It is the healthy habit of partisans on the losing side of a U.S. presidential election to spend some time reflecting on the reasons for their defeat. And it is the grating habit of partisans on the winning side to tell the losers how they might have done better. Most of their advice is self-serving, none of it is solicited, and little of it is ever heeded. Yet still people pile on.

So it has been following Mitt Romney's defeat by President Barack Obama in last November's election. On domestic policy, pundits have instructed Republicans to moderate their positions on social issues and overcome their traditional opposition to higher taxes. On foreign policy, they are telling them to abandon their alleged preference for military solutions over diplomatic ones, as well as their reflexive hostility to multilateral institutions, their Cold War mentality toward Russia, their "denialism" on climate change, their excessive deference to right-wing Israelis, and so on. Much of this advice is based on caricature, and the likelihood of any of it having the slightest impact on the GOP's leadership or rank and file is minimal: the United States does not have a competitive two-party system so that one party can define for the other the terms of reasonable disagreement.

Put aside, then, fantasies about saving the GOP from itself or restoring the statesmanlike ways of George H. W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, or Dwight Eisenhower (all of whom were derided as foreign policy dunces or extremists when they held office). Instead, take note of the more consequential foreign policy debate now taking shape within the heart of the conservative movement itself. This is the debate between small-government and big-military conservatives. Until recently, the two camps had few problems traveling together. Yet faced with the concrete political choices raised by last year's budget sequester—which made large cuts in nondefense discretionary spending contingent on equally large cuts in the Pentagon's budget—the coalition has begun to show signs of strain.

On the one side, Republican leaders such as Senator John McCain of Arizona have effectively conceded that higher tax rates are a price worth paying to avoid further defense cuts. On the other, one finds politicians such as Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia, who, when asked in 2010 about what government programs should get cut, said, "There's not a government program that shouldn't be under scrutiny, and that begins with the Department of Defense." However one may feel about these differences, it is important to understand each side as it understands itself. Then, perhaps, it might be possible to see how the differences can be bridged.


For big-military conservatives, a supremely powerful U.S. military isn't just vital to the national interest; it defines what the United States is. Part of this stance might owe to circumstantial factors, such as a politician's military background or large military constituency. But it is also based on an understanding of the United States as a liberator—a country that won its own freedom and then, through the possession and application of overwhelming military might, won and defended the freedom of others, from Checkpoint Charlie to the demilitarized zone on the Korean Peninsula.

This is a heroic view of the United States' purpose in the world—and an expensive one. It implies that if freedom isn't being actively advanced in the world, it risks wobbling to a standstill and even falling down, like a rider peddling a bicycle too slowly. It is also a view that is not unfriendly to at least some parts of a big-government agenda and certainly not to the de facto industrial policy that is the Pentagon's procurement system.

On the other side are those conservatives who, while not deprecating the United States' historic role as a liberator, mainly cherish its domestic tradition of liberty—above all, liberty from the burdens of excessive federal debt, taxation, regulation, and intrusion. These Republicans are by no means hostile to the military, and most believe it constitutes one of the few truly legitimate functions of government. Still, they tend to view the Pentagon as another overgrown and wasteful government bureaucracy. Some have also drawn the lesson from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that well-meaning attempts to reengineer foreign societies will succumb to the law of unintended consequences just as frequently as well-meaning attempts to use government to improve American society do. Far from being a heroic view of the United States' role, theirs is a more prudential, and perhaps more parochial, one. It also contains a sneaking sympathy for Obama's refrain that the United States needs to do less nation building abroad and more at home, even if these conservatives differ sharply with the president on the matter of means.

The differences between these two groups are ones that most Republicans would gladly paper over for the party's long-term political good. Republicans fear that Obama's ultimate political ambition is to break the back of the modern GOP, and the defense budget is the ultimate wedge issue to do the job. Republican leaders understand this and will do what they can to hold their party together. Small-government conservatives don't want to turn the Republican Party into a rump faction, capable of winning elections at the congressional or state level but locked out of the presidency. And big-military conservatives aren't eager to become an appendage of big-government liberalism, in the way that Blue Dog Democrats were instruments of the Reagan agenda in the 1980s.

Yet the philosophical differences between the two camps run deep—and may soon run deeper. Ask a big-military conservative to name the gravest long-term threat to U.S. security, and his likely answer will be Iran, or perhaps China. These countries are classic strategic adversaries, for which military calculations inevitably play a large role. By contrast, ask a small-government conservative to name the chief threat, and he will probably say Europe, which has now become a byword among conservatives for everything they fear may yet beset the United States: too much unionization, low employment rates, permanently high taxes, politically entrenched beneficiaries of state largess, ever-rising public debts, and so on.

