Shadow Government

How Foreign Policy Can Unite the Republican Presidential Field

While candidates are quibbling over degrees of difference, they should be able to agree on the need for America to remain at the world's helm.


The GOP presidential candidates are locked in a race that is intensely focused on national security, and they are naturally drawing distinctions regarding their policy views. But every moment they focus on each other, they are failing to focusing on the Democrats and their shortcomings on foreign policy. So it is worth examining what Republicans should be able to agree on in foreign policy and what should eventually unite them by summer.

What Republicans agree on at this stage of the campaign 

Republicans agree that seven years of Democratic foreign policy finds America’s rivals ascending while it is faltering. North Africa and the Middle East are host to civil wars and sectarian wars that imperil our allies. A newly formed terror state intimidates the world by carving up existing states and attacking soft targets in the West. A refugee crisis swamps Europe. Iran marches inexorably to a nuclear weapon and, along the way, takes every opportunity to humiliate the U.S. president. Russia harasses Europe and once again is a great power influencing the course of events in the Middle East. China rises to menace its neighbors and gain footholds in Africa. North Korea grows its nuclear arsenal unchecked. Cuba exults in a warm presidential embrace while altering nothing about its threatening posture toward the United States and its repression at home. Much of Latin America flounders in a crime wave and its peace and order are assaulted by illegal narcotics gangs.

What each of the malefactors and rogue states has in common is that they want to end a world order where the United States is powerful, assertive, and influential. And so they are quite glad for the last seven years of Obama’s inaction to work their malicious wills. Three in particular — Russia, Iran, and China aspire to hegemony in their backyards to our harm.

The world is indeed a more hostile and dangerous place for the United States than it has been in 70 years and in this context our presidential election is in full swing.

What the Republicans disagree on at this stage of the campaign

But the GOP field increasingly plays up their internal disagreements. Some of them argue that a world on fire requires more U.S. intervention. Some argue for less intervention. There is the divide over what kind of intervention: intervening with the goal of regime change and shoring up an order we can accept vs. intervening only to smash our enemies and avoiding any entanglements. Some argue that rogue regimes and dictators who refrain from harming our interests are worth preserving. Others argue such a policy works when dictatorships are stable but few are stable now that technology and the democratic example we’ve been supporting since the Reagan years is driving the people power revolutions that topple tyrants. Some candidates are specific in their assertions while some are vague.

Most recently, this divide has been typified by the Cruz-Rubio debate, but it is not limited to them. The Christie-Paul flare-ups have highlighted it; Bush early on and rather publicly had a very personal debate with himself about his brother’s legacy; and sometimes Trump seems to take each side in turn. My sense is that Republican division over what the United States should do in the world will continue for a while even though the GOP candidates are united and vocal about Obama’s failure and the dangerous world he has helped to foment.

In addition to political campaigning, perhaps much of this division is due to the mood of the electorate that worries over foreign policy adventurism even as they tell pollsters they want to see more U.S. action to defeat the Islamic State — including troops on the ground.

But I think a more fundamental reason for the lack of unity among GOP leaders and the party generally is that we have not spent time sorting out the lessons of the last dozen years of U.S. foreign policy. (John Davidson in The Federalist has some valuable insights on this, especially the Iraq legacy and the public’s unwillingness to support long-term efforts.) The George W. Bush years ended with Iraq and Afghanistan more peaceful and stable, and with al Qaeda in sharp decline. Nevertheless, not much was resolved regarding the failures of the Iraq invasion and Saddam Hussein’s overthrow. That is, the regime change policy was not covered in glory, largely because the strategic thinking about what comes after Saddam’s fall didn’t happen. Then Obama took over and made it clear that his policy was going to be essentially the opposite of Bush’s no matter the cost. There was little debate about it even in his own administration and especially once dissenters like Secretary Robert Gates were out of picture.

Too bad the GOP didn’t have the debate during the Obama years when they could have tried to bridge over their differences and unite. But fighting the president’s domestic agenda was the priority and besides, many leaders are just less interested in foreign policy than in domestic policy.

That debate should still happen, but even before it does there is much the Republicans can agree upon in terms of broad principles. These principles offer the voters a clear picture of what a GOP foreign policy would look like. If the Republicans don’t do this, they can’t take advantage of the many failures of Obama’s foreign policy (which failed not simply due to bad tactics but due to his fundamental views) and they can’t in united fashion talk about steps for the future.

