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How to Fix the GOP’s Foreign-Policy Problem

Dan Drezner has written a valuable essay for Foreign Affairs on the need to repair Republican foreign policy thinking. He argues that Republican credibility on foreign policy has been badly damaged by the party’s fixation on the “war on terror,” the tendency to hype and inflate threats, its refusal to come to grips with complexity in international affairs, and a bad habit of treating foreign policy issues as extensions of domestic political and cultural fights. Here is the core of his thesis:

Since 9/11, however, Republicans have known only one big thing — the “global war on terror” — and have remained stubbornly committed to a narrow militarized approach. Since the fall of Baghdad, moreover, this approach has produced at least as much failure as success, leading the American public to be increasingly skeptical of the bellicosity that now defines the party’s foreign policy.

Republicans need to start taking international relations more seriously, addressing the true complexities and requirements of the issues rather than allowing the subject to be a plaything for right-wing interest groups. And if they don’t act quickly, they might cede this ground to the Democrats for the next generation.

The essay is mostly a diagnosis of the party’s ailments and a recounting of how it came to be in its current predicament, but there are some suggestions for how Republicans might start to climb out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves. As the things that created the Republican advantage on foreign policy have gradually disappeared or been abandoned, not surprisingly the advantage has vanished along with them. That is why there is now a good chance that the Democrats’ newfound edge on these issues may be an enduring one.

The three main things that Drezner believes went wrong with the GOP on foreign policy can be summed up as excessive militarization of foreign policy, insufficient flexibility in responding and adapting to events and changing circumstances, and a lack of specialized knowledge among the party’s would-be political leaders. To correct these imbalances, Drezner urges Republicans to start “relearning flexibility and nuance,” employing a wider range of foreign policy tools, and scaling back their bellicose rhetoric (which, Drezner notes, is the only thing that the party can fully control while it is out of power). Most important, he writes that “Republican politicians need to start caring about foreign policy because it is important, not because it is a cheap way to rally their supporters.”

Drezner’s recommendations are good ones, and some of them can be put into practice fairly easily if Republican elites are willing to follow this advice. While the party out of power has some short-term incentives to engage in cheap demagoguery and threat inflation in order to embarrass the incumbent, these things erode the party’s credibility with the public and with foreign policy professionals over time. They ultimately make it harder for the party to hold office and influence policymaking, and they virtually guarantee that the party’s time in the wilderness will be longer than it otherwise has to be.

Unfortunately for the party, many of the people most interested in foreign policy end to favor the very absolutist, hard-line, and demagogic arguments that do the party’s reputation and its ability to conduct foreign policy competently the most harm. In other words, many of the Republicans that believe foreign policy is important have also been the ones inflicting much of the damage on the party. One way for Republicans to start remedying this is for the party’s younger elected officials to realize that foreign policy is too important to be left to the enthusiasts and ideologues and to make the effort to understand these issues on their own.

Reducing the triumphalist and bellicose rhetoric is the easiest repair to make, and that in turn should reduce threat-inflating arguments, since these rely heavily on rhetorical excess. Relearning flexibility and nuance will be much more difficult, because there is a built-in antagonism to both concepts in contemporary movement conservatism. That is part of the detritus left behind from the Bush-era GOP’s disastrous attachment to the Iraq war and Bush’s “freedom agenda,” both of which Republican hawks defended in absolutist, moralizing terms while treating the words flexibility and nuance as terms of abuse. Undoing the distortions of the Bush era will begin when most Republicans stop treating the resort to coercive policies as evidence of “moral clarity” and a preference for diplomacy as evidence that one “lacks a moral compass.” Until that starts to change, advocates for flexibility and nuance will continue to be ridiculed as appeasers.

One of the larger obstacles to repairing Republican foreign policy thinking is that the party has had little else to offer its voters other than its candidates’ assertions of national greatness, which makes it more difficult to give up on aggressive and hard-line policies and exorbitant spending on the military that are supposedly dedicated to advancing that greatness. As Noah Millman said in late 2011, “foreign policy, at least on the GOP side, is now basically a branch of the culture war: a way of convincing the white working class to support a party that is not pursuing their economic interests by flattering them with the implication that, in the memorable words of Edward Wilson, they’ve got the United States of America.” Especially because conservatives have been losing the culture war at home, the temptation to continue treating foreign policy issues as culture war battles will likely grow, and as a result there will be even less interest in flexibility and nuance than before.

The initial reaction to Chuck Hagel’s nomination from many movement conservatives and elected Republicans suggests that there is not much more room inside the party for deviations from hard-line positions than there was five or ten years ago. The natural response to such a stifling environment has been for people to abandon the party, which is one reason why Hagel will be serving in a Democratic administration rather than in a Republican one. If the party’s hawks do not make substantial room for the ideas of the skeptics, realists, and non-interventionists that they have spent the last decade condemning, the GOP will keep losing supporters it already has as well as alienating new voters for years and perhaps decades to come.

Daniel Larison is a senior contributor to TAC and blogs here.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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