In the ideal conservative universe, avoiding a European destiny and facing up to the threat of Iran and other states would not be an either-or proposition. As most conservatives see it, supply-side tax cuts spur economic growth, reduce the overall burden of debt, increase federal tax revenues, and thus fund defense budgets adequate for the United States' global strategic requirements. This policy prescription may look like a fantasy, but it has worked before. "Our true choice is not between tax reduction, on the one hand, and the avoidance of large federal deficits on the other. It is increasingly clear that no matter what party is in power, so long as our national security needs keep rising, an economy hampered by restrictive tax rates will never produce enough revenues to balance our budget—just as it will never produce enough jobs or enough profits." That was President John F. Kennedy speaking to the Economic Club of New York in 1962. Following the Kennedy tax cut (enacted in 1964), federal tax receipts roughly doubled over six years and military spending rose by some 25 percent, yet defense spending as a share of GDP rose only modestly and never went above ten percent.

Kennedy's words could have just as easily been spoken by Reagan. The problem for conservatives, however, is that neither Kennedy nor Reagan is president today. In the world as it is, Obama has been handily reelected, Democrats maintain control of the Senate, tax rates are going up on higher incomes, and the Supreme Court has turned back the central legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act. What Republicans might be able to achieve politically remains to be seen, although it will be limited. But it is not too soon for the party to start thinking about how it might resolve some of its internal policy tensions, including on foreign policy.


Henry Kissinger once observed that U.S. foreign policy in the twentieth century was characterized by "disastrous oscillations between overcommitment and isolation." The oscillation was especially pronounced for Republicans in the first half of the century—from President Theodore Roosevelt's Great White Fleet of 1907-9 to Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes' Washington Naval Treaty in 1922 and from Senator Robert Taft's isolationism before World War II to Senator Arthur Vandenberg's 1945 conversion to internationalism—although the internal differences became much less pronounced in the second half. Now that the pendulum appears to be swinging again, Republicans have an interest in seeing that it doesn't do so wildly.

How to do that? Every type of persuasion—moral, political, policy—carries with it the temptation of extremes. Contrary to the stereotype, big-military conservatives (along with neoconservatives) do not want to bomb every troublesome country into submission, or rebuild the U.S. armed forces to their 1960s proportions, or resume the Cold War with Russia. Nor is the problem that big-military conservatives somehow fail to appreciate the limits of American power. Of course they appreciate the limits—but they also understand that the United States is nowhere near reaching them. Even at the height of the Iraq war, U.S. military spending constituted a smaller percentage of GDP (5.1 percent in 2008) than it did during the final full year of the Carter administration (six percent in 1980). The real limits of American power haven't been seriously tested since World War II.

Instead, the problem with big-military conservatives is that they fail to appreciate the limits of American will—of Washington's capacity to generate broad political support for military endeavors that since 9/11 have proved not only bloody and costly but also exceedingly lengthy. Taking a heroic view of America's purpose, these conservatives are tempted by a heroic view of the American public, emphasizing its willingness to pay any price and bear any burden. Yet there is a wide gap between what the United States can achieve abroad, given unlimited political support, and what Americans want to achieve, as determined by the ebb and flow of the political tides in a democracy innately reluctant to wage war. 

Small-government conservatives have their own temptations when it comes to foreign policy. At the far extreme, there is the insipid libertarianism of Ron Paul, the former Texas representative, who has claimed that Marine detachments guarding U.S. embassies count as examples of military overstretch. Paul showed remarkable strength in the last GOP presidential primary and has, in his son Rand Paul, the junior senator from Kentucky, a politically potent heir.

Most small-government conservatives aren't about to jump off the libertarian cliff: they may want to reduce the United States' footprint in the world, at least for the time being, but they don't want to erase it completely. Yet the purism that tends to drive the small-government view of the world also has a way of obscuring its vision. "If we don't take defense spending seriously, it undermines our credibility on other spending issues," Mick Mulvaney, the conservative South Carolina congressman, told Politico in December. 

The heart of the United States' spending issue, however, has increasingly little to do with the defense budget (which constituted 19 percent of overall federal outlays in 2012, down from 49 percent in 1962) and increasingly more to do with entitlement programs (62 percent in 2012, up from 31 percent half a century ago). Just as the Obama administration cannot hope to erase the federal deficit by raising taxes on the rich but wants to do so anyway out of a notion of social justice, small-government conservatives cannot hope to contain runaway spending through large cuts to the defense budget. But ideological blinders get in the way.

