The Case for Conservative Internationalism

How to Reverse the Inward Turn of Republican Foreign Policy

It is hard to think of a more chaotic moment in the history of the Republican Party than the present; perhaps only Andrew Johnson’s 1865–68 presidency comes close. The GOP’s de facto leader, former President Donald Trump, faces 91 felony charges in four separate criminal cases. After serving just nine months as Speaker of the House, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California was forced out of the speakership by eight members of his own party, triggering a round-robin tournament that left the House paralyzed for weeks before a little-known member pieced together the votes to replace him. House Republicans have been flirting with shutting down the government and defaulting on the national debt in legislation that has no prospect of winning support even from fellow Republicans in the Senate, while Trump spreads lies about the 2020 election and strategizes about weaponizing the U.S. executive branch against his opponents.

The GOP’s disorder is especially evident—and dangerous—in the realm of foreign policy. For decades since 1952, the Republican Party had a fairly clear international vision: promote American security and economic power while supporting the expansion of democracy around the world. That meant providing for a strong military, cooperating with allies to advance shared interests, and boosting U.S. power in international institutions. It meant advancing free trade, ensuring fair international competition for U.S. companies, and promoting the rule of law in immigration policy. And it meant opposing authoritarianism, especially when autocrats directly challenged U.S. interests.

Republicans’ commitments to these principles have weakened dramatically. Trump whiplashes between a wish to project U.S. power abroad and isolationism; recently, he has vowed to withdraw from NATO, end imports of Chinese goods, deploy the U.S. military onto American streets to fight crime and deport immigrants, and “drive out” “warmongers” and “globalists” from the U.S. government. Other conservative leaders—such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and the entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy—express outright hostility toward sustaining the United States’ international commitments. Most GOP presidential candidates offered unqualified support for Israel after Hamas’s attack, but Trump appeared to be impressed with it. On Ukraine, the party’s politicians are split, with just over half of House Republicans voting in September 2023 to halt U.S. aid to Kyiv’s defense against Russia’s invasion.

So it does not appear to be an auspicious time for traditional Republican internationalism to regain its influence over the GOP. To some degree, GOP leaders’ stances reflect an apparent isolationist turn among their constituents. An August 2023 Civiqs Daily Tracking poll found that 77 percent of registered Republican voters agree that the United States should become less involved in solving problems overseas. It might not even seem urgent that Republicans develop a clear foreign policy at all. As recently as April 2023, when a Wall Street Journal poll asked likely Republican voters which issues were most important when they assessed presidential hopefuls, foreign policy ranked fourth, tied with a candidate’s view on crime. By August 2023, foreign policy had sunk to GOP voters’ lowest priority among 14 policy positions, falling behind the economy, inflation, immigration, and others.

But foreign policy should be an urgent priority. The world is growing more dangerous, and foreign policy bears directly on the state of the domestic economy and, thus, Americans’ very livelihoods. Extending U.S. power abroad—and U.S. influence in international institutions such as NATO—deters foreign aggression that might otherwise disrupt the U.S. economy. Expanding trade helps create fair international competition for U.S. businesses. And U.S. President Joe Biden’s foreign policy has helped generate the economic discomfort that Republican voters put at the top of their list of concerns. The Biden administration works from the theory that U.S. foreign policy has failed the middle class and needs to be repaired through market protections and government subsidies; this approach has stoked inflation, distorted markets, stunted trade, and frustrated U.S. allies.

The United States needs a strong and vibrant Republican Party. To make a more coherent case for how it would solve the country’s problems, the party will have to clarify its foreign policy focus. Traditional conservative internationalism remains the best way to protect U.S. national security and steward the economy. And voters, in fact, may still be eager for an internationalist foreign policy agenda—if that agenda could be presented to them persuasively. A July 2023 Reagan Institute poll revealed that “strong majorities of Americans believe their country should lead the world, invest in military power, promote international trade, support freedom and democracy, and stand with Ukraine until it wins its war against Russian aggression.” Self-described Trump voters mostly identified as internationalists, not as isolationists, and their support for assisting Ukraine increased by nearly a third—from 50 percent to 64 percent—when the pollster explained how that aid contributed to U.S. security.

Americans, including conservatives, remain what they have always been: reluctant internationalists, but internationalists all the same. They do not respond well to abstract appeals about preserving the “international order.” But they understand that if the world lets China set the rules, U.S. liberties will become less secure, U.S. businesses will be disadvantaged, and U.S. allies will be left vulnerable. Voters do not need Republicans to pander to Trumpism or to polls that suggest soft support for internationalism. They do need Republicans to advance a theory for what is happening in the world and how the party intends to protect the country and secure Americans’ prosperity. No such theory can be developed without a clear foreign policy.

