The 2016 Election Turned the Politics of Foreign Policy on Its Head
Clinton is the hawk this year, Trump the isolationist. Can a warring GOP win back the “strong on defense” mantle — and the White House?
The GOP’s civil war is just beginning
But among an increasingly diverse American electorate, Trump’s emotional power also limited his own presidential prospects. Insulting broad swaths of the voting population — women, Latinos, African-Americans, Muslims — mobilized his base but also prevented him from expanding it. Yet even if the businessman-turned-reality TV star loses the race, the anxieties and fears that helped give rise to his candidacy will not disappear.
Once the ballots are counted — especially if Clinton prevails — Republicans will plunge into a struggle over the soul of their party, and foreign-policy issues will be front and center.
“Republicans are divided over foreign policy like they have not been for years,” said Stuart Rothenberg, the founding editor and publisher of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, a nonpartisan political newsletter. “Once defined by their desire to flex the nation’s military muscle and exercise diplomatic influence abroad, the GOP now has a vocal isolationist, ‘America First’ wing. Nobody knows what the future holds for the party.”
For decades, the Republican Party enjoyed a virtual political monopoly on foreign-policy issues.
Since at least the Vietnam War, voters consistently had more confidence in Republican leaders handling foreign crises than their Democratic counterparts. The GOP could cite the diplomatic competence and strength of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, while defensive Democrats found themselves saddled with Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War and Jimmy Carter’s legacy of bungling and bad luck in Iran. Bill Clinton also had his share of trouble on foreign policy, retreating from a disastrous U.S. military mission in Somalia, dithering initially over intervention in the Balkans, failing to take action to stop the genocide in Rwanda, and dropping the ball on the threat posed by al Qaeda.
The tables, however, have turned. The U.S. invasion of Iraq, with its catastrophic consequences and its flawed rationale, badly damaged the Republican Party’s credibility on foreign policy. Public war weariness helped Obama win the presidency. And now the Republican brand has suffered yet another hit, this time from Trump.
Zelizer of Princeton calls the effect “a double punch — Iraq and then Trump.”
Thanks to Trump’s often ill-informed and reckless talk, polls have shown Clinton holds a consistent advantage among voters on foreign policy and a wide range of issues — what Bellinger calls “safe hands” versus a man tweeting at 3 a.m. about a former beauty pageant contestant.
But even without Trump at the helm, large numbers of Republican voters are not ready to return to the party’s traditional foreign-policy doctrine, especially on trade.
Elliott Abrams, who served on George W. Bush’s National Security Council and before that under Reagan, said he was surprised by “the degree to which people have been persuaded — mostly by Trump, a little bit by Sanders — that international trade is the culprit” for their ills.
That shift could result in “an effort to cushion the damage international trade may do to certain portions of the American population … rather than simply getting into trade wars,” Abrams told FP.
But it’s unclear whether advocates of the GOP’s conventional line on national security, many of whom refused to endorse Trump, can forge common ground with more isolationist and populist voices in the party.
“I don’t think Trumpism is the inevitable future for the Republican Party,” said Dueck of George Mason University. “But I do think some form of conservative nationalism is probably here to stay. He identified it, he revealed it, he tapped into it, he expressed it. I don’t think that’s just going to disappear if he loses.”
Bellinger said he was optimistic some Republican lawmakers and foreign-policy experts will work with Clinton in the name of national security. He was far less hopeful for the fate of the GOP itself.
“The Republican Party is going to have to find its way forward and either rebuild the party or the party is going to split,” Bellinger said. “And there will be a moderate, Free Democratic-type party like in Germany, and then some sort of much more conservative, populist, nationalist party.”
Eliot Cohen, who served in the Defense and State departments for George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, respectively, and who organized early Republican opposition to Trump, described it more as a choice between a “purge” and a “secession.”
“If the party cannot rid itself of the nativist, white nationalist, neoisolationist elements …” he said, “I think we can’t survive together.”
Clinton and her fellow Democrats will have to work hard to solidify their hold on foreign policy and craft a positive message that clearly articulates the party’s vision, experts said.
“It’s not enough in the long term just to say that your opponents aren’t doing very well or that they are not that credible,” Zelizer said.
Still, Democrats have the edge on foreign policy for the moment and may for some time — largely thanks to Trump.
“Republicans this year got into bed with a monster,” Cohen said, “and it’s going to take some time for them to get out.”
Top photo credit: Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration