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Why Trumpism Will Not Define the Future of Republican Foreign Policy

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo looks on as President Donald Trump holds a news conference after participating in the NATO Summit in Brussels, Belgium, July 12, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Core conservative principles still work, both at the ballot box and on the global stage.

The Capitol riots and last week’s impeachment of Donald Trump have exposed deep divides within the Republican Party. Liz Cheney, the third-ranking Republican member of the House and daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney, was joined by just nine other Republican colleagues in voting to impeach the president. She faced sharp criticism for her decision from conservatives and other House Republicans — some of whom even called for her resignation from caucus leadership.

Yet, Trump’s defenders also suffered an intra-party backlash this month. Missouri senator Josh Hawley, for example, incurred condemnation and a loss of major donors for his role in contesting the certification of the Electoral College vote.

What does this cleavage within the GOP mean for the future of the Republican Party? And what, specifically, are the implications for my area of expertise, foreign policy?

According to a narrative that is gaining steam among Democrats, allies in Europe, and some Republicans, Trump has forever changed the Republican Party. He received over 70 million votes for reelection and tapped into a new coalition of Republican voters. Any future Republican politician — or at least a politically viable one — must, therefore, embody his worldview and policies. In foreign policy, they argue, this will amount to a more isolationist GOP — one that is skeptical of free trade and international institutions, indifferent to democracy and traditional allies, and solicitous toward dictators, such as Russian president Vladimir Putin.

This would be a troubling foreign-policy platform for a major American political party. But thankfully, the prognosticators will prove to be incorrect. In fact, we can expect that the future of Republican foreign policy will more closely resemble its traditional principles than the caricatures of the Trump administration for four reasons.

First, Trump was a more conventional Republican president on foreign-policy issues than many want to admit. To be sure, refusing to recognize the results of the election and inciting a mob to march on the Capitol were reprehensible. His rhetoric, character, and style were often unbecoming of the office of the president, and he was a poor manager of the national-security bureaucracy. But his policies were mostly standard right-of-center fare.

He was strong on national defense, including nuclear-weapons modernization and missile defense. He took a hard line against America’s authoritarian rivals, especially China, Iran, and ISIS. Pulling out of international agreements — such as the Iran nuclear deal and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia — was not evidence of wrongheaded isolationism, as the president’s critics have wrongly claimed. No, they were shrewd moves to exit flawed arrangements that favored America’s enemies. Nearly all of Trump’s Republican competitors for the White House in 2016 would have enacted similar policies if elected.

Second, where Trump did stray from past pieties, he occasionally helped to forge a new and improved consensus. He raised difficult questions about whether the average American benefits from unfettered free trade and overseas military commitments. The importance of countering China’s unfair trade practices — as well as the need for caution in wars of choice in the Middle East — are now the conventional wisdom in the Republican Party and across the aisle.

In other ways, however, his impulses were off. He was too harshly critical of close U.S. allies over issues of trade and military burden sharing. He was too quick to abandon multilateral institutions that were built by and for the United States and that can still work for us, such as the World Health Organization (WHO). His administration was an inconsistent advocate of democracy and human rights. And he was strangely deferential to Putin.

But future Republican politicians need not adopt these flawed positions, which brings me to the third point. Trump’s voters did not support him because of his foreign policies. (For the record, they did not support him because they are all racists or sexists either.) Political scientists have long known that the typical voter does not know or care much about global affairs and that foreign policy does not swing elections. In the final days of the campaign, Republican ads highlighted kitchen-table and cultural issues, such as the economy, taxes, and Supreme Court nominations. Many Trump voters also simply liked his style. They found it refreshing that he was not a typical politician and that he bluntly shot from the hip. In other words, they did not pull the lever for Trump because of deeply held positions about NATO or the WHO ripping us off, or Washington needing a cozier relationship with Moscow.

Fourth, and most important, at the end of the day, Trumpism requires Trump. He is sui generis. He was a worldwide celebrity and the paragon of wealth and success in popular culture (including in countless rap songs) for decades before he ran for office. The force of his personality enabled him to take the party in some unexpected directions. But it is not clear that any of his potential successors can (or want) to adopt his less-orthodox policy positions. In October’s vice-presidential debate, for example, Mike Pence sounded more like Ronald Reagan than the man he was serving. Indeed, the foreign-policy views of likely Republican presidential candidates for the 2024 election (such as Pence, Nikki Haley, Mike Pompeo, and Tom Cotton) are well within conventional bounds.

There are many lessons we will draw from the Trump era in American politics. As it relates to foreign and defense policy, however, the key takeaway is that Trump did not fundamentally reshape the Republican Party’s foreign-policy platform. Core conservative principles — American exceptionalism, strong national defense, free and fair markets, and individual liberty — still work, both at the ballot box and on the global stage.

Matthew Kroenig — Mr. Kroenig is a professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University and the deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He was a foreign-policy adviser on the 2012 Mitt Romney and the 2016 Marco Rubio presidential campaigns. His most recent book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy versus Autocracy from the Ancient World to the U.S. and China.

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