Events have a way of intruding themselves on political debates, and nowhere more than in the realm of foreign policy. Events are at it again.
In Eastern Europe, the crisis in Ukraine has taken a series of sudden, headline-grabbing turns, as the flight of Viktor Yanukovich and his government in the face of popular demonstrations has been followed by a Russian invasion of the Crimea. In Asia, tensions between Japan and China in the East China Sea escalated to the point where the two sides have been increasingly talking like imminent combatants; China is also testing its strength against the U.S. Navy. In Iraq, Fallujah has been retaken by Islamist radicals. In South America, popular demonstrations against Nicolás Maduro’s socialist government of Venezuela have faced harsh crackdowns. All of this takes place at a time when the Navy is cutting its deployment-ready aircraft carrier force (Britain is doing the same), the Army has been cutting combat brigades and is looking to shrink to its smallest size since 1940, and Obama Administration military planners seem to be drifting to a posture of de-emphasizing the need to be prepared to fight a war that would involve combat on the ground.
Republicans At The Drawing Board
These events are sure to push foreign affairs to the forefront of American political debate, at least for a week or two – and they will reverberate longer than that. Democrats may not have much internal debate at present; they are politically hemmed into defending the Obama Administration and will likely choose continuity by running Hillary Clinton in the next election (Hillary’s most likely primary opponent is Vice President Biden, who is even less likely to rethink the Administration’s choices). But the more things go wrong, the harder it will be for Obama’s first Secretary of State to run on her record.
On the Right, both personnel and policy are up for grabs. Events are already focusing attention on the foreign policy vacuum in the Republican Party and the conservative movement. That vacuum is unusual in the post-World War II history of the GOP and even more unusual in the conservative movement in that period. Republicans mostly committed to a hawkish, internationalist posture after Eisenhower defeated Taft for the 1952 Republican Presidential nomination, and renewed that posture (with an extra flavoring of neoconservative emphasis on promoting liberty abroad) when Reagan took control of the party after ousting Nixonian détente in the 1970s. When the 1990s “holiday from history” was ended abruptly by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the GOP and the conservative movement both largely fell in (with some vocal exceptions) behind a continuation of Reagan-era policies, applying similar ideas to what seemed like similar challenges. None of these approaches was its without its internal controversies, but at all times from 1952-2008, Republican voters could expect to hear on any issue of the day from a cadre of foreign policy veterans and pundits who provided continuity from one presidential administration to the next, who would appeal to a broadly-shared sense of America’s mission in the world, and who agreed that it had one. Indeed, the strength of the GOP’s brand on foreign affairs was crucial to most of its victories in national elections from 1952 to 2004.
Today, things have changed. The Bush Administration was mainly staffed at senior levels by people who cut their teeth in the Reagan, George H.W. Bush and even Nixon and Ford Administrations, and who saw the world through the lens of the hard lessons of the long twilight struggle of the Cold War; the same would have been true of a McCain Administration and to some extent a Romney Administration. But most of those senior figures are retired now. The party will enter 2016 having been out of power for eight years, and separated from the end of the Cold War by more than a quarter century. The GOP’s next presidential nominee is highly likely to be born in the 1960s or 1970s; as likely as not a governor (possibly one who has never served in Washington, DC); and more likely than not someone first elected to statewide office during the Obama years or at least the second Bush term. In the absence of a single frontrunner who can head off a contested primary, that means the party will have a real debate over its foreign policy posture as consequential as those in 1976 and 1952, and an even more wide-open one, with fewer candidates having extensive prior commitments. Some of the contenders, like Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, are associated with fairly well-known schools of thought, but the thinking of others, like Scott Walker, is almost entirely unknown. And the electorate increasingly consists of voters who don’t remember the Cold War, even voters who barely remember the early 2000s.
Welcome Back To The 19th Century
There is much wisdom to be re-learned from the foreign policy debates of the past – but the first lesson of this debate should be: don’t let ideology imprison you. Republican and conservative foreign policy debates have long been ideological in nature because they were constrained by particular conflicts, and therefore a candidate could make a few general pronouncements of ideals, and the voters could fill in the blanks and know where they stood on the spectrum in how they would respond to the great issues of the day. Most of the foreign policy debates of the past century have been conducted in such terms, in which everyone’s prior references were so well known that they hardly needed explanation.
