As Scott McConnell notes, Rand Paul has said that a “less aggressive foreign policy” is an important part of reforming the Republican Party while improving its electoral prospects. Of course, I agree with this, but the call for less aggression in foreign policy is just the beginning of the rethinking that is needed. If our goal is to have a foreign policy guided by principles of restraint and prudence, it won’t be enough simply to be “less aggressive” than the Bush administration was or the Obama administration is. An administration could be “less aggressive” than both and still conduct a fairly dangerous and activist foreign policy.
Ideally, a foreign policy of restraint and prudence would mean the complete repudiation of preventive war as an acceptable policy option, and it would also generally rule out the use of force except for the purposes of self-defense, defense of treaty allies, and retaliation against attacks. Avoiding unnecessary wars is an essential part of such a foreign policy, but so is removing or scaling back useless and often counterproductive sanctions regimes on other states. Reducing aggressiveness takes the U.S. in the right direction, but a better conservative foreign policy won’t represent a sufficiently significant break with the recent Republican past unless it rejects aggressive policies all together.
One of the difficulties that the Republican Party would face if it followed Sen. Paul’s recommendation is that the public still doesn’t trust Republicans on these issues. The effects of more than a decade of support for unnecessary wars and agitating for new ones won’t be undone quickly, but they need to be undone. If this message is to be taken seriously, it will have to be delivered by someone with credibility as an advocate for a different sort of Republican foreign policy. Needless to say, there aren’t very many national Republicans interested in advocating for this and there are just as few right now that would be credible if they did so.