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How the Right Can Reclaim its Edge on Foreign Policy

Aside from the prospect of automatic cuts in near-term defense spending, the ongoing drama over the so-called fiscal cliff continues to sideline the issue of foreign policy. But as the Republican Party recovers from the November election and finds its issue compass going forward, foreign policy should never be far behind—not least because of what Dan Drezner writes in a new Foreign Affairs essay on the GOP: Republicans finally saw the end of their dominance of public opinion on foreign policy they have held since the era of the Vietnam War.

Conservatives may already be tired of what they perceive to be lectures on their party’s ills from those who don’t share their ideological preferences. I don’t blame them. But Drezner’s essay is worth reading because Drezner generally eschews ad hominem attacks and his writing is tonally free of partisan hostility. Additionally, conservatives reading the essay will find that in addition to what they are accused of getting wrong, they will discover that an honest assessment of the GOP’s recent foreign policy gets a fair amount right.

A great deal of Drezner’s criticism revolves around rhetoric. Thus, there were moments when Mitt Romney, for example, squandered opportunities with unforced errors. The most memorable instance was Romney’s decision to call Russia our “No. 1 geopolitical foe.” Romney was guilty of the same mistake the Obama administration made with regard to Russia: They both overestimated Russia’s power. Obama thought Russia could and would deliver all sorts of cooperation on a range of issues. Yet Vladimir Putin had no intention and in many cases no ability do more than talk tough. Putin simply bluffed his way to more and more American concessions, and pocketed them.

Drezner expands his criticism to an issue directly relevant to the current budget debate. “Republicans continually attempt to justify extremely high levels of defense spending, for example, on the grounds that the United States supposedly faces greater threats now than during the Cold War,” he writes. It is essential that conservatives, and especially the Republican politicians taking part in the standoff over the fiscal cliff, understand how to advocate for defense spending.

It is true that the existence of foreign threats doesn’t necessitate, by itself, historic levels of defense spending. But those threats are far from the only justification for the defense budget. Republican officeholders would do well to turn to another essay in the same issue of Foreign Affairs that makes this case. The essay, by Stephen G. Brooks, G. John Ikenberry, and William C. Wohlforth, explains how a fully engaged America abroad yields both security and financial benefits that make defense spending a bargain.

They note that American security guarantees around the globe prevent the rise of regional hegemons, military conflict, and the spread of destabilizing nuclear weapons more often than not; secure multilateral cooperation; and bring the U.S. economic benefits by both strengthening the dollar and giving America leverage when it comes to negotiating free trade agreements. Romney’s repeated exhortations that we’d want a military so powerful no one would dare “test us” is an inadequate justification for a highly justifiable policy.

Finally, Drezner writes:

George W. Bush’s greatest foreign policy accomplishments came not in the military realm but in rethinking economic statecraft. He signed more free-trade agreements than any other president. Through the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the Bush administration devised innovative ways of advancing U.S. interests and values abroad. In developing the architecture for improved financial coercion, the administration paved the way for the sanctions that are now crippling Iran’s economy. Force can be an essential tool of statecraft, but it should rarely be the first tool used, and sometimes it can be most effective if never used at all. Republicans understand the power of the free market at home; they need to revive their enthusiasm for the power of the market abroad, as well.

There are two points to make here. First, Romney had no trouble grasping this, as evidenced by his concentration on economics-based statecraft in the foreign policy debate with President Obama. Republicans remain the party of free trade, and show no sign of abandoning that position. Second, on Iran, there isn’t a ton of daylight between Drezner and the right. Conservatives have pushed for tough sanctions backed up by the credible threat of force. Obama has opposed and weakened tough sanctions every step of the way, and his administration has worked to undermine any credible threat of force.

Drezner says bellicosity is hurting the GOP with a war-weary public. He’s right that the public is war-weary, but Iran is not the issue where this is hurting the GOP. In fact, as the Wall Street Journal recently reported, public support for military action against Iran in the event sanctions fail is now at a high point. Even out of power, the GOP won that argument.

This is not to say that last year’s crop of GOP presidential candidates always had the policy right–far from it. From flirtations with a trade war with China to undue nostalgia for Hosni Mubarak to loyalty investigations into Hillary Clinton’s longtime aide, there were plenty of forgettable—and dangerous–suggestions. But the 2016 crop of candidates will likely be quite different from the 2012 cast of characters, which too often spoke as if the world wasn’t listening. It was–and is–and conservatives need to remember (or learn) how to reclaim what was a well-earned advantage over the left on foreign policy.