March 31, 2013 | Commentary on National Security and Defense
One leader was a confirmed interventionist. The other held that multiple treaties and binding arbitration were the surest path to world peace.
These divergent views on foreign affairs -- and other issues as well -- split the Right in 1912 and landed the "progressive" Woodrow Wilson in the White House. Will that same scenario play out in 2016?
In today's foreign policy debates, many conservatives feel torn between isolationism or interventionism. At one extreme, isolationists hold that if we mind our own business and leave the world alone, the world will leave us alone, free to go about our global business. At the other extreme, interventionists urge the free use of American power to protect and advance American interests -- crushing, cowing or co-opting any competitor that looks crosswise at U.S. interests.
Both of these sentiments strike a cord with conservatives. Isolationism appeals to those exhausted by long wars and worried about big spending by big government. Interventionism appeals to those who abhor the idea of America in retreat or sacrificing its status as the leader of the free world.
Neither viewpoint, however, constitutes a prudent foreign policy. The United States is a global power with global interests. If America is unwilling to demonstrate the resolve to protect its interests, more than a few not-so-friendly competitors will certainly test our resolve.
On the other hand, great powers do collapse when they overreach. But history teaches us that the collapse arises from rot from within rather than an overwhelming force from without.
There is a sensible alternative that all conservatives should be able to rally around: a commitment to provide for the common defense but to use military force with prudence and judgment. A conservative consensus requires overcoming two challenges. On the one hand, national leaders need to seek common ground on foreign policy rather than hope they can win the movement by running to one corner or the other of the isolationist/interventionist debate. On the other hand, they have to articulate what a "prudent and responsible" foreign policy would look like. Bumper sticker slogans will not do.
That's not to say they have no political utility. After all, President Obama has won two terms in the Oval Office claiming he has pursued "prudent" overseas policies -- even though there is plenty of evidence that the Obama Doctrine has largely failed. It is difficult to point to any part of the world where the U.S. is better prepared to protect its interests than it was four years ago. Conservative leaders will have to distinguish what makes theirs different from progressive foreign policies that use strong words to mask weak action.
A sound conservative foreign policy could be built around the concepts of "strength and focus." National leaders should link a call to restore a strong national defense and promote economic freedom abroad with a plan to make America's economy stronger and healthier. Creating an opportunity society at home and protecting U.S. interests around the globe must be seen as complementary, mutually reinforcing goals, not as competing, mutually exclusive visions.
Conservative leaders also must be much more articulate in explaining how their foreign policies would advance universal rights and American self-interest in equal measure. Step one is to demonstrate that they are caring, thoughtful leaders, worthy of the people's trust and confidence.
A strong and focused foreign policy requires leadership that can go deeper than the talking points, to the tough and highly complicated issues facing America today. That will require discipline and many long nights of study and discussion. But in the end, that commitment will produce not just good politics but good governance, as well.
-Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Washington Examiner.