President Reagan had a group of simple maxims that he used to evaluate policy proposals by his staff. It was incumbent on his staff to explain how a policy proposal would further the achievement of one of these maxims. The current political debate in the United States is focused on the purported domestic excesses of the Obama administration—not its international idealism. However, in spite of the fact that the administration plans and conducts the foreign policy of the United States, we must hope that the Republicans are giving some thought to foreign policy. They need to have a coherent framework to guide the Congress that they hope to control and to lead up to the 2012 elections. This article will seek to outline some tenets of such a framework.
The foreign policy of President George Bush actually contained several major underappreciated successes. Relations with Asia’s major powers were well-handled, the full scale of jihadist terrorism was comprehended, and terrorist attacks after 9/11 prevented. Bush idealistically put a sweeping call for the energetic and worldwide promotion of democracy at the center of his second inaugural address, as a kind of permanent solution to all international security problems. This idealism was overshadowed by the 3-4 years of bungling in Iraq. To erase the Bush negative foreign policy image Republicans need to return to their roots with a focus on pragmatic realism.
Traditionally there have been at least three main foci in Republican foreign policy thinking. Those represented by:
- Nationalists—an emphasis on the protection of American sovereignty,
- Hawks—an emphasis on both the moral and the practical arguments for military intervention overseas, and
- Realists—an emphasis on the careful coordination of force and diplomacy.
Successful Republican foreign policy presidents have been those who balanced all three of these strains. This is important as the Republicans point at 2012 because President Obama is not a foreign policy realist. Obama made great gains politically by criticizing Bush on Iraq, and by touting the virtues of pragmatism. However, the Obama administration has adopted a foreign policy approach that in most important aspects cannot be described as either realistic or pragmatic. His attachment to grand visionary rhetoric makes him hard to challenge, but also does not provide guidance to move forward to secure this nation’s interests. He seeks to accommodate and not necessarily put US interests at the forefront. The Republicans need to counter this idealism with something real.
This leads me to conclude that the Republicans need to focus on practical realism. My proposed new pragmatic and realistic approach should be based upon a principled conservative philosophical foundation. It would:
- Recognize that the world is a dangerous place. The world is unlikely to be transformed by Obamalike visions of international law, world disarmament, or global governance.
- Understand that the possibility of the need for the use of force will always exist.
- Appreciate that there are no permanent solutions to the problems of international security, just as there are no permanent solutions relating to the balancing of freedom, authority, and justice in domestic politics. The preservation of a secure and free United States is not a foregone conclusion; it requires constant vigilance. Your “friends and allies” do not put your interests first.
This new realism should encompass several broad guidelines or implications for American foreign policy. The tenets of such a Republican realism include:
- The US should consider every major foreign policy decision in light of whether it safeguards or undermines its primacy in world affairs.
- The US should count on rising and resurgent great powers such as Russian and China to be a continuing challenge to American interests. Other states may be added to such a list of potential adversaries over time and dealt with appropriately.
- The jihadist terrorist threat should be separated from other more distant dangers. It should be treated as the deadly threat that it is. This effort should be focused against specific Islamic terrorist organizations and groups and those that sponsor them—not Islam in general.
- We should not discard deterrence because it won’t work against terrorists. It may still work against Iran and North Korea—and China, Russia and even Venezuela should the need arise. It also may be effective against state sponsored terrorism,
- Avoid unnecessary military adventures. Once the decision is made to commit forces the Powell doctrine of overwhelming force should be applied.
- Nonproliferation efforts should not be expected to accomplish much. The US should certainly try to limit nuclear proliferation, where possible, but in practical terms the North Koreans probably have several warheads and the Obama administration efforts against Iran will most likely fail. Ballistic Missile Defense for us and our allies thus takes on much more importance.
- Look at diplomacy as only one of many tools available for use in the international arena. US foreign policy should be conducted in consonance with the other elements of national power—political, psychological, military and economic.
- Don’t put much trust and confidence in multi-lateral efforts—the UN and often NATO are incapable of decisive action.
- Promote free trade.
- Don’t try to foist American democracy on the world.
For over a year I have been seeking to stir the strategic pot to encourage a strategic debate. The above tenets should push that debate forward. What do you think? Do the above tenets make sense? Could they be used as maxims for foreign policy decisions in a Reaganesque type way?