Despite Biden’s abandonment of Afghanistan, his administration has done well in rallying support for Ukraine, strengthening U.S. defense alliances in the Pacific, and helping Israel respond to Hamas’s terrorist assault. But a gaping hole exists in the middle of Biden’s foreign policy, created by protectionist economics. At the heart of the Biden administration’s foreign policy is a belief that although the United States has many sources of dynamism—its deep private and public capital markets, its relatively permissive legal immigration policies, its world-class universities, its strong Chapter 11 bankruptcy protections, and its uniquely creative and skilled labor force—U.S. businesses cannot prosper domestically or compete internationally unless the government funds them and shields them from competition.

The consequences of this fundamental misconception are both geopolitical and economic. Biden has failed to recommit to ratifying the United States’ accession to the Trans-Pacific Partnership—a trade agreement with 12 dynamic Asian countries that President Barack Obama signed but Trump repudiated. Instead, Biden offered a vacuous alternative in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a nebulous pact that the White House has readily acknowledged “is not a trade agreement.” The administration is forgoing a chance to lower tariffs and strengthen labor and environmental standards on imports, thereby directly advantaging China: in 2021, China applied for admission to the TPP in the United States’ place.

The Biden administration’s “Buy American” restrictions have stressed supply chains, penalized foreign companies such as Samsung and Toyota that have created a huge number of jobs in the United States, and embittered allies that the United States will need in future conflict with China. Biden has retained Trump-era tariffs that even he has described as self-defeating. The global South is eager for international trade and investment, but the Biden team is ceding these trade opportunities to Chinese businesses. That not only passes up mutually beneficial economic opportunities but affords developing countries little reason to support the United States when Washington appeals for help in its efforts to aid Ukraine and Israel.

Going forward, Biden’s foreign policy stance will prevent the United States from achieving the economy of scale that can match or exceed China’s, especially as Beijing deepens its collaborations with Moscow and Tehran. The guiding principle of U.S. policy toward China should be to force or motivate it to become a responsible economic and geopolitical stakeholder—to play by international rules. To prevent China from acquiring critical technologies such as advanced semiconductors, the Biden administration has advocated a “small yard, high fence” approach, protecting a limited number of technologies but imposing severe threats of secondary sanctions against adversaries and allies alike if they do not also restrict sales to China. This position risks alienating allies that share U.S. security objectives, invest in U.S. companies, buy enormous amounts of U.S. products, and boast cutting-edge firms whose technological innovations and manufacturing capacity U.S. companies need. For instance, unilaterally imposing restrictions on chip-making tools and telling allies to follow the United States’ lead was resented in both The Hague and Tokyo.

America’s allies are pleading for a U.S. economic strategy that helps them reduce their reliance on China.
Washington should long ago have tightened restrictions on U.S. funding for Chinese military technologies and reduced dependence on Chinese products in critical areas such as pharmaceuticals. But a better approach to China would also offer trade advantages to allied countries in the form of an economic NATO, urge allied governments to prevent companies from surging into markets that Chinese economic warfare restricts, and rally public demand for products that China penalizes. The United States should also license more friendly countries to produce products critical to the U.S. defense industry.

In a September 2023 Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey, 74 percent of Americans surveyed—nearly an all-time high—believed trade was good for the U.S. economy. Eighty percent believed it was good for their own standard of living, and 63 percent thought it was good for creating jobs. In the July 2023 Reagan Institute survey, 58 percent of respondents believed that negotiating favorable trade deals should be a foreign policy priority, and 62 percent of Republican respondents supported signing a trade agreement with Asian countries if the respondents were told that the agreement was designed to counter Chinese economic power.

The problem with U.S. strategy toward globalization in the past 20 years was not that Washington allowed too much trade but that it permitted trade that did not establish reciprocity—trade that did not create a level playing field on which U.S. firms could compete with foreign counterparts, principally China. Trade deficits with China cost the United States 3.7 million jobs between 2001, when China was admitted to the World Trade Organization, and 2018. Three-fourths of these lost jobs—2.8 million—were in manufacturing. After Washington allowed Beijing the benefits of free trade without requiring it to play by the rules, the consequences of unequal trade with China affected every congressional district in the United States. China maintained industrial subsidies, pirated intellectual property, forced companies into joint ventures, and restricted access to its market—practices it continues to this day.

