The Republican presidential candidates gathered in South Carolina on Saturday night to dive into a topic they had largely skirted: foreign policy. Their exchanges followed a predictable rhythm: They were long on criticism of President Barack Obama and promises to do better and short on nuance and complexity.
That balance works far better when campaigning than when governing, however. On the rare occasions that they talk to voters about international issues, the GOP candidates offer up a standard indictment of Obama's foreign policy: The president has forsaken Washington's friends, coddled its adversaries, and failed to understand America's exceptional power to do good in the world. If elected, they pledge to deliver a string of foreign policy successes. Iran would buckle to America's will and call off its nuclear program. Pakistan would end its support for terrorist groups and back U.S. policy. U.S. forces would break the Taliban in Afghanistan. Regime change would come to Syria. China would end its predatory trade practices. In short, everything would be perfect.
These promises fly in the face of the conventional wisdom that frames most of the GOP field as isolationist. True, polls show that the number of Americans who believe Washington "should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems at home" has grown in recent years. That has not meant, however, that GOP candidates favor disengaging from the world. (There is, of course, the notable exception of Congressman Ron Paul, who on Saturday night made his familiar argument that America's far-flung overseas operations do more to threaten its security than advance it.)
In fact, most of the GOP presidential candidates are internationalists intent on pursuing an activist foreign policy -- and in that respect, they fall well within the Republican Party's foreign policy tradition of the past half century. This is not to say that the candidates march in lockstep on specific issues; they frequently differ in approach, priority, and tone. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich say that a