Shadow Government

Taft, not Reagan: The right historical analogy for a Rand foreign policy

Many policy disputes are at their core disputes about history. This is certainly the case with Senator Rand Paul’s much-noticed foreign policy speech last week. The speech represents Paul’s entry into the ongoing "whither GOP foreign policy" debate, which he will likely continue in his Tea Party response to President Obama’s State of the Union ...

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Many policy disputes are at their core disputes about history. This is certainly the case with Senator Rand Paul’s much-noticed foreign policy speech last week. The speech represents Paul’s entry into the ongoing "whither GOP foreign policy" debate, which he will likely continue in his Tea Party response to President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night, alongside Senator Marco Rubio’s official Republican response.

At the outset of his remarks Senator Paul oddly claims the mantle of being a "realist." This seems to have triggered some affection from other professing realists, which is curious since one looks in vain through Paul’s speech for much realist content. "Realism" is of course given to multiple meanings — among others, there exists realist theory as an analysis of the international system based on states as actors competing for power. Then there is policy realism as a pragmatic tactic for unconditional discussions with regimes such as Iran, Syria, and North Korea, along with the belief that achieving an Israel-Palestinian peace settlement is the strategy key to stabilizing the Middle East. And there is also the odd "realism" of Chuck Hagel which seems to be an ideological aversion to any type of diplomatic or economic sanctions.

Yet none of these realisms is evident in Paul’s speech. The realism that concerns itself with great power relations? Great powers like China, Russia, India, Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom are not even mentioned. The realism that supports tactical outreach to rogue regimes?  Paul offers no specific initiatives beyond hinting that he does not support attacking Iran.

To be sure, the speech has some strong and welcome points, especially its calls for broad debate on foreign policy, for Congressional responsibility, and for restoring America’s fiscal health.  But when it comes to foreign policy specifics, the speech reads like an odd combination of a crude "clash of civilizations" analysis and "Come Home, America" policy prescriptions.

Paul makes much of following the historical model of George Kennan and the doctrine of containment in the Cold War, now to be applied to "radical Islam." But while this might sound nice in a speech, it is not persuasive on substance. Kennan developed containment as a response to Soviet communism, which was an ideological system embedded in a nation-state with defined geographic borders, established political leadership, and a self-contained economic system. In short, there were clear boundaries to containment and a clear goal of preventing the geographic expansion of Soviet communism while increasing pressure on its internal contradictions until the eventual collapse of the Soviet state. Whereas "radical Islam" in Paul’s speech has none of those characteristics — it extends beyond any single nation-state, is borderless and global, does not have a discrete political leadership, and does not have an identifiable economic system. As a strategic matter, what does it mean to "contain" something like that?  Paul’s speech does not give a good answer – perhaps because there is no good answer. (Fred Kagan points out several other problems with Paul’s use of Kennan here.)

Here Paul’s prescription for what to do in response to radical Islam veers between platitudes and incoherence.  He implies that American interventions abroad create more jihadists. But he glosses over the fact that in Syria, where the United States has maintained a posture of passivity and restraint, thousands of new jihadists are being radicalized. He characterizes radical Islam as a global ideological threat. Yet he offers no analysis of what its means and ends are, and no coherent strategy to respond to that threat. And he glosses over the contradiction of claiming that radical Islam has been around for several hundred years but that it can be defeated through containment. 

Senator Paul credits his reading of John Gaddis’s magisterial biography of George Kennan with inspiring the ideas in his speech. Gaddis (who in full disclosure was my dissertation advisor) has also written the classic history of containment as a strategic doctrine, and in the conclusion he addresses whether containment can be applied to different conflicts today: "Containment cannot be expected to succeed, therefore, in circumstances that differ significantly from those that gave rise to it, sustained it, and within which it eventually prevailed."

Politically, Paul seeks to wrap himself in the mantle of President Reagan, but the Reagan he invokes is a figure more of his own imagining rather than the Reagan of history. (The other half of the Brothers Kagan, Bob, provides ample evidence on this point here). I would add that much of Reagan’s foreign policy career was defined against the realists of the day, whether Reagan’s early opposition to détente, his escalated ideological campaign against the Soviet Union in the early 1980s that disrupted the international equilibrium, or his dual push for SDI and nuclear abolition which also disrupted the stable balance of power. Not to mention that unlike Senator Paul, Reagan was all too willing to push forcefully for human rights and democracy in unfree countries, especially communist ones, as part of his comprehensive strategy to bring down the Soviet Union. 

Paul’s facile reading of history curiously ignores the obvious forbear he should have appealed to — Senator Robert Taft of Ohio. The onetime Senate majority leader and three-time candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, Taft articulately represented the non-interventionist wing of the Republican Party at mid-century. He vocally opposed American aid to Britain and involvement in either the European or Pacific theaters of World War II, right up to the Pearl Harbor attack. Then, in the early Cold War years, although a fierce anticommunist, Taft feared that in its Cold War mobilization the United States risked becoming a garrison state. He vehemently opposed the creation of NATO, was ambivalent about American intervention in the Korean War, and only grudgingly voted for the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan.

Taft lost the GOP nomination battle to Eisenhower in 1952, and with it Taft’s foreign policy camp waned as the Republican Party predominantly embraced hawkish internationalism. Personally, I hold Taft’s character, intellect, and patriotism in great esteem. In hindsight, his warnings about the unsustainability of the domestic welfare state and its corrosive effects on free enterprise are principled and prescient. But in the light of that same hindsight, his foreign policy prescriptions, particularly in response to the threats of fascism and communism, appear more wrong than right. This is a history that Paul might want to consider before trying to take the Republican Party and the United States down a similar foreign policy path.

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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