How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
This past fall was not kind to U.S. President Barack Obama's foreign policy. It became increasingly clear that Afghan security forces were not going to be ready for the 2014 transition. The New York Times highlighted the administration's failure to persuade the Iraqi government to allow a residual U.S. force to stay in the country, leaving Baghdad ever more at the mercy of Tehran. Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fought publicly over how to respond to Iran's advancing nuclear program. The administration's much-touted "pivot" to the Pacific seemed like more talk than action, as the United States passively watched tensions rise between China and Japan. And then, the administration tripped over itself repeatedly in trying to explain the fiasco in Benghazi, Libya.
Yet despite all this, Obama not only won the election in November but was more trusted by the public than Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate, on foreign policy and national security issues. The Pew Research Center's last preelection poll, for example, found that more voters trusted Obama than Romney on foreign affairs, by 50 percent to 42 percent, and CBS/New York Times and NBC/Wall Street Journal surveys showed similar figures. Tracking polls suggested that the foreign policy debate helped halt whatever momentum Romney had.
This was all a big change from the past. Republicans had previously possessed a decades-long advantage on foreign policy. Exit polls have shown that voters consistently trusted Republican presidential candidates over Democratic ones on foreign policy from the Vietnam era until 2012. So Obama's edge cannot be chalked up simply to incumbency. And if this exception becomes a trend, it will pose a serious problem for the Republican Party, significantly altering the political landscape. Foreign policy is rarely the decisive issue in presidential campaigns, but it does matter: even voters who profess not to care about the rest of the world need to feel comfortable that their candidate can be the next commander in chief. A candidate's command of foreign policy acts as a proxy for assessing broader leadership abilities. As of right now, far too many Republicans flunk that test.
So how did the party of Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan get itself into this mess? Simply put, GOP leaders stopped being smart foxes and devolved into stupid hedgehogs. During the Cold War, the party of Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Reagan was strongly anticommunist, but these presidents took foreign policy seriously and executed their grand strategies with a healthy degree of tactical flexibility. Since 9/11, however, Republicans have known only one big thing—the "global war on terror"—and have remained stubbornly committed to a narrow militarized approach. Since the fall of Baghdad, moreover, this approach has produced at least as much failure as success, leading the American public to be increasingly skeptical of the bellicosity that now defines the party's foreign policy.
Republicans need to start taking international relations more seriously, addressing the true complexities and requirements of the issues rather than allowing the subject to be a plaything for right-wing interest groups. And if they don't act quickly, they might cede this ground to the Democrats for the next generation.
BUILDING THE BRAND
Republican presidents from the 1950s through the early 1990s had variegated records, but they had one thing in common: they left behind favorable legacies on foreign policy. Eisenhower stabilized the rivalry with the Soviet Union, preventing it from escalating into a violent conflagration. He dramatically improved the U.S. foreign-policy-making process, strengthened domestic infrastructure, extricated the United States from the Korean War, and limited U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Nixon improved relations with the Soviet Union, opened relations with China, and extricated the United States from Vietnam. Reagan spoke truth to power by railing against the Soviet Union as an "evil empire," but when faced with a genuine negotiating partner in Mikhail Gorbachev, he did not hesitate to sign numerous treaties, reduce Cold War tensions, and cut nuclear stockpiles. George H. W. Bush adroitly seized the opportunities afforded by the end of the Cold War to expand the West's liberal order to the world at large, as well as overseeing German reunification, rebuffing Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, and locking in Mexico's path toward economic liberalization.
Each president built his reputation as a foreign policy hawk, and none was afraid to talk tough or act forcefully when dealing with adversaries. But the key to their success was the ability to combine principled beliefs at the strategic level with prudence and flexibility at the tactical level. Eisenhower took great care to prevent small crises from distracting the United States from its main goal of containing the Soviet Union. Nixon built his political career on anticommunism but recognized the strategic advantage of opening relations with Maoist China. Reagan talked tough on terrorism, but after 241 U.S. marines were killed in a suicide attack in Beirut, he did not hesitate to draw down U.S. forces from a peripheral conflict in Lebanon. And rather than do a sack dance at the end of the Cold War, Bush 41 took care to respond tactfully and nimbly, pocketing and building on an extraordinary strategic windfall.
