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Does the GOP Need a New Foreign Policy?

Can the Republican Party survive without coming to terms with the Bush-Cheney years? FP's Shadow Government team weighs in.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In the January/February issue of Foreign Policy, Danielle Pletka outlines how the Republican Party should position itself on international affairs in the wake of Mitt Romney's resounding defeat in the 2012 election. "If the GOP is to stand for something more than lower taxes and smaller government" Pletka writes, "it must return to the moral vision of a world in which the United States helps others achieve the freedoms it holds so dear." 

In the January/February issue of Foreign Policy, Danielle Pletka outlines how the Republican Party should position itself on international affairs in the wake of Mitt Romney’s resounding defeat in the 2012 election. "If the GOP is to stand for something more than lower taxes and smaller government" Pletka writes, "it must return to the moral vision of a world in which the United States helps others achieve the freedoms it holds so dear." 

So what’s the right path forward for a battered GOP? Here’s what contributors to FP‘s Shadow Government blog had to say about Pletka’s argument — and the global posture the party should adopt in the future.

John Hannah:

Danielle Pletka’s thought-provoking piece on the future of foreign policy in the Republican Party deserves more systematic and fulsome treatment than time and space currently allow. Some random reactions will have to suffice for now. That said, I very much look forward to the debate that Pletka invites. It’s indeed an important one. The intra-GOP divisions to which she alludes are in some cases deep and wide. Moreover, they frequently appear to touch on matters of first principle that not long ago seemed largely settled — an apparent shattering of the Reagan-era consensus, the long-term consequences of which I sense may trouble me somewhat more than they do her.

Pletka suggests that the GOP must be a party that believes there are things worth fighting for. Agreed. But what, exactly? Elsewhere, she makes the case for America’s "obligation (not merely the occasional inclination) to help others attain the benefits of a free society." What’s the connection, if any, between those two important thoughts? And doesn’t that go to the heart of the larger problem that seems to be bothering a lot of Americans when it comes to the Republican Party? Not that they don’t think we’ll use force, but that we’ve been all too eager to pull the trigger? What’s the limiting principle? Where won’t we fight and why?

Pletka of course understands this well. She notes the importance of Republicans explaining to the American people "how much can be done consistent with America’s deepest principles but without the use of force, without threats, without protectionism, and without breaking the bank." That seems to me an essential task going forward: to restore the public’s faith that the GOP is not only the party most willing to stand up and defend America’s vital interests in a dangerous world, but also the one that will do so employing the most creative, competent, and forward-looking strategies — a national security policy that makes the use of force not just the last resort, but almost always unnecessary because of what Pletka calls the exercise of "genuine American leadership that meets challenges before they become threats."

In this regard, perhaps more than Pletka, I tend to think that the GOP will need to engage in a more thorough-going reckoning with the Bush-Cheney years, particularly the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences. Not, as she correctly warns, for the purposes of "killing" that legacy, but rather for an honest accounting of the good, the bad, and the ugly, and the lessons learned. It’s necessary for its own sake of course. But it’s also important, I think, as part of the task of rebuilding the public’s overall confidence in the Republican foreign policy brand.

A few odds and ends. I don’t think Pletka mentions free trade and energy policy. The Republicans should own these issues, especially the impending American oil and gas boom. The impact on America’s economic strength at home and strategic flexibility abroad promise to be revolutionary if properly and comprehensively exploited.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the speed of the GOP comeback will at least in part be determined by what happens in the world between now and 2016. Pletka is harshly critical of President Obama’s foreign-policy record. I generally don’t disagree. But the fact is that Obama has not suffered some of the mega-disasters that so obviously plagued the administration of Jimmy Carter and made Reagan’s critique so innately compelling for the American people. No Iranian hostage crisis. No Desert One fiasco. No hollow military on display. No Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. While it’s clear to Pletka and me that Obama’s policies are sowing the seeds of expanding international instability, chaos and violence, the fact is that the day of reckoning has not yet come — when the price for "leading from behind" will really come due in much higher sacrifices of American blood, treasure, and honor. Benghazi was but the canary in the coal mine, a foreshadowing of the super storm yet to hit.

