If President Donald Trump accomplished anything during his four years in office, it is that he broke the pre-existing U.S. foreign policy consensus, upending previously held beliefs regarding China, Arab-Israeli relations, European dependence on Russian energy, and more. While many may decry and fight over the particular details of his administration’s policies and changes, no one disputes that his term in office brought marked change to America’s foreign policy.
Yet despite Trump’s legacy and the new opportunities that he created for change in America’s foreign policy, the Republican Party is now entering the U.S. presidential primary season with a significant problem on its hands: a weak foreign policy agenda.
This has led to some confused head-scratching. The past few years have seen much energetic discussion on the future of conservative and Republican foreign policy, yet relatively little in terms of concrete proposals. The most recent example of such is an essay in Foreign Affairs written by Dan Caldwell, the new(ish) vice president at the Center for Renewing America. In his essay, Caldwell persuasively lays out the case for why Republicans should adopt a more restrained foreign policy. He correctly notes the hard “economic, military, and political limitations” that the United States faces and suggests quite reasonably that policymakers should make necessary adjustments, with a few broad recommendations worth considering.
Yet these types of articles, and the discussion they encourage, miss the point. The problem Republicans face is not in determining what set of principles or values should guide U.S. foreign policy: that issue has more or less been intellectually settled in most Republican circles in favor of restraint. Even foreign policy elites who disagree must operate in an environment where public opinion is very much in favor of restraint-oriented views; running for higher office without endorsing such positions is becoming increasingly difficult. Moreover, it is likely that restraint-oriented policies will only become more widely accepted as policymakers come to grips with the reality that the country does confront real limitations amidst a changing global geopolitical context.
Rather, the real problem is that Republicans are unable to formulate, advocate, and implement specific policies due to political and ideological constraints.
American Foreign Policy has Factions…
Understanding Republicans’ current inability requires diving into unfolding factional politics within both the Republican Party and the broader U.S. foreign policy establishment. Majda Ruge and Jeremy Shapiro, experts at the European Council on Foreign Relations, proposed a suitable framework last year that works rather well, describing three “tribes” that have emerged within conservative foreign policy. I will borrow some, but not all, of their terminology—starting by noting these groups are more factions than tribes, as they are less cohesive in their loyalties and cohesion than the word “tribe” would indicate.
In any case, there are three primary factions in conservative U.S. foreign policy: the Primacists, the Pragmatists, and the Restrainers.
Primacists, as their name implies, believe in the primacy of U.S. military, diplomatic, and economic leadership, and believe that such should be maintained worldwide. They reject—or at least, contest—the idea that the United States lacks the necessary resources for maintaining this foreign policy stance, and often advocate for a strong engagement abroad in all forms.
Restrainers, by contrast, hold the opposite view: they believe in the exercise of restraint, especially military, in the conduct of foreign affairs, and that Americans are better served focusing on domestic priorities. Restrainers believe America should lead by example, rather than through direct leadership, and that, given limited resources and capabilities, strong foreign engagement should be reserved only for when the most important of national interests are at stake—a categorization which, they contend, is often abused by primacists, who tend to classify everything as a significant national interest.
Between these are the Pragmatists. Shapiro and Ruge use the term “Prioritisers” instead, though I disagree with its usage, on the basis that the latter implies agreement with Primacists on American leadership but disagreement over its focus. Pragmatists are not necessarily wedded to that notion of U.S. primacy—they agree it holds significant advantages and can be a force for “good,” but are cognizant of its material and reputational costs. Like Restrainers, Pragmatists note that U.S. resources—and thus U.S. foreign policy options—are limited, but do not take the view that such should preclude the United States from being actively engaged abroad. They believe that there is a strict hierarchy of U.S. national interests and that each issue should get the attention and resources it warrants.
What Ruge and Shapiro’s framework misses, however, is that within these factions are various competing sub-factions, each with their own agenda and set of beliefs. They both cooperate and compete both with sub-factions and without their respective factions for political capital, resources, and policy-setting power. It is here that the Republican Party’s problem starts to appear.
