CONSERVATIVES USED to agree on foreign policy. No more. So what next for conservative foreign policy? In the wake of President Donald Trump, a real fight is underway that will have huge ramifications for conservatism, the Republican Party, and America’s role in the world.
As a candidate and as president, Trump offered a vision starkly at odds with the aggressive interventionism of neoconservatives and their stale assumptions about America’s role in the world that dominated the Republican Party’s foreign policy after 9/11.
In contrast, Trump offered an “America First” approach that promised an end to our idealistic and misguided wars in the Middle East, a tougher stand toward China, and greater accountability for our allies who have not contributed their share to the common defense.
Candidate Trump’s upending of Republican foreign policy orthodoxy was seen most dramatically in the South Carolina presidential primary debate in 2016. He directly attacked the record of President George W. Bush and boldly stated that “We should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East.”
The GOP hasn’t been the same since.
By 2020, it was led by a president who cut a deal with the Taliban and stepped back from the brink of war with Iran. Likewise, the Republican National Committee lambasted John Bolton as a “warmonger” and held a convention touting an end to our endless wars.
Trump, though, only opened up a battle within conservatism and the Republican Party. One term was not enough to finish off the old thinking, and no consistent replacement for it ever congealed.
So the fight over the future of Republican foreign policy will continue after Trump, and might well grow fierce. But conservatives should not go backward to the Bush-Cheney years. It would be bad politics—and worse policy. Instead, they should embrace the best parts of the Trump agenda while building a more coherent strategy of “realism and restraint” to guide our engagement with the world.
Those who favor a new approach have certain advantages in this fight. Trump’s challenge to the status quo has deep support by now. Grassroots conservatives have absorbed four years’ worth of presidential rhetoric denigrating forever wars and free-riding allies. His efforts to fashion a post-Bush foreign policy were well-received by voters in 2016 and public support for change grew during his tenure.
This reality should prompt ambitious political candidates to tout realism and restraint in intra-party fights against more traditional aspirants. Moreover, there is now a robust set of institutions and scholars challenging establishment thinking that pro-restraint figures can tap into. Changes in the global balance of power and pressing problems here at home will also make prudence abroad more attractive.
Any such perestroika, or new thinking, will be resisted among our regnant elites. The conservative establishment remains dominated by hawks who believe in the idealistic principles and aggressive approach laid out in George W. Bush’s second inaugural address. Neoconservative “Never Trump” news outlets like The Bulwark are painting realists as “isolationists.” Political figures like Rep. Liz Cheney will argue for restoring a latter-day Wilsonianism abroad—and 2024 may find a crowded field of advocates for this position.
Contrary to what establishment critics and anti-intervention purists would have you think, there was much to like about Trump’s foreign policy that conservative restrainers can exploit. Trump was the first president in the post-Cold War era not to begin a major war (though the Iran crisis in January was a close call). This achievement should not be underrated given the high costs we’ve borne fighting one ill-fated military campaign after another during the last two decades.
Trump also concluded a withdrawal deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan to honorably end America’s longest war—a major accomplishment that eluded his predecessors. While he rightly criticized our endless wars in Syria and Iraq, his rhetoric outpaced policy—especially when stymied by unfaithful, dishonest subordinates like Jim Jeffrey and John Bolton—and there remains work to be done to end our military presence in both countries.
Trump also deserves credit for challenging our NATO allies to better share the burden of common defense—with military spending among NATO members rising during his administration. Unfortunately, they are still not doing enough, and NATO was unnecessarily expanded to include Montenegro and North Macedonia.
Conservatives should cheer these successes and learn from the cases where the administration was unable to affect needed change in order to fashion a new foreign policy consensus for the Republican Party built around realism and restraint.
In concrete terms, that means maintaining a strong national defense force second to none. In particular, the United States needs to dominate the high seas and maintain our ability to connect with the world productively. But it also means being much smarter in how we use our military power and how we engage vital areas of the globe. For example, we ought to reduce our footprint in the Middle East while still ensuring freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf and remaining confident that Israel can defend itself. It also entails finding a diplomatic path for other issues, like turning Iran away from achieving nuclear status while avoiding another quagmire.
In Europe, it means insisting that our wealthy, populous allies assume greater responsibility for their own defense and become less dependent on the United States. Conservatives should oppose further enlargement of NATO and avoid mucking around to no good end in places like Ukraine and Georgia. Too often we get drawn into the concerns of others at the expense of our national interests. However, conservatives should fully back deterrence of a weakened but still dangerous nuclear Russia. Yet, we also should be open to cooperating with Russia where our interests overlap, such as counterterrorism and arms control.
China is the most difficult geostrategic challenge ahead both for the United States and for a conservative realist coalition. We do need to take the threat of a rising China seriously. It is the only near-peer competitor that could harm U.S. interests in any significant way. We must promote our interests in regard to IP protection, tech theft, and espionage. And we should assert the spirit of the Monroe Doctrine vigorously should China attempt to play seriously in our backyard. But we need a “Goldilocks” solution that avoids threat inflation and self-fulfilling prophecies of inevitable war with a country that happens to be our largest trading partner. Treating China like the Soviet Union would misunderstand the real differences between them, and squander American resources.
However imperfectly, Trump’s actions and rhetoric shattered the Republican foreign policy consensus that had largely dominated the conservative movement and GOP since at least the early 2000s. Conservatives should resist the urge to revert to stale thinking and bad habits. Instead, they should seize this moment to establish a new foreign policy—one that is consistent with our character and principles and bolsters the nation’s safety and economic well-being.
William Ruger is Vice President for Research and Policy at the Charles Koch Institute and is the nominee to be U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.