Diplomats, Demagogues and Innocents Abroad
by Tristan Abbey
Conservatives should resist pressure from within to retreat from world affairs and embrace their diplomatic heritage.
Conservatives typically reserve a special place on the mantle for tradition. It’s striking, then, that many today would so blithely discard the long-cherished legacy of Republican leadership on questions of foreign affairs. While there has always been a quasi-isolationist wing of the movement, it has surged during the Obama administration with renewed vigor, joining forces with a long-standing, hawkish skepticism of diplomacy’s ability to solve real world problems. Together, the two strains of thought wield considerably more influence over the conservative center now than at any point in at least the past decade.
One of the more prominent examples of this trend was the 2010 debate surrounding New START, the latest nuclear arms control treaty with Russia. Despite the support of former cabinet secretaries from every Republican administration since Richard Nixon and the chiefs of all the armed services, the treaty faced enormous opposition from a majority of Republican senators. New START essentially continues an arms control process begun with the Russians during the Cold War, limiting the number of nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles to certain levels. A key feature of the treaty, in fact, was the updating and enhancement of the so-called “verification regime,” which includes numerous on-site inspections. Some conservatives questioned the efficacy of the verification procedures, derided the Obama administration’s claim that ratification would help relations with Russia, and warned of potential limits to missile defense. It passed in a vote of 71–26, a relatively narrow margin for arms control treaties, which typically pass with tremendous bipartisan support. By comparison, the George W. Bush administration’s Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty with Russia in 2002 passed the Senate in a vote of 95–0. That was a different political climate, to be sure, but SORT was criticized for lacking verification mechanisms altogether and passed unanimously anyway.
It’s not just arms control that inspires such skepticism. Libertarians like the Cato Institute’s Ted Galen Carpenter have argued that the United States should withdraw from NATO. On the occasion of NATO’s 60th anniversary he wrote: “[NATO] has become a hollow shell—far more a political honor society than a meaningful security organization. . . . Until the United States changes the incentives by withdrawing its troops from Europe and phasing out its NATO commitment, the Europeans will happily continue to evade their responsibilities. . . . It is time to terminate this increasingly dysfunctional alliance.” This argument has been resurgent this year, trumpeted by Ron Paul in his presidential campaign and raised in debates about the debt crisis and the Obama Administration’s intervention in Libya.
Libya has indeed been a flashpoint, not just on the libertarian fringe but on Capitol Hill: Much of the Tea Party caucus voted to cut off funding for the war in Libya. A reasonable case against American intervention was certainly made by an array of foreign policy realists and others, but this is a questionable political tactic. After all, conservatives lambasted Democrats during the Iraq War for playing politics with funding of ongoing military operations. Earlier this year, the Republican Study Committee called for defunding the U.S. Agency for International Development. Conservatives undoubtedly have fair and trenchant criticisms about the efficacy of foreign aid, and many offer valuable reform ideas to reverse the worst of its follies. But even William Easterly, one of the most vociferous critics of the development establishment, hasn’t called for gutting the agency, which is incidentally playing key roles in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Conservatives opposed talks with elements of the Taliban, even though General David Petraeus supported these diplomatic efforts. Some representatives have sought to prioritize cuts to the State Department, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Organization of American States, and other programs.
This is not simply an abdication of U.S. leadership on the world stage, motivated by fiscal austerity; it is a rejection of the utility of diplomacy writ large. The anti-interventionist and anti-internationalist tendencies of certain elements of the conservative movement have always been there, but were checked aggressively by the Bush administration, particularly after September 11. With the combination of a new president and the winding down of the wars overseas, these voices are now liberated to say that President Obama’s world travels are a waste of fuel, foreign aid is a waste of money, international organizations are a waste of space, and engagement is a waste of time.
This doesn’t sound like Ronald Reagan. In his second State of the Union Address, he spoke of America’s “vital foreign assistance program,” and in his 1985 State of the Union Address, Reagan warned: “We cannot play innocents abroad in a world that’s not innocent; nor can we be passive when freedom is under siege. Without resources, diplomacy cannot succeed.” Foreign aid increased dramatically during his first term, rising from just under $21 billion in 1980 to $29 billion in 1985 (in 2004 dollars). Much of this amount was security assistance to countries like Egypt and Israel, but “hearts and minds” efforts continued throughout the Third World. Moreover, Reagan attended summit meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev five times and signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987, eliminating thousands of both American and Soviet missiles.
Reagan was no aberration. Since the end of World War II, Republican diplomats have emerged as venerable statesmen on repeated occasions, guiding the nation’s conduct of foreign affairs in daring, imaginative and fruitful ways. Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon made the historic opening to China. James Baker crafted one of the most powerful military coalitions in history, leading to Saddam Hussein’s expulsion from Kuwait in 1991. George H.W. Bush steered the United States through the dissolution of the Soviet Union without conflict. Colin Powell championed unprecedented increases in aid programs to Africa, specifically with respect to the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which has saved more than three million lives. Senator Richard Lugar, while not strictly a diplomat, remains one of the most influential voices on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. He spearheads the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which seeks to secure “loose nukes” and other weapons, related infrastructure, and scientists with the expertise to build them.
Conservatives today who appeal to the Founding Fathers rather than modern Republicans won’t find much support in that historical tradition, either. For a variety of reasons, related to both defense and economics, the first generation of American statesmen concerned themselves almost primarily with foreign affairs. They negotiated dozens of treaties with Native Americans alone, to say nothing of those signed with the British, Dutch, French, Swedes, Moroccans, Prussians, Russians and Spanish. As a commercial republic, these agreements tended to focus on commerce, navigation and territorial rights. The best and brightest were dispatched as emissaries to represent the United States overseas: John Jay to Madrid, Benjamin Franklin to Paris, and John Adams to London, to name a few. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Martin van Buren all served as Secretary of State prior to assuming the presidency. John Marshall held that post before he became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, as did Edmund Randolph, prior to his appointment as the first Attorney General. For the first fifty years after constitutional ratification, diplomatic experience was often a virtual prerequisite for political success.
The point isn’t that there is no wasteful spending to be found in the various programs that constitute America’s engagement with the world. There are, surely, millions of dollars that can be saved. As a portion of the federal budget, however, engagement is miniscule, and mathematically simply isn’t the cause of our fiscal woes. There are also “conservative” approaches to many of these issues that have proven innovative. The Proliferation Security Initiative, for instance, comprises nearly 100 nations working to interdict weapons of mass destruction trafficking, and on the foreign aid front, the Bush administration created a new agency called the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a results-based program which ties developmental assistance to good governance. We should be proud of the Republican legacy in foreign affairs, mindful of the wisdom and example of the Founders, and wary of shrinking our global posture without due consideration. Diplomacy, after all, is cheap, and as conservatives it is in our bones.
Tristan Abbey is senior editor of Bellum: A Project of The Stanford Review.