To be sure, they all had their foreign policy blemishes, too. But their strengths outweighed their weaknesses, especially when compared with Democratic counterparts such as Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter. Republican presidents during the Cold War skillfully combined the idealpolitik of American exceptionalism with the realpolitik necessary to navigate a world of bipolarity, nuclear deterrence, and Third World nationalism. They relied on a string of steady-handed professionals, such as John Foster Dulles, Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, James Baker, and Brent Scowcroft, to help manage their administrations. Indeed, so great was the legacy this era bequeathed that in 2000, exit polls showed that the public viewed the neophyte George W. Bush as stronger on foreign policy than Al Gore, the sitting vice president. Gore's considerable experience was neutralized by public trust in the Republican foreign policy "Vulcans" advising his opponent.
...THEN SQUANDERING IT
For a brief time, it looked as though Bush 43 would be able to carry on the legacy. In the wake of 9/11, the neoconservatives in his administration supplied a clear and coherent grand strategy of using unilateral military action to destroy terrorist bases and remake the Middle East, and after quickly toppling hostile regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, it seemed to be working.
Over the next several years, however, the Bush administration's strategic miscalculations became apparent. The administration focused on a mythical "axis of evil," lumping disparate actors into a single anti-American threat. It displayed little tactical flexibility and no ability to plan for the consequences of its actions. The initial swift success in Afghanistan was marred by a failure to capture or kill al Qaeda's senior leadership, and when the administration pivoted almost immediately to Iraq, it took its eye off the ball in South Asia and allowed a short-term victory to deteriorate into a long-term quagmire.
Iraq, meanwhile, turned into nothing short of a disaster. There, too, the invasion went well, but the postwar planning was so slapdash that it sabotaged any chance of a stable occupation. A growing insurgency crippled Washington's ability to project power in the region and consumed an appalling amount of American and Iraqi blood and treasure. And the failure to discover weapons of mass destruction—the existence of which had been the central rationale for the war—undermined the United States' reputation for both competence and honesty. Late in Bush's second term, a well-executed course correction helped stabilize the situation and ultimately permit a U.S. withdrawal with some measure of dignity. But the chief beneficiary of the whole affair turned out to be Iran—the United States' main adversary in the region.
The failures in Afghanistan and Iraq compounded other errors that the administration committed. The Bush team pushed for free and fair elections across the Middle East but seems never to have thought about what would happen if the elections were won by radical Islamists—as was the case with Hamas in Gaza in 2006. And an obsession with the "war on terror" alienated allies in Europe, Latin America, and the Pacific Rim, allowing a rising China to gain increasing influence.
The administration did have some successes—getting Libya to abandon its weapons of mass destruction, developing a warm relationship with India, and providing generous support for AIDS relief in Africa. But by the end of the Bush years, global attitudes toward the United States had reached an all-time low, and the American public noticed. A 2008 survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs showed that 83 percent of Americans polled placed the highest priority on "improving America's standing in the world"—a higher figure than for the traditional top priority of protecting American jobs.
John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate, had neither the desire nor the ability to distance himself much from Bush's unpopular foreign policy record and was overwhelmed by the outbreak of the financial crisis during the final stages of the campaign. And after the GOP was evicted from the White House, the party's foreign policy approach grew even more problematic, with McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, heralding the future.
It is always difficult for a party out of power to craft a coherent worldview, in part because of the lack of a dominant figure able to impose order on the discussion, and this time was no exception. Freed from the burden of executive-branch responsibility after the 2008 defeat, Republicans began to lose touch with the real world of foreign policy. Some libertarians advocated a radical and impractical reduction of the United States' overseas presence. Most others moved in the opposite direction, toward jingoism and xenophobia.
Unbowed by Iraq, prominent neoconservatives called for aggressive military action against Iran. Popular party figures strongly opposed the construction of a mosque in Manhattan. Major Republican politicians held congressional hearings about whether American Muslims could be trusted. Right-wing columnists demanded that the Obama administration resuscitate the use of torture. Leading Senate Republicans opposed any new international treaty as a matter of principle, resisting the relatively uncontroversial New START treaty with Russia and flatly opposing the Law of the Sea Treaty, despite endorsements from every living former Republican secretary of state, big business, and the U.S. Navy. A few, such as Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, placed country over party and tried to find some common ground with Obama. The reward for his troubles was a primary challenge by a Tea Party favorite, who managed to defeat Lugar before self-destructing during the general election.
The 2012 presidential campaign devalued Republican foreign policy thinking even further. Most of the GOP candidates displayed a noxious mix of belligerent posturing and stunning ignorance. Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota mistakenly praised China's regulatory framework and warned against Hezbollah's role in Cuba. Representative Ron Paul of Texas insisted that the global economy could be fixed by a return to the gold standard. Former Representative Newt Gingrich of Georgia became obsessed with the minute chances of an electromagnetic pulse targeting the United States, even as he disputed the actual threats posed by climate change. The business executive Herman Cain repeatedly flubbed questions on China, Israel, and Libya and proudly defended his ignorance in interviews, explaining that it was irrelevant whether or not a candidate knew who the "president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan" was.
