Shadow Government

Are The Republicans All Over the Map on Foreign Policy?

It's high time for the GOP to take back its natural advantage on foreign policy.

<> on November 10, 2015 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
<> on November 10, 2015 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The recent Republican debate in Wisconsin primarily concerned the economy and domestic policy. But enough foreign policy and national security issues were covered to justify the Washington Post headline: “On foreign policy, the GOP candidates are ‘all over the map.” The Post story goes on to draw unflattering comparisons to the “sure-footed knowledge” of foreign policy and national security displayed by the likely Democratic nominee, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, suggesting that the Republicans might not have the advantage on foreign policy and national security that most expect.

My read of the debate is that there is a grain of truth in that analysis, but only a grain. And it is certainly premature to award the advantage to Clinton.

As I see it, there were three discernible schools of foreign policy and national security on display in the debate. The largest school — measured by the number of candidates, not by polling numbers — is what I would call the “Republican consensus” position of American leadership. Of course, there are shades of difference within this school that might matter on specific policies, and there are differences in temperament that might distinguish one candidate from another. But all of these candidates share a commitment to restoring America’s global leadership, rebuilding the confidence of longtime allies and the respect and longtime adversaries, reversing the slide in defense capability produced by President Obama’s planned cuts followed by the sequester, expanding domestic (and global) prosperity through free trade agreements, taking a more assertive posture vis-à-vis Russian and Chinese adventurism, pursuing a more robust all-elements-of-national-power strategy vis-à-vis the Islamic State (IS) and other transnational terrorist networks, and addressing the deficiencies of Obama’s Iran policy (to name just a few major points of consensus). In this school are Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, and John Kasich, as well as all of the remaining candidates in the undercard debate. Arguably, Ted Cruz belongs in this school as well, though his views are much harder to pin down. Perhaps, further down the road, we may see the emergence of a split within this group, led by a Cruz breakout. For now, it is unlikely these candidates will differentiate themselves from each other on foreign policy.

At the other end of the spectrum is the school of one: the neo-isolationist school of Rand Paul. Only a few years ago, many observers predicted that Paul would emerge as a major voice in the 2016 primary. Since then, the stunning rise of IS and consequent chaos in the Middle East, the rise of Putin adventurism with its ominous portent for European stability, and the aggressive posturing of China (along with many other less-heralded developments) have collectively painted a vivid and disturbing picture of what an American foreign policy of retreat yields. Republican primary voters do not seem interested in accelerating the retreat.

To be sure, Paul presents a principled and relatively coherent alternative to the GOP consensus. But it is so out of step with the times that he himself has spent most of the last year not talking about it — until the debate, where it reemerged in a memorable exchange with Rubio on defense spending. Right now, Paul is on track to underperform his father’s last presidential campaign, and so it is hard to call this a major factor in the Republican primary, let alone the national debate.

For now, what looks to be a bigger factor is the third school, what I will call “foreign-policy-as-reflex.” This school consists of the two putative front-runners, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, and its hallmark is the absence of any coherent approach to the set of foreign policy challenges the next president will actually inherit. Depending on the question (and maybe depending on the framing of the question), one might hear something akin to the Republican consensus or akin to Paul’s neo-isolationism, or something impossible to define.

Indeed, these two candidates give the impression of not having thought deeply about foreign policy and of not yet having mastered their respective briefs. Trump and Carson are the candidates that have come closest to having a “Herman Cain Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan” moment. Consider, for instance, when Trump railed about the dangers of passing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal because of Chinese perfidy, only to have it pointed out to him that China is not currently party to the TPP deal. Colin Dueck sees more coherence in Trump’s views than I do, but he and I agree that his forays into foreign policy are damaging to the Republican party brand and to the eventual nominee’s chances in the general election.

So far, the absence of preparation and knowledge on the issues has not held this school back. In fact, Trump and Carson currently both poll astonishingly well among Republican voters on such threshold questions as which candidate the voters most trust to be commander-in-chief or to deal with foreign leaders. However, those numbers track pretty closely to the overall approval ratings, so it may simply be tapping into the same undercurrent of support (or even just name-recognition) those candidates already enjoy.

Obama-as-candidate managed to neutralize the traditional Republican advantage on foreign policy, but Obama-as-president squandered it. As the global situation unraveled in 2014, Republicans once again started outpolling Democrats on foreign policy. However, as recently as this past July, when the Trump phenomenon started to gain steam (and, it must be conceded, in the wake of the generally positive news coverage of the Iran nuclear deal), Democrats regained an edge.

It is hard to believe that the Republicans can retain their traditional issue ownership of foreign policy if either Trump or Carson ends up being the nominee — or, more generously, if the Trump/Carson so far on display ends up being the nominee.

I continue to believe it is unlikely that either Trump or Carson will emerge as the nominee. It is even more unlikely that Trump or Carson with only a “foreign-policy-as-reflex” platform will emerge as the nominee. In other words, if Trump or Carson do reach the Republican primary finish line, it is much more likely they will have long since moved squarely into the Republican consensus school on foreign policy matters.

There is no question that Clinton would rather debate foreign policy against a foreign-policy-as-reflex candidate than against one of the Republican consensus candidates. Clinton’s own team surely must realize she hasn’t been really tested on foreign policy in this campaign yet. The inconvenient truth is that she has serious vulnerabilities and so far she has not been pressed to answer for any of them. Her fawning press coverage has obscured this fact — a good example is this puff-piece by James Traub which sprawls over 8,000 words without mentioning Clinton’s partisan opposition to the Iraq surge, her failure to make good on her promise of a diplomatic surge in Iraq, or her flip-flop on the TPP — but a competent Republican nominee won’t let her off the hook so easily.

The question is whether Republican voters will choose such a candidate. I think they will, but if they don’t, I find it hard to believe that it will be foreign policy issues that proved decisive to the primary voters.

(Disclosure: I support Jeb Bush’s candidacy and have contributed money to his campaign.)

Photo Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images News

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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