Can the Republican Party Return to Its Realist Roots?

Can the Republican Party Return to Its Realist Roots?
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When it comes to an approach to the outside world, the Republican Party would seem to be tearing itself apart. There are not one or two factions but several, all vying for a mandate from the party faithful. This is all happening while the Democrats appear more or less to be united -- if not always enthusiastic -- behind President Barack Obama's foreign policy, especially after the triumph of his interim deal with Iran.

In recent decades, the Republicans have usually been the more nationalist of the two major parties. Whereas Democratic foreign policy experts have been more at home among global elites, and more enthusiastic about pursuing altruistic humanitarian goals, Republican experts have been less comfortable at conferences abroad, and more concerned about the safety of the American homeland and its traditional allies than about trying to improve the lot of the rest of the world. As one might expect, defense budgets have usually fared better under Republican than Democratic presidents.

The problem for Republicans is that there are various kinds of nationalism. There is, for instance, the aggressive Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld brand of nationalism, in which you proactively seek out enemies and destroy them, with relatively little concern for what the outside world thinks. Especially in a post-9/11 world, you can't take chances! This is a nationalism in which high defense budgets are encouraged, even as humanitarianism is de-emphasized. It is not that such nationalists are necessarily hardhearted. Rather, it is that they genuinely feel the world overall will be a more humane place with preponderant American power.

To one side of these Republican nationalists are Republican isolationists. Now isolationists are nationalists, too. They also believe that the most important thing in the world is a safe and secure American homeland. It is just that they feel this can be better achieved by staying out of foreign wars and other such entanglements, particularly in the Eastern Hemisphere. In their minds, American human and material treasure is simply too precious to be wasted abroad. Tried-and-true isolationists are actually rare in the Republican Party: just because you are against this or that military intervention certainly does not make you an isolationist. Rather, there are isolationist-trending Republicans of varying degrees who seek to do the minimum abroad, while concentrating on protecting and improving the homeland. They seek a perfectionism within the American continent only, with some concern for contiguous parts of the Western Hemisphere as well. The world overseas will just have to fend for itself.

To the other side of Republican nationalists are Republican neoconservatives. They combine a militant nationalism with Wilsonianism. Wilsonianism, named after Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, seeks an activist role in the world in order to spread American values of democracy and human rights. Whereas isolationists see America as mainly an example to the rest of the world, neoconservatives seek to use America as a launching pad to forcibly spread that example to other shores. To those of an isolationist bent, the military is for defending the homeland against a direct and credible attack. To Republican neoconservatives (as well as to liberal interventionists in the Democratic Party), the military is there to put distant and troubled societies to rights. For America can only be secure when the rest of the world, too, enjoys freedom. When traditional Republican nationalists bonded with neoconservatives, the result in the early years of the 21st century was the Iraq War, which isolationist-trending Republicans, as well as many others in both parties, now view as a disaster.

This rift sometimes defines how history is seen. Take the media, for example. Markedly influenced by liberal and neoconservative elites, the media has been generally averse to isolationism in all its forms and degrees. Thus, the great early and mid-20th century Republican, Robert Taft -- who opposed involvement in World War II -- is often held out for ridicule. While Taft was clearly wrong to oppose America's entry into the war when he did, it is important to realize that Taft's very caution in international affairs remains a mainstay both within the Republican Party and within the American heartland.


Such competing visions of an approach to the outside world will not be solved by a vigorous debate per se, however much one might hope so. For in an Internet age, especially, the different sides talk mainly to themselves, not to each other. What tends to happen is not that each side objectively considers the views of the other, but that each side visits only the websites compatible with its own preconceived view. Robert W. Merry, a historian of the American continent and someone with decades of journalistic experience, wrote not long ago in The National Interest that because America has a presidential system, such disagreements can only hope to be settled by the selection of a presidential candidate who can fuse some, if not all, of the sides in a party debate.

Actually there is a strong precedent for this in the Republican Party. Dwight Eisenhower ran as a Republican realist who tempered the isolationism of Robert Taft as well as the crackpot, conspiracy-mongering anti-communism of Joseph McCarthy. Richard Nixon was a tough-minded, traditional Republican nationalist whose opening to Communist China had an internationalist basis, as well as a long-range humanitarian effect in East Asia. Ronald Reagan spoke the Wilsonian language of moral rearmament, so central to the philosophy of neoconservatives, even as he took care to put bureaucratic governance in the hands of traditional nationalists and realists. George HW Bush was a traditional nationalist and realist who, nevertheless, pleased neoconservatives by demanding that all of Germany come under NATO's umbrella at the end of the Cold War and by forcibly ejecting Iraqi troops from Kuwait (even if neoconservatives were disappointed that he did not topple Saddam Hussein).

Only such a presidential aspirant, whom different subcultures of the party respect, has a chance to win the next election. For as much as Republicans may furiously deny it, Obama continues to execute a credible foreign policy that, while rarely daring or innovative, is realist in the traditional sense, even as it has cautiously avoided military quagmires -- something the last Republican president, George W. Bush, did not do. Obama's attempt at a rapprochement with Iran fits well within American realist tradition and is popular among the public besides. Moreover, the presumed front-runner among the Democrats, Hillary Clinton, has already proved her realist bona fides as secretary of state, however cautious and lackluster her term at Foggy Bottom may have been.

Realism, remember, can itself be a fusion of tough-minded nationalism, respect for a mild isolationism and awareness of the attributes here and there of neoconservatism. For realism accepts the outside world as it is, not how idealists want it to be. But while accepting the imperfections of the world outside, realism also understands that America must occasionally -- rarely, that is -- intervene to both protect human life and to preserve the balance of power. That is enlightened realism. And unless the Republicans find a candidate who espouses it, their chances of regaining executive power will be further diminished.

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