But for now, it must be said that Obama has largely succeeded in avoiding the worst, in kicking the can down the road. Can it go on for another four years? I would guess not. But I could be wrong. If I am, if Obama’s luck continues to hold, if the world is such in 2016 that a plausible case can still be made that the Democrats have been responsible stewards of America’s national security, then whatever the Republicans do in opposition to get their foreign policy house in order (as necessary and essential a task as that no doubt is) may not be enough to make an electoral difference.

John Hannah, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, served as national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney from 2005 to 2009. 

Peter D. Feaver:

The most important thing Republicans need to understand about U.S. foreign policy today is that Republicans are out of power and Barack Obama is in power.

That may seem obvious, but much Republican commentary seems to ignore it. Much of the post-election commentary seems divorced from the political reality that, especially in the area of national security policy, Democrats hold not just an advantage, but a decisive one (politically, that is, not substantively). Yes, Republicans hold the House, and Democrats lack a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. But Obama has a much stronger political position than, say, George W. Bush enjoyed in 2005 (let alone 2007), and while second-term Bush faced great constraints on what he could do domestically, he was able to overcome those constraints in the national security arena. Obama will likely be able to prevail at least as often as Bush did.

Republicans will be able to influence foreign and national security policy, but only on the margins. We can and should make the case for key priorities — restoring U.S. leverage in the Middle East, thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions, matching resources to goals in the Asia-Pacific, etc. — but we should recognize that Obama will have his way, and his way will likely increasingly diverge from what Republicans would wish him to do.

If the dominant theme of Obama’s first term was continuity — despite campaigning against Bush foreign policy, Obama continued far more of it than either side would like to admit — the dominant theme of the second term may well be change. In the coming years if not months, Obama will likely face pivotal decisions on Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and defense cuts, and on each one he is showing signs that he will decide in ways quite different from how a President Mitt Romney might have done. I am not sure what Republicans can do to change that trajectory.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once observed that you go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you wish you had. The same logic applies to the commander-in-chief: Republicans need to recognize that we wage foreign policy with the commander-in-chief we have, not the one Republicans wish we had.

The dominant feature of this commander-in-chief is that he is so determined to avoid errors of commission that he risks comparable errors of omission. For example, he is so determined to avoid starting another Iraq war by U.S. action that he has allowed a strategically analogous problem — a sectarian civil war spiraling out of control — to arise in Syria by U.S. inaction.

Obama’s distinctive risk calculus sets limits on what kind of American foreign policy is viable in the next four years. How plausible is it to recommend a more muscular approach to Syria or Iran when this president has been loath to mobilize public support for the very military escalations in Afghanistan that he campaigned on? How realistic is it to talk about defense spending at 4 percent of GDP when the president seemed willing to stomach defense cuts amounting to $1.4 trillion through 2023 (if we sum the cuts he has already authorized and credit him as willing to trigger the defense sequester to protect his apparent red lines forbidding cuts to entitlements).

It is fine for Republicans to hold the administration accountable in the public square for its choices, but Republicans also have to recognize that a Republican playbook implemented by the Obama team would likely not produce the kind of results Republicans want.

Of course, this approach sidesteps a larger and ultimately more important issue: What ought to be America’s role in the world, and how can Republicans persuade the voters to embrace that role in 2016? Danielle Pletka makes a very useful contribution to that larger effort, and in coming blog posts I hope to make mine, too. But before we can get that right, we have to acknowledge where we are and where we aren’t.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University. He co-moderates the Shadow Government blog at

William Inboden:

It is not the best of times for Republicans on foreign policy. Having just lost another presidential election and being the minority party in the Senate (the congressional branch with the most involvement on foreign policy), the GOP finds its center of gravity relegated to the House of Representatives and state governors’ mansions, where foreign policy ranges from a secondary (the House) to non-existent (governorships) issue. Exit polls from the 2012 election show that the GOP has lost its historic advantage on national security to Democrats in the minds of the American people. It is an appropriate time for Republicans to take stock of where we stand on foreign policy, and Danielle Pletka’s article is a welcome spur to this effort.

A meaningful debate within the party is the logical next step. Here I would remind my fellow Republicans that our more partisan critics in places like the media and the Democratic Party have favored attack lines they will employ no matter what path we pursue. If the GOP unites around a particular national security platform, we will be derided for "squelching dissent" and "being hijacked by ideological extremists." Whereas if the GOP has a substantive internal debate on foreign policy and multiple camps emerge, we can expect stories about "the GOP in disarray" and "internal feuding and incoherence." The lesson in this? Have the debate because it is a constructive and needful thing to do; just don’t enlist persistent critics of the GOP as referees.

