Gone to the Lake: Republicans and Foreign Policy

Gone to the Lake: Republicans and Foreign Policy

Mini Teaser: In a July 1995 speech before an enraptured audience assembled atWashington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, HouseSpeaker Newt Gingrich addressed the broad issues of post-Cold WarU.

by Author(s): Jonathan Clarke

In a July 1995 speech before an enraptured audience assembled at
Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, House
Speaker Newt Gingrich addressed the broad issues of post-Cold War
U.S. foreign policy. His address was typically multi-layered and
brimming with new age facilitator-speak phrases such as "appreciative
understanding" and "complex decentralized system" that normally--and
mercifully--find no place in the vocabulary of foreign affairs. In
retrospect, however, one simple example of southern vernacular stood
out. Trying to explain the vicissitudes of American diplomacy to the
many puzzled foreign diplomats present, Gingrich said that when we
Americans are not excited about the world, we "go to the lake."

The image in Gingrich's mind, no doubt, was that many southerners
retire on summer weekends to their modest lakeside cottages to fish,
hike, water-ski, and cook out. Once there, they refuse to be
disturbed by telephone or fax communication with the outside world.
They literally switch off. And indeed, as a matter of observable
fact, American foreign policy does swing between energetic
involvement and lethargic indifference. Countries formally at the
forefront of American interest--El Salvador, Nicaragua, Afghanistan,
Lebanon, Somalia--are given short shrift now that the American
strategic focus has moved on. The Bosnians may face a similar fate
once the 1996 presidential election is over.

Inadvertently, however, Gingrich was pointing to more than a general
American inclination. He was identifying as well a particular
tendency evident within his own party in this election year, a
tendency that may deprive the Republicans of a heretofore standard
advantage they have enjoyed in presidential electoral politics--the
advantage of foreign policy. For while the party's presumed
standard-bearer, Senator Robert Dole of Kansas, evidently sees
foreign policy as a comparative advantage in the November polling,
much of the rest of his party--especially in the House of
Representatives--evinces little understanding or interest in the
matter. To the extent that this is indeed the case it has serious
implications both for the election itself, and in terms of what might
happen down the road to a Dole administration searching for domestic
and congressional support for an activist foreign policy.

The GOP Divide

During his successful quest for the Republican nomination, Senator
Dole repeatedly sought to distance himself from the more frivolous
aspects of the electoral process by saying that it was about choosing
someone to "preside over foreign policy." His stump speeches
contained frequent references to the need to restore America's
leadership, and most commentators believe that if the Republicans can
make foreign policy an issue in November, it will work to their

At first sight it would appear that foreign affairs should indeed be
a lucrative seam for the Republicans to mine. Although no one expects
the election to turn on international issues, opinion surveys
consistently report that voters are unhappy about the nation's
standing in the post-Cold War world. Certainly, it is difficult to
defend the administration's performance in this field, and the best
that can be said of its more recent actions is that, as one academic
observer put it, the Clinton administration is now "awake in class."
"Cold War-lite" is Senator Bill Bradley's dismissive assessment of
the administration's performance, while Senator Phil Gramm scornfully
characterizes its approach as "channel surfing." And to be sure, on
the major issues of the day--especially on Russia and China, the two
most significant--the administration still seems fumbling and
incoherent. There is certainly no evidence that it has responded
effectively to the challenge implicit in former Assistant Secretary
of State Richard Holbrooke's insistence that the present is a seminal
period in foreign policy. President Clinton's State of the Union
message in January, for example, contained only a fleeting reference
to international issues, wedged between lengthiersections on the
environment and reinventing government.

The Republicans, therefore, have found easy pickings over the last
three years in criticizing the administration's foreign policy
stewardship. With some of its claimed successes--Bosnia, Northern
Ireland, the Middle East--now looking vulnerable, they are likely to
continue to do so. But this easy option has become something of a
trap. As the Republicans press their claims to replace Clinton in
office, merely pointing out the weaknesses of the incumbent's record
is not going to be enough. They will also have to persuade voters
that they can do substantially better, and this requires serious
thinking at two levels. First, Republicans must develop a concept of
America's place and role in the post-Cold War world that serves
American interests, and that is consistent with the tenets of limited
government and fiscal rigor implicit in modern Republicanism. Second,
they must propose practical ways of making a new policy framework
operational, particularly on those issues they themselves identify as
being most central.