I would like to note that the following list of sub-factions is neither exhaustive nor authoritative—I have no doubt that more could be conceived and described, and that many will debate over various aspects of my categorization. While I welcome such debate, I would just like to note that at present my intention is simply to help illustrate to readers the dynamics at play within U.S. foreign policy.
For example, within the Primacist camp there are neoconservatives, neoliberals, and hegemonists. Neoconservatives believe in using military power and interventionism to spread liberal democracy and American values throughout the world. Closely tied, but not necessarily the same, are the neoliberals, who are more economically oriented and support the spread of free market capitalism and the reduction of impediments to the free flow of capital. Hegemonists, compared to neoconservatives, are more defensive in nature; they firmly believe in the benefits of U.S. primacy (both to the country and to the world at large), and perhaps even that it is a force for good, but do not take the view that defending such requires actively spreading American values through force of arms.
Restrainers are more varied. On the political Right, Paleoconservatives draw heavily from traditional conservative values and advocate for a non-interventionist foreign policy. Less partisan are the Multipolarists, who both accept and advocate the transition from an American-led unipolar international order to a multipolar one as a matter of practical necessity—and this begins with exercising restraint in foreign policy. Finally, as a small but very real (and controversial) minority are the Neo-Isolationists, who stand for avoiding international entanglements and focusing on domestic issues, while opposing involvement in foreign conflicts or alliances, including NATO.
Pragmatists, as per their nature, are perhaps the most technically oriented (broadly understood) of the lot. Because of this, intra-pragmatcist debates center on how foreign policy issues should be practically approached, rather than debating underlying principles and values. Defense Prioritizers, for example, focus on addressing the highest kind of national interests—strategic interests—from a military perspective. Less martial are the National Developmentalists: devout Hamiltonians who approach issues from an economic perspective, firmly believing that considerations about the nation’s economy and national industry should form the true basis of foreign policy decisionmaking. After all, a nation cannot fight a war if it can’t even produce the requisite hardware and ammunition, which in turn requires all sorts of supply chains and industrial capacity. Diplomatists, meanwhile, approach problems from a diplomatic perspective, and take the view that far more could be done to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives via burden-sharing and off-loading responsibilities to American allies and partners—and that the U.S. foreign policy community in general, from the diplomatic corps to the intelligence community, does a poor job understanding what is actually happening abroad.
These various groupings are not equal in terms of size, political strength, and influence. When you factor in their diverse interests and agendas, one can start to see how collaboration and competition, both within and without, become necessary. This leads to constant politicking, as each sub-faction seeks to form a coalition with like-minded groups on one issue or another. This, however, also creates the potential for failure, which is what the Republican Party may be experiencing right now.
The NatCon Revolution and its Discontents
For the past thirty-odd years, the Republican Party’s foreign policy has been dominated by primacists, particularly neoconservatives and neoliberals. Restrainers maintained a steady opposition to this state of affairs—especially paleoconservatives. Trump’s election and presidency shattered the GOP establishment’s dominance over policy, with primacists (neoconservatives and neoliberals) specifically targeted for their culpability in advocating for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, among other ruinous and expensive foreign interventions, geoeconomic and trade policies, and so on.
The political movement that Trump spawned, the National Conservatism (NatCon) movement, is playing the long game, aiming to take over the GOP and its various institutions. Already it has achieved measurable progress, helping elect new legislators and influencing sitting ones. Yet while the movement seems to be coalescing on its domestic policy prescriptions, foreign policy remains muddled. There are five reasons for this, and they all have to do with factional dynamics.
First, there is sharp disagreement between the various sub-factions over what America’s immediate foreign policy priority should be. Paleoconservatives and other culture-war-focused groupings have established a dominant position within the NatCon movement, and argue that tackling domestic cultural issues, especially the “woke” movement, should be of utmost concern. They contend that America’s orientation toward a primacist foreign policy is significantly influenced (if not wholly determined) by liberal ideology. Thus, fundamentally reorienting U.S. foreign policy toward greater restraint requires focusing on fighting the culture war at home.