So what should a GOP foreign policy look like? An unappreciated but essential part of foreign policy is accurately reading the state of the world and the tides of history. Past Republican successes have come in part from enduring principles and competent implementation, but also from a proper appreciation for the state of the international system and America’s capabilities at that particular historical moment. Thus Teddy Roosevelt at the dawn of the 20th century accurately saw the opportunity for the United States to look beyond its continental preoccupations and assert itself as an emerging global power. Dwight Eisenhower at mid-century realized the need for America as a global superpower to build a Cold War strategy based on balancing domestic economic growth and national security needs with a prudential but still assertive international posture. Richard Nixon, taking office during a time of overextension and strategic vulnerability, perceived the imperative to reconfigure the global chessboard in ways more favorable to America’s diminished hand. Ronald Reagan, who won election amidst national decline and global diminishment, abandoned the conventional wisdom in pursuing a strategy of renewal at home simultaneously with a more assertive posture abroad. George H.W. Bush inherited a strong nation and presided over the end of the Cold War and restructuring of the international order while avoiding overreach. George W. Bush realized that the Sept. 11th attacks demanded a new counterterrorism paradigm, of both tools and doctrines. The twin facts that the United States has not been attacked since and that the Obama administration has maintained this paradigm testify to the success of this strategy.

Mindful of this history, the question for the future of Republican foreign policy should begin not with where we think the Democrats may be wrong, but with what we think the state of the international system is today and how it can be shaped in ways favorable to U.S. interests and consonant with American values. Like many other Republicans, I share Pletka’s reverence for Reagan’s presidency and agree that his values offer a good starting point for foreign policy today. But updating the Reagan legacy for the 21st century means appreciating how Reagan’s day differed from our own even as his principles endure.

This does not mean abandoning our critique of where the other party gets things wrong. Judging from recent trends, I suspect the Obama administration’s second term might present some particular opportunities for the GOP to offer a compelling alternative, especially leading up to 2016. As Peter Feaver and I have pointed out before, the Obama administration’s successes in the first term largely came when following the Bush playbook, such as preserving the policy and legal framework for the war against jihadist terrorism or a dual-track strategic posture in Asia of both balancing and engaging with China. The Obama administration’s failures in the first term, however, were generally sui generis, reflecting either poor judgment or deferred action on hard issues, and sometimes both.

Unfortunately, those hard issues are only getting harder. To take just one example, the White House should realize it has a serious problem with its Syria policy when senior French officials disparage its posture as "waiting from behind." Nor do other places look good: Iran, Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and North Korea are all situations where the Obama administration’s current policy lines and assumptions are not promising. Republicans have a chance to say how we think these things could be handled better.

William Inboden is a distinguished scholar at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law and an assistant professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. He previously served as senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council at the White House, and co-moderates the Shadow Government blog at

Kori Schake:

I agree with Danielle Pletka that the Romney campaign was all over the map, and nowhere convincing, on foreign policy. But I disagree that the strategic circumstances necessitate Reaganesque stances on national security. Nor do I think that is a winnable argument for Republicans with the American public.

What the public wants ought not to be the sole determinant of our national security policies — every conservative applauds Edmund Burke’s insistence that he owed his constituency his judgment, not just his vote. But public opinion does matter in every democracy, and it matters especially for the United States because the main limit on our power is our willingness to use it.

My very strong sense is that voters don’t want to hear it right now; they aren’t amenable to our arguments for an assertive policy to advance our values in the world. We made that case too glibly in the Bush administration, and managed it too poorly, for voters — even Republican voters — to trust our judgment. We will have to earn our way back into their confidence.

Pletka makes passing, critical reference to Dwight Eisenhower’s unwillingness to intervene in Hungary. And she’s absolutely right that Eisenhower clamped down on advocates of rolling back Soviet expansion. He understood that 1950s voters still taking solace in a willful innocence after World War II, who elected him to end the Korean War, had no stomach for liberating Hungary. And, after all, the president is the person who ultimately has to decide how much to risk and pay for what we attempt in the world.

