Conservatives Can’t Go Back to Ignoring the Limits of American Power
As the U.S. Republican presidential primary heats up, so too will the debate about the future of conservative American foreign policy. Although most of the declared and likely candidates will probably attempt to assume the mantle of “America first,” there are substantial differences among them on the question of what a conservative foreign policy should entail. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have indicated that they see continued military support for Ukraine as essential, for instance, whereas former U.S. President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis have questioned the wisdom of becoming further entangled in a distant conflict that could ultimately land the United States in a shooting war with Russia.
A debate about Republican foreign policy could be healthy for the party and draw attention to important global issues that are often crowded out by pressing domestic concerns. But such a debate would be fruitless if conservative candidates used it as an excuse to pine for a return to caricatures of the foreign policies of former U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Trump. It is no longer 1983, when Reagan correctly labeled the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and was able to oversee a relatively rapid military buildup to counter it. Nor is it 2016, when Trump won the presidency in part by righteously condemning the foreign policy failures of not just Democratic former presidents but also Republican ones.
Conservatives need to accept that the world has changed dramatically over the last seven years, to say nothing of the last 40. The United States faces much greater economic and military constraints today than it did at the end of the Cold War, and these constraints can’t be overcome through inauthentic optimism or sheer willpower. By its very nature, conservatism recognizes limits—whether of government, social progress, or human nature. A conservative foreign policy should accept that the United States exists in a world of limits and must behave accordingly.
THE WORLD AS IT IS
The United States is no longer an unrivaled power. It now has real competitors—China, in particular—and serious domestic economic challenges that necessitate difficult trade-offs in foreign policy. The U.S. national debt exceeds $31 trillion, and interest payments on that debt are on track to eclipse the overall defense budget. According to the Congressional Budget Office, high and rising federal debt obligations could seriously harm the U.S. economy, dampening private investment, accelerating inflation, and pushing interest rates higher. Conservatives should not forget that U.S. military strength is underwritten by U.S. economic strength and that neglecting the latter will weaken the former.
The U.S. military is also under strain. The United States has spent more than 20 years entangled in conflicts across the Middle East and Africa. The price of these wars has been steep. Thousands of American lives have been lost and more than $8 trillion has been squandered in the service of nation-building missions that did not make the United States safer or more prosperous. These conflicts have also worn down important military assets such as the B-1 bomber fleet, incentivized investments in systems such as the littoral combat ship (a surface vessel designed for missions near shore) that are not suited for combat with near-peer adversaries, and forced the United States to cut the size of the Air Force and the Navy in order to build a ground force to fight in strategic backwaters.
The war in Ukraine has exposed the weakness of the United States’ defense industrial base and called into question the military’s ability to sustain a protracted conventional conflict. By sending huge supplies of critical weapons systems to Ukraine, the United States has severely diminished its own inventories. And at current production levels, it will take years to replace the depleted stockpiles, much less fortify them for another major conflict. According to an analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, for instance, it will take at least five and a half years for the United States to replace the Javelin anti-tank missiles it has sent to Ukraine. It could take more than a decade to replace the Stinger missiles Washington has delivered—and the United States has already promised to send more to Taiwan.
By its very nature, conservatism recognizes limits—whether of government, social progress, or human nature.
In addition to economic and military constraints, conservative presidential hopefuls must consider political ones. Modern American conservatism has always included a strain that is wary of American interventionism, exemplified by figures such as Senator Robert Taft of Ohio and Patrick Buchannan. In recent years, and especially since the rise of Trump, this faction has grown much more influential. Polls show that conservative-leaning voters are significantly more skeptical of continuing aid to Ukraine than are liberal-leaning voters, for instance, and the only votes in the U.S. Congress against increasing aid to Ukraine or expanding NATO have come from conservative Republican lawmakers.
Even conservative institutions that have historically advocated a more muscular U.S. foreign policy have recently grown warier of intervention abroad. In May 2022, for instance, the traditionally hawkish Heritage Foundation came out in opposition to a $40 billion military and humanitarian aid bill for Ukraine. To be sure, many leaders of the Republican Party still want to maintain American global primacy, and for most voters, foreign policy remains an issue of only moderate importance. But for conservative politicians, it is clear that the political incentives—as small as they may be—have shifted when it comes to foreign policy.
In light of the economic, military, and political limitations their face, conservative candidates would do a disservice to their voters (and the country) if they reverted to the pre-2016 bipartisan foreign policy consensus or maintained the foreign policy of President Joe Biden. Instead, they should adopt a sober and realistic approach to foreign affairs that recognizes U.S. limits and prioritizes what is required to keep the United States safe and prosperous.