But the first principle of foreign affairs is its absence of principle, or rather the need to never have our reactions and our options hamstrung by principle. This does not, by any stretch of the imagination, mean that ideas and ideologies have no proper place in foreign policy debates. There are many ideas with a long history of application in foreign affairs, and a track record of relative success or failure. The United States has permanent, long-term ideological goals: the destruction of tyrannies, the elimination of wars of territorial expansion and cross-border terrorism, and the spread of the American System: political liberty (democracy and republican self-governance), civil liberty (free speech, religious pluralism and free exercise of religion), economic liberty (free markets, free labor, free capital) and the stable and predictable rule of law. But the fact that these are long-range goals does not mean they should be boiled down into inflexible rules that prevent us from working to their apparent short-term detriment when the situation demands. In the real world, almost every significant foreign policy choice involves a choice of options in which every option sentences some innocent people to death and rewards some bad actors. If your foreign policy can be summarized on a bumper sticker, you will probably get in a lot of accidents.
The nature of our foreign policy responses must be tailored to the adversaries we face. Since 1941, Americans have grown accustomed to dealing with essentially ideological adversaries – the Nazis, the Communists, the Islamists, all of whom were motivated by an all-encompassing vision of a way of life that they asserted was better or more principled than our own. The natural counter-response to such an adversary has a strong ideological component: to demonstrate that the American System is, in fact, freer, better, fairer, stronger and more prosperous. This is precisely why the neoconservative freedom agenda was a natural fit in dealing with the opening stages of the “War on Terror.”
That counter-programming still matters to that fight, but the landscape is quite different now from where it was 13 years ago. While the battle against the Islamists rages on, it has entered a new phase with different dangers. Al Qaeda has regenerated itself and is possibly more dangerous than ever, but in a new way. Today, Al Qaeda and its allies rely less on top-down leadership and dependence on a geographic home base with state sponsorship, and appear to be de-emphasizing ambitious and complex plans like the 9/11 or Operation Bojinka plots in favor of more decentralized cells planning smaller attacks against softer targets on the model of the Boston Marathon Bombings. (One could argue that Bill Simmons’ Ewing Theory applies to Osama bin Laden: for all the splash he made, he provoked a powerful response that smashed his organization and base of support, whereas his loss made it more possible to pursue the kind of persistent, draining attacks that sap rather than invigorate the American public’s will to resist forcefully). Meanwhile, the Greater Middle East is already convulsed by popular revolutions that have acquired their own momentum. The region has its own power politics, as Iran and Saudi Arabia both exert themselves for regional influence. There is a strong case for some American role in these conflicts; but the collapse of the old strongman-centric order means that an American role will more often involve seeking proxies and playing balance-of-power politics.
And beyond the battle with the Islamists (and the few zealots like North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela), most of the challenges and dangers we face in the world today are more like those of the world of 1815-1918 than like the world of 1939-2010: rivalries for influence by relatively non-ideological actors like Russia and China, power politics within the EU, lingering sore spots like the India-Pakistan relationship, and the chaos-generating potential of serious internal problems in states like Mexico. And unlike the great European powers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, many of the key actors on the world stage – especially in the Northern Hemisphere – are driven today not by the ambitions of growing nations but the fears of old ones with aging populations and declining prospects. This may make them more rather than less dangerous, but also more apt to respond to incentives rather than seek confrontation for its own sake.
Does the promotion of liberty and the American System, in general, help us alleviate all of these problems? Of course. Do we still need a strong military and the ability to credibly threaten and use force when needed? Of course. But because these are not primarily ideological challenges, they require different solutions, ones that lean more heavily on traditional interest-based and balance-of-power realpolitik.
One lesson is that Republicans will need to move beyond the Iraq War, and beyond the grooves it cut in foreign policy debates, just as we needed for many years to move beyond Vietnam. This is not because no lessons can be learned, but because, at the end of the day, the situation of the Iraq War is unlikely to recur. Much of the Iraq War debate was so unenlightening precisely because it was taken as an ideological litmus test for whether one supported preemptive war, or war based on WMD intelligence, or war to promote democracy or punish human rights violations. It’s true that the war was part of a broader grand strategy in the region; but it’s also true that the decision to go to war in Iraq could only be understood, or justified, when considering the entire picture – including among other things (1) the fact that the prior U.S. war with Iraq had never resulted in a stable peace, but was still subject to a cease-fire being violated by Iraq and being enforced, sporadically and at great expense, by American troops; (2) the fact that Iraq had, almost alone even among hostile regimes, openly celebrated the September 11 attacks in its state-run media; (3) the fact that Saddam’s regime was an ongoing state sponsor of terror that had previously hired terrorists to assassinate the first President Bush, was known to be financing suicide bombings against Israel and harboring a number of prominent terror figures; (4) the crucial strategic location and historic importance of Iraq to the Arab and Muslim worlds; and (5) the fact that the economic sanctions regime against Iraq had been pervasively compromised and corrupted. You may, or may not, regard these various considerations as justifications for the war – but they illustrate why future conflicts will raise their own host of situation-specific issues that will need to be considered on their own merits rather than according to inflexible ideological equations.
Likewise, in evaluating the decidedly mixed record of the Obama Administration, it should be clear that the Administration’s best moments have been when it disregarded impractical campaign rhetoric (for example, on surveillance and detention); its worst moments have been when it clung stubbornly to ideology, as when President Obama caved to Russian demands and abandoned a proposed missile defense agreement with Poland and the Czech Republic, with little to show in return. Obama, a supporter of the Nuclear Freeze movement in the early 1980s, never let go of his outdated hostility to missile defense, and that sent Russia a message that the President probably now regrets sending.
Rules For Beginning Anew
The basics remain important guideposts. I would suggest ten principles that should form a starting point for building a framework for the next Republican Administration’s foreign policy:
1. America comes first. The highest moral principle of every nation is the protection of its own people. We should never apologize for valuing our own people and our own interests first; that is the very definition of patriotism.
2. Might does not make right, but it makes responsibility. America can not and should not pursue the same foreign policy as a small nation, and if we do, we invite less responsible actors to expand their influence.
3. We have to pick our battles, or our battles will choose us. America, as the friend of freedom, has a long-term commitment to support other liberal democracies when they are endangered; but it can and should treat dictatorships as allies of convenience to be used when useful and discarded when not. Whatever our sympathies, we have neither the power nor the obligation to treat the struggle of every people for freedom as an equal priority at all times.
4. Victory over an enemy is the essence of war. The military should not be sent into any conflict in which it does not take sides and seek the defeat of an identified enemy. Wars should never be undertaken lightly, but when engaged, they must be pursued to victory.
5. All foreign policy is conflict, and all conflict is a substitute for war. Clausewitz observed that war is a continuation of politics by other means; we should likewise recall that all international politics – treaties, negotiations, economic sanctions – is war by other means, a struggle for power in which one should never overlook the possibility that disputes will lead to violence or fail to consider what we are and are not willing to fight for. There are ultimately only two kinds of treaties: ones you will go to war to enforce, and toilet paper. A treaty without a credible enforcement mechanism is purely optional.
6. Words are only as credible as the actions they ensure. The only credibility in international affairs that matters is the demonstrated willingness and ability to carry out your promises, and your threats; no government really cares if another government is telling the truth, and lessons taught by example are swiftly forgotten.
7. Foreign policy never exists in isolation. One of the greatest failures of U.S. policymaking, year in and year out, is the failure to bring all the many tools of U.S. influence to bear on disputes. This requires not just an analysis of the interrelation of military, trade, energy, intelligence, immigration, monetary, cultural and other policies but a willingness to employ a certain level of devious creativity in using the levers of power to get what we want at the least cost to ourselves. “Soft power” is often overrated, but that is because its American practitioners so often fail to treat it as power. We should want our enemies to awaken every morning wondering what we can do to them today; we should want those states that are rivals rather than enemies to see that cooperation will get them more from us than blackmail.
8. Geography still matters. The march of technology has led us to facile generalizations about the speed with which we can project influence, force or surveillance to any corner of the globe. In fact, having allies in strategic locations is still important – as counterweights to their neighbors, as sources of intelligence seasoned with local color, as a bulwark against the waning of official attention in Washington. The importance of these relationships is just one reason why bilateral alliances are still vastly more important than geographically disparate multilateral bodies. This was one thing President Bush understood deeply and for which he never got enough credit: the diligence he devoted to fostering strategically important and motivated allies like India, Japan, Israel, Australia, and Poland. Likewise, we still need bases to move troops and supplies, and ships to transport them.
9. Nations are people, too. For all the strategic missteps that are built into a democracy with a separation of powers, it can be tempting to see our adversaries as all-seeing strategic geniuses. In fact, we should never count out the possibility that our enemies will make mistakes – sometimes mistakes we can exploit, but also sometimes mistakes that will make them more dangerous both to themselves and others.
10. Be prepared for everything. If there is one lesson of history, it is that planners may sometimes be shrewd in foreseeing future crises, but they are terrible at predicting with certainty which problems will not recur. From land wars to terrorist attacks to and counter-insurgency, we need a military that has the flexibility to adapt to a variety of challenges nobody sees coming, and a political class with the humility to recognize that the world will make fools of campaign slogans.
These are guidelines; in international affairs, even the best lessons of history are ultimately a compass, not a straitjacket. Which is why the character and experience of our leaders is often just as important as their principles. But as Republicans, conservatives and libertarians look to the future, they will not have the option of clinging to slogans or to the reflexive oppositionism that has always been the first impulse of parties out of power. They will need to begin the hard work of explaining to a new generation of voters how they see the world and America’s place in it, and how they propose to lead it.