The Agenda

The Next Republican Internationalists

Until recently, I thought of myself who favors more spending restraint in the domain of defense expenditures. But now, as the pendulum among Republicans shifts in the other direction, I’m concerned that at least some GOP lawmakers are losing sight of the importance of a maintaining and extending the capabilities of the U.S. military. Josh Green writes:

The presumed strength of the defense caucus, combined with the fact that nondefense spending can’t be reduced much further, implied that tax increases would constitute a significant portion of a plan to replace sequestration. Certainly the White House thought so—that’s why it didn’t demand more revenue in the fiscal cliff deal.

In hindsight, everybody was wrong. Anti-tax activists steamrolled the defense crowd. Why? The answer probably lies in the composition of the Republican caucus, especially in the House: Nearly half its members—48 percent—were elected in 2010 or after. These Republicans are genetically different from those who held power in the 1980s and ’90s.

They came of age during a period of two failed wars in the Middle East and exploding budget deficits. “This is a group that got elected to rein in spending, not to protect Cold War-era defense,” says David Wasserman, House editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. [Emphasis added]

Note that it is also true that this cohort of Republicans tends to be drawn from a narrower geographic base than the Republicans who held power in the 1980s and ’90s, as the party’s relative influence has declined in dense coastal regions that have historically been actively engaged in international trade. Samuel Huntington lamented the possibility that new immigrant populations and their descendants would have a diaspora mentality, as they would retain ties to their ancestral homelands. I wonder if a more diverse GOP caucus, in which more members were of Latin American or Asian origin, for example, might be more inclined to favor a more active role for the U.S. as a guarantor of international security.

To be sure, the U.S. can play a very active role even as defense expenditures decline, and I definitely believe that some spending restraint is appropriate. More to the point, I think that defense dollars are often deployed very poorly, e.g., the military’s human capital policies are tremendously flawed and we probably underinvest in anti-access/area-denial capabilities. But it’s very important that younger Republican lawmakers recognize the importance of America’s global security role. We need a new Arthur Vandenberg. Right now, the most staunch conservative internationalists in Congress are probably Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, yet both men bear the (metaphorical) scars of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Someone will eventually emerge as the leading GOP voice on, for example, securing the Indo-Pacific commons or deepening economic and security ties in the Americas, but I’m not sure who it’ll be.  

Sen. Rand Paul’s recent surge in popularity among conservatives reflects this larger dynamic. I’m inclined to agree with Peter Feaver’s analysis, which he recently shared with Michael Shear of the New York Times:

“The last three presidents have worried about a rising tide of isolationism,” said Peter D. Feaver, a professor of political science at Duke University who served as a national security aide for both Mr. Clinton and the younger Mr. Bush. “Sometimes it’s the protectionist sentiments among Democrats. Sometimes it’s the libertarian, extreme wing of the Republican Party. Sometimes it’s just war fatigue.”

Mr. Feaver said that many Republicans who praised Mr. Paul do not share his broader views about a limited role for the United States abroad. “Part of what you’re hearing is cheerleading for someone on our side who actually dunked the ball and it actually went through the net,” Mr. Feaver said. [Emphasis added]

One problem is that the distinction between Republican internationalism and Republican hawkishness often appears to have collapsed, and so conservatives addressing the wider world tend to fixate on Iran and the remnants of Al Qaeda at the expense of broader issues.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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