The Smoke-Filled Path Ahead for Conservative Foreign Policy

The Smoke-Filled Path Ahead for Conservative Foreign Policy

A recent conference illustrates the state of foreign policy thinking among the American political right.


Washington DC was completely obscured by smoke on June 8; a consequence of Canadian wildfires occurring several hundred miles away. The situation was uncomfortably symbolic of the importance of foreign policy: something happening far away can still affect the daily lives of people in a separate country, including political leaders and decisionmakers.

But the smoke’s obscuring effect was also symbolic of the state of conservative foreign policy in Washington, best exemplified by, coincidentally happening at the same time, The American Conservative’s tenth foreign policy conference: somewhat unclear, though with a visible goal in the yonder distance.


The magazine’s history is reflective of American conservatives’ own evolution over the past few decades on foreign policy matters: it was founded by disaffected paleoconservatives and others who opposed the mainstream conservative movement’s endorsement of the Iraq war, its well known for consistently critiquing the current state of American foreign policy and related topics (globalization, mass immigration, neoconservative interventions, etc.), it aligned with Donald Trump’s populist movement, and it is now a leading publication—if not the unofficial voice—of the American “New Right.” Its annual conference—with Congressmen (arriving on time!), staffers, foreign policy experts, journalists, political activists, and students attending—is thus a rich opportunity to gauge the state of thinking on the U.S. political Right.

At present, that thinking is broadly critical of Washington’s current approach to foreign policy, along with the principles and ideas that underlie that approach—the universality of liberal (if not progressive) and democratic values, a conviction that illiberalism (in any measure) is an existential threat, a generous interpretation of what constitutes the national interest, an equally generous understanding of what means can be used to pursue said interests, and so on.

In contrast, New Right conservatives lean strongly toward realism—or rather, their values are more congenial to those that underline realism. These include: a conviction on the importance of national sovereignty and non-interventionism in the affairs of foreign countries (unless absolutely necessary, conservatively understood); an appreciation of power politics and the struggle between states; prudence and caution, preferring a stable international environment over pursuing idealistic but potentially risky endeavors that promote liberal values; a strong skepticism of global governance and international institutions; and a conservative understanding of human imperfection and our flawed nature, along with a deep apprehension of any endeavor that would seek to surpass or ignore such.

Much of this was discernible given the various speakers’ comments. “If you think wars end by good defeating evil, you’re not realistic,” declared Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), one of the conference’s featured speakers. Similarly, Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), giving a keynote, stated that he identifies as “a constitutional realist” who sees “foreign policy first through the lens of our constitution,” including that Congress must reclaim its power to declare war. “The people who comprise the blob have been badly, consistently wrong,” he went on, calling for the inclusion of alternative viewpoints in the foreign policy discourse.

These views translate into a more realist and restraint-oriented policy. Consider the War in Ukraine. Attendees of this event expressed sympathy towards Ukrainians fighting against Russia’s invasion but do not believe that Kyiv should be given a blank check to “fight authoritarianism” all the way to Moscow. What is the American political objective in this conflict? To what extent are we willing to engage in a proxy war with Russia? When and how will the conflict end? Conservatives here note that such questions are going notably unanswered in the halls of power. Lee critiqued the politics surrounding the Ukraine debate, including that “anyone raising dissent or questions is immediately labeled a Putin apologist.”

Likewise, the topic of China and its challenge featured prominently. This is a particularly interesting issue, given that it was the Trump administration that emphasized the China challenge and forced the Washington foreign policy set to abandon its old approach to Beijing. Curiously, the roles are now somewhat reversed; neoconservatives and the foreign policy establishment, realists believe, are becoming dangerously hawkish. “Adopting a Cold War mindset regarding China would have horrible consequences here at home,” warned Dan Caldwell, the newish vice president of the Center for Renewing America. Meanwhile, Michael Anton, the famous/notorious (depending on your political inclinations) Trump administration staffer and essayist, counseled that “if the anti-Chinese rhetoric remains focused on security instead of economics, we’re going to wind up somewhere really dumb.” Sen. Paul was particular on this topic, acknowledging that if “you come to my Republican caucus and you’ll hear the beating of drums. These are drums for war with whomever, but primarily war with China. Everything is about war with China.” Paul warned against this trend, emphasizing that “strategic ambiguity has kept the peace for fifty years,” and overturning that would be courting disaster.

For realists and those oriented toward realism, this all sounds well and good. The goal of this movement is clear: a more sane, restrained, and cautious foreign policy that places America’s national interests (more strictly defined) first. The problem, however, is that there are two major obstacles to their ambitions.

The first is that conservative realists at this event (and further afield) share an unfortunate trait with their Washington DC blob nemeses: a Western-centrism that blinds them to events unfolding abroad. Outside of the principal spheres and topics of importance—China, Russia, Europe, and Middle Eastern forever wars—very little to nothing was said about what is happening in the rest of the world. Latin America is often mentioned in passing either as a component of the mass immigration question or in the context of having to reinforce the Monroe Doctrine to ward off foreign interference in the Western Hemisphere. Africa is barely talked about. Central and Southeast Asia goes unmentioned. One could retort this is being nitpicky or that these regions do not present a direct or strong challenge to American interests as Russia and China do. Yet the observation does raise a question: how do conservative realists and restrainers intend to dramatically affect U.S. foreign policy if they lack informed views, policies, or even experts on what happens outside of Washington’s typical narrow focus?

Consider, for instance, that in the coming multipolar world, where America jockeys with China and Russia for influence, Central Asia will assume outsized importance given its energy reserves, trade routes, and growing economic strength. U.S. policy toward the region will require knowledgeable individuals who understand Central Asian geopolitical dynamics, speak one or more relevant languages (Russian, Chinese, Kazakh, Uzbekh, etc.), and can articulate why the region merits more attention. Do realists, especially conservatives, have enough qualified people to fill these roles? If they do not, then their political opponents will fill these spots by default, some of whom might very well push non-realist views or enact more culture-war-oriented policies that conservatives are diametrically and virulently opposed to.

This dovetails to the second obstacle bedeviling conservative realists: how will they achieve their goals? The lesson the New Right took from the Trump administration is that even if you control the presidency, policy is ultimately executed by a vast army of staffers, appointees, and more—personnel that the New Right currently lacks. A few of suggestions were thrown up: the utilization of Schedule F to “shatter the deep state” and appoint realists to positions of power or to identify, train, and prepare a new generation of young Americans who can fulfill this role. It’s worth noting that young students and staffers—especially from American Moment, an organization whose explicit goal is to prepare the next generation of realist-oriented conservatives—made up a large proportion of the conference’s attendees. Yet given the vast numbers required to operate the U.S. foreign policy apparatus, fielding this new army of conservative realists will take years of preparation and significant resources.

Conservative realists know this and retort, not unfairly, that the primary focus right now is raising awareness and fighting for greater numbers. Adherents to this worldview, though rising, are still very much in the political minority; fighting to claim greater numbers to be able to properly challenge the pro-interventionist foreign policy establishment takes priority. Perhaps it was recently-elected, casually-dressed, Peter-Zeihan-reading, rather authentic Rep. Eli Crane (R-AZ) who best captured this sentiment, expressing that the Republican Party has not yet fully grappled with the sheer number of geopolitical and technological changes that have occurred in only a few decades.

This is quite probably true, but not only must the Party grapple with these changes; conservative realists must also grapple with the reality that they face a long, uphill battle. They may have their eyes on the summit, but getting there will be harder than they anticipate.

Carlos Roa is the Executive Editor of The National Interest.

Image: Office of Sen. Rand Paul/Twitter.