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

The Republican political leadership deserves much of the blame for
this state of affairs. Foreign policy specialists in academia and in
Republican-inclined foundations (of whom there is an abundance and
whose writings are prolific) can only perform half the task. At the
end of the day, the political leadership must decide the themes it is
prepared to present and defend to the voters, and subsequently turn
into policy. As Gingrich remarked succinctly in a speech to a CSIS
colloquium in April, "If the country doesn't get it, you can't
sustain it." Lugar's misbegotten attempts aside, this has not been
happening. In April, Dole had to cancel a well-advertised speech on
China, to be delivered at the Nixon Library in California, either
because he could not make up his mind on the policy approach he
favored, or because he feared dividing his followers while at the
same time failing to distinguish his views sufficiently from those of
President Clinton.

With the signal exception of Henry Kissinger's Diplomacy, books by
former Republican secretaries of state and other high officials have
tended to be somewhat anecdotal, backward-looking accounts of their
time in office, rather than forward-looking discussions of the future
needs of American foreign policy. All in all, it is not easy to find
evidence that the Republican Party has used its time out of the White
House to renew its thinking about international affairs.

Symptomatic of this resistance to renewal is the fact that the
average age of the chairmen of the two key Senate foreign policy
committees--Senator Jesse Helms of Foreign Relations and Strom
Thurmond of Armed Services--is eighty-four. Neither exactly
represents the cutting edge of the new Republicanism, and neither has
much in the way of intellectual leadership to contribute to the task
of shaping a foreign policy for a new era. Far from using his new
position of power to introduce the fruits of a decade's worth of new
thinking, Senator Helms seems concerned either to settle old scores
or to push pet projects inherited from the time when expansionist
communism was laying siege to the West. It is as though Helms and his
colleagues had clicked the memory icon on some foreign policy
computer screen and had then adopted as policy whatever the computer
had provided from its 1970 and 1980 files. Even allowing for the
Senate's seniority system, and with due respect for the virtues of
experience, this does not convey either the image or the reality of a
party seeking to rejuvenate itself. Rather, it personifies a party
that, in Speaker Gingrich's words, has "gone to the lake."

* * * *

To provide specific illustration of some of the weaknesses of the
Republican approach, let us briefly consider three major issues:
Defense, European Security, and China. On the basis of an interesting
new book, Agenda for America: A Republican Direction for the Future,
and judging by statements and occasional thinkpieces from their
leadership, Republicans wish to lay particular emphasis on these
issues. Given their claim to superior foreign policy competence,
then, it is reasonable to ask whether their emergent positions with
respect to foreign policy are sound and based on a rational
expectation of available resources. In short, will they work? The
evidence is not encouraging.

Defense: The Militarization of Foreign Policy

Given its underpinning role for foreign policy, it makes sense to
start with defense spending. Since the Reagan presidency, belief in a
high level of defense spending has become something of a litmus test
for Republicans. This was not always so. In his day--and that day was
at the height of the Cold War--a Republican icon such as Eisenhower
(whom Dole cites as an exemplar of sound Republican foreign policy)
expressed serious reservations about the resource demands from the
military. Today, however, such hesitations are taboo. Despite the
demise of the Evil Empire on which the Reagan defense build-up was
predicated, high defense spending has become an unexamined article of
faith for Republican foreign policy--proof, in itself and without any
need for further elaboration, of soundness and vision. On the primary
trail, Dole returned repeatedly, but without much in the way of
argument, to his theme that defense spending has been cut too far,
too fast. He spoke of a "short sad interlude of American waffling and
weakness." With appropriations for conventional diplomacy under
increasing pressure, it is almost as though the Republicans are set
on militarizing foreign policy.