In addition to placing more restrictions on China, the United States should engage in more meaningful trade talks with Indonesia, the Philippines, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom. Washington’s current lack of an effective economic line of operations overmilitarizes U.S. strategy. Allies do not want a war with China, and they do not want a moral crusade against authoritarianism. They are pleading for an economic strategy that helps them reduce their reliance on China and remain prosperous. Good, inventive trade policy could create not only a bigger yard—a larger group of countries that adhere to fair rules and norms—but also higher walls, by encouraging more voluntary cooperation against China and others when they do not play fair.

Little unites Americans more than the belief that the U.S. military should be strong. The Reagan Institute poll showed that 92 percent of Republicans, 81 percent of independents, and 79 percent of Democrats believe that sustaining the strength of the U.S. military is essential to maintaining the country’s peace and prosperity. More than 70 percent of Americans believe that Washington should increase its spending on defense.

But a gap is growing between what the United States commits itself to doing militarily and the force it funds. In March 2023, Biden proudly advertised his $842 billion budget request for the U.S. Department of Defense as the largest such request in U.S. peacetime history; it represented a 3.2 percent increase in nominal spending. With inflation running higher than that throughout most of 2023, however, the request amounted to a real reduction in defense spending for the second year in a row. Moreover, $109 billion, or one-eighth, of the U.S. defense budget that was approved in 2022 was spent on things that do not directly or indirectly assist in fighting and winning wars, such as breast cancer research.

The U.S. government’s neglect of the military has been a bipartisan problem. In 2011, Republicans helped pass the Budget Control Act, which over the ensuing ten years, cut $600 billion from the Defense Department’s budget. And if the budget agreement that McCarthy negotiated with Biden in May 2023 goes into effect in the spring of 2024, it will cut defense buying power by another $100 billion. Unless the U.S. government radically revises its willingness to fund defense, it will fail to deter its adversaries and could very well lose its next war.

In 2015, the Chinese navy had 255 ships capable of contributing to combat operations. Now it has 370. The U.S. Navy has only 291, and the Biden administration plans to further reduce that number to 280. Military unreadiness is now perhaps the greatest national security challenge for the United States. In a war against China, U.S. forces could run out of critical munitions in a week.

Fortunately, neither China nor Russia has yet directly challenged the United States in ways that require Washington to fight outright. But they are getting close. After World War II broke out, it was a lucky thing that the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union held out long enough for the United States to ramp up military recruitment and expand its defense industrial base to prepare to join the war. Americans may assume that the United States has similar leeway now; this assumption constitutes a very dangerous temptation to its adversaries.

As the war between Russia and Ukraine drags on, sentimental appeals about Ukrainian courage and Russian depredations are wearing thin. And Republicans have legitimate concerns: they want to reduce federal spending, ensure that U.S. aid money does not get siphoned off by corrupt Ukrainian officials, and understand where assisting Ukraine should rank in the hierarchy of U.S. interests.

Little unites Americans more than the belief that the U.S. military should be strong.
But Biden is giving only enough aid for Kyiv to keep fighting, not enough for it to win. There is a strong conservative case to make for continuing, even increasing, U.S. assistance to Ukraine. For a price of just five percent of the 2023 U.S. defense budget and no U.S. casualties, Ukrainians are fighting the war NATO feared it might have to fight. Voters should know that 60 percent of U.S. assistance to Ukraine goes to U.S. companies that make the weapons sent to Kyiv. And the United States’ engagement with Ukraine has revealed the dangerous deficiencies that Washington has allowed to creep into its defense. Ukraine is in some ways providing both the inspiration and the warning that the United Kingdom did during World War II, allowing the United States to see where its military is unready for what it may be called to do.

Adequately funding defense will ineluctably require entitlement reform. Neither party wants to touch existing entitlement programs—namely, Social Security and Medicare—even though they are becoming unaffordable: entitlements constitute 63 percent of federal spending, up from 19 percent in 1970. Outlays to these programs are squeezing Washington’s discretionary spending, and the interest the country must pay on its huge national debt will further constrict what it can spend on both defense and domestic programs. U.S. federal debt stands at $33 trillion. According to Moody’s Analytics, by 2025 or 2026, federal interest payments on that debt will exceed defense spending.

Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie are the only Republican presidential candidates who own up to the necessity of entitlement reform. But their acknowledgment of it is an excellent start. Legislators already have a blueprint for how to cut entitlement spending in the recommendations made by the 2010 bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. Both parties need to change their attitude toward entitlement reform, but Democrats will likely keep whistling past the graveyard unless Republicans regain their own seriousness about putting entitlements on a sustainable footing to free up funding for defense and other domestic priorities.