Trump’s “America first” foreign policy, which offered an alternative to the failed policies of the post–9/11 period, remains a useful starting point for any discussion about the future of conservative foreign policy. But conservatives should recognize that dramatic shifts—both in the United States and around the world—since 2016 necessitate far greater changes to U.S. foreign policy. Such changes will not be easy to implement. Trump’s foreign policy preferences were resisted not only by the career staff of the national security bureaucracy but also by many of his own appointees. For instance, Trump’s special representative for Syria, James Jeffrey, has admitted that he routinely misled the president about the number of U.S. troops in Syria in an effort to blunt his desire to withdraw from the country. Making even more substantial changes to American foreign policy than Trump did will require an abundance of qualified and ideologically aligned staff to fill key positions in the next conservative administration. It will also require personnel reforms that enable such appointees to fill more of the national security policymaking roles that are currently filled by career staff.
FREE RIDERS AND RECKLESS DRIVERS
The most important shift that is needed concerns U.S. policy toward Europe. By railing against European security free-riding and planning to withdraw thousands of U.S. troops from Germany, Trump created space on the right for a more fundamental rethinking of U.S. commitments to the continent. Conservatives should embrace policies that force Europeans to take primary responsibility for their own security. Russia’s military failures in Ukraine have revealed that its conventional armed forces are not a threat to well-funded and well-trained European armies—even without significant American support. A Russian army that cannot take Kyiv cannot take Warsaw, Berlin, or Paris.
The United States should therefore encourage and incentivize the strengthening of the non-NATO security architecture in Europe. At a minimum, Washington should bring home the additional troops Biden sent to Europe after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But the United States should also pursue a more substantial withdrawal of military forces from the continent. Washington should maintain only enough ground combat units to enable the U.S. military to serve as a logistics provider of last resort for European armies and only enough of a naval and air presence to secure vital sea lanes. Finally, the United States should stop treating NATO as a holy sacrament and start rethinking Washington’s role in the alliance. In its current form, NATO should be viewed by conservatives with the same skepticism as the United Nations, not as the pillar of deterrence it was during the Cold War.
Europe is not the only region of the world in need of a U.S. policy reset. Conservatives should also embrace a military pivot away from the Middle East. Washington should maintain its long-standing naval presence in Bahrain as well as a regional counterterrorism force with long-range strike capabilities to target terrorist groups that have both the intent and the ability to harm American interests. But the United States should withdraw most other troops from the region, including from the conflicts in Iraq and Syria. To counter the threat from Iran, Washington should lean more heavily on its regional partners. Through the Abraham Accords, which normalized Israel’s relations with several previously hostile Arab states, Trump forged a coalition of regional powers with a common interest in countering Tehran’s nefarious activities. But the accords should not form the basis of a Middle Eastern NATO, as some analysts have suggested. They should instead be used as a ticket out of the region.
The United States should stop treating NATO as a holy sacrament.
At the same time that they deprioritize Europe and the Middle East, conservatives should focus Washington’s attention on securing U.S. interests in East Asia. China poses a much greater threat to the long-term safety and economic prosperity of the United States than do Russia, hostile regional powers in the Middle East, or the remnants of al Qaeda and other jihadist terrorist organizations. Only when more of the resources currently devoted to these challenges are freed up will the United States be able to effectively tackle the threat posed by China.
A conservative strategy for China needs to be more than a rhetorical exercise in Beijing-bashing or empty virtue-signaling around Taiwan. The United States must prioritize supplying its East Asian partners with defensive weapon systems such as antiair and antiship missiles that can effectively raise the costs of Chinese aggression. It must also prioritize funding for the U.S. Navy and Air Force, since air and naval power will likely be at the forefront of any future conflict in the Pacific. Additionally, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies should work more aggressively to counter China’s malign activities within the key American institutions of government, business, and education.
But conservatives should not act as though a war with China is preordained, lest they wind up unintentionally sparking one. It is also important to remember that China, governed by a collectivist government that practices many of the top-down policies that conservatives have long warned against, has its own domestic and international constraints that may limit its power in the long run. Conservative policymakers should therefore avoid responding to the challenges posed by China with policies that would increase the likelihood of direct conflict or undermine incentives for U.S. partners in Asia to take more responsibility for their own defense. Specifically, conservatives should not replace the United States’ longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan with an explicit security guarantee, and they should avoid extending military aid to wealthy countries in East Asia without requiring them to do more for their own defense. As they have in Europe and elsewhere, U.S. security guarantees and unconditional military support can encourage free-riding or reckless driving that puts the United States on a course to war.
Acknowledging that the United States faces real limits to its power does not mean accepting a broader narrative of American decline. To the contrary, adopting a more prudent foreign policy will ensure that U.S. power isn’t squandered and provide the means to guarantee the safety and prosperity of future generations of Americans. But if conservative policymakers deny reality and advocate the same failed policies that led the United States to where it is today, they will only guarantee American decline. Conservatives must demand better from their candidates and elected officials when it comes to foreign policy.