At the political level, the implications in terms of practical
numbers have usually been left unstated. It has been left to
conservative defense specialists to fill in the blanks. In 1994 the
Heritage Foundation proposed a five-year budget of $1.435 trillion,
some $140 billion or 10 percent more than the budget favored by the
Clinton administration. The defense section in the Agenda for America
goes much further. In precise terms, this section (prepared under the
co-direction of former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and former UN
Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick) reinforces Dole's charges that
Clinton's defense cuts are producing the hollow army of the Carter
era. To counter this, it proposes an increased expenditure of thirty
billion dollars per annum on readiness, an additional sixty billion
dollars annual spending for weapons procurement, an additional eighty
billion dollars for a missile defense system (thereby violating the
Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty), together with unquantified extra
spending on military pay and veterans benefits. In total, this
implies an annual defense budget approaching $400 billion--an
additional annual burden of $140 billion, or approximately 50 percent
above current levels.

Defense spending is a very complex subject, the details of which
cannot be afforded full justice in this space. It is fair to note,
however, that some reputable experts (to which category both Cheney
and Kirkpatrick manifestly belong) agree that expenditure of this
magnitude is needed to maintain the credibility of the nation's
present commitment to being able to fight two major regional wars
more or less simultaneously. It is also reasonable to point out, as
Gingrich has, that the aircraft carrier USS Independence, visited by
Clinton during his April trip to Asia, is over forty years old.

The Republican focus on defense policy is therefore wholly
legitimate. The difficulty is that they are putting forward two very
different approaches. The 1994 Heritage Foundation outline amounts to
a technical criticism of the Clinton defense budget. The proposal set
out in the Agenda for America could be construed as accusing the
administration of gross dereliction of duty by failing to provide the
resources needed to defend the nation. It also brings with it
enormous implications for the American political economy. In a six
trillion dollar economy the problem is not one of an absolute
inability to afford such sums for defense, but rather one of deciding
the appropriate trade-offs in federal fiscal policy. Lopping back
State Department appropriations or trimming foreign aid (Israel,
Egypt, and Turkey are, of course, sacred cows) will not produce the
necessary cash. Domestic priorities will have to be adjusted.

It is clearly awkward that the latest Republican proposal on the
needs for defense spending differs so markedly from previous
proposals (and, incidentally, from the military appropriations
already passed by the Republican-controlled Congress). A more serious
flaw, however, is the treatment of defense as a stand-alone entity,
without any correlation to Republican objectives on budgetary
matters. In its first chapter, the Agenda for America states that "we
must keep in mind . . . tax limitation and spending control", and how
often have Republican deficit hawks insisted that, "We have to get
our fiscal house in order"? Yet here it is being proposed that the
existing U.S. defense budget--which according to Lawrence Korb (an
assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration) is
already larger than those of all other industrialized countries
combined--should be very substantially increased.

The omission by the security experts of an acknowledgment of this
aspect of modern Republicanism is a remarkable gap in coordination.
With powerful movements in favor of a constitutionally mandated
balanced budget and of requiring super-majorities for federal tax
increases, proposals for major new spending cannot be justified
unless accompanied by an absolutely compelling case in terms of
purpose and national interest. In the absence of such a case, the
Republican criticisms of Clinton on defense are likely to have as
their main effect the exposure of the party's internal divisions.
Instead of being the Republicans' strong suit, it could turn out to
be an albatross.

European Security and NATO Expansion

Given that the United States has fought two hot wars and one cold war
in Europe in this century, and that active-duty American engagement
in Europe endures to his day, the development of a workable policy
toward European security is of first-rank importance. Despite faddish
attempts by the Clinton administration to criticize past American
foreign policy as excessively Eurocentric, a combination of history,
alliances, and interests ensures that no American administration can
afford to neglect Europe.

The issue at the heart of European security is policy toward Russia,
encapsulated by the question of NATO expansion. The Clinton
administration favors NATO expansion but, faced by the constraints of
the real world, has dithered. In the words of conservative columnist
William Safire, it has kicked the can down the road. The Agenda for
America, on the other hand, has no such doubts. It rejects the
Partnership for Peace as an empty framework and asserts boldly that
the United States should support NATO membership for the newly
democratic nations in Eastern Europe.

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