The evidence for progress on either of these fronts is threadbare.
When informed that this study of his party's foreign policy was
underway, one experienced Republican legislator commented, "Good
luck, I hope you find it." On the conceptual side, the foreign policy
contributions during the Republican primary debates rarely rose above
the primitive and often sank to the ludicrous. Patrick Buchanan's
proposal of a sort of neo-Berlin Wall (complete with recycled
Schiessautomaten--automatic firing machines--no doubt) along the
southern border of the United States was a disgrace. The mainstream
candidates did not acquit themselves much better. Senator Richard
Lugar, the Republican contender who most actively touted his foreign
policy credentials, deliberately sought to inject a global aspect
into his campaign but the result was not impressive. His bizarre and
alarmist suggestion that the United States stood on the edge of a
nuclear holocaust over the proliferation "crisis" met the derision it
deserved. In the quest for primary votes even Senator Dole was
prepared to trim his sails. He tempered his support for NAFTA, for
example, a concept he had championed for nearly a decade and piloted
through the Senate. And he reversed his long-standing opposition to
moving the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

On specific foreign policy issues, the quality of Republican thinking
is lackluster. Whether on defense spending (more is better), China
(gung-ho for Taiwan), Cuba (putting Dade County before the national
interest), NATO (ready to die for Bratislava), Iran (an oxymoronic
public advocacy of covert action), Mexico (keep them out), or
international organizations (zero them out), Republican positions
are, at best, distressingly lacking in nuance and, at their worst,
conceptually unconvincing or impracticable. This weak performance in
foreign affairs stands in sharp contrast to the Republicans'
prodigious and creative production on domestic policy, where, at
least until recent months, they seized the initiative and dominated
the agenda. They achieved this by daring both to think new thoughts
and to go back to unfashionable old ones--in both instances
ruthlessly discarding current intellectual shibboleths. They now need
to turn some of that intellectual energy loose on international
issues. But will they?

One reason they might not has to do with the composition and
attitudes of the Republican Congress. Despite their protestations of
concern for the nation's international standing, Republican
politicians, especially those elected in the 1994 mid-term elections,
are neither experienced nor much interested in foreign policy. To
take one striking example, at the time of his appointment as chairman
of the vital Senate Subcommittee on East Asian Affairs, Craig Thomas
(R-WY), had never been to China. For some of the newly elected
representatives the mere fact of coming to Washington was, as a weary
State Department official commented, itself a foreign experience.

In part, of course, this aversion to things foreign reflects the
political ethos of the day. Douglas Bereuter (R-NE), who takes his
important European and Asian duties seriously, has commented that his
foreign travel attracts unfavorable comment from his opponents at
every election. Nonetheless, this disdain for the non-American world
represents a considerable break from the past--and a challenge to
Dole. When Barry Goldwater, one of the heroes of modern
Republicanism, wrote about his political creed in The Conscience of a
Conservative (1960), he devoted a significant portion of the book to
the world beyond America's shores. By contrast, the recent flood of
books by and about the present generation of Republican leaders
focuses fiercely on domestic issues and is almost devoid of any
serious consideration of foreign affairs. The "Contract With
America", for example, was dismayingly platitudinous on the subject.

Republican tracts rarely betray even a modest awareness that
countries other than the United States exist, let alone that they
might be valid models for comparison. Nowhere, for example, in House
Majority Leader Richard Armey's book, The Flat Tax, is there any
acknowledgment that, for all the Republican complaints about
exorbitant taxation, by international standards the United States
stands out as an oasis of low taxation--with Japan its only near
rival. Nor does Armey mention the concept of a Value Added Tax (vat)
as a possible substitute for current U.S. practice, even though the
vat, used in dozens of countries as a tax on consumption rather than
on savings, fits well the basic Republican fiscal philosophy.

The same exclusive focus on the domestic perspective holds true of
Republican opinion-leaders. Even when, in such works as the Hudson
Institute's 1995 publication The New Promise of American Life,
conservative thinkers purposefully set out to provide an
across-the-board conceptual manifesto for a new Republican era, they
give short shrift to foreign affairs. The book's single chapter on
America's international role appears at the very end, wearing all the
shamefaced trappings of a hastily assembled afterthought, and has
little editorial or conceptual connection with the central Republican
themes of domestic regeneration and fiscal austerity that permeate
the rest of the book.

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