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March 20, 2013

Post Mortem on Republican Foreign Policy
Posted by David Shorr

Flickr_-_Official_U.S._Navy_Imagery_-_Deployed_Sailors_watch_a_presidential_debate.Soon I'll be headed to this year's International Studies Association convention, taking part in a panel on "Obama and Beyond: Change and Continuity in American Foreign Policy." Any Democracy Arsenal readers who will be at ISA should come to our session Thursday morning at 10:30 and be sure to say hi. 

No big surprise, but I'll be arguing the 'change' side of this question: that the foreign policies of Presidents Obama and Bush have more in contrast than in common. Sure, there is some continuity between the administrations on, say, executive powers and secrecy. But it is quite a stretch to lump together the president who sends drones to individual houses in Pakistan and Yemen with the one who invaded Iraq.


With the media all marking this week's 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, we've had a lot of fresh reminders of how disastrous it was. The question of continuity versus change in foreign policy is another way of asking whether Iraq has had a chastening effect or the blind spots remain. Has our debate moved on, with the lessons of Iraq having been learned and internalized?

I don't think we really have reached a post-Iraq consensus or synthesis. Not because of Republicans' adventurism or yearning for new wars -- though some segments within the GOP are worrisome -- but the generally unrealistic ideas they still hold regarding American power and influence. You don't have to believe the worst about the GOP to see continued serious problems with their approach to foreign policy. If invading Iraq was the height of hubris, there's still plenty of hubris left in the arguments Republicans have been making recently. 

Exponents of the 'continuity' argument no doubt see the exercise of power and real-world constraints as moderating influences. As the elder Governor Cuomo said, you campaign in poetry and govern in prose. After the last few campaigns, though, I'm not buying this tendency to downplay political arguments as indicators of policy -- which I term the heated rhetoric discount or contrast inflation. While it's true that political talking points can be impractical as policy guidelines, policy decisions are not insulated from public debates on the issues. That's what it means for some issues to be politically sensitive.

The title of my paper for ISA is "The Partisan Foreign Policy Divide - Rhetoric or Substance?"[PDF]. I tried to gauge the policy ramifications of recent years' political debates, arguing that the hot-button issues that mark out the partisan battle lines also set parameters for governing. The heart of the paper focuses on three main strands of the foreign policy debate that will be familiar to all DA readers. The first concerns the United States’ basic ability to mold events to its liking. The second is about the power of solidarity among like-minded democracies. The last focuses on the exigencies of diplomacy (the need to compromise for instance).

A blog post isn't enough space to give my full argument (read the whole thing), so the last few grafs after the fold encapsulate the three debate strands. Better yet, if any editors are reading this, I would happily hone the piece down to publishable size (Democratic for pol messager explains how deep Republicans' problems go).

The first debate strand asks how can the world’s sole superpower best influence the international state of affairs? As our friends on the right see it, the chief concern is over a loss of nerve. The way for the United States to get what we want is to insist on it—wielding American power through maximal coercion and the inherent authority of the leader of the free world. Whenever US policy meets with resistance and relevant players aren't getting with the program, it is because the policy lacks fortitude. The slams against Democrats for apologizing for America and welcoming its decline are consistent with a foreign-policy-as-bulldozer doctrine. For Democrats the concern is about self-absorption rather than self-doubt. Where Republicans craft their policies to be as resolute as possible, Democrats instead work at making theirs conscientious. This emphasis on diligence is predicated on three key considerations: being realistic about leverage, alert to potential unintended consequences, and self-aware about arousing resistance.

The second major strand of debate concerns democratic solidarity as a basis for foreign policy. The Republican argument has portrayed a strategic either-or choice of the nations with which America will work: its friends/allies or adversaries/competitors. It’s a debate not about whether alliances are valuable but how far that value extends. Can the United States achieve its international aims by standing shoulder-to-shoulder with allies such that cooperation with non-allies is counterproductive? For Republicans, the key to blunting the world’s dangers is for democratic nations to draw on their fundamental strengths and enlarge their numbers. Hearkening back to the Post-War / Cold-War strategy, the Free World should maintain the geopolitical upper hand—thereby fending off challenges and highlighting the weakness of undemocratic systems. Most foreign policy thinkers in the Democratic camp would agree with this strategy as a big-picture vision and a way to build global peace and prosperity over time. Yet we see this allies-adversaries dichotomy as badly mismatched for so many of the United States’ key near- and intermediate-term international challenges (global economic growth, nuclear nonproliferation, climate change). Preservation of strong alliances is a necessary but insufficient foreign policy task in the 2010s.

The third strand on the requirements of diplomacy brings us to Iran, one of the most hotly debated foreign policy topics of the 2012 campaign. The politics of the issue were overt, with Democrats repeatedly goading Gov. Romney and his surrogates to admit that Republicans favored military action. While the Romney camp objected and declared their preference for a peaceful solution, their position begged the question of what policies lead to diplomatic success rather than war? Once again the debate is over constancy versus adroitness. Conservatives’ prescription for Iran—hammered home in commentary, speeches, campaign messages, and sanctions proposals—stresses military moves to signal willingness to attack, ever-tighter economic sanctions, and a vague aura of seriousness and determination. Absent from these critiques is any pathway to an agreement to which the Iranians might, well, agree. The only apt word for this approach is oxymoron; Republicans want a diplomatic solution whereby Iran is coerced into capitulating.

When our two-party system is at its healthiest, the center-left and center-right parties hash things out “between the 40 yard lines.” Today, one of the major parties is nowhere near midfield, having staked out positions that hardly qualify as center-right. The pragmatic conservative foreign policy specialists are still around, yet their voices have been drowned out.

Photo Credit: US Navy


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