Magazine article Foreign Affairs

Rebooting Republican Foreign Policy: Needed: Less Fox, More Foxes

Magazine article Foreign Affairs

Rebooting Republican Foreign Policy: Needed: Less Fox, More Foxes

Article excerpt

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 leftbehind 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. …

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