Compared with this crew during the primaries, Romney sounded reasonable. After securing the nomination, however, his musings lost focus. Romney's primary foreign policy criticism of Obama dealt not with any actual policy dispute but with a vague tonal issue, represented by the president's alleged "apology tour" around the world. Romney claimed that Russia was the number one geopolitical threat to the United States, a statement 25 years out of date. And at various points during the campaign, Romney insulted the Japanese, the Italians, the Spanish, the British, and the Palestinians. His own campaign advisers repeatedly complained that he never engaged deeply on international affairs. The few times that he did talk about foreign policy—in reference to the case of the Chinese civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng; during his July overseas trip to the United Kingdom, Israel, and Poland; and in the aftermath of the attacks on U.S. installations in Cairo and Benghazi—Romney used rhetoric that was ham-handed and politicized. And in picking Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to be his running mate, Romney guaranteed that his ticket would have the least foreign policy gravitas of any GOP presidential campaign in 60 years.
The 2012 election was the nadir of the GOP's decadelong descent. By the time Romney was selected as the nominee, Republicans had come to talk about foreign policy almost entirely as an offshoot of domestic politics or ideology. What passed for discussion consisted of a series of tactical gestures designed to appease various constituencies in the party rather than responses to actual issues in U.S. relations with the world. The resulting excess of unchecked pablum and misinformation depressed not only outside observers but also many of the more seasoned members of the Republican foreign policy community who took the subject seriously. This palpable disdain of old GOP foreign policy hands helped further tarnish the Republican brand.
Increasingly, moreover, the Republican rhetoric clashed with the instincts of the public at large. Most Americans have always been reluctant to use force except in the service of vital interests, and a decade of war and recession had reinforced such feelings. A 2009 Pew survey showed that isolationist sentiments had reached an all-time high in the United States, and a 2012 PIPA (Program on International Policy Attitudes) poll found that Americans would strongly prefer to cut defense spending rather than Medicare or Social Security. A 2012 Pew survey noted that "defending against terrorism and strengthening the military are given less priority today than over the course of the past decade," and the 2012 Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey showed "a strong desire to move on from a decade of war, scale back spending, and avoid major new military entanglements." The Chicago survey also showed that independents had drifted toward Democrats and away from Republicans on most major foreign policy issues. As the GOP's rhetoric was tacking hawkish, in other words, a war-weary public was moving in the opposite direction.
The Obama administration exploited this divergence and pushed its foreign policy advantage throughout the 2012 campaign. In response to the malapropisms of the GOP primary, Vice President Joseph Biden started taunting Republican challengers, noting, "There's a minimum threshold any man or woman has to cross on national security and foreign policy for the American people to think you're remotely eligible to be president. And these guys have a long way to go." At the Democratic National Convention, speaker after speaker gleefully mocked the GOP's ignorance and hyperbole about the rest of the world. The administration could weather its own shortcomings because it knew how the American people would judge the two parties relative to each other: the Republicans were responsible for getting the United States stuck in Afghanistan and Iraq; the Democrats were responsible for moving to close out both wars and killing Osama bin Laden.
HOW TO GET BACK ON TRACK
It is conceivable that major screwups during Obama's second term could hand the advantage on foreign policy back to the Republicans without any effort of their own, but the reverse is more likely. Every additional year the party is locked out of the executive branch, the experience and skills of GOP foreign-policy makers will atrophy, while those of their Democratic counterparts will grow. It took the Democratic Party a generation to heal politically from the foreign policy scars of Vietnam and several years in office during the Clinton administration to develop new cadres of competent midcareer professionals. And public inattention to the subject doesn't help, offering few major opportunities for rebranding. So the GOP has its work cut out for it.
The key to moving forward is for Republicans to stop acting like hedgehogs and start thinking like foxes again, moving beyond crude single-minded objectives and relearning flexibility and nuance. They need to quit overhyping threats and demanding military solutions. After 9/11, the political logic for threat inflation was clear: politicians would be punished far more for downplaying a real security threat than for exaggerating a false one. But the GOP has taken this calculation too far and twisted it to serve other party interests.
