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Realigning American Foreign Policy

The Bush Doctrine has largely ruled American foreign policy since his presidency.

(Jeremy Christensen/Shutterstock)

Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 heralded a realignment in conservative politics, still ongoing, much of which has centered around domestic issues. While this domestic focus is strategically sensible, the line between foreign and domestic policy blurs when it comes to things like trade, tariffs, and wars. When gasoline prices increase or, far worse, a soldier does not come home, foreign policy suddenly feels very domestic.

As of yet, there has been no concentrated attempt to craft an overarching realignment foreign policy. This essay merely seeks to sketch one, laying out the foreign policy principles of this political realignment and suggesting what those principles might look like in practice.


Should a Republican win in 2024, the administration must enter the White House with a clear foreign policy vision in order to supplant the neoconservatism that currently operates in D.C. There have been no new presidential foreign policy doctrines since the fusionist Bush Doctrine committed America to interventionism. Although every succeeding president ran against the Bush Doctrine, it still rules the day: There have been no articulated Obama, Trump, or Biden Doctrines.

The realignment opposes the core of the Bush Doctrine: democracy promotion. A large portion of New Right writing has been dedicated to dissecting what went wrong with early 21st-century foreign policy; rejection of the “world police” role is prominent.

The realignment is also more willing than their conservative predecessors to take on China and have rejected the now-dead consensus that the Middle Kingdom would democratize. There is a temptation from some paleoconservative corners of the realignment to dismiss the Chinese threat by pointing to the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. But even if China is able to “only” gain a foothold outside of the Americas, such a result could be disastrous. Africa, for example, is certain to soon play a larger role. China is preparing for this, while America has been busy “tut-tutting” every African governing decision.

The focus on China is in line with two other realignment impulses: skepticism of NATO’s usefulness and a disinclination to see Russia as America’s primary threat. Currently, the foreign policy establishment is focused on a country that cannot maintain control over its near abroad. It is not “pro-Putin” to say this. While individuals have toyed with the idea of being pro-Russia, the media’s insistence that realists are pro-Putin is a smear not reflected by reality. While polling shows the GOP is increasingly skeptical of becoming more involved in the Russo-Ukrainian War, only 6 percent of Republicans have a positive view of Russia—the same percentage as Democrats.

All of these views are of a piece with a commitment to restoring national interest as America’s guiding principle. But the realignment would do well not to sell the centrality of national interest—which should indeed be the prism through which all American foreign policy decisions are made—as revolutionary. Rather, it should be presented to the American people as reactionary, an undoing of past mistakes.


National interest was the default foreign policy for much of American history. The Monroe Doctrine—“Stay out of the Americas, we won’t bother you”—was America’s posture to the wider world until the early 1900s. This did not mean that America did not care about democracy. The writer of Monroe’s doctrine, John Quincy Adams, stated America was “the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.” But he followed with the definitive, “she is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

This view became woven into America’s character. After kicking Adams out of the White House, Andrew Jackson changed practically everything about America’s policies, but he did not touch that principle. No president did for nearly 100 years. 

Until Woodrow Wilson and World War I. Wilsonianism sought to make America the world policeman. But underappreciated by many is the fact that Wilsonianism was soon itself replaced in substance by something more realist: While America cheered on “liberty” throughout World War II and much of the Cold War, presidents of all stripes were happy to ally with repressive regimes. This two-step ultimately allowed America to win the Cold War.

But too many in America’s leadership class bought into the idea of championing other countries’ liberty. After the Cold War ended, Wilsonianism won out; America remained world-policeman, engaged in “democracy promotion,” and failed to reform now-anachronistic Cold War institutions. This led to a globalized American world order that, on paper, would be good for Americans: GDP growth, cheap products, and relative peace.

However, this growth has been a double-edged sword, as pointed out by many realignment figures, such as American Compass’ Oren Cass. Yes, we received cheaper products, but the cost was jobs shipped overseas. In placing national interest at the center of our foreign policy again, we must abandon Wilsonian rhetoric of democracy promotion and reject the idea that sending jobs away can be good. But in doing so, the realignment cannot forget that foreign policy must be politically acceptable to the voting public.

Americans have gotten used to imagining themselves as the good guys, loved the world over for bringing freedom (even if this does not reflect reality). And, regrettably, they have come to love cheap Chinese plastic. As such, the framing of this shift will be important. Too much glee in sticking it to the world, as was present in some aspects of Trump administration rhetoric, will receive voter backlash. As J.D. Vance has said, “It’s very easy to disagree with people so long as you’re not an asshole, and still get things done.” We can have the national interest-driven policy of the Trump administration without coming across as the asshole party.

