Averting the Coming Republican Foreign Policy Brain Drain

In November of 1979, Jeane Kirkpatrick published her famous piece, “Dictatorships and Double Standards.” The foreign policy essay’s argument — endorsing U.S. support for non-communist authoritarian regimes — was controversial, but what truly captured national attention was the author: President Carter’s foreign policy was being skewered not by a Republican, but by a life-long Democrat. Kirkpatrick would become a celebrated stalwart of Republican foreign policy and later became Ronald Reagan’s first ambassador to the United Nations.

Kirpatrick’s shift from liberal Democrat to card-carrying Republican was not an outlier moment. It exemplified a turning point in history, where liberal Democrats abandoned their party to become Republicans — most of them neoconservatives. Throughout the late 1970s, Democratic foreign policy intellectuals such as Paul Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams, and others formally aligned themselves with the Republican party. And notably, in 1982 a young fellow at Stanford University, Condoleezza Rice switched her party affiliation from Democrat to Republican after disillusionment from the Carter Administration’s foreign policy. One president’s foreign policy turned off a generation of experts, leaving Democrats with a stagnate security establishment for well over a decade.

A similar future awaits the Republican party, due to the political upheaval of today. The rise of Donald Trump has shaken the core of the Republican foreign policy establishment. Trump’s undisciplined foreign policy thinking has been apparent throughout the presidential campaign, sending worrisome signals internationally to long-standing allies. Trump’s positions have so disfranchised the Republican national security community, the threat of a permanent exodus of many of these professionals is very real.

A foreign policy novice, Trump has articulated positions that run counter to traditional Republican ideals. Throughout the presidential campaign, he has advocated a populist position on trade that is tantamount to protectionism. He has proposed nuclear proliferation, going so far as to suggest Japan and South Korea provide their own security as he folds up the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Trump has encouraged war crimes that include the bombing of terrorists’ families and the open use of waterboarding, the latter not just for enhanced interrogation but instead as acts of retribution. He has proposed banning Muslims from entering the United States in a way that is counterproductive in the fight against ISIL and threatens relationships with allies such as Jordan and Turkey. Trump has also questioned the utility of NATO and threatened to leave members of this decades old alliance out to dry if they don’t pay what he sees as their “fair share.” Overall, Trump has displayed a fundamental lack of understanding of the basic principles of international relations.

For these sins against established foreign policy principals, a slew of Republican foreign policy experts and intellectuals have disparaged the policies Trump espouses, some publicly proclaiming they will be voting for another candidate.

Statesmen such as Robert Gates, Brent Scowcroft, and Richard Armitage, have either questioned Trump’s temperament for office, or have gone so far as to publicly say they will vote for Hillary Clinton in the Fall. While their comments resonate within the Republican national security establishment, with an average age of 78, these men have already held senior positions within government and are in the sunset of their careers. More troubling to the Party should be the grave declarations of their Republicans who would, in a normal presidential administration, hold appointee positions throughout the ranks, from rising stars to senior figures still in their prime.

In an open letter published last March here at War on the Rocks, 121 self-proclaimed, “members of the Republican national security community,” declared their strong opposition to Trump’s candidacy. The scathing post stated Trump was “fundamentally dishonest,” and went so far as to label him a “racketeer,” for his insistence allies pay for their protection. Since the open letter, the disdain from the foreign policy community for Mr. Trump has only become louder. “The only thing Donald Trump has done since I signed that letter has been to confirm beyond the shadow of a doubt that he is unfit to be commander in chief,” proclaimed Tufts University professor Dan Drezner. George Mason University professor Colin Dueck told The Washington Examiner in May, “When I said ‘never Trump,’ I meant it.”

This week, in another open letter, 50 senior Republican national security officials including former CIA Director Michael Hayden, former Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, and former Secretaries of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and Tom Ridge described their conviction that a Trump, “would be the most reckless President in American history.”

Equally shocking has been the chorus of Republican security experts that have said that not only will they not vote for Trump but will instead openly support Hillary Clinton. It was reported in June that Kori Schake, a former George W. Bush administration official, will be voting for Clinton. Philip Levy, another Bush official said, “If Secretary Clinton is the only viable alternative, I would expect to support her.”

The assumption that after a humiliating defeat by Trump at the ballot box these intellectuals and practitioners will comfortably return to the Party is naïve at best. The fire that Trump set has grown into an inferno that overwhelms the security establishment. Like Jeane Kirkpatrick and the early neoconservatives, Republicans stand to lose a generation of intellectuals and practitioners skilled in global affairs. Given the massive loss of the best and brightest, the future portends a steep brain drain within Republican foreign policy establishment, for at least three reasons.

First, irrespective of which candidate wins in November, some of Trump’s positions have been baked into the party. For example, the Republican platform substantially watered down language that would have supported Ukraine with arms in its fight against Russia, which was strongly advocated for by the Republican foreign policy establishment (as well as by many Democrats out of government). Free-trade, a centerpiece of Republican policy, is now threatened by the populist divisions stoked by Trump. Also, note that the runner up during the Republican primary, was Sen. Ted Cruz, whose policies, if not isolationist, are at least isolation-ish and run counter to the activist Republican model that has been dominant for at least the last two decades. Indeed, there may be an irreparable divide between the Republican voter bloc and the party’s foreign policy intellectuals in a way that raises serious questions about whether there is a viable place for them anymore in the party, even if Trump is vanquished.

