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Where Do Conservatives Go on Foreign Policy Now?

There are more conservative restrainers and non-interventionists than you might think.

The end of the Trump presidency leaves conservatives still deeply divided on foreign policy. The failures of Trump-era initiatives have arguably left things up for grabs to a much greater extent than at any time since the early 1990s. That is an opportunity for conservative advocates of restraint to increase their visibility and their influence, but they will have to move quickly if they are going to take advantage of it. Seizing that opportunity will involve challenging the Biden administration when it defaults to conventional hawkish policies while also making common cause with progressives in opposition to the forever war and the war on Yemen.

There are more conservative restrainers and non-interventionists than you might think. There is considerable grassroots support for foreign policy restraint on the right. According to this year’s national survey by the Eurasia Group Foundation, roughly one-third of Republicans express support for a foreign policy of greater diplomatic engagement paired with the rejection of military primacy, and another 20% of Republicans also reject military primacy. This is a significant bloc of Republicans that want the U.S. to move away from its current strategy, but it remains woefully underrepresented in the government.

Their support for restraint has not translated into a larger presence of restrainers and non-interventionists in Congress, but it shows that there is a sizable constituency on the right for a more peaceful, less domineering foreign policy. What that constituency lacks is leadership and organization. The outgoing president was able to tap into the frustrations of these voters, but he essentially did nothing to address their concerns. A future candidate that was prepared to follow through on antiwar rhetoric and end U.S. involvement in foreign wars, instead of escalating and prolonging that involvement as Trump did, would be very appealing to this constituency.

Unfortunately, there are not many leaders available at the moment. The younger generation of Senate Republicans is almost uniformly hawkish with the notable exception of Sen. Rand Paul, and the most hard-line senators tend to be the loudest on foreign policy. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, for example, has had an outsized influence on both Trump administration policies and the party’s public messaging on a range of issues from Iran to arms control to China. According to that same EGF survey, less than a quarter of Republicans agree with the “hard-power primacists,” who think that the U.S. “should maintain its muscular global military presence and security commitments,” but in Congress and Republican foreign policy institutions they remain dominant. To change that will take more of the institution-building that we have seen with the founding of the Quincy Institute last year, and it will require finding more candidates willing to launch primary challenges against hard-line incumbents.

There is still a great deal of work to be done. Most conservatives have never fully reckoned with the disasters of the Bush era, and to a remarkable degree the Republican Party still adheres to many of the bankrupt ideas that prevailed in the 2000s. There is no appetite for “nation-building” anymore, but a lot of conservative foreign policy thinking is still warped by threat inflation and fantasies of regime change in multiple countries. Current policies toward Iran, Syria, and Venezuela are the proof of that. The rhetoric of the so-called “freedom agenda” has largely disappeared, but the desire to meddle and dictate terms to other nations is still pervasive among Republican analysts and politicians. Conservative restrainers need to drive home that regime change obsessions are not only destructive and harmful to the countries in question, but they are also a costly waste for the U.S. and detrimental to our interests. These reckless policies alienate allies, destabilize the affected regions, and increase the likelihood of new, unnecessary wars.

Weapons sales to authoritarian clients would be another area where conservative restrainers could make their mark. The U.S. shouldn’t go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, and it also shouldn’t be in the business of creating and arming monsters. Conservative restrainers could score a win early in Biden’s presidency by working with progressives and pushing for a halt to all weapons sales to the Saudis and the UAE because of their many war crimes in Yemen.

While there is an inchoate consensus on the right that China is the new main adversary, there is little agreement on how the U.S. should behave. There is great skepticism among restrainers that the U.S. should pursue anything resembling a Cold War-like rivalry with Beijing, and there is likewise significant opposition from business interests to any serious talk of decoupling the U.S. and Chinese economies. Hard-liners have predictably used the prospect of a U.S.-China rivalry to call for even more military spending, and the Trump administration has spent the last few years unsuccessfully trying to cajole other governments in Central and Southeast Asia to side with the U.S. in a zero-sum competition. Conservative restrainers will need to emphasize the risks and costs of a militarized rivalry with China to make clear that the hard-liners’ approach is a ruinous dead end.

In a recent article in National Review, Colin Dueck reviews the state of the foreign policy debate on the right and claims that there are three main factions in the Republican Party today: hard-liners, “activists,” and non-interventionists. The activists “support U.S. overseas bases, foreign-assistance programs, and a strong American military.” The hard-liners “favor a robust U.S. military and strong presidential leadership together with aggressive counterterrorism.” It is not entirely clear what separates the hard-liners and activists in practice, but this is how he distinguishes between more conventional Republican internationalists and the most aggressive hawks. On most issues, however, the politicians he identifies as activists vote with the hard-liners, and the hard-liners have typically been setting the terms of debate within the party. It is difficult to think of a single issue where an “activist” such as Romney disagrees with the hard-liners. It is much easier to identify disagreements between, say, Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Liz Cheney, because they have quite a few and they are significant.

Dueck asserts that “the plurality of GOP voters are part of a third group: Republican or conservative hardliners.” He provides no evidence for this, and if we assume that the hard-liners are “hard-power primacists” the EGF survey flatly contradicts this claim. Among Republicans, it is the opponents of primacy that make up the majority, and “traditional internationalists” outnumber the hard-power primacists three to one. The lesson here is that Republican hard-liners don’t really speak for most of their party, but because they have made foreign policy a top priority they have much more influence than their numbers would lead us to expect.

One of Dueck’s odder notions is that non-interventionists and hard-liners could form an alliance of sorts in the future. He allows that “this alliance contains certain inevitable tensions,” but that must be the understatement of the century. Can we imagine an alliance between Paul and Cheney? The truth is that there can’t be any lasting foreign policy alliance between these factions because they disagree on almost everything that matters. Dueck cites Trump’s presidency as proof that the two sides can be united, but this is a function of Trump paying lip service to non-interventionists while giving the hard-liners almost everything they wanted. It makes no sense for people that oppose unnecessary wars to ally themselves with the people that want to start them.

Foreign policy divisions among conservatives aren’t going to disappear entirely under the new administration, but there is a danger that these divisions will be temporarily suppressed in favor of reflexive rejectionism just as they were during the Obama years, when most conservatives defined their foreign policy as being against whatever Obama did. Losing the presidency should be an occasion for conservatives to reassess where they have gone wrong, but last time that opportunity was squandered as most conservatives settled for predictable, false attacks on Democratic “weakness” and “retreat.” It would be a huge waste if conservatives made the same mistake over the next four years.

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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