So what does refocusing on the national interest mean? More than anything else, it means protecting the United States’ unique political order, protecting Americans’ economic interests, and ensuring that the U.S. cannot come under another power’s thumb. All of these are intertwined; it is a miracle that the United States emerged from the stresses of a civil war, two world wars, and the Cold War with its constitutional system intact. America remains the only country on the planet where civilians can buy varieties of firearms without permission and can say and write nearly whatever they want without worrying about jailtime. If China subsumes the rest of the world in hegemony, Americans’ way of life would be at risk.

It is important that realignment conservatives make clear what a shift to national interest would not mean for America’s foreign policy principles. The goal should not be taking on China. There is a distinction between the end—protecting America and our way of life—and the means of stopping the Chinese threat. The end is unchanging, whereas the means changes with the times.

If we do not keep this in mind, we risk repeating our post-Cold War mistake, when America failed to change the means. As a result, the means became an end, and America became wedded to Cold War-era thinking and institutions like NATO. In doing so, we ignored the warnings of one of the greatest cold warriors, Richard Nixon, who once declared that America’s “interests must shape our commitments, rather than the other way around.” But the latter is exactly what has happened: Our Cold War-era systems now shape our national interest.

Realignment foreign policy should always be mindful of what comes next. America’s recent strategies have far too often failed to do this. And there is no greater example of this phenomenon of failure than the Russo-Ukrainian War. While this is not America’s conflict, it is still a major land war in Europe involving a nuclear-armed state. As such, the United States should ready itself for what comes after the war.

In doing so, we must keep in mind what this war is and is not. To Russia, this war is about reconquering its near abroad and, in the eyes of Russian nationalists, feasibly restoring some of its past imperial greatness. That is not a justifiable reason to attack another country and slaughter thousands. But if horrific acts of state violence inherently concern America’s interests, our troops should start packing their bags for a litany of countries.

Those who want America to become more involved have tried to paint the conflict as a war for democracy and as the first step in Russia’s plan to conquer NATO. These are examples of how realignment thinking must break with past policies. While there is no question that Ukraine is more democratic than Russia—there is no chance that a Russian oligarch would be dethroned by a television comedian, as happened in Ukraine’s 2019 presidential election—there is a question as to why democracy promotion alone is a reason for America to act. As for Russia moving onto NATO countries: Does anyone seriously think that they could manage to take Poland, much less France?

Fortunately, we do not need to guarantee Ukraine’s safety, because there is a wealthy, heavily armed entity next door: the European Union. While the E.U.’s GDP is not America’s, it has no business being so impotent. To be fair, that impotence is in a way a result of America’s recent foreign policy: Every time Europe has attempted to gain some independence, American presidents of both parties have smacked them down, living in a fantasy where Europe is America’s vassal.

The realignment would see America change course. Conservatives should support the creation of an independent E.U. defense and the French and Polish desires for strategic autonomy. This would transform NATO into a two-member bloc (the U.S. and the E.U.). A militarized E.U. could defend itself against Russia; if Ukraine can manage, all of Europe can. If Europe encountered a threat it could not take alone, it would probably befit the U.S. to become involved anyway, as Europe becoming dominated by an anti-American power would be dangerous for our long-term security. Likewise, should the U.S. become involved against a serious threat in Asia, who would we rather have backing us: a strong E.U. army, or states training with brooms instead of guns?

Rejecting Cold War-era notions will finally free up America for our long-discussed “pivot to Asia.” Alliances with China-skeptic states will be easier if we leave Europe as friends, as many smaller Asian states will be concerned that they will one day suffer the same fate should China’s threat be bested. And we must make those alliances: Like the Japanese before them, should China completely subsume the Pacific, they will definitively threaten America’s security.

Moving west from the Pacific, conservatives cannot continue to ignore Africa. African states take Chinese loans and Russian fertilizer because Western gifts come with rainbow-colored strings. While there is a conservative distaste for foreign aid, there is a difference between foreign aid designed to ferment color revolutions and foreign aid designed to make genuine friendships. It will pay off in the coming decades when that continent fully takes advantage of its resources. America is watching our 21st-century enemy buy up the largest continent in the world. We should do so no longer.

Finally, we come to the Americas. Applying the same principles mentioned above, realignment foreign policy toward our southern neighbors should be obvious: So long as their actions do not threaten us—as in, so long as they continue to not host Russian or Chinese bases—they can do what they like. We should extend friendship, not reprimands, especially as China alters its lending practices there, focusing on large-scale private projects, including energy.

None of these suggestions lock America into new permanent alliances, which would surely stray from their original goals. Nor do they send America on an ideological crusade. All have clear ends and allow for flexibility. Under a realignment foreign policy, America will no longer act out of a desire to spread ideology, keep up a perpetual hegemony, or force others to think as we do. We will ally with countries based on a mutual need, our ends determined by what is best for our national interest.