Public indifference to how the wars are concluded — President Obama has paid no price that I can ascertain for ending rather than winning our wars — suggests Americans are in about the same place now. Just as the Vietnam War cast a long shadow over American willingness to take an active role in refashioning the international order, Iraq and Afghanistan are casting their pall over public support for interventions very much in our strategic interest, like Syria or Iran.

We will miss lots of opportunities to shape the world in better ways as Americans turn inward. But we Republicans ought also to acknowledge that we squandered the public trust with rosy projections of the cost of the wars and colossal mismanagement for far too long. We delegitimized our own strategy and we are still paying the price for it. President Obama’s fecklessness in Iraq and Afghanistan has only added a general skepticism that wars as we now fight them are winnable at all.

It will not be enough for Republicans to argue that we know the right thing to do. We will need to demonstrate we know how to achieve it, and at a price the American people are willing to pay. I suspect it will take another decade of absorbing the consequences of allowing the world to grow more dangerous before Americans would be willing to consider another war on the scale of Iraq or Afghanistan. We delay rather than hasten that time by advocating a Reaganesque assertiveness rather than an Eisenhower restraint.

Kori Schake is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and an associate professor at the U.S. Military Academy.

Paul D. Miller:

Danielle Pletka writes that Republicans and Democrats are divided on foreign policy most fundamentally by values. Republicans believe in "a moral imperative for U.S. power in the world" which leads them to support the growth of democracy worldwide, implying that Democrats do not. Nonsense. Democratic presidents have been so idealistic and fervent in their pursuit of a moral foreign policy that they gave us a name for it (Wilsonianism), a doctrine (Truman), and a hapless precedent for how not to do it (Carter).

Republicans do a disservice when they try to make promoting democracy a partisan issue. It is much safer to recognize the broad bipartisan consensus that has existed at least since the McKinley administration that American power should tilt the playing field of history towards freedom.

True, some Democrats began to betray their century-old heritage by overreacting to Iraq. Barack Obama sounded some vaguely realpolitik-y notes in his campaign and his first year in office. But Democratic realism died a silent and unmourned death in the sands of Libya. Obama and his advisors couldn’t resist the opportunity to cleanse America’s image by undertaking a pure humanitarian mission unsullied by the least connection with strategic interests. We are now safely united again in a grand strategy of spreading the democratic peace.

The real split between the parties is in deciding how, when, where, and why to foster democracy abroad, in answer to which the Obama administration has been incoherent and inconsistent. The Republican response — Pletka’s included — so far, is to call for leadership and money, neither of which constitutes a strategy. Calling for more defense spending doesn’t fit the bill unless we explain what that spending is for and what interests will go unsecured if we fail to allocate the money. And calling for more "leadership" is equally void of meaning unless we explain where we are going and why we think America — and the world — should follow.

We don’t have to have grand philosophical debates. We can pick specific issues that illustrate the parties’ differences and hammer on them relentlessly. I know I sound like a broken record, but we could start by tackling head-on the biggest crisis the United States is currently engaged in that top American officials are resolutely ignoring: not Syria, but Afghanistan.

Just because the average voter stopped paying attention years ago, and elected officials followed suit soon after, does not mean the United States no longer has interests there. Democrats performed an astonishing and shameful about-face between 2008, when it unanimously affirmed it as the good war to which we absolutely must devote more resources right now, and 2010, when their president led the way by no longer believing the war was winnable despite clear evidence to the contrary, and announced an intention to withdraw our forces without specifying how we will mitigate the obvious damage to American interests that will result from allowing terrorists to regain safe-haven in a large swathe of South Asia.

Mitt Romney missed a large and obvious opportunity to differentiate himself from the president by going on the attack on Afghanistan. Republicans can and should be out front explaining what our interests are and how we can win. Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates was absolutely right when he insisted that the Pentagon focus on the wars we were fighting rather than the hypothetical wars of the future. That is still true. If Republicans want to win back their foreign-policy credentials, they should stop their scripted apoplexy over Syria, Iran, and China and say something intelligent and relevant about the war in which American troops are still dying. That’s the least we owe our soldiers.

Paul D. Miller is an assistant professor of International Security Affairs at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.  He previously served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the National Security Council staff from 2007 through 2009.  The views expressed here are his own.

Thomas G. Mahnken:

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.

Elizabeth Ralph is a researcher at Foreign Policy.

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