More broadly, small-government conservatives are too often tempted to treat small government as an end in itself, not as a means to achieve greater opportunity and freedom. They make a fetish of thrift at the expense of prosperity. They fancy that a retreat from the United States' global commitments could save lives without storing trouble. The record of the twentieth century tells a different story. Republicans should not wish to again become the party of such isolationists as Taft and Charles Lindbergh.


Fortunately, there is a happy medium. It's not what goes today under the name "realism"—a term of considerable self-flattery and negligible popular appeal. Republicans, in particular, will never stand for any kind of foreign policy that lacks a clear moral anchor. And Americans would not take well to a would-be Richelieu at the State Department. As it is, the GOP does not need a total makeover; what it needs is a refurbished modus vivendi between small-government and big-military conservatives, two sides that need not become antagonists and have valuable things to teach each other. 

Small-government conservatives, for their part, can teach their big-military friends that the Pentagon doesn't need more money. What it needs desperately is a functional procurement system. The costs of U.S. jet fighters, for example, have skyrocketed: the F-4 Phantom, introduced in 1960, cost $16 million (in inflation-adjusted 2010 dollars) per plane, excluding research and development, whereas the equivalent figure for the F-35 Lightning II, in development now, is $120 million. The result is an underequipped air force that invests billions of dollars for the research-and-development costs of planes, such as the B-2 bomber and the F-22 fighter, that it can afford to procure only in inadequate numbers. The result is not just the ordinary waste, fraud, and abuse of any bureaucracy but also deep and lasting damage to the country's ability to project power and wage war.

Another lesson small-government conservatives have to offer is that nobody hates a benefactor as much as his beneficiary. From Somalia to Afghanistan, conservatives should look far more skeptically at military ventures in which the anticipated payoff is gratitude. Americans should go to war for the sake of their security, interests, and values. But they should never enter a popularity contest they are destined to lose.

Small-government conservatives also realize that Americans will stomach long wars only when national survival is clearly at stake. Since modern counterinsurgency is time-intensive by nature, the public should look askance at future counterinsurgency operations. Although he later disavowed his own words, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates was largely right when he told West Point cadets in 2011 that "any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined,' as General MacArthur so delicately put it." That's not because the wars are unwinnable from a military standpoint. It's because they are unfinishable from a political one.

Finally, those in the small-government camp understand that unlike authoritarian states, democratic ones will not indefinitely sustain large militaries in the face of prolonged economic stagnation or contraction. Except in moments of supreme emergency, when it comes to a choice, butter always beats guns. Big-military conservatives, therefore, cannot stay indifferent to issues of long-term economic competitiveness and the things that sustain it, not least of which is a government that facilitates wealth creation at home, promotes free trade globally, is fundamentally friendly to immigrants, and seeks to live within its means.

Then there are the things big-military conservatives can teach their small-government friends. First, they should make clear that a robust military is a net economic asset to the United States. A peaceful, trading, and increasingly free and prosperous world has been sustained for over six decades thanks in large part to a U.S. military with the power to make good on U.S. guarantees and deter real (or would-be) aggressors. And although the small-government purist might dismiss as corporate welfare the jobs, skills, and technology base that the so-called military-industrial complex supports, there are some industries that no great power can allow to wither or move offshore.

Big-military conservatives also correctly argue that a substantially weaker U.S. military will ultimately incur its own long-term economic costs. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was right when he said that "weakness is provocative." China's ambition to establish what amounts to a modern-day Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere may ultimately succeed unless places such as Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines can be reasonably sure that the United States will serve as a regional military counterweight to China's growing navy. Much the same may go for Iran's efforts to become the Middle East's dominant player, especially if its neighbors—not just Afghanistan and Iraq but also small states such as Bahrain and Kuwait—ose their remaining faith in U.S. security guarantees. That would go double should Iran acquire a nuclear weapons capability.

As big-military conservatives also know, shrinking the defense budget is a costly short-term solution to a difficult long-term problem. Small-government conservatives imagine that the United States can stomach steep temporary defense cuts to help bring deficits into line. But as European countries have belatedly discovered, without structural reforms, the overspending problem remains even after defense budgets have been slashed. The result is a continent that is nearly bankrupt and nearly defenseless at the same time.

Finally, small-government conservatives need to remember that there is no reliable guarantor of global order besides the United States. When the United Kingdom realized in 1947 that it could no longer afford to honor its security commitments to Greece and Turkey, it could at least look westward to the United States, which was prepared to shoulder those responsibilities. But when the United States looks westward, it sees only China. President Abraham Lincoln's "last, best hope" remains what it always was—perhaps more so, given the deep economic disarray in other corners of the developed world.

