Senator Rand Paul’s likely presidential candidacy has the potential to drive a long overdue debate within conservative and Republican circles on the issues of U.S. grand strategy and foreign policy. Paul’s libertarian brand of conservatism differs most acutely from the Republican zeitgeist in the area of grand strategy. His detractors will work tirelessly to brand Paul as an isolationist, seeking to delegitimize his views on international politics as archaic and impractical in the twenty-first century. Masked behind the rhetorical smoke and mirrors is a meaningful disagreement on the proper role of the United States in the world and how it ought to define and advance its national interests. For Paul, championing selective engagement is not only good politics, but it’s good for the U.S. over the long-term.
Branding Paul as an isolationist will be a popular line of attack for his opponents in the Republican primary and, should he emerge from that contest victorious, his general-election opponent, too. In the fickle world of electoral politics and bumper-sticker foreign-policy slogans, the “isolationist” moniker can be damning. Critics rely on an isolationist straw man—insisting that Paul is an old-school isolationist of the pre-World War II vintage who seeks to divorce the United States politically, militarily, and economically from the rest of the globe. This, however, is a fundamentally inaccurate representation of Paul’s view. But once defined in the eyes of the American public, the truth won’t matter; perception will. Paul has two tasks: (1) branding himself as an advocate of selective engagement, and (2) explaining to the American public what selective engagement is and why it is a superior strategy.
As he begins to assemble the outlines of a 2016 platform, Paul should move quickly to define himself as the Republican champion of selective engagement rather than let his political opponents define him as an isolationist. Detractors will deliberately conflate his policy positions with those of his father’s to shape the narrative that the younger Paul is simply the new standard bearer of Ron Paul isolationism. But there are important policy differences between the two such as the issue of U.S. military bases abroad. While the younger Paul believes it is possible to reduce the overall footprint of U.S. military bases abroad, he recognizes their necessity in certain areas. His father supports the closure of all U.S. military bases overseas. This issue alone underscores the differences between an isolationist approach and one of selective engagement.
Selective engagement is the grand strategy advanced by scholars such as Robert Art and Barry Posen which seeks to strike a balance between isolationism and primacy, the latter of which is championed by many in conservative and Republican foreign-policy circles. Primacy advocates define the national interest in much broader terms, and seeks to maximize U.S. foreign engagement and rely heavily on U.S. military intervention. For example, many advocated more expansive military intervention in both Libya and Syria. Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio have been vocal advocates in this area.
A strategy of selective engagement emphasizes restraint and disciplined choice when it comes to foreign engagement. It recognizes the economic limits of U.S. foreign engagement—that the U.S. has finite political, military and economic resources and those should be deployed solely in defense of the national interest. Selective engagement also calls for a more narrowly defined national interest and the use of force only when those interests are explicitly threatened. This view differs widely from primacy, which encourages a broader use of the military to spread democracy and to serve in the role of world’s policeman. The problem with this approach is that it leads to overstretch—assuming more commitments than the U.S. can reasonably handle. This exacts a toll on U.S. personnel, technology, and political capital that has a deleterious effect on our national security.
In June 2011,
This grand strategy rests on a national interest comprised of three pillars: (1) the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the United States, (2) the safety, security, and liberty of United States citizens, and (3) the ability to conduct trade and engage in commerce. It acknowledges that American military power will remain the ultimate guarantor of U.S. national security and will remain the most important instrument of grand strategy but recognizes that force should only be used in defense of America's national interests-not for the purposes of nation-building, peacekeeping, or democracy promotion.
At the most basic level, we engage internationally for two reasons: (1) creating security for ourselves and our families and, (2) enabling commerce so that we can make money to provide for our families. Those are America’s core national interests—not democracy promotion, peacekeeping, or military adventurism. While the list of our international desires is unlimited, the essence of good strategy is recognizing resource constraints, identifying the highest priorities, and efficiently applying those resources to achieve the most desired outcomes.