Politics & Policy

Toward a Reform-Conservative Foreign Policy

Old Glory flies aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Mason (Photo: US Navy)
Let’s start with the premise that our military does more good than harm.

During the Obama era, a number of center-right thinkers including Yuval Levin, Ross Douthat, and Ramesh Ponnuru have worked to develop and articulate a “reform conservatism” capable of addressing pressing concerns on domestic issues such as health care, education, and welfare policy. The idea is to correct past mistakes and apply conservative principles to new conditions. Yet, as reform conservatives admit, their concerns are primarily domestic.

What would a reform conservatism look like on issues of foreign policy and national defense?

It would start from the understanding that while Obama’s national-security policy has embraced a doctrine of retreat, conservative Republicans need to get their own alternatives right. There are those who argue that the chief foreign-policy lesson of the past decade is that the United States must withdraw even further from involvements overseas. But just as we don’t need a wholesale return to the Bush doctrine circa 2003, so we must avoid reversion to the U.S. strategic disengagement that preceded World War II.

American national-security policy can and should be based on the premise that U.S. military power does more good than harm in the world. Of course, effective security policy requires a range of nonmilitary tools. Still, the fact is that ever since the late 1940s, America’s forward presence — including a range of military bases, alliances, and strategic commitments — has been a crucial buttress of international freedoms, prosperity, and order. We often take the benefits of this order for granted or confuse it with the frustrations of specific U.S. interventions. But conservatives, of all people, should understand the possible risks of dismantling an existing order that has worked tolerably well. And to dismantle America’s forward presence — or the U.S. military power behind it — would be a radical departure, much more likely to bring violence and chaos than any great benefit. Forward presence is a guarantor of peace and prosperity, not a recipe for intervention.

A reform conservatism on national security would therefore look to correct some of the most common foreign-policy errors of the post–Cold War era, while bolstering America’s underlying strengths overseas. It would preserve uncontested U.S. military supremacy. It would make clear distinctions between allies and adversaries, while supporting the former and resisting the latter. It would work from the understanding that the United States faces a range of serious international competitors that are not about to disappear anytime soon. It would look to push back against our adversaries through robust, coherent strategies of pressure. It would take great care before committing America’s armed forces to combat — and then do so, when finally required, in a deadly serious way.

Fortunately, there is plenty of material in the Republican party’s own history that provides good models to work from. President Eisenhower, for example, pursued a national-security policy very much in keeping with the principles cited above. He helped lock in Republican support for muscular foreign policy through the 1950s and beyond. His leading opponent for the 1952 GOP presidential nomination was Senator Robert Taft (R., Ohio), who represented an honorable tradition in American life, one that viewed expanding security commitments abroad as an intolerable threat to American freedoms and interests. But on this crucial point, Eisenhower was right, and Taft was wrong: The most intolerable threat to our freedoms and interests was not the American national-security state but international Communism.

In recent years, we have seen the resurgence of a Taft-style sentiment — call it anti-interventionist, neo-isolationist, or what you will — among some conservatives and libertarians. To be sure, the neo-isolationist faction is in the minority. But it is vocal and better organized than it has been for many years. It also fields a champion, in Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky,), who has a chance at winning the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Today’s anti-interventionists like to reference Eisenhower, but they more truly resemble his great opponent Taft. Like Taft, the strict anti-interventionists see American military power itself — rather than external challenges such as Russia, China, or the Islamic State — as the single greatest threat to American interests. And this conviction is sincere. But it is terribly wrong, and we must refute it energetically. Frustration with interventions of the past decade must not become an excuse to discard the Republican party’s commitment to a robust national-security policy that dates back to the 1950s.

Those of us who are reform conservatives on national-security issues respond to a different set of circumstances than did President George W. Bush more than ten years ago. We have cut our teeth on the debates of the past few years — not prior eras. We did not mastermind Bush’s war in Iraq. We do, however, respond to objective national-security trends as they have developed under President Obama. These trends include a loss of respect for American power, among both allies and adversaries abroad; a palpable feeling of American retreat; the withering of America’s defense capabilities relative to stated commitments; and a disturbing sense of presidential disengagement on one serious national-security challenge after another. It is unacceptable to respond to these trends by saying — as the anti-interventionists do — that fortress America is the best guarantor of our security, and that we need to retreat even further. There will be no safety for Americans in retreat. It will only be read as weakness. And it’s deeply delusional to think that authoritarian adversaries will not take advantage of this weakness.

This means, among other things, rebuilding a modern, trained, and equipped military and jettisoning the canard that there is today a national-security imperative to reduce debt by cutting defense spending. It is indeed imperative to reduce the national debt, but defense spending has already taken more than its share of cuts since Obama took office, and the lion’s share of new debt has come from domestic expenditures reflecting leftists’ belief in ever-expanding government. The best conservative response to these circumstances is make very effort to curb domestic expenditures while restoring national defense.

We therefore look forward to a new foreign-policy debate on the right, heading into 2016, and it will not replicate past debates over the Bush doctrine and Iraq. Specifically, there will be some who were skeptical or came to be skeptical of arguments for the invasion of Iraq a decade ago, but who today recognize that a fragmentary retreat of U.S. influence globally under Barack Obama is not in America’s interest. Consequently, this new foreign-policy debate will not pit realists against neoconservatives. Instead, it will pit the retreaters against those who believe that America must continue to play the forward role it has played since World War II. Both sides are in earnest, but they cannot both be right. This is a more fundamental debate than that of the past decade, more reminiscent of the early 1950s in its implications for America’s world role.

We know who will play Taft.

Now, who will play Eisenhower?

Colin Dueck is an associate professor at George Mason University and the author of The Obama Doctrine: American Grand Strategy Today. Roger Zakheim is an attorney, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a former deputy staff director and general counsel on the House Armed Services Committee; follow him on Twitter @Rogerreuv.

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