Republicans continually attempt to justify extremely high levels of defense spending, for example, on the grounds that the United States supposedly faces greater threats now than during the Cold War. Romney claimed during the campaign that the world was more "dangerous, destructive, chaotic" than ever before. And Republican hawks warn that Armageddon will ensue if defense expenditures fall below four percent of GDP, even though they are vague about the connection between such an abstract figure and actual defense policy challenges.
A reality check is necessary. Precisely because Republican presidents during the Cold War took the Soviet threat seriously, they were careful not to escalate tensions needlessly. Today's threats may be more numerous and varied, but even combined, they are significantly smaller and less grave. As Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen have argued in these pages, long-term trends suggest that the world has become more, not less, safe for the United States over the past decade. U.S. deaths from terrorism are declining, and even with the global financial crisis, the world has not become more conflictual.
This is not to say that the United States should let its guard down. For Republicans, however, the political costs of overhyping threats now exceed the benefits. To echo Montesquieu, useless warnings weaken necessary warnings. Since the knee-jerk Republican response has been to call for military action anywhere and everywhere trouble breaks out, the American people have tuned out the GOP's alarmist rhetoric. It will be hard for any leader to mobilize a war-weary public into taking even necessary military action in the near future, and the GOP's constant crying of wolf will make this task much harder. A good grand strategy prioritizes threats and interests, and that is a habit the Republicans need to relearn.
The GOP must also develop a better appreciation for the full spectrum of foreign policy tools and stop talking only about military action. Indeed, George W. Bush's greatest foreign policy accomplishments came not in the military realm but in rethinking economic statecraft.He signed more free-trade agreements than any other president. Through the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the Bush administration devised innovative ways of advancing U.S. interests and values abroad. In developing the architecture for improved financial coercion, the administration paved the way for the sanctions that are now crippling Iran's economy. Force can be an essential tool of statecraft, but it should rarely be the first tool used, and sometimes it can be most effective if never used at all. Republicans understand the power of the free market at home; they need to revive their enthusiasm for the power of the market abroad, as well.
Finally, Republicans need to avoid the problem of rhetorical blowbackbeing ensnared in unwanted commitments as the result of the use of absolutistic foreign policy language. Being out of power, the GOP is judged by its words rather than by its actions. And black-and-white statements on issues such as immigration, antiterrorism, and multilateralism only delegitimize the party. The best foreign policy presidents were able to combine the appealing rhetorical vision of an American world order with the realistic recognition that international relations is messier in practice than in theory.
George H. W. Bush was able to build a broad multilateral coalition, including the United Nations, to fight Iraq because he both took diplomacy seriously and could deploy the implicit threat of acting outside un auspices. Too many of his successors in the party, however, have embraced a "my way or the highway" approach to friends and allies. Their logic is that the rest of the world is attracted to strength, clarity, and resolve, and so if the United States projects those qualities, all will be well. But this bandwagoning logic has little basis in reality, and if anything, in recent years the rest of the world has seemed to be balancing against the GOP. A BBC poll of the populations of ten close U.S. allies during the campaign revealed that respondents preferred Obama to Romney by an average of 45 percentage points. Strength, clarity, and resolve are important foreign policy virtues, obviously, but so are an appreciation of complexity and the ability to compromise and play well with others, qualities that have been in short supply on the Republican side of the aisle recently.
The Republican Party has a long and distinguished foreign policy lineage that currently lies in tatters. The ghosts of Iraq haunt the GOP's foreign policy mandarins, and the antics of right-wing pundits and politicians have further delegitimized the party. As a result, the GOP has frittered away a partisan advantage in foreign policy and national security that took half a century to accumulate.
Absent an Obama foreign policy fiasco—a real one that commands the country's attention, not the sort of trumped-up ones that resonate only on Fox News and in the fever swamps of the Republican base—the only way to repair the damage will be for the GOP to take foreign policy seriously again, in Congress and in the 2016 election. This does not mean railing against the isolationists in the party; in truth, their numbers are small. Nor does it mean purging the neoconservatives or any other ideological faction; no group has a lock on sense or wisdom, and there will and should be vigorous policy debate within both parties.
Rather, it means rejecting the ideological absolutism that has consumed the GOP's foreign policy rhetoric in recent years. It means recognizing that foreign policy has nonmilitary dimensions as well as military ones. And it means focusing on the threats and priorities that matter, rather than hyping every picayune concern. Most of all, it means that Republican politicians need to start caring about foreign policy because it is important, not because it is a cheap way to rally their supporters. The GOP has a venerated tradition of foreign policy competence; it is long past time to discover that tradition anew.