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Huntsman: Our Political Culture Is a National-Security Risk

Reagan Library memorial (spirit of america / Shutterstock.com)

Jon Huntsman recently gave a talk at the Reagan Library that included some very sound foreign-policy advice for the GOP—most importantly, admit your mistakes and don’t repeat them:

Republicans must also begin to recognize the effect that the Iraq War has had on the party’s hard earned reputation for competence and sobriety in the conduct of foreign affairs.  Where we used to end wars, Ike in Korea and Nixon in Vietnam, we are now too often the party that cheerleads them.

Republicans have effectively confused themselves twice over: first by failing to face up to the political costs—not to mention the human and other costs—of the foreign policy the party came to be identified with in the past decade, but also by misunderstanding over the course of the last 20 years what the Republican and conservative traditions in world affairs have actually been. There have (almost) always been hard-line hawks on the right, and the left has long enjoyed portraying every Republican president a cowboy or hit man with a hair-trigger. From the left and the militarist right an image converges of the GOP as the perpetual war party.

The reality has been more prosaic: 20th-century Republicans fought plenty of wars, but as Huntsman notes, didn’t start many of them—and those they did start tended to end fairly quickly. Whatever the rights and wrongs of Grenada, Panama, or the first Gulf War, they were not interventions that involved American troops fighting abroad for years at a time. As significantly, signature Republican policies toward great powers like the Soviet Union and China were marked by confident engagement: Nixon brilliantly fostering China as a counterweight to the Soviets and helping Beijing take the path toward Deng’s reforms; Reagan condemning the Soviet Communist system while always extending friendship to the Russian people and to Gorbachev as Soviet leader—moves that allowed the Cold War to end peacefully. And Reagan’s commitment to ending the threat of nuclear war is now widely recognized; as I noted in a review of William F. Buckley’s final book, The Reagan I Knew, a few years ago:

after a 40-year friendship, Buckley suddenly realized he had misjudged the man. At National Review’s 30th-anniversay gala in 1985, he toasted the then-president as the consummate cold warrior: “What I said in as many words, dressed up for the party, was that Reagan would, if he had to, pull the nuclear trigger,” writes Buckley. “Twenty years after saying that, in the most exalted circumstance, in the presence of the man I was talking about, I changed my mind.” Reagan would not have unleashed a nuclear holocaust, even in retaliation.

Recall that one of the things the amnesiac hawks on the Republican side of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hounded Chuck Hagel about was his support for a reduction in nuclear arms.

Huntsman proposes trade in place of war as the GOP’s calling card in foreign policy:

When I served as Ambassador to China I spent some time reflecting on history of the position.  The first American envoy to China, Caleb Cushing, was dispatched in 1844 by President Tyler to negotiate what would become the Treaty of Wang Xia which opened the Chinese market to American commerce.

We need to get back to such a foreign policy, one driven by advancing our economics interests.  This means aggressively pursuing trade liberalization, on a bilateral basis if necessary but at the same time enforcing our intellectual property rights and aggressively pushing back at those who abuse our good will, making sure the global playing field is on an even keel for American workers.

The devil’s in the details, but it’s certainly true that America would do well to think of economic power as the most threatened component of our grand strategy at present. In this, Huntsman’s domestic policy, particularly his criticisms of crony capitalism, may be even more significant than his trade positions. Trade liberalization gambles the security of America’s middle class—unless some other economic reform can give citizens the job prospects they’re currently lacking. (Only 47 percent of U.S. adults have full-time employment.)

Appropriately for a talk at the Reagan Library, Huntsman’s remarks urged Republicans to adopt a Reaganesque posture toward human rights abroad—while at home he had strong words for the “new garrison state”:

America should always stand for the freedom of others, as this ultimately means security at home.  Working towards freedom for others does not mean seeking out monsters to destroy but standing with those who seek their own liberty across the world, from Cuba off our own coast to a woman under house arrest in the outskirts of Beijing.

And as we stand for liberty abroad we must not lose sight of freedom at home, Congress needs to work with the Executive to figure out how to oversee the new garrison state which has given rise to a scale of surveillance at home and perpetual intervention abroad that is new in our experience as a nation.  And one for which we are paying an exceedingly high price.

Solid stuff. But what I appreciate most about Hunstman’s style of Republicanism is its understanding of how America’s strategic situation is imperiled by seemingly unrelated developments at home, such as our politicians’ perpetual chase for dollars:

our elected leaders are simply spending too much time fundraising during their terms of office—time that they should be spending working on public policy to strengthen this country. The amount of time spent by our entire elected federal leadership, desperately searching for money, rather than doing the nation’s business, constitutes a domestic threat to our national security.

That’s true on several levels—not only is foreign policy per se a field in which the sovereign should be as free as possible from the influence of campaign donors—who may be bad enough as rent-seekers at home but can set off truly dangerous chain reactions in foreign affairs—but the time and mental energy spent grubbing for cash really does come at a cost to thinking carefully about the national interest. It encourages a short-term mentality that is again bad enough in domestic politics but actively harmful up against, say, the Chinese, who think strategically on a scale of decades. The U.S.-China relationship will define at least the early part of this century, not only on the world stage but to a great extent in terms of our public finance and private economy at home. And while the Arab Spring, for example, may not be of such direct consequence to American power and prosperity, it too demands an attention span beyond what what our elected officials can spare between rubber-chicken dinners.

Huntsman very clearly understands how our political culture is the thing that most threatens to bring about our much-discussed decline.

Here’s his full speech:

about the author

Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review, and Editor-at-Large of The American Conservative. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, The Spectator, The National Interest, Reason, and many other publications. Outside of journalism he has worked as internet communications coordinator for the Ron Paul 2008 presidential campaign and as senior editor of ISI Books. He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied classics. Follow him on Twitter.

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