A Foreign Policy for a Conservative President

A new book offers a wealth of information about the dangerous world we live in—and what we should do about it.

At a time when the Republican party’s top-polling presidential contender has been a troll with a pompadour, thoughtful GOP foreign-policy alternatives have not received much attention. A new book published by the John Hay Initiative, Choosing to Lead, seeks to redress that inattention, by putting forward the case for a posture of conservative internationalism with specific policy implications across a wide range of regions and issues. The book is important not only because its particular recommendations are well-considered, but also because its multiple authors have years of practical experience in foreign and national-security policy, and are likely to help staff any future Republican administration. Leading former government officials Eliot Cohen, Eric Edelman, and Brian Hook head up the effort; more than 30 prominent GOP foreign-policy experts and officials with similar experience — including former secretary of homeland security Michael Chertoff, Senator Jim Talent, and General Michael Hayden — have authored or co-authored individual chapters. Those who wish to discern the probable underlying foreign-policy direction for any plausible GOP presidential contender should pay close attention to this book.

Conservatives who have been following world events under President Obama know the basic problem by now. Obama came into office determined to accommodate international rivals, retrench American military power overseas, and focus on domestic liberal legacies. And he has done so. The price we have paid, in addition to excessive regulation and debt at home, is a power vacuum overseas, increasingly filled by the most aggressive authoritarian forces. Obama’s limitless confidence in his own intelligence prevents him from even perceiving, not to mention acting to correct, a string of foreign-policy failures now self-evident even to many of his own supporters. It will be up to his successor to correct this. But on what conceptual basis?

The authors of Choosing to Lead call themselves conservative internationalists. They believe that the United States has led a certain kind of international order since the end of World War II, and that that order is under serious challenge today — not least because of American retrenchment under Obama. This U.S.-led order, they suggest with some justification, has been more peaceful, more democratic, and more prosperous than any similar order led by any other country in history.

Conservative internationalists differ from liberal ones in that the former are less attracted to faddish conceptions of what takes priority (e.g., make sure to recycle), less enamored of diplomatic appeasement, and less likely to view multilateral institutions as a kind of silver bullet for whatever problems arise. But conservative internationalists also differ from strict non-interventionists of either the Left or the Right in maintaining that an international order friendly to America must ultimately be buttressed by American power.

In practical terms, the authors of Choosing to Lead clearly favor a more robust U.S. approach than the Obama administration has taken toward various security challenges emanating from China, Russia, Iran, and jihadist terrorists.

In practical terms, the authors of Choosing to Lead clearly favor a more robust U.S. approach than the Obama administration has taken toward various security challenges emanating from China, Russia, Iran, and jihadist terrorists. They begin, very usefully, with a set of chapters on U.S. alliances in various parts of the world. This has the positive effect of reminding us what an historical asset America’s international alliance system really is — and reminding us too that U.S. foreign policy should strengthen and work outward from these alliances, rather than skipping over them straight to America’s adversaries, as Obama has so often done. The authors then discuss and recommend increased U.S. defense spending in order to bolster these alliances, deter adversaries, and lend increased credibility to America’s existing international commitments. A subsequent set of chapters analyze the failings of current policies in relation to Russia, Iran, North Korea, and militant Islamists, and offer some better directions in each case. The military and economic challenge from China receives several chapters on its own, along with specific recommendations for a new American China strategy. International economic policy tools, including trade and foreign assistance, are something Republicans too often neglect. This volume does not neglect them; indeed, it examines them in some detail. Issue areas including cyber warfare, intelligence, nuclear proliferation, missile defense, energy, the U.N., democracy, and human rights are each given their own chapter and examined from a conservative-internationalist perspective. Finally, the book concludes with practical recommendations for reorganizing the national-security process after the Obama era in order to meet existing challenges more seriously.

Overall, the authors recommend pushing back against a number of determined authoritarian adversaries, through a more creative and determined use of diplomatic, economic, and military power, in coordination with our allies. They recognize that the U.S. needs to pick its fights, and they argue for prudence in American statecraft. But unlike the current president they do not mistake indecision or hand-wringing for prudence in its true form. Obviously, some important foreign-policy mistakes have been made by leaders from both parties over the past 20 years. We need to learn from those mistakes. But the prudent lesson is not to abandon America’s leading international position. The Obama era has given us a hint of what a post-American world might look like, and it isn’t pretty. The necessity now, in all prudence, is to stop retreating.

One of the appealing aspects of this book is the underlying optimism regarding America’s relative advantages in the international system. As the authors point out, for all its problems, the U.S. remains fundamentally strong. This will allow Americans to reject Obama’s foreign-policy strategy of lofty speechifying, if they choose to do so. Naturally, any future administration will have to grapple with the precise delineation of U.S. policy in specific crises that can only be imagined today. There is no pretext here of a single party line with regard to all possible contingencies. Indeed, the astute reader will notice several possible options that might flow from a conservative-internationalist perspective with regard to, say, Syria. But the unifying theme of the book is coherent and appropriate: Obama has overcorrected American foreign policy in the direction of retrenchment and accommodation, and, keeping in mind the constant need for a prudent balance, the next president must reverse this direction.

For GOP presidential candidates and their campaigns, congressional Republicans, and indeed any interested reader, Choosing to Lead provides some very useful surveys and recommendations regarding current U.S. foreign-policy challenges. Strict non-interventionists will not like it. But in an age where a liberal American president has allowed multiple international security threats to metastasize, I suspect most conservatives will agree it’s time to put some backbone into U.S. foreign policy — and will vote accordingly.

We conservatives have spent a great deal of time in justifiable complaints about Obama’s failures, weaknesses, and wrong directions. Now, as we approach the welcome possibility of replacing Obama with a Republican president, the need is to develop a conservative policy vision that can not only win, but govern. This is true on foreign policy, no less than on domestic policy. The authors of Choosing to Lead have done their part; the material is there, for Republican candidates and their supporters who are ready to get serious about national security. In a world of expanding authoritarianism — the world we live in right now — it is time for the United States to counterpunch.

Colin Dueck is an associate professor at George Mason University and the author of The Obama Doctrine: American Grand Strategy Today.


Colin Dueck, a professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, is a non-resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author, most recently, of Age of Iron: On Conservative Nationalism.


The Latest