According to analysts at the Brennan Center, a nonprofit law and public policy think tank, many Americans do not understand why the U.S. military does not protect U.S. borders. There is room here for better Republican policy; indeed, immigration policy has a crucial connection to foreign policy and to the United States’ economic health. A January 2021 Pew Research Institute poll found that 68 percent of Americans think the United States is doing a bad job of managing its borders. And that is true: since January 2020, an estimated 200,000 migrants have attempted to cross into the United States illegally every month via the Mexican border, more than at any other point in the last 20 years. Contrary to sensationalized media coverage, the vast majority of these migrants are adults, not unaccompanied minors.

The 1878 Posse Comitatus Act prohibits the U.S. military from functioning as a domestic police force. Already overstretched generals do not want to take on the job of protecting U.S. borders and are hesitant to launch missions that might tarnish Americans’ respect for the military. But to build more support for U.S. engagements abroad, political leaders need to show they can bring more effort and resources to border security. The January 2023 Pew survey found that a majority of Americans support giving the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency more money to secure the U.S.-Mexican border.

More than money and extra personnel are needed. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency has estimated that over 60 percent of recent migrants are not from Mexico or Central America but begin their journey in farther-flung places such as Colombia, Cuba, Peru, and Venezuela and then travel through Mexico. The United States should invest more: in surveillance and other technologies that increase its ability to track migrant movements through Central America and to make interdictions beyond the U.S.-Mexican border; in new immigration courts to process asylum claims more quickly; in more cooperation with Mexico to forestall migrants’ transiting its territory; and in more engagement with migrants’ countries of origin, both to help resolve the problems that precipitate mass emigration and to ease the return of migrants who do not meet U.S. immigration criteria.

The failure to properly regulate immigration is leading the United States to neglect its current biggest geopolitical opportunity: consolidating North American cooperation. U.S. politicians do not worry enough about the downsides of Mexico sinking into criminality and do not act creatively enough to make Canada, Mexico, and the United States a common platform for energy, labor, and manufacturing. With clearer immigration policy, supply chains at risk of weaponization by China could be more easily relocated to Mexico; California’s and Texas’s creaky energy grids could be strengthened by increasing both imports and exports of energy from Canada and Mexico. If the United States created opportunities for nearby neighbors to prosper that directly enhance the U.S. economy, Americans would see the advantages of shaping the world in ways that expand security and prosperity. Until Americans are more confident that the United States has control over its borders, however, they may not be willing to support the cooperation opportunities that its geographical position offers.

The world that the United States and its allies created after World War II made the United States much safer and richer. But Americans need to be reminded that if the United States does not enforce this international order, someone else will. That someone else would likely be China. And China in charge would make for a dangerous world in which it and authoritarian allies such as Russia and Iran could amass the military and economic power to impose a repressive vision on the world.

Rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, negotiating and securing the ratification of other trade treaties, increasing defense spending while reforming entitlements and reducing the national debt, securing the U.S.-Mexican border, aiding countries fighting to preserve their liberty: these are big goals. The American Enterprise Institute scholar Fred Kagan observes that “no one wants to die for the international order.” It is too diffuse a concept.

But selling voters on an internationalist foreign policy may not be nearly as hard as some politicians imagine if they approach the public with more concrete arguments grounded in U.S. national interest. The Biden administration and too many Republican leaders now engage in nativist, self-interested appeals—false assertions that internationalism has made the United States weaker or that caring about the U.S. national interest means ignoring the world. This could not be further from the truth. The United States’ international choices shape its domestic landscape. Currently, U.S. leaders are making incoherent foreign policy choices that render the country less safe and less prosperous—choices that will only become much more painful to undo down the line.

Behind the United States’ partisan polarization lies a general confusion and disillusionment. A June-July 2023 Pew poll found that just 16 percent of Americans trust the federal government, the lowest level in 70 years of polling. Just 10 percent agreed that politics made them feel hopeful. In August, in a Wall Street Journal poll, 93 percent of likely Republican primary voters agreed that the United States is headed in the “wrong direction.” These are grim findings. But they also represent an enormous opportunity—an opening for good, clear policies to gain traction, because Americans are obviously dissatisfied with what they are getting.

The solution is not to adopt policies that abandon trade, weaken the U.S. military, leave the U.S.-Mexican border chaotic, and cease giving aid to deserving allies. Americans still resolutely want to secure a role for the United States as a leader in the world, both for the country’s sake and for their own individual safety and prosperity. U.S. leaders must show they know how to do it.

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