What Republicans should be able to agree on

In a word, they should be able to agree on principles that are as old as the republic and that were jettisoned really for the first time in our history with the election of Obama.

First and most important, the GOP should be able to agree that the post-World War II order is the U.S. order and it supports our interests. It is an order that respects the sovereignty and independence of nation-states and the right of men and women to engage in commerce freely. It is not a perfect order but it is the most pacific and progressive the world has known since the Roman Empire — and a far sight better given the exceptional nation that built and maintains it. Any threat to it must be met and turned back, not because we desire to be the world’s policeman but because we understand that there is simply no such thing as our own peace and prosperity if a Chinese, Russian, or Iranian world order should come into being.

Second, the GOP should be able to agree that it knows the world is filled with both allies and potential allies but also with enemies and potential enemies, and we should treat each accordingly. This is not an absolute call to war with the enemies and a call to coddle the allies. Rather, it is a simple statement of principle — markedly different from the Obama administration’s view. The Republican view holds that because of either their nature or their geographic position, some regimes will support our interests and some will always be hostile to us. Reality teaches us that the facts of regime culture and geopolitics trump wishful thinking. Just because the calendar turned over to the 21st century and Obama won the Nobel Prize does not mean that threats and aggression should cease, that the principle of anarchy is mooted, or that power politics has ended. They have not and they never will. It might be considered a cliché, but we must prepare for war (or sanctions, or muscular diplomacy) if we desire peace. Moreover, we should see to it that our enemies or would-be enemies fear our wrath and that our allies or those who can be won over as allies desire our amity.

Third, Republicans should agree that no matter what it takes nor how long it takes, the Islamic State will be destroyed. It is a clear and present danger to us abroad as well as at home. It is hard to believe that any U.S. government would have to be harangued and cajoled into fulfilling this necessary mission. Terrorist groups that target Americans should spend their days running for their lives and not plotting to take ours; terrorist states simply should not be allowed to exist, again, no matter what it takes.

Fourth, and getting a bit more specific as to regions:

  • The GOP should be able to agree that our interests (geopolitical as well as economic) are at risk when powers like Russia and Iran replace us as the influencer in the Middle East. Such a turn of events means that the Ayatollah, Bashar al-Assad, and Hezbollah are winning and our allies Israel, Jordan, and many Sunni states and groups are losing.
  • They should be able to agree that China’s attempt to control the seas around the East Asian mainland is a threat to us and that it is our business to thwart them. China’s rise can be dangerous or peaceful and we must ensure the latter.
  • They should be able to agree that Iran and North Korea will not be allowed to threaten us or our allies or control their regions with nuclear weapons.
  • The GOP should be able to agree that the health and peace of Latin America is vitally important to us. Waves of illegal immigration, drug trafficking, and international criminal networks all plague us when the region is in turmoil and the greatest influence in that region is socialist governments like that of Venezuela. Their misgovernment impoverishes their people, destabilizes their neighbors, and aids and abets global criminal and terror networks. Our inattention is costly.
  • Republicans should be able to agree that our foreign aid budget should serve our interests. U.S. taxpayers are not a charitable organization; every dime of assistance must be spent in our national interests. Supporting democratic regimes and democratic regimes-in-waiting (that is, dissidents like the Lech Walesa’s of the world) who support our interests and want to see our influence in the world should be the priority, not funding another 50 years of development projects with no end in sight. Emergency humanitarian assistance is not the problem; the problem is treating foreign countries like welfare dependents who’ll never be off the dole. It is this simple: there will be no sustained economic development in poor countries until there is good governance in those countries, but there will be no good governance until the leaders are democratically elected, accountable to the people, and rule by law. This truth should undergird our foreign aid policy.

Another way of looking at all of this is that Republicans do not accept that the United States is obligated to suffer credible and enduring threats to our interests nor humiliations to our reputation. No great power has ever accepted such and lasted, and it is especially dangerous for the world’s greatest power to be bullied until its influence is replaced by the influence of the Chinese, the Russians, or the Iranians.

Republicans have much to agree upon in foreign policy and much with which to rally voters to their standard. I hope they get to it soon.

Disclosure: I support Sen. Rubio’s candidacy and have contributed financially to his campaign.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola