Time for a Taft Coalition
Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft bequeathed main-street conservatives much wisdom for shaping a modern America First foreign policy.
Beltway hawks continue beating the war drums for U.S. confrontation abroad. Led by groups such as the Vandenberg Coalition, launched in 2021 under the guidance of Elliott Abrams, the war party Republicans have become more and more indistinguishable from liberal internationalists—and out of step with the GOP rank and file.
Although Democrats once blacklisted Abrams for leading Reagan’s anti-communist policies in Central America back in the ’80s, the Biden administration has now fully rehabilitated him as a reliable establishment globalist. In the best bipartisan spirit of the Vandenberg Coalition, the White House recently selected Abrams to fill the Republican chair on the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, not a particularly significant position, but highly symbolic of official approval.
For the Vandenbergers, the foreign policy mission is all about making permanent Washington’s Cold War deployment under U.S. “international leadership.” Theirs is not a conservative foreign-policy vision for America. Permanent international leadership means permanently doing the heavy lifting, paying the bills, and suffering the casualties. The Vandenberger rarely pauses to consider if the American people might prefer, instead of the constant pursuit of global leadership, living in a normal country, in normal times.
The Vandenbergers constantly make dubious claims to President Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy legacy, but they are correct that U.S. policymakers should draw lessons from our country’s past. The group’s operational premise, however, is fundamentally mistaken: Washington is decidedly not facing today a redux version of the post-1945 global challenge, requiring a similar international response.
While Senator Arthur Vandenberg arguably had a valid point in 1945, when most of the planet was in economic ruin, our allies bankrupt and militarily prostrate, while the United States produced 50 percent of global GDP, that world is long gone. Yes, it can be fairly debated how to respond to contemporary China, but Vandenberg’s world, which called for a unique U.S. response to a spreading messianic communism, is in history’s ash heap. And good riddance.
Today, Washington makes policy in radically different times. Given the contemporary global security situation and the relative economic strength of America in a multipolar world, Washington’s international priorities should be foremost about rightsizing our strategic overstretch, most painfully typified by the miscalculated two-decade Afghanistan nation-building debacle.
Ending strategic overstretch requires U.S. diplomacy that transfers security responsibilities to rich, freeloading allies in Europe and Asia; it requires spending cuts that redress unsustainable defense budgets, and the unmaking of Washington’s home-grown national-security state. It requires protecting U.S. national borders as a core mission of foreign and defense engagement.
Facing this reality should lead conservatives not to the largely forgotten Vandenberg, but to his great contemporary: Republican Senator Robert A. Taft. Taft was the leading advocate in his day of an America First foreign policy that fits well today’s multipolar world. Indeed, Taft’s warnings against Washington’s global overreach can be a brightly shining North Star for us.
Senator Taft was never going to hand FDR, Harry Truman, or any other president a blank check for foreign commitments and fuzzy-minded globalism, explaining: “I believe in the policy of America first, and I believe that the policy of insuring freedom and peace for the people of the United States is the only proper basis for foreign policy.”
Throughout his career, Taft thoughtfully advocated limited engagement abroad that was anchored in the Constitution, directly served the American people, and applied common-sensical financial restraints. Taft did not believe in launching international crusades or bringing democracy to benighted foreigners. He was the antithesis to the romantic Washington notion of “pay any price, bear any burden” global adventure.
Senator Taft only narrowly lost the 1952 GOP presidential nomination to General Eisenhower, a Republican internationalist. Ike’s victory over Taft, however, was not a defeat over a lampooned “fortress America isolationism,” the bogeyman that groups like the Vandenberg Coalition use to discredit all conservative calls for restraint on U.S. commitments abroad.
As he explained in his book A Foreign Policy for Americans, Taft, like all conservatives, was a committed anti-communist who acknowledged the international Soviet challenge, but he was highly skeptical about the strategy of Washington building out a global military presence in response.
Taft believed a massive international U.S. military deployment would be counterproductive because it would give our allies the perfect pretext to evade their own security responsibilities. He correctly and prophetically feared that these far-flung U.S. defense commitments would become irreversible, permanent, and unaffordable, long after the emergency caused by the Soviet Union ended.
More than three decades after the demise of the Soviet empire, with Washington routinely running trillion-dollar deficits, and burden-sharing in NATO more out of balance than ever, the senator from Ohio would have been more outspoken and critical than President Trump of contemporary American statecraft.
