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Foreign Policy

Soren Dayton: When it comes to foreign policy, Republicans will focus on defending America’s economic interests

Soren Dayton is the Executive Director of the Young Republican National Federation and a Senior Vice President at Prism Public Affairs, a Washington-based strategic communications firm. He previously worked on the John McCain campaign and was a foreign policy advisor to a Member of Congress. Follow Soren on Twitter.

March 20th, 2013 marked the ten year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Ross Douthat, the younger of the two conservative columnists at the New York Times, opined that the war was “responsible for liberalism’s current political and cultural ascendance.” Democrats would not be in a position to enact new government policies, from gay marriage to higher taxes, without the political victories stemming in the perceived failure of Republican foreign policy.

So, ten years on, where is Republican foreign policy going?

Consider the environment Republicans now face: President Obama has implemented substantial politicised portions of President Bush’s foreign policy. He withdrew from Iraq on a schedule negotiated by Bush, he failed to implement a campaign promise to shut down Guantanamo, and he has taken the drone programme to places that no Republican administration could have gone, with nary a peep from civil libertarians on the Left.

Then there’s trade. The major economies of the world except the so-called BRICS countries are about to enter into a liberalised trade order centered geographically and politically in the US, thanks to progress in the EU-US trade negotiations, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes the major economies of the Pacific basin except South Korea and China. (South Korea is expected to join any day.) The very end of Obama’s term or at the beginning of the next term, regardless of the party in power, will see the agreements finished.

In many ways, the US is building a global trading system based on our rules – and our energy. In 2012, the US produced more than 60% of its own oil domestically, a number that increases every year, while our consumption falls. Meanwhile refined and petroleum products were our #1 and #2 exports. Domestic production of natural gas has become a major enterprise as well, leading European countries like Germany (which refuse to frack or use nuclear) to choose between US coal or US natural gas. Just this week, the UK energy company Centrica signed a 20-year contract for US natural gas.

In all likelihood, Republican foreign policy will be driven by the necessity to defend this new trade pattern and the shifting interests that this entails. Whoever ends up buying energy from the Middle East may have to be more invested in its stability, a task that has been a primary U.S. focus since World War II. Another is that Russia may not have the leverage over eastern and central Europe that it has exercised in recent years.

The debates over foreign policy in the Republican party will take place in this context. Historically, these have featured internationalists who focus on trade versus heartland conservatives who have been more resistant to “entangling alliances”. The Cold War, followed by September 11th, created a conservative alternative to both alternatives, although the political and intellectual strength of this movement will be in a time of fiscal tightening and a war-weary electorate in both general elections and Republican primaries.

These fights have been presented in recent years as a battle between isolationists and interventionists. For example, in Tony Blair’s 2003 speech to a joint session of Congress, he said:

“And I know it's hard on America, and in some small corner of this vast country, out in Nevada or Idaho or these places I've never been to, but always wanted to go...

I know out there there's a guy getting on with his life, perfectly happily, minding his own business, saying to you, the political leaders of this country, ‘Why me? And why us? And why America?’”

Nevada and Idaho are part of the geographical donor base of Ron Paul, the Presidential candidate who is credited with reinvigorating the isolationist wing of the party.

But there is another line of thinking that combines the logic of the “neo-con” thinking of the Bush-era with traditional internationalists. Max Boot’s excellent book, The Savage Wars Of Peace: Small Wars And The Rise Of American Power, published two months after the invasion of Iraq, notes that the US has forever been engaged in international adventurism tied to our economic interests. As early as 1801, the US landed marines in Libya as part of our first declared war, the First Barbary War, which was against non-state actors. And the U.S. continually occupied ports on the Yangtze River from the Opium Wars to the Japanese invasion of China, almost 100 years.

However, the Republican proposition of the last 10 years has reached beyond that with questionable results and high cost in both blood and treasure. The recent history of Republican politics suggests that time is over. The “Tea Party” surge has led to an increased focus on cutting spending and, yes, sharpening the focus of the Republican foreign policy and its costs. Nowhere is that clearer than in the recent “sequester” debate.

The “sequester” cut 7% from the US defense budget and 5% from diplomatic and foreign aid budgets. During the preceding debate, the consensus was clear: Cutting spending, even on defense, was more important than raising taxes. This wasn’t merely a consequence of gridlock and a lack of political will. The intellectual ground in the GOP had shifted.

In other words, the DNA of American foreign policy has always included defending economic and security interests. The days of guns and butter may well be behind us. But, undoubtedly, the US will go out of its way to defend the butter business, wherever our customers may be found.


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