These observations ought to remind Republicans about the necessity of preponderant U.S. power. But they also ought to remind them that U.S. power will be squandered when it isn't used decisively, something that in turn requires great discrimination given Americans' reluctance to support protracted military actions. Ultimately, there are few things so damaging to countries as large and wasted efforts.


In retooling its foreign policy, the Republican Party should heed lessons from both types of conservatives. What does this mean in practice? Consider China, where an atavistic nationalism, emboldened by an increasingly modern military, threatens to overtake the rational economic decision-making that largely characterized the tenures of Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. U.S. policymakers need to restrain the former and encourage the latter.

But labeling Beijing a "currency manipulator" and raising trade barriers against it, as Romney proposed to do from day one of his administration, will have the opposite effect. Modern China is often compared with Wilhelmine Germany because of its regional ambitions, and in many ways the comparison is apt. But for now, China remains more of a competitor than an outright adversary, and one that is increasingly aware of its political brittleness and economic vulnerability. 

That status means that the United States can create a policy that is a genuine synthesis between small-government and big-military conservatism. Big-military conservatives are right to worry about China's growing military adventurism and right to advocate a larger overall U.S. naval presence in the region and arms sales to skittish allies such as Taiwan. But that is only one side of the coin. The other is the opportunity to demonstrate to Beijing that an adversarial relationship is not inevitable: that the United States will desist from constantly thwarting efforts by Chinese companies to expand overseas and that Washington is interested in deepening economic cooperation with China, not fighting endless trade skirmishes. The United States should want China to become an economic colossus—so long as it doesn't also become a regional bully. That differs from the Obama administration's policy, which has been mostly a muddle: a military "pivot" that so far has been more rhetorical than substantive, as well as a pattern of engaging in unhelpful, albeit relatively minor, trade skirmishes with Beijing. 

Now take Iran, where the Obama administration has combined two feckless policy options—diplomacy and sanctions—to produce the most undesirable outcome possible: diminished U.S. regional credibility, a greater likelihood of U.S. or Israeli military action, and an Iran that has more incentive to accelerate its nuclear program than to stop it. Along with most left-leaning liberals, many small-government conservatives instinctively look askance at the thought of military action against Iran. More broadly, they would like to reduce U.S. involvement in the Middle East as much as possible, something the discovery of vast domestic U.S. energy reserves has made conceivable for the first time in decades.

Yet the surest way to embroil the United States in intractable Middle Eastern problems for another generation is to acquiesce to an Iranian nuclear capability. Among the many reasons why it's a bad idea to try to contain a nuclear Iran is that containment entails two things most Americans don't like: long-term effort and high cost. The United States has a strong stake in a Middle East that is no longer the focus of its security concerns. But getting there depends on reducing the region's centrality as a source of both energy and terrorism. A nuclear Iran would make that goal far less achievable, which means that a credible policy of prevention is essential. Obama also claims to believe in prevention, but the administration's mixed messages on the viability of military strikes have undercut its credibility. 

Finally, there is the Arab Spring, which seemed at its outset to be a vindication of President George W. Bush's "freedom agenda" but has, after two years, come to seem more like a rebuke of it. The results of elections in Gaza, Tunis, Rabat, and Cairo are powerful reminders that the words "liberal" and "democracy" don't always travel together, that the essence of freedom is the right to choose political and social options radically different from the standard American ones. In this sense, small-government conservatives, with their innate suspicion of any grand Washington project to reengineer the moral priorities of a society, are being proved right.

But like it or not, the United States will still have to deal with the consequences of the upheavals in the Middle East. It would be a fool's gambit for Washington to attempt, for example, to steer political outcomes in Cairo or once again roll the boulder up the hill of an Arab-Israeli peace settlement. At the same time, the United States maintains a powerful interest in making sure certain things do not happen. Among them: chemical munitions getting loose in Syria, the abrupt collapse of the Hashemite dynasty in Jordan, a direct confrontation between Israel and Egypt over the Sinai, and (further afield) the Taliban's return to Kabul. 

Preventing those outcomes means taking on the negative task of keeping nightmare scenarios at bay, not the positive one of realizing a more progressive and tolerant world. Yet if conservatives of any stripe can agree on anything, it's that utopianism has no place in policymaking. And when it comes to foreign policy, the American people will ultimately reward not the party with the most ambitious vision but the party with the most sober and realistic one.

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  • BRET STEPHENS is Deputy Editorial Page Editor and Foreign Affairs Columnist at The Wall Street Journal.
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