American Politics: Wanted: A Republican realist

By Tom Switzer

“All of the Kissinger-era realists have gone away, like Robert Zoellick, James Baker, and Brent Scowcroft. Today, the [Republican] party is just a wasteland. They are total amateurs on foreign policy.”

So said Francis Fukuyama earlier this year. He is no doubt thinking the Republican presidential debates in recent weeks reiterate his point.

Crudely put, there has been evident in these debates three main schools of foreign policy thought, none of which could be classified realist.

The first school, as we discussed on this blog last week, is the “American Century” view put forward by leading contender Mitt Romney.

The second school is the “cheap hawk” position represented by former House speaker Newt Gingrich.

And the third school of thought that perhaps resonates most clearly with Tea Party conservatives and the Republican party base these days is the “Come home America” line that Texas congressman Ron Paul champions.

The problem with the Romney world view, as I suggested in another context in the New York Times over the weekend, is that it fails to recognise that the post-9/11 world is a fragmented and pluralist one. Such a world requires diverse and particular policies, not one big policy based on one big concept — or on a vague “vision” better suited to the exceptional circumstances of the post-war era.

That is why it makes no sense for Washington, as it did during the Bush years, to make policy in terms of sweeping doctrines that purport to lay down general, binding principles and rules of conduct that must be followed consistently. Given Romney’s public pronouncements, and considering his foreign policy advisers — leading neo-conservative intellectuals such as Robert Kagan and Eliot Cohen — this school of thought emphasises consistency and comprehensiveness as more important foreign policy ingredients than discrimination and selectivity.

And yet discrimination and selectivity are always necessary in foreign policy deliberations, because circumstances alter cases. In the new era, they will be particularly important, because the resources available for US diplomacy are going to be more limited.

The Gingrich “cheap hawk” position also raises the basic question of ends and means. As any realist will tell you, to desire the end without being prepared to provide the means is a deadly sin of foreign policy. Besides, anything resembling an intrusive and heavy-handed foreign policy requires a strong and centralised federal government at home.

But the lesson of the recent brush with debt default is that American lawmakers will increasingly assign very high priority to downsizing government and cutting spending. An ambitious and interventionist foreign policy is incompatible with that goal. A cheap hawk is an oxymoron.

To be sure, Ron Paul and many tea parties justify their “Come home America” stance overwhelming on a desire to reorder priorities in favour of spending cuts and domestic affairs. Not for these conservatives any notions of a Pax Americana and Wilsonian interventionism.

But US security in an economically interdependent world is affected by changes throughout all four corners of the world. There is also an urgent need for some sort of American role in a world that is changing rapidly and is already experiencing serious tensions. Global terrorism remains a real problem. The Doha round of multilateral free trade negotiations has collapsed and prospects for a new global agreement on trade liberalisation remain low. Then there is the matter of nuclear proliferation: the prospect of weapons in the hands of an increasing number of states with weak governments and poor security and control systems is imminent. A world without a major US role, which is essentially what Paul and the Tea Partiers call for, could set the scene for a replay of the 1930s.

What unites Paul with Romney and Gingrich is an irresistible urge to balance the available options to a simple choice: either near-total involvement or near-total withdrawal. But in a complex and ambiguous world, neither of these extreme courses would serve US interests and neither would be sustainable.

What’s seriously missing in the Republican debates on foreign policy is the realist school of thought, a distinguished position that has served previous Republican administrations well. This is a subject to which I shall return in coming weeks.

24 October 2011