James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Are Republicans Turning Isolationist?

by James M. Lindsay
October 24, 2011

U.S. military personnel hold a huge American flag holding it over the football field during the national anthem prior to the San Diego Chargers season opening NFL football game in San Diego, California September 11, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Military personnel hold an American flag during the national anthem at the San Diego Chargers' season opening. (Mike Blake/courtesy Reuters)

Sam Tanenhaus argued in yesterday’s New York Times that Republicans are turning isolationist. It’s a provocative claim. It’s also not quite true.

Here is Tanenhaus’s argument in a nutshell:

In a time of severe economic woe—a “national emergency,” as Mr. Obama termed it in mid-September—foreign policy issues often lose their immediacy. But with the exception of impassioned support for Israel, conservatives have been embracing a retreat from the greater world that recalls the isolationism of a bygone age in which belief in American “exceptionalism” combined with distrust of other countries and “entangling alliances,” even with other democracies. The most conspicuous example is the strong anti-interventionist sentiment in the period leading up to World War II, when conservatives flocked to rallies organized by the America First Committee, with its slogan “England will fight to the last American.”

There are four good reasons to doubt that Republicans today are channeling their inner Charles Lindbergh. First, the GOP presidential candidates—who, after all, have a good feel for the mood of Republican voters—aren’t calling for a return to Fortress America. To the contrary. Almost all of them criticized President Obama’s Friday announcement that all U.S. troops will be leaving Iraq by the end of the year. Michele Bachmann went so far as to complain:

In every case where the United States has liberated a people from dictatorial rule, we have kept troops in that country to ensure a peaceful transition and to protect fragile growing democracies. We will now have fewer troops in Iraq than we have in Honduras—despite a costly and protracted war.

Those are hardly the words of someone looking to shrink America’s global footprint.

Second, most GOP candidates are not looking to give up American global leadership. Indeed, the central criticism that Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich level against the White House is just the opposite: Obama is surrendering American leadership.

Third, most GOP candidates aren’t seeking to cut defense spending, even though their commitment (rhetorically at least) to balancing the federal budget gives them an additional incentive to do so. Mitt Romney actually vows (as Tanenhaus notes) to increase defense spending. Republicans voters aren’t much different. A recent Harris Interactive poll found that 70 percent of Republicans oppose cutting defense spending.

Fourth, the GOP presidential candidates who are campaigning on a pledge to do less in the world aren’t faring terribly well in the polls. The Wall Street Journal notes today that Ron Paul’s non-interventionist philosophy is a deal-breaker for many Republican voters. Jon Huntsman, who wants to do less in Afghanistan so America can focus on rebuilding its “core” back at home, registers between one and two percent in national polls. Gary Johnson, who like Paul is philosophically opposed to an interventionist foreign policy, doesn’t draw even that level of support.

What we are witnessing in the GOP foreign policy debate, then, is not an embrace of isolationism (or non-interventionism as proponents prefer to call it). Rather, we are seeing a change in the kind of internationalism the party favors. The neo-conservative approach to foreign policy that champions using U.S. diplomatic and military power to unseat unsavory regimes and promote democracy has lost its luster. Many Republicans have turned instead to a traditional hardline conservative foreign policy approach that takes American global leadership as a given, believes that military might drives world politics, doubts the value of soft power, foreign aid, and international institutions, and cherishes the freedom of the United States to act unilaterally. This perspective has the virtue of reassuring its adherents that the one area in which the United States is dominant—military might—is also what matters most in world affairs.

Whether a traditional conservative hardline foreign policy would work in a globalized world where power is being dispersed and many problems resist military solutions is a good question. But that’s a topic for future blog posts.

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