects of worse. The hegemonic burden has become unaffordable. Why do we need all those bases? How can we keep spending $120 billion a year in Afghanistan? During the other 90 percent of the debate, the candidates described government spending under the Obama administration in apocalyptic terms; few of them said so, but it was plain that a foreign policy of national interests narrowly understood was also a matter of economic necessity.

Back in the 1990s, the larger neoconservative project went under the name "national greatness conservatism." Kristol, along with David Brooks and others, inveighed against the purely negative conservatism of the libertarians and in favor of the muscular activism of a Teddy Roosevelt. But eight years of Bush seems to have depleted that doctrine as well; even centrists like Gov. Mitt Romney talk about the federal government as a necessary evil. If government is a threat to our freedom and economy at home, how can we view it as a benevolent force abroad?

And this, in turn, forces a question: Are Republicans really the heirs to the Reaganite foreign-policy vision? So far, the party line on strong defense has held; that’s the one part of government that’s good, not bad. But how long can that giant exception last? How long, that is, before conservatives acknowledge the reality that defense spending consumes a massively larger fraction of the budget than welfare spending, foreign aid, and all the other convenient bugbears? If small-government conservatism really has decisively defeated national-greatness conservatism, then its advocates may turn against the whole apparatus of the neo-Reaganite foreign policy.

Today’s conservatives seem to want to return to the party’s origins — thus the popularity of the Tea Party label. Thomas Jefferson, the first Republican president, also deeply distrusted what he called the "central" government, and opposed a standing army, a diplomatic service, and, above all, warfare, as instruments for the aggrandizement of the state and thus the diminishment of personal liberty (though he proved quite willing both to threaten and to wage war if the circumstances required it). The Republicans became the party of bellicosity only at the end of the 19th century, under Presidents William McKinley and Roosevelt, when their business base recognized the economic value of foreign conquest — and when it had forsaken its small-government principles. When the GOP again began to define itself against activist government, as it did in the face of the New Deal, its partisans also turned decisively away from engagement with the world.

Maybe it’s too soon to say that the Republican Party has committed itself to genuine small-government conservatism: Certainly Romney and Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the most politically seasoned of the current candidates and the ones most likely to be nominated, favor increasing the defense budget even as they cut everything else to ribbons. Kristol has half-seriously suggested a ticket of Rep. Paul Ryan, the zealous budget-cutter, and Marco Rubio, the freshman Florida senator, who apparently favors "more decisive action in Libya." But the contradiction between seeking the smallest and least active federal government possible, and a muscular foreign policy can’t be sustained over time. That’s why the GOP has traditionally embraced one or the other, but not both.

Is it the Democrats, then, who are the natural heirs to the doctrine of benevolent global hegemony? Probably not, if only because the hegemonic era is now behind us, presumably forever. In part for that very reason, and partly also in reaction to Bush’s unilateralism, this administration is prepared to lead, if not from behind, then at least from the side, giving both authority and responsibility to allies. The Obama national security strategy does not insist upon unrivaled military superiority. And Obama is a cautious figure, acutely aware of the limits of the possible. So no, today’s Democratic Party will probably not become the home for disappointed foreign-policy neoconservatives.

But the Democrats do believe in government — maybe too much. They believe that government serves deeply moral purposes. And they believe that the same government that has an obligation to help people at home has an obligation to do so elsewhere in the world as well.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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