Taft would remind Vandenberg Coalition members that, as good Republicans, they need to apply the same dose of skepticism about the effectiveness and practicality of ambitious overseas military and diplomatic plans as they do to Washington’s big-government domestic programs. No matter how much we support and honor American troops in the field, Taft advised, U.S. policymakers must not suspend tough skepticism just because our military is deployed.
Taft would no doubt tell the Vandenbergers that ambitious U.S. “global leadership” more often than not empowers hubristic presidents into counterproductive international missions: be it Lyndon Johnson linking the U.S. national interest to the fate of Southeast Asia, or George W. Bush trying to democratize Iraq. Taft would counsel the Vandenbergers to reflect more deeply about how smart American strategists actually have been in conducting foreign affairs.
Senator Taft was one of the last influential Republican voices to openly advance a cautious “conservative internationalism,” or a U.S. foreign strategy based on “continentalism.” Continentalism is a not a fancy foreign-policy doctrine, the idea of which Taft would have scorned, but more an instinct that America’s global engagement should place a security priority on the Western Hemisphere and territories physically closest to the United States. It should not be rocket science to explain why Mexico ought to be more important to Washington policymakers than Ukraine.
Taft understood how a global national-security posture negatively impacted constitutional government at home, and he urged that Congress not shirk its foreign affairs role, particularly its legislative war and treaty powers. Taft decried presidential secret diplomacy and executive agreements that bound the country, like Roosevelt’s infamous concessions to Stalin, and eluded public debate and Senate examination and ratification.
Unsuccessfully, Taft endeavored to place limits on the far-reaching 1947 National Security Act, which Congress passed, among other foreign affairs goals, to create the CIA. Taft wanted the vast new legislation to focus on a mission of managing military emergencies, not creating a permanent national-security state. Today, Taft doubtless would have bitterly opposed massive secret intelligence budgets and corrupt foreign surveillance practices that actually keep tabs on Americans—such as the FBI’s manipulation of the FISA courts to monitor U.S. citizens.
In resisting a national-security state, Taft intuitively understood that going too far in creating and empowering secret government agencies threatens our national liberties. His conservative instincts always cautioned against handing over massive authority to the bureaucracy; for Taft, who lived through the 1941 Pearl Harbor fiasco, the United States was strong enough to risk, or even absorb, setbacks overseas in order to preserve the country’s basic constitutional system and freedoms.
At odds with the Deep State of his day, Taft likewise understood America First policies required loyal and accountable federal agencies. The senator was shocked and infuriated, like Americans everywhere, by the revelations in the Alger Hiss espionage case, which helped expose U.S. officials in the State Department and at the highest levels of government spying on Moscow’s behalf.
Taft would have demanded the immediate release of the government’s secret Venona files, had he known of them, that decades later corroborated the guilt of Hiss and some 300 to 400 American spies, because the senator rightly believed that fostering open and informed debate was a more valuable national asset than U.S. agencies protecting their turf, sources, and methods.
Joined by a groundswell of public outrage in the late 1940s, Senator Taft was outspoken in demanding that a reluctant Truman administration undertake security and loyalty reviews across the federal government. Today, liberals tendentiously decry Truman’s security investigations as “McCarthyism,” but in the years 1947-56, over five million federal workers underwent vetting, resulting in an estimated 2,700 dismissals and 12,000 resignations.
Seen today, these reviews may be criticized as blunt instruments for attaining accountability inside national security agencies, as most officials, then and now, are generally hardworking and committed to their duties; however, the high-profile, partisan opposition inside the federal bureaucracy to Trump administration initiatives, which would not have surprised Senator Taft, indicates how this issue requires constant attention. It is linked directly to the conduct of foreign affairs, but lamentably, this matter is rarely a theme for Vandenbergers, who concentrate on slaying dragons abroad.
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In the same America First spirit, Taft embraced the Republican Party’s long tradition of an enlightened use of commercial tariffs to foster a strong U.S. economy. Because he had been an architect of the famous Taft-Hartley legislation, the Ohio senator was often at odds with organized labor, but Taft fundamentally understood the need for unions and that America’s economic engine depended on nurturing well-paying jobs.
Seventy years after the senator’s death, Taft’s America First Republicanism offers the GOP valuable foreign-affairs lessons and traditions to guide modern Washington in engaging the world. They are grounded in well-tested American experience that eschews big-government solutions both at home and abroad. Republican internationalists who dismiss them as blind “isolationism” are historically uninformed.
Indeed, Bob Taft, “Mr. Republican,” would instruct us that mobilizing the federal government for foreign projects should never undermine defending our liberties at home, which is the only real justification for any overseas engagement. It is time for conservatives to answer the Vandenberger internationlists with a Taft Coalition.