It is the departure from Reagan's "optimistic pragmatism" in favor of a more idealistic "forcing the spring" approach—particularly using U.S. military power in an attempt to reshape hostile societies in America's image—which led to some of the miscalculations of the George W. Bush administration that so eroded the trust of the American electorate in the GOP's stewardship of U.S. foreign policy. The continued unwillingness of some within the Republican establishment to acknowledge these failures ended up being a weight around the necks of the John McCain campaign in 2008 and the Romney/Ryan ticket in 2012. The belief, whether justified or not, that a Romney presidency would be more likely to plunge the U.S. into armed conflicts in the Middle East and Asia—as opposed to a more pragmatic Obama who would try to find "deals" to keep us out of war—was an important subtext in the election campaign.
The term "banker" has now become an epithet, but in the pre-financial crash days, a banker was seen as a respectable pillar of the community rather than as a criminal. In this same vein, Republicans, because of their experiential base in the business community, were considered to be politicians more inclined to carefully weigh costs and benefits, less likely to gamble on hunches or aspirations—or let ideology cloud their assessment of the facts on the ground.
Romney decided not to embrace this model of the businessman-dealmaker as statesman. It raises the question whether this is a political persona that any future standard bearer in 2016 would be willing to adopt. But it seems clear that Americans want to know that a president has the skills of barter and exchange, as well as the ruthlessness to employ deadly force, in defending and advancing U.S. interests and values on the world stage.
Any Republican nominee for president in 2016, therefore, has an uphill battle in trying to convince the electorate that the GOP can and should be trusted with America's national security. And it will require the Republican Party to have an honest and frank discussion of its recent past. Only then can the GOP advance a vision of conservative internationalism grounded in realism, one that might again capture the hearts—and votes—of a majority of Americans.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.
Image: Flickr/Charlie Phillips.