Dead Elephants

The GOP is intellectually adrift and lacks a foreign-policy strategy. While Democrats may be inclined to gloat, the absence of a serious debate on international affairs is bad for the country.

Does the Republican Party have a foreign-policy strategy? Honestly, this question isn't meant to be snarky or sarcastic. I genuinely want to know.

To be fair, it's not like the GOP is inchoate on foreign-policy issues alone. Non-presidential parties are always in danger of looking rudderless. The first few months of 2009 have clarified the GOP's overall political strategy: "oppose almost everything the Obama administration supports." To be sure, this approach has yielded them some formidable levels of unity in both houses of Congress. But it has also cost them one Pennsylvania senator and an awful lot of the American public. If Rush Limbaugh really is the de facto leader of the Republican Party, then only 19 percent of the country is keen on that idea.

It's on the level of ideas where the GOP is really letting the country down. In a devastating autopsy of the current state of the Republican Party, Richard Posner identified the problem: "it is notable that the policies of the new conservatism are powered largely by emotion and religion and have for the most part weak intellectual groundings. That the policies are weak in conception, have largely failed in execution, and are political flops is therefore unsurprising." The numbers appear to bear out the lack of intellectual support for the GOP.

Most Democrats reading this are probably snickering at the sight of Republican disarray. They shouldn't. In the absence of a coherent opposition, American foreign policy often runs off the rails. During the first half of this decade, the Democrats were in roughly the same political and intellectual position as the Republicans are now. Faced with a popular president and afraid of looking weak, most Democrats rolled over on national security issues. The effect of this abdication on foreign-policy decision-making was . . . not good.

The Obama administration is on even stronger political ground than the Bush administration was in its first term. The Democrats have a strong majority in the House and are approaching a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Indeed, at this point, the most significant opposition to Obama's foreign-policy priorities is coming from other Democrats.

What would a Republican approach to foreign policy look like? Here's another problem. The GOP was traditionally the party of realpolitik, but that has changed as of late. Realism and neoconservatism lead to divergent policy preferences on issues like Iraq, Afghanistan, Putin's Russia and democracy promotion. It is difficult to mount a unified and loyal opposition when there is an absence of consensus about first principles. Politically, it will be difficult to for the GOP to pirouette from the Bush administration's neoconservatism to a more modest foreign-policy strategy.

The concept of a "loyal opposition" is a difficult one to straddle. On the one hand, it is vital for Americans to be exposed to contrasting takes on the best way to advance American interests. Opposition forces the current leadership to defend and articulate their preferred course of action. On the other hand, opposition based on the principles of Joe the Plumber is simply not an opposition that can be taken seriously. Let's hope the GOP can form a viable counterweight so that more foreign-policy opinions and valuable debates become a reality. Peanut-gallery snarkery will serve no one.

 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and a senior editor at The National Interest. His book, Avoiding Trivia: The Role of Strategic Planning in American Foreign Policy, was published last month by Brookings Institution Press.