Rand Paul: Washington Must Move beyond the Old Foreign Policy Consensus

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) speaks at a press conference about the latest Republican Effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act on Capitol Hill

Sen. Rand Paul spoke at an event at the Center for the National Interest.

Ever since the end of the cold war, America has debated its role in the world. Should it intervene abroad on behalf of democracy and freedom, as liberal hawks and neoconservatives urge? Or should it focus on rebuilding at home and protecting its vital national interests?

Rand Paul, the junior senator from Kentucky spoke at length at a dinner hosted by the Center for the National Interest on March 7 about the need actively to engage states with which America has substantial disagreements, while rejecting the “monolithic foreign policy that has ruled this town (Washington DC) for over seventy years.” Paul has long been one of the most articulate spokesmen for a change in Washington's approach abroad. The true isolationists, according to Senator Paul, are those who refuse to seek out avenues for dialogue and diplomacy with rival nations and limit all interactions with such states to efforts at regime change, which often have dire, unintended consequences. As an alternative, the Senator expressed a vision for a realist, non-interventionist American foreign policy emphasizing diplomacy, military restraint, and increased congressional oversight.

Stressing the need for a “robust diplomacy with those we disagree with,” Senator Paul advocated for legitimate attempts at diplomatic outreach towards countries such as Iran and North Korea, as well as attempts to broker negotiations with Taliban leaders in Afghanistan, describing diplomacy as a preferable option to military force. Senator Paul criticized those who favor aggressive military action and regime change as the default responses to international disputes. The Senator contended that America’s willingness to forcibly depose former Libyan Prime Minister Muammar Gaddafi, a leader who agreed to peacefully disarm his nuclear weapons program in 2003, only served to harden the resolve of North Korea and Iran to develop weapons programs of their own to deter American aggression and ensure the survival of their regimes. Still, the senator noted that “diplomacy requires implied force,” and that the United States must be willing to make it clear to its potential foes that military action remains a credible option if America’s vital national interests are challenged, even if such measures are best viewed as a last resort.

One of Senator Paul’s prescriptions to ensure that war becomes the exception rather than the norm in American foreign policy is to curtail the ability of the executive branch to initiate military action without congressional consent. The senator expressed disappointment in Congress for shirking its traditional oversight powers, as well as in the “imperial presidency,” for overstepping its constitutional authority in initiating military action against foreign entities. Invoking James Madison’s 1798 letter to then-Vice President Thomas Jefferson, Senator Paul espoused the belief that, “the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it,” and that the restoration of the system of checks and balances that once restrained executive power in the realm of foreign policy is essential to avoid costly wars that do little to further the interest of the United States.

In particular, Senator Paul expressed a desire to avoid a conflict centered around North Korea’s nuclear weapon and intercontinental ballistic missile programs. He described the situation has having no military solution that could resolve the dispute without significant costs to the United States, and indicated that he would not support requiring the termination of North Korea’s nuclear program as a precondition to any talks, an idea that had previously been floated by the Trump administration. However, Senator Paul was quite complimentary of the role that President Trump and Secretary Tillerson played in potentially bringing North Korea to the negotiating table, stating that the President’s “bluster” combined with Secretary Tillerson’s more diplomatic approach served as an effective good cop/bad cop strategy to incentivize North Korea seeking out dialogue with the United States. Noting that neither Russia or China have reason to be secure with the prospect of a nuclear-armed North Korea, the Senator expressed hope that the State Department could convince these countries to actively support future efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the ongoing dispute, stating that, “the job of the State Department is diplomacy, not war.”

Despite complimenting the leadership of the president and the secretary of state in addressing the North Korean threat, Senator Paul showed willingness to break with the administration in other realms. Notably, the Senator expressed his opposition to the tariffs on imported steel and aluminum that President Trump has issued, which many economists have warned will do little to benefit the American economy and could result in a trade war. Not only did Senator Paul express concern that the proposed tariffs could undermine America’s commitment to free trade, but he also noted that America’s substantial trade with China could serve to strengthen relations between the two nations, which could be disrupted by a new tariff regime.