GOP Amnesia: What a Real Conservative Foreign Policy Looks Like

May 29, 2014 Topic: Grand Strategy Region: United States

GOP Amnesia: What a Real Conservative Foreign Policy Looks Like

"Republicans will have to look back to the days of conservative foreign policy before the onset of the George W. Bush administration.  There they will find a rich history of defending the American national interest..."

Inside Washington’s Beltway warfare is raging between President Obama’s defenders and his detractors in the wake of his West Point commencement speech on foreign policy.  The president’s litany of international issues lumped together in hopes of resembling a coherent foreign policy has given Republicans much to critique.  Many Republican critiques in days ahead, however, will likely fail to mention Obama’s utter lack of attention to geopolitics in his address.  The Republican oversight of a major omission by the commander-in-chief shows how badly the Party, once acclaimed for its foreign and national security policy savvy, is suffering from amnesia as to the importance of grand strategy and balances of power in American statecraft.

Taking a step back from political mudslinging, one should recall that American foreign policy swings between competing schools of thought in international relations.  One of these schools is realism that sees international politics as the competition for power between nation-states in an international system of anarchy.  Realism argues that American foreign policy needs to be aimed at promoting balances of power in the world to deter war from breaking out, and if deterrence fails, to keep wars limited.  The other school is liberalism that sees the promotion of democracy and international institutions such as the United Nations as the best means to overcome international anarchy.  Liberalism argues that democracies do not fight other democracies and reasons that the proliferation of democracies in the world would significantly lessen the chances of war.

American realists traditionally had been associated with the conservative Republican Party while liberal democracy promotion advocates had been more affiliated with the Democratic Party.  On the Republican’s side of American politics, Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, and George H. W. Bush standout as examples of balance of power realists.  On the Democrat’s side, Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton are exemplars of presidents who emphasized the promotion of democracy abroad.  President Obama squarely placed himself in this camp—perhaps with shaping his presidential legacy on his mind—with his words at West Point, “America’s support for democracy and human rights goes beyond idealism—it’s a matter of national security.  Democracies are our closest friends, and are far less likely to go to war.”

American foreign policy traditionally had been guided more by realist balance of power calculations than liberal democracy calculations during periods of international crises.  NATO was formed as an alliance to balance the Soviet Union’s power and to keep it out of Western Europe, not as a political institution to promote global democracy.   American foreign policy during the Cold War was aimed at using Middle Eastern states to balance the Soviet Union, especially to block Soviet access to the Gulf’s warm water ports.  That balance of power calculation drove even a liberal foreign policy president, Jimmy Carter, to usher in the covert action program to support Mujahedeen insurgents in their war against Soviet forces in Afghanistan.  Iran too was used to keep the Soviets out of the Gulf.  After the Iranian revolution in 1979, American foreign policy weighed in behind Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the Arab Gulf states to balance Iran’s revolutionary power in the Gulf.  After Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the United States buttressed security ties with Saudi Arabia and the smaller Arab Gulf states to counterbalance both Iraq and Iran to ensure that no one nation-state politically and militarily dominated the Gulf.

The past decade in American foreign policy has witnessed a dramatic swing from balance of power calculations to liberal democracy promotion.  The George W. Bush administration’s worldview confused the traditional dichotomy between conservative realists and liberals in American politics.  George W. Bush and the so-called “neo-conservatives” viewed democracy promotion as a cornerstone of American foreign policy.  Bush may have been a Republican president, but his attention to democracy promotion made his foreign policy decidedly liberal.  Bush waged war in both Afghanistan and Iraq and insisted that both the Taliban and Saddam regimes, respectively, be replaced by democratically elected governments.  A conservative realist president under similar circumstances might have opted for establishing transitional military regimes in both Iraq and Afghanistan as the least-bad policy option.

American enthusiasm for liberal democracy promotion has been tempered in light of the “Arab spring” transition into the “Arab winter.”  Americans, as well as our European counterparts, welcomed the uprisings in the Arab world in 2011, which began in Tunisia, moved to Egypt, and on to the Gulf and Syria.  Americans have been dismayed by the last several years of political developments in the Arab world.  They are slowly realizing that the United States has lost a security partner in Egypt, risks giving an opportunity to Russia to reassert itself even more deeply into Middle Eastern security affairs with renewed security ties to Cairo, and are worrying that Russia and Iran have emerged stronger in the region by staunchly supporting the Syrian regime.  These trends taken together have dashed what were high American hopes that democratic liberalism, and the concrete economic and societal benefits that have indeed come with it in the Western world, is the present and future of Middle Eastern politics.

Nevertheless, the liberal democracy promotion agenda still maintains a powerful hold on the worldviews of both American officials and citizens.  American foreign policy decision makers and especially the general public strikingly are often unaware of the tensions between liberal and realist worldviews in plotting the course of American foreign policy.  The common wisdom is generally accepted that the promotion of democracy should be a pillar in American foreign policy.  Very few question this common worldview because the traditional Republican Party and once bastion of realist thinking has generationally and politically been pushed aside in the United States.

The growing chaos in world politics writ large may yet cause the pendulum in American foreign policy to swing back from democracy promotion to balance of power calculations.  In the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Americans and Europeans are dusting off their books on balance of power politics alarmed that Russia is just getting started with territorial expansion in Europe.  The Americans now should be worrying about a return of a cold war with Russia, even if President Obama denies it, and will have to learn anew tools of statecraft to balance Russia power in the Middle East now that Moscow’s client state remains in Syria, is poised to renew security relations with Egypt, and has a political and economic accommodation with Iran.  Meanwhile, Chinese assertiveness in Asia and inroads in the Middle East with ties to Saudi Arabia and Iran should awaken American interest in balance of power politics to prevent China from becoming a political-military “spoiler” when it comes to regional security much as Russia was, is, and will be. 

If the Republican Party is ever to mount an effective political campaign against the Democrats in the next presidential election, it will have to build a persuasively realistic and hard-edged approach to international politics.  Such a conservative philosophy of statecraft is urgently needed to critique Obama’s legacy likely to be carried on by any of his would-be successors, most notably Hilary Clinton or Joe Biden, as well as to map out more effective future policy for grappling with rapid security deterioration in our world populated by degenerating nation-states and metastasizing Islamic transnational insurgency.  Islamic transnational insurgency will remain a formidable, persistent, and resistant threat, but Americans must not allow this set of challenges to mask the growing threats stemming from nation-states that still hold the pinnacles of power in international politics. 

The Republicans will have to look back to the days of conservative foreign policy before the onset of the George W. Bush administration.  There they will find a rich history of defending the American national interest by working hard at home keeping government slim and trim, the economy growing, and the armed forces strong and prepared for a wide spectrum of warfare and contingencies.  And beyond our shores, we will have to make ends and means match in strategy by leading coalitions and alliances to balance the rising powers of Russia and China that are already hard at work undermining American spheres of influence in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.  

Richard L. Russell is the author of Sharpening Strategic Intelligence: Why the CIA Gets It Wrong and What Needs to Be Done to Get It Right (Cambridge University Press).

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr.