Consider also the criticism from Europe and the American Left of Bush-administration “unilateralism.” This too elevates a tool into an abstraction. No one working for Bush arose each morning asking, “What unilateralist policy can I pursue today?” We asked instead which of several alternative tactical lines would be most likely to achieve our policy objectives. All the decisions that generated so much criticism — withdrawal from the 1972 ABM Treaty, unsigning the treaty creating the International Criminal Court, and rejecting the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, to name three — rested on substantive assessments of the policies’ defects, not an unconstrained desire for “unilateral” action. Indeed, where Bush was seduced into pursuing a traditional multilateral course (as in seeking new and arguably unambiguous Security Council authority to overthrow Saddam), he suffered. And yet, notwithstanding these travails, the administration did not hesitate to create new forms of multilateralism, such as the Proliferation Security Initiative, where appropriate to advance American interests.
Thus, endless cud-chewing over interventionism or unilateralism in the abstract is ultimately unenlightening, because real-world operations are never carried out in the abstract. Nonetheless, as we enter another presidential season, it is worth remembering Dueck’s central insight about the importance of presidential discretion in shaping foreign policy. Once a Republican president takes office, the various factions within the party defer to their elected leader in a fashion very different from their conduct on important domestic issues. Although the 2012 Republican candidate will doubtless fall within the broad outlines of contemporary party thinking, there is every prospect that his or her views will not be carefully examined prior to the party’s nomination. The conventional wisdom is that domestic policy will dominate the primary/caucus and general-election campaigns, given our current circumstances, and the aspirants will not have to articulate their foreign- and national-security policy preferences beyond the level of platitudes.