Second, unlike domestic policy, a position in the executive branch at some point in your career is generally required to be instrumental in foreign policy. For nearly eight years, Republicans have been sitting on the sidelines as opportunities to be policy engaged have slipped them by. Anyone hedging their bets can see a high likelihood that Republicans may not have control of foreign policy for 16 years or more. Congressional and think tank layover jobs may not be enough to tie over hungry policy experts that want some skin in the game. Nor would switching parties require a major sacrifice of core principles for many of the Republican Party’s foreign policy intellectuals, at least as far as their policy area of focus is concerned.

While Trump has challenged the fundamentals of what it means to be a Republican, for domestic policy experts, the Republican Party is still the only viable option. But the same cannot be said for their national security counterparts. Try to envision a trickle-down economist, or a pro-school choice activist, leaving the Republican Party and establishing a new base in the Democratic Party. Conversely, national security is a far more bipartisan proposition. Foreign policy thinkers in both parties generally agree that an aggressive Russia or a belligerent North Korea is bad for American interests. And on issues like the rise of China, nuclear posture and proliferation, and international trade, there is a great deal of consensus between the two parties’ foreign policy mandarins. Consequently, Republican foreign policy advisors very well may find the Democratic party to be a tolerable place for them to land.

Lastly, Hillary’s hawkish worldview is no secret. A Hillary Clinton administration will not, as some argue, be an extension of the Obama foreign policy that has so troubled many Republican and Democratic national security experts.

As secretary of state, Clinton recommended a plan to more aggressively arm the Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime, a policy that Obama was late to and has never fully embraced. Prior to departing the State Department, Clinton called for a much more assertive response towards Russian belligerence. When Vice President Joe Biden was toying with the possibility of jumping into the 2016 race, Clinton boasted her recommendation for a special forces operation to kill or capture Bin Laden in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, whereas Biden recommended the less risky choice of aerial bombing. Both Clinton and then U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice pressed Obama to use force against the Gaddafi regime in Libya to protect civilians. Republicans who favor a more assertive approach to national security, and critical of Obama’s approach, could find an accommodating home in a Hillary Clinton White House.

All of this of course assumes a Trump loss. However, if he were to win, it would be quite difficult for the anti-Trump policy experts to walk back the scathing comments they have made about him and join his administration. Former George W. Bush Pentagon official Michael Vickers properly described the conundrum, “[T]rump has so alienated Republican national security professionals that he will likely have great difficulty attracting top advisers to staff his administration were he to be elected.” Prominent Republican foreign policy expert and co-founder of Project for New American Security Robert Kagan described Trump as, “[S]imply and quite literally an egomaniac.” Max Boot, coincidentally the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, went so far as to say, “I would sooner vote for Josef Stalin than I would vote for Donald Trump.” The establishment has clearly burned the bridge behind them. An exodus of the best and brightest from the Republican foreign policy establishment is very real and potentially devastating.

While numerous Democrats should be cheering at the looming possible brain drain on the right, the misfortune of their competitors would not just be bad for the Republican Party. It would be bad for the entire country. A healthy opposition party allows for a more informed republic. As the United States navigates an uncertain and treacherous world, a diverse and thoughtful foreign policy establishment is vital to the security of the nation. No party should have a monopoly on national security.

While Republicans may feel dispirited by their current identity crisis, for the good of the nation, they must begin to correct this situation before November. Trump may or may not be present on the political scene after November, however, it is likely that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be. As the Congressional leaders of the Republican Party, it is incumbent for Ryan and McConnell to stop the hemorrhaging. Although it is being drowned out in the noise of this raucous campaign season, Ryan has developed a comprehensive national security plan that comports with a more conventional Republican security strategy. Establishing buy-in to Ryan’s proposal amongst the policy community should be a top priority.

There are two distinct policy positions within Ryan’s proposal that the Republican foreign policy establishment wholeheartedly embraces, but sets them apart from the Trump faction and Democrats. First, Ryan’s plan calls for arming Ukraine with lethal force against Russian insurgents, something the Trump campaign went so far as to have changed within the Republican Party platform. Second, is the vehement opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, which Clinton helped pave the way for and supports. Highlighting these unique policy differences, particularly the Iran deal, will be crucial to retaining a robust foreign policy establishment in the ranks of the Republican Party.

The rise of populism is generally a failure of elected officials to properly represent the interests of their constituents or to appropriately explain why particular agendas are needed. To fix the gap between the Republican voting bloc and the national security establishment, Republican leaders need to open up a national dialogue on the virtues of certain foreign policies. Ryan and McConnell should expand the national dialogue appropriately explain why they believe free trade is necessary, and what benefits the United States gains by participating in the international system. They are the bridge between the Republican base and intellectuals that support the party.

Finally, there is nothing more powerful than face time. Ryan and McConnell can make their 2017 a whole lot easier by privately convening the Never Trump foreign policy establishment before November to assure them their voice is needed, the ideology of the party is and will remain focused on a traditional Republican Party, and they will still have a home with Republicans irrespective of November’s outcome.

For the past year the Republican Party has been faced with the dilemma of Donald Trump and questioned its overall identity. Like how Jeane Kirkpatrick and the neoconservative intellectuals fled the Democratic party in the late 1970s, Republican’s today face a similar fate and brain drain that could last nearly a generation regardless of whether Trump becomes president. If Republican’s are to avoid this fate, sensible and urgent action is required from senior Republican leaders in Congress to assure their foreign policy establishment that the Republican party will continue to champion their ideas and remain a home for them.


Russell Wald is the Senior External Affairs Manager for National Security with Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Previously he was the Program Manager for National Security Affairs at Hoover. You can follow him on Twitter: @russellwald.

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