There’s No Such Thing as ‘Traditional’ Republican Foreign Policy
Trump can't ruin the GOP's foreign-policy principles, because there aren't any to ruin.
The debate about U.S. President Donald Trump’s performance at last week’s Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin offers a good moment to reflect on whether there is any core tradition in the Republican Party’s foreign-policy beliefs. Most Republican officeholders have expressed objections to Trump’s submissiveness to the Russian leader and Russian interests but also made clear that they don’t see it as cause to break with their party’s leader.
As a historian and former policymaker, I am not surprised at this confused response. The Republican Party may have once had a core, but it has eroded. For years, the question has been what, if anything, will take its place. Until there is an answer, Trump will be a fitting symbol of the absence.
There are two generalizations about the history of Republican foreign-policy beliefs that I believe are unassailably true:
Ironclad generalization 1: For at least the last 100 years, every leading Republican politician, without exception, was firmly—usually stridently—anti-communist.
Ironclad generalization 2: For at least the last 100 years, there has been no other consensus among leading Republican politicians about the character or direction of U.S. engagement with the rest of the world.
The party’s adhesive bond was supplied by the first generalization. But as its relevance faded after 1990, a natural state of disharmony and drift has emerged in its place.
Most politicians, like their voters, are driven mainly by cultural concerns, mainly in the United States. A great many Republicans, including in the rank and file, do not really care much about the world outside the United States, except when a news story spotlights something or someone distasteful, a business interest surfaces, or there is some other personal connection. There are a few Republican politicians who are pro-Russia, such as Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, but the reasons are transparently disreputable, and these figures are not influential. Most Republicans who defend Trump over Russian issues do so because they support him for other reasons—just as the disproportionate Republican attention to Benghazi had little to do with Libya.
After 9/11, anti-Islamism became a candidate replacement for anti-communism for Republicans. Candidate Trump, indeed, was openly anti-Muslim and anti-Arab. But in office, he has become vehemently pro-Saudi and pro-Emirati, mainly as an incident to his support for Israel and the decision to enter the Muslim Cold War on the anti-Iranian side.
Yet no one should think that Trumpism has a deeply considered view of the future of the Middle East or any other part of the world. Instead, Trump’s approach consists mostly in using foreign policy as a vehicle to align with factions in America’s culture wars. Iran is thus a useful focal point for anti-Muslim fear, and anti-Islamist rhetoric and policy just flows into a more general resentment and suspicion of dangerous foreigners. Trump and his allies know very well that this latter anxiety is common among their base voters.
Since Trumpism is mainly about cultural fears and loathing, what it has added to Republican foreign-policy debates is an emphasis on the hidden forces out to get him and his supporters. This has a long history in the Republican Party. Right-wing conspiracy theories about foreign threats were sparked in the 1930s and took off during the 1940s and 1950s. Every major trauma spawned a whole set of them: Pearl Harbor, the Communist takeover of China, and the Soviet acquisition of the atomic bomb were all blamed on treason by Democratic presidents and their most senior aides. (The extreme left-wing later developed its conspiracy theories, too, to explain the killing of John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War, and 9/11.)
Trumpism’s mix of beliefs, and even its rhetorical style, is actually quite similar to the McCarthyite Republican senators of the 1950s, men such as William Jenner and Kenneth Wherry, or Fulton Lewis Jr. and other prominent Republican commentators of that era. As the Soviet menace receded, the 1992 presidential campaign saw such voices return, with Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot being two prominent examples.
Unlike those predecessors, Trump presents himself as a personal vessel for all of his voters’ resentments. Trumpism is thus like Peronism, Putinism, or any other “ism” in which the leader claims to personify the people against hated elites and threatening foreigners.
The Helsinki summit performance is just what happens when an unmoored ego floats around in such a void. The attention to Trump’s press conference actually obscures all the silences, the corollary void of any apparent practical accomplishment or hard work at problem-solving.
The answer is not a Republican return to the old-time foreign-policy religion—that is now obsolete. The answer must be the development of a new creed that connects viscerally to the opportunities and challenges ordinary Americans perceive, well into the 21st century. As a historian, I can note that such creeds usually arise in only two ways. They are the product of a collective national trauma, or they are articulated in the emergence of a popular new leader.
Among Republicans, President Dwight D. Eisenhower played such a constructive, catalytic role with a good deal of success during his time. William Hitchcock’s recent book does a nice job of showing how Eisenhower, a popular leader at the head of a very fractious and divided party, solidified a reasonably broad synthesis about how to approach the Cold War and think about the role of the federal government at home in the context of his times. It did not end debate, of course, but it created a way to move forward. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush did this again in the transition from the Cold War to a new era, an era that is now entering another period of world-historical transition.
Absent a shock, in the form of a great tragedy, the only constructive Republican answer to Trumpism is the emergence of a different voice, leading a team that has something more interesting and compelling to say.
Philip Zelikow holds professorships in history and governance at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. He also worked on international policy as a U.S. government official in five administrations.