RePost: Required Reading for Republicans and Realists

I copy here a meditation on Republican foreign policy taken from Colin Dueck’s book ‘Hard Line,’ a compendium and analysis of the Republican Party’s foreign policy ideas since World War II. Republicans of the present and upcoming generations would consider these words wisely.



GOP realists [in the 1990s] sought to preserve existing U.S. alliance commitments in Europe and Asia and sought to preserve regional balances of power on those continents. They did not expect international competition to disappear with the end of the Cold War or with the spread of market democracies. They were generally skeptical of humanitarian intervention in locations peripheral to American national security. They argued for the selective use of force to safeguard vital U.S. interests but were otherwise wary of strategic overextension. They had no objection to the use of multilateral institutions, foreign aid, and diplomatic exchanges to promote US goals- in fact, they supported foreign affairs expenditures- but they saw such policy tools as instrumental rather than as ends in themselves. They did not make the internal political fate or complexion of other countries their main cause of concern but focused on concrete U.S. interests abroad, whether economic or geopolitical. Once American credibility was committed to a given policy, whether or not GOP realists agreed with the initial decision, they tended to favor the robust use of power to ensure success. Republican realism during the Clinton era was best represented in the views and statements of former U.S. foreign policy leaders such as James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, and Henry Kissinger- veterans, not coincidentally, of the Nixon and Bush administrations. It was also the basic perspective of leading GOP senators expert in foreign affairs, notably Richard Lugar and Chu Hagel. Republican realism was the implicit outlook of many career U.S. diplomats and soldiers such as Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993. It furthermore gained support from numerous first-generation neoconservative intellectuals such as Irving Kristol…


…Republican and conservative realists were frequently uncomfortable with the initial arguments for war in Iraq, but formed no coordinated opposition to it. In a way, that lack of opposition captures a central fact about Republican foreign policy realists today: they simply do not have the organization that other conservative foreign policy factions (anti-interventionists, hawks, nationalists) possess. Journalists regularly refer to respected elder statesmen such as Henry Kissinger, James Baker, and Brent Scowcroft as if they headed a coherent party faction, but in truth they do not. Instead, they speak for a tendency, they speak for themselves, and sometimes they do not even agree with one another. For example, in December 2006, Baker’s position favoring U.S. disengagement from Iraq was commonly taken as the ‘realist’ position, yet Kissinger urged Bush to persist and fight it out. Republican realists have their own think-tank, the Nixon Center, and their own journal, The National Interest, but they do not carry a political weight in the GOP or conservative circles comparable to that of more influential journals and think tanks such as The Weekly Standard, The National Review, the Heritage Foundation, or the American Enterprise Institute. The leading lights of Republican realism mentioned above are all in their eighties. Few prominent young foreign policy realists have surfaced or been cultivated within the Republican Party. GOP politicians with strong realist leanings, such as Senator Richard Lugar, have offered worthy public service but have not found national electoral success, and have tended to retire in recent years. Nor have the conceptual bases of Republican realism been especially well thought out or presented within the political arena. All too often, in popular commentary, foreign policy realism is simply taken as a lack of concern for morality, or a directionless pragmatism. There certainly exists a well-established school of realism in the scholarly study of international relations, offering rich insights into the nature of world politics, but most such work today is either too abstract to be of much interest to policymakers or is done without any clear connection to conservative thought.

Still, even with all of the above disadvantages, Republican realists possess a few crucial and perennial strengths. The first is simply the merits of their arguments. Republican realist analyses and recommendations regarding US foreign policy are sufficiently well attuned to actual international conditions, often enough, that presidents of either party end up being forced to take their advice, if only out of sheer necessity. Second, many of the Republican civil servants who carry the responsibility of real-world expertise and implementation- whether in America’s armed forces, the State Department, or US Intelligence Services- incline toward realism in international affairs. Third, the general American public appreciates and rewards practical success in foreign affairs, and is less messianic or moralistic in this regard than is commonly suggested. Foreign policy idealism is to some extent a special preoccupation of party elites and party activists. We will have more to say about this a little later; for the moment, the point is that foreign policy realists do have certain built-in advantages, if they can get past the filtration effect of the nation’s chattering classes…


…The most pressing need right now is for Republicans to find a new balance or fusion of the various foreign policy tendencies in their own party, one that adjusts for some of the political and policy failings of the Bush years and in a sense more conservative rather than less. A greater emphasis on conservative realism in international affairs would represent such a rebalancing adjustment for the GOP, and it should be clear from the preceding chapters that such an adjustment would be entirely consistent with the actual practices of successful Republican presidents such as Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower, and Theodore Roosevelt. The new conservative realism would begin from a principled and genuinely rightward philosophical basis. It would start by recognizing that the international political arena is in important respects a perennially anarchic and dangerous place, unlikely to ever be transformed by visionary schemes for international law, world disarmament, or global governance. Under such circumstances, the possibility of the use of force always looms in the background. The freedom, safety, and position of any nation-state are never entirely secure. This is all the more reason to approach transformational or revolutionary foreign policy proposals with a skeptical mindset, which is to say, the traditional conservative mindset. Conservatism has sometimes been described as the politics of reality. Conservatives pride themselves on their gritty resistance to sweeping, messianic promises of guaranteed progress from politicians when it comes to domestic and socioeconomic matters. That very same tough-mindedness must be applied to foreign policy. There are no permanent solutions to the problems of international security, just as there are no permanent solutions to problems relating to the balancing of freedom, authority, and justice in domestic politics. The preservation of a viable, ordered liberty in even one country is not a foregone conclusion; it requires constant vigilance and care. Conservatives should therefore approach universalistic or perfectionist ideas regarding perpetual peace in world affairs with the same skepticism that they rightly apply to such issues in domestic affairs: They should consider the risk of unintended consequences, and think, like Hippocrates, to first do no harm.

A new conservative realism in foreign policy would lead to several broad guidelines. The first of these guidelines is offered in the spirit of getting our priorities straight. For the past twenty years, American attention in foreign affairs has tended to focus on the internal politics of smaller countries such as Yugoslavia, Somalia, and Iraq. Debates of US intervention in such cases are then wrongly conflated with broader and more fundamental questions. The truly fundamental question about American foreign policy is whether the United States will continue to be dominant internationally, and here the answer must be yes. Contrary to some gloomy prognostications at the moment, and even accounting for the recent economic recession, the United States possesses multiple and enduring advantages that enable it to play a predominant international role. It has the largest gross domestic product of any country in the world, immense natural resources, and significant technological advantages over major competitors. It has by far the most powerful and advanced armed forces in the world and is unmatched in conventional military capabilities, bolstered by a worldwide system of bases. It has a large, dynamic, well-educated, and growing population, capable of integrating large numbers of immigrants- an unusual combination of qualities among the world’s leading powers. It has an exceptionally robust civil society and a basic political stability and cohesion that some major powers lack. It has the most favorable geopolitical location of any great power in modern times, distant from major political rivals and also less threatening to them. It is at the very center of a global system of international alliances and institutions created in the 1940s with the hope of nurturing a more liberal and prosperous world order outside of America’s own borders- a hope that has already been vindicated beyond even the most optimistic expectations of that decade. Altogether, the United States continues to have a wide margin of superiority over any potential rival, to an extent that is historically unique…

…The reality is that U.S. predominance has made the world safer, more democratic, and more prosperous than at any time in human history. This condition of predominance serves not only U.S. interests but also international interests in a world order that is astonishingly free, wealthy, and peaceful by historical standards. The first priority of conservative realists should therefore be to safeguard American primacy internationally, and avoid any policies that carry a strong possibility of eroding its basis.


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