GOP Presidential Hopefuls are Ignoring the Most Serious Foreign Policy Questions of our Era


The GOP presidential primary is in full swing. The first debate provided a “clear leader” in Donald Trump, and now the candidates are onto Iowa to “kiss babies” and “eat pork chops” to prove their down-home credentials with the state’s voters. But voters interested in national security and foreign policy — which, according to a GOP-conducted poll, is what Republicans care about most (more so than economic growth, fiscal responsibility, and “moral issues”) — are surely disappointed with the race. So far, the rhetoric has followed a red-meat blueprint that a New York Times editorial rightly noted boils down to “talk tough, make demands, send more troops overseas, pour billions more dollars into the Pentagon, and the world will fall in line.”

This wishful thinking permeates most GOP discussions of how to combat the Islamic State, what to do about Iran and the nuclear deal, improving America’s strategy in the Middle East, and defining a new U.S. grand strategy. While no one expects polished, detailed foreign policy agendas so early in the race, the world’s state of flux demands intelligent conversations and clear-eyed visions about how to deal with today’s threats and America’s role in the world going forward. Instead of analyzing ad nauseam what has already been said, it is important to outline what the Republican candidates have not yet addressed in detail, but should.

Russia. It was not long ago that the Republican presidential nominee in the last election, Mitt Romney, said Russia was America’s “number one geopolitical foe.” His comment came two years before Russia invaded Ukraine. It would seem logical for the Republicans to discuss how the GOP made the right call on Russia’s aggression and articulate plans to ensure that America assures its allies and deters Moscow. Yet no candidate was even able to answer a hypothetical question during the first GOP primary debate about Russia’s starting a more serious campaign to destabilize the Baltics. Instead, some skirted by the question, decrying General Suleimani’s visit to Moscow as evidence of improving Russian and Iranian relations. This might be an important development, but Republican candidates missed an opportunity to delve into a serious debate about Russian intentions:

  • How could America deter Russia without being seen by Western European allies as provoking Russia, thereby risking unity with its allies?
  • How will the United States prepare to deal with future examples of hybrid warfare?
  • Does Russia’s annexation of Crimea fundamentally change the post-World War II order?
  • How can the United States, along with its allies and partners, further integrate Eastern European countries into NATO, the European Union, or both? Should America work to get them into these organizations or form special partnerships with them? Or, are those aims not worth pursuing?
  • Should America work to integrate Russia back into the community of nations, or duke out another Cold War? Or has the new Cold War already started?

China. The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart asked a great question: “where are the China hawks?” As Beinart observed, GOP candidates more often speak about the dangers of working with Iran or the threat of “radical Islam,” devoting a lot less time to China, the world’s number two power. (Donald Trump is probably the candidate who has spoken of China the most as of late. He is fond of saying that we [America] “lose” to China, along with Mexico and “everybody.”) This is odd, as the nature of the Sino–American relationship will likely set the course for the second half of this century and beyond. Substantive debate within the GOP on this issue is needed, and soon, as China is starting to overtake the United States in global economic importance, although not yet dominance. Ruchir Sharma, Head of Emerging Markets at Goldman Sachs, claims:

[T]his decade China has accounted for a third of the expansion in the global economy, compared with 17 percent from the United States … The contribution from the other giant economies — Europe’s and Japan’s — has fallen to less than 10 percent. So the key to global growth is now in Beijing’s hands [emphasis added].

Thus, despite the potential for a military “flare-up” with China, the country’s potential to dominate global economics (despite current news) should surely worry the next U.S. commander-in-chief.

For the candidates to be taken seriously on this topic, they should start answering some of the following queries:

  • What goals should America pursue vis-à-vis China? Should the United States seek to deter Beijing from challenging America militarily? Integrate China as a near-peer player in the liberal economic world order? Allow China to have Monroe Doctrine-like control over parts of the Pacific?
  • What should the United States be prepared to do to protect the sovereignty and security of its allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region?
  • After China created the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), in part due to the U.S. failure to give China more say in international economic institutions, how can America bring Beijing back into the fold? Should the United States try to entice its allies and partners that joined the AIIB to leave the organization, or accept this new reality? At the same time, how can the United States ensure the creation of these new economic institutions do not erode the power and the legitimacy of the Bretton Woods organizations?
  • Should the United States invest in more maritime capabilities to better police and navigate important sea lines of communications? How about more air capabilities?
  • How should America plan to counter China’s Anti-Access/Area-Denial strategy? How would the United States respond to a declaration of another Chinese air defense identification zone, this time over the South China Sea?
  • How can the United States deter China’s use of cyber-espionage and attacks while avoiding escalation to a potential greater conflict?

To be fair, some of the candidates, like Chris Christie, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio have touched on some of these questions, but they only either provided tough-but-vague rhetoric or gave precious few specifics on what they want the United States to be able to do. Strategy matters most in this debate.

America’s Role in the World. While it is surprising that our current and future geopolitical foes have rarely garnered attention, it is more surprising that we have yet to hear competing strategic visions for the country’s national security and foreign policies. Marco Rubio is one of the few who has laid out a doctrine, outlining the “three pillars” of his foreign policy — strength, the protection of America’s economy, and moral clarity. They sound good, but his strategy does not explain how America should actually behave on key issues. Rubio and the candidates should take a page out of Ronald Reagan’s playbook. During his candidacy, Reagan laid out a grand strategic vision of “peace through strength” that was not only clear and specific (albeit without a great sense of resources), but also put him in stark contrast with his rival, Jimmy Carter.

Chris Christie pitched a vision rhetorically similar to Reagan’s “strength” theme, but it was not as strong. In Christie’s view, America needs “stronger defense,” “stronger intelligence,” and “stronger alliances” to achieve its objectives, but there was no discussion about how the United States can do this in an austere budget environment. He was quite specific in his speech, but without a sense of funds, it was more a wish list than a realistic shopping list. Other candidates gave speeches in this vein — most importantly Jeb Bush — but it was solely focused on the Middle East, and was not received well.

So while all of the candidates’ remarks were diverse, they had one thing in common: They focused on the threats of today, not on those of tomorrow. According to the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030 report, the coming years will be tumultuous, and America needs to be ready. It will be important for the candidates to eventually offer their thoughts on:

  • How does the rise of empowered individuals and the diffusion of power across states and down to non-state actors change the nature of power and America’s hold on the global rules-based order it built after World War II?
  • How might disruptive technologies — such as robotics, algorithms, big data, new materials, biotechnologies, etc. — change the nature of security, warfare, and the economy? What can America do to ensure it has an advantage in these areas, and that potential competitors do not?
  • Should the United States be willing to accept more powerful non-state actors in the governance of the global system?
  • Can the United States, along with its allies and partners, provide the resources demanded by the coming global middle class while sustaining economic and environmental health?

These questions demand more than just saying “do more.” They pinpoint the challenges America will face over the coming years, which means they are issues that will certainly come across a candidate’s desk should she or he become president.

The foreign policy and national security issues America faces (and will face) require a substantive debate to provide the solutions the country needs. However, the GOP is not having that debate. Republican voters should demand more of their candidates, and ask for platforms that address short-, medium-, and long-term threats, risks, and opportunities. Sadly, the chances for a comprehensive discussion are minimal and will only increase slightly when the general election gets going. Yet our ability to effectively deal with Russia, China, and many of the global trends depends on our ability to have useful foreign policy and national security conversations.


Alex Ward is an Assistant Director of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security where he works on U.S. defense and military strategy and policy. He tweets at @AlexWardB.


Photo credit: Gage Skidmore