After trailing Joe Biden by double digits in state polls leading up to the 2020 election, President Donald Trump far exceeded the expectations set by the media and pundit class, indicating that Trumpism will continue to hold sway in our politics. Allowing holdovers from the pre-Trump GOP to turn the clock back to the pre-2016 consensus would be a mistake.
Instead, Republicans should devote themselves to fleshing out elements of the Trump agenda that went unfulfilled. Foremost among these should be foreign policy.
Relative to his predecessors, Trump managed to get one major component of foreign policy right. Despite resistance from within his own cabinet and institutions with decades of bureaucratic habits to draw upon, he did not start any new wars and managed to wind down those in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, all while encouraging warmer relations between Israel and the Arab world.
Considering Trump’s lack of experience and a readily available roster of policy professionals, intervention skeptics should consider this a success. Yet if conservatives are to make realism the pillar of their foreign policy credo, they must further reconsider the doctrine of American exceptionalism and what the United States’ role in the world should be.
What Is American Exceptionalism?
Perhaps the most succinct definition of American exceptionalism, and a cursory indication of post-Cold War thinking among foreign policy elites, was the one President Bill Clinton’s secretary of state gave in a 1998 interview. When asked why American parents should let their children wage war in defense of other countries, Madeleine Albright replied, “If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand taller and see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us.”
While this vision was the moral foundation for much of America’s grand strategy after World War II, in the absence of a great power rival, Republican and Democratic administrations repeatedly misjudged the efficacy of American military power. Indeed, after 9/11, most conservatives argued that the promotion of American global military dominance was the only way to ensure the prosperity of the republic. Hawkishness on foreign policy was as integral to conservatism as was support for the Second Amendment or lowering taxes.
Until the Trump candidacy, many on the right were either outspoken proponents of American global hegemony or unwilling to question its assumptions even as the mistakes of the Bush administration were compounded by its predecessor’s actions in Libya and Syria.
Rather than displacing this moral vision entirely, conservatives should place it within its proper context. While American republicanism is a unique constitutional system, it is not a model of governance that can be easily imposed at the end of a rifle barrel; the United States is not immune to the perils of hubris. The time is ripe for conservatives to formulate a more humble, restrained, and prudent foreign policy by recalibrating its vision of what America’s role in the world should be.
Accordingly, a doctrine of conservative realism would have three components: preventing transnational forces from infringing upon national sovereignty, preserving a balance of power in regions of strategic interest, and maintaining a strong preference for noninterference in the domestic affairs of other nations.
Preserve America-First Foreign Policy
First, conservative realists must also be nationalists. To protect a republican system of self-government, the United States cannot allow the decisions and influence of global institutions, such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, to override the national interest.
In addition to being politically unaccountable, allowing supranational bodies to dictate the lives of citizens weakens the natural loyalties that constitute a nation-state. It disrupts the organic processes by which people who share a culture, history, and traditions rule themselves and attempt to conserve a way of life. Subjecting sovereign, republican political processes to the discretion of international institutions is inherently unjust.
In this respect, the most effective part of the Trump administration’s foreign policy has been its vigorous support for American sovereignty. Its repudiation of the International Criminal Court for attempting to investigate American soldiers in Afghanistan, bilateral approach to trade issues, emphasis on border security, extreme vetting of foreign refugees, and withdrawal from the World Health Organization, UN Human Rights Council, and Paris Agreement have put the interest and well-being of American citizens before the preferences of global elites.
Strategically Preserve the Power Balance
Second, conservative realists must preserve the balance of power in regions of strategic interest. This is where the assumptions underlying American global hegemony come into question. In particular, a forward presence in Europe and the Middle East discourages allies from taking responsibility for their security at the risk of drawing the United States into conflicts that would not suit the U.S. national interest.
In international relations, this is known as “buck-passing,” or pushing the risks and costs of security onto another state. The United States should substantially reduce its force posture in these regions and allow its allies to take primary responsibility for maintaining the balance of power.
Today, American forces in Europe do not bolster the security of the United States in any meaningful way. Europe’s economic strength and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s collective security guarantee are more than enough to deter Russia, a declining great power, from pursuing regional hegemony.
Similarly, American economic power and the emerging Israeli-Arab security alliance have done more to limit Iranian influence than the few thousand U.S. troops deployed in Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. The United States should continue to promote cooperation between Israel and the Arab world as a way to extricate itself from the region and allow its allies to take primary responsibility for balancing Iranian power.
Don’t Interfere in Other Countries’ Affairs
Third, conservative realists should have a strong preference for non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries, eschewing policies favoring regime change and democracy promotion. Over the last 20 years, such policies have caused instability in places such as Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Ukraine. Despite their best intentions, American policymakers have routinely failed to account for the conflicting political, social, and cultural forces unleashed in the absence of a central authority.
As much as the United States would rather see a pro-American government in Venezuela or Iran, experience teaches that even the most powerful country in human history can be rendered impotent in the face of a power vacuum filled by forces beyond its control. Prudence and restraint, not idealism and ambition, should drive policy toward such countries.
In his 1821 Independence Day address, the former secretary of state and author of the Monroe Doctrine John Quincy Adams promoted a vision of American exceptionalism perfectly suited to the outlook of conservative realists:
Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.
As conservatives look to build on the Trump foreign policy agenda, they would do well to use this as the moral foundation of their realism. America’s greatness is measured by the strength and vitality of its republican institutions. The power of its example will do more to inspire mankind than crusades in search of monsters to destroy.