A More Important GOP Foreign Policy Debate

August 6, 2013

A week and a half ago, during a forum sponsored by the Aspen Institute, New Jersey Governor and prospective 2016 Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie called libertarian GOP Senator Rand Paul’s views on national security “very dangerous.”  Immediately, the political chattering classes set themselves to the task of dissecting the suddenly evident foreign policy schism within the party that, according to various analyses, either represents a healthy and much-needed debate or portends a contentious 2016 showdown that could threaten to divide the GOP.

Both arguments are right about one thing: Christie and Paul now represent the nuclei around which two camps within the Republican Party appear to be gathering.  The emerging rupture separates interventionists from isolationists, hawks from doves, pro-defense traditionalists from libertarians.  With respect to foreign policy and national security, the GOP is a house divided, or so the commentary goes.

Ross Douthat of the New York Times recently wrote an interesting post about the schism.  His take straddled the two dominant views, arguing that the debate is a “sign of intellectual health” but could also “open a real cleavage” within the party and among its supporters.  His principal argument, however, was that the split presents an opportunity for foreign policy realists to recapture the influence they once held in the GOP.

Douthat makes a compelling case, albeit with one flaw.  His argument situates realism in the middle ground between isolationist doves and interventionist hawks: “with the eclipse of foreign-policy realism within the G.O.P. there’s a shortage of potential advisers and influencers who represent any kind of middle way between crusading interventionism and Paul-style libertarianism.”

Realism, however, is not merely a moderate alternative to the extremes of “isolationism” and “interventionism.”  These last two labels are caricatures of strategic views regarding how best to respond when challenges arise throughout the world.  Realism, by contrast, is a way of thinking – a lens through which to conceptualise the world that offers a means of understanding those challenges.  Placing the three on a single linear spectrum is actually even more problematic than comparing apples and oranges.  If isolationism and interventionism are both apples, realism isn’t an orange.  It is the means by which one determines if one is hungry.

To be sure, there are means by which realists can be distinguished from isolationists or interventionists.  The pragmatism inherent in realist interpretations of the world contrasts starkly with the dogmatism that isolationists and interventionists are perpetually at risk of exhibiting.  But ultimately, the distinction between interventionists and isolationists (or hawks and doves) is a different one than that between realists and those from competing perspectives.  The former distinction might be useful in characterizing a political dispute that is certain to feature prominently between now and the 2016 presidential election.  But the latter is more helpful in forecasting how prospective candidates will approach specific policy challenges to national interests if elected.

When a journalist once asked former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan what was most likely to divert governments from their intended course, he famously quipped, “events, dear boy, events.”  His witticism remains instructive decades later.  A change in global or domestic circumstances can leave even the most interventionist- or isolationist-minded leader singing a different tune.  But such a change in circumstances is less likely to significantly alter the prism through which each leader views the world.  This is the debate that Republicans need to have (although they aren’t the only ones: Democrats would similarly benefit from such a debate).

”Interventionists,” “isolationists,” “hawks,” and “doves” – these terms themselves represent an overly simplifying lexicon that exaggerates the binary nature of intra-party differences on important issues.  But more importantly, they encourage a superficial dialog that doesn’t require candidates to offer their definitions of national interests and explore issues like the extent and limits of American power.  Only that deeper debate will reveal whether there is space for realists to once again find a home in the Republican Party.


John Amble is the Managing Editor of War on the Rocks.  Follow him on twitter at @johnamble.


Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore