History repeatedly warns us that in the long run, weakness in foreign policy costs us and our children much more than we’ll save in a budget line item. America already has one political party devoted to decline, retrenchment, and withdrawal; it does not need a second one. ~Tim Pawlenty

Pawlenty delivered a speech on foreign policy to the Council on Foreign Relations today, and this was one of the many silly things that he said. Obviously, Pawlenty is a presidential candidate and a Republican partisan, so he’s bound to portray the incumbent and Democrats in a poor light, but this is still an odd thing for him to say. The more typical hawkish argument is that all “serious” mainstream people endorse American “leadership,” and it is only the kooky fringe on either side that finds anything wrong with U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, that is the whole point of using the term “isolationist,” which Pawlenty used frequently today, because it can and will be deployed against both progressives and conservatives/libertarians when either side begins voicing opposition to the latest blunder overseas. To argue that the other party is devoted to “decline, retrenchment, and withdrawal” may satisfy people who write this sort of nonsense about what they think the Obama Doctrine is, but it’s so obviously untrue that it badly undermines Pawlenty’s already limited credibility on this subject. It would be a welcome change if even one party were dedicated to prudence and restraint, but at the moment the leadership of both parties remains intent on recklessness and aggression.

As for the lessons of history, it would have been useful if Pawlenty could define what he means by weakness or given an example of one of the many times that History has warned us of this. The things that Pawlenty would deride as signs of weakness (i.e., not supporting popular uprisings abroad, diplomatic engagement, reduction in military spending) have not had the effect that he claims. For some hawks during the Cold War, not supporting the Hungarian uprising in 1956 counted as weakness, but it would have been a disaster for the entire world had the U.S. intervened. In the ’70s, hawks concluded that detente was a terrible mistake, but it essentially cost the U.S. nothing in the short or long run. The cuts in military spending from their 1980s levels did not lead to greater costs for the U.S. down the road. Virtually every grim warning of the dangers of “appeasement” at least since the start of the Cold War has proved to be little more than groundless alarmism, the fear of “appeasement” has plunged the U.S. into unnecessary and damaging conflicts, and many of the efforts at engagement have yielded important gains for the U.S.

The Logevall/Osgood article from last year that I have mentioned before is relevant once again. Pawlenty receives some criticism in the article for his use of the appeasement charge, but what makes the article valuable is that it reviews past accusations of appeasement and assesses whether they had any merit. They conclude that they didn’t:

As the current debate over U.S. foreign policy again turns on the lessons of the past, Americans would do well to take a closer look at the country’s long wrestling match with Munich’s ghost. Such an examination would show, first, that “Munich” has retained its power in American political discourse for more than seventy years largely because of electoral calculations. Second, contrary to the prevailing wisdom, the success or failure of American foreign policy since the 1930s has to a great extent hinged on the willingness of presidents to withstand the inevitable charges of appeasement that accompany any decision to negotiate with hostile powers, and to pursue the nation’s interests through diplomacy. Sometimes these negotiating efforts failed; sometimes the successes proved marginal. But those presidents who challenged the tyranny of “Munich” produced some of the most important breakthroughs in American diplomacy; those who didn’t begat some of the nation’s most enduring tragedies.

Pawlenty takes for granted that engagement is both weakness and an endorsement of other regimes’ behavior, and he repeated that again today. He is fully in thrall to the Munich mythology and its distorting effects. It is fortunate that he continues to languish at the back of the Republican field. We may never have to find out what blunders a President Pawlenty would make because of this flawed understanding.

Update: Here is the full text of Pawlenty’s speech.