Republicans are slowly recovering from their crushing defeat in the presidential election, and are now weighing possible changes that the party clearly needs to make to regain the public's trust after losing their third national election in the last six years. (2010 was the lone bright spot.) But despite the broad soul-searching, most of the GOP's high-profile national leaders have so far failed to address the party's continued weakness on foreign policy and national security, which remains a major liability. The exceptions to this have been Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who have both hinted at a reformed Republican foreign policy that is less aggressive and less reliant on military action.
Huntsman was the preferred presidential candidate of many Republican and conservative realists and internationalists, and he still represents realists in the debate over the future of the GOP. As a former ambassador, he is one of the few nationally-known members of his party with any significant foreign policy experience, and because of that experience, he has significant credibility with foreign policy professionals — something that few other Republicans currently enjoy. And Huntsman is challenging the party's overly militarized approach to foreign policy problems.
In a recent interview with The Huffington Post, Huntsman suggested that the party return to an earlier Republican internationalist tradition identified with ending ongoing wars and avoiding new ones, which he contrasted to the party's current approach: "We used to be the party that put out wars: Eisenhower, Korea; Nixon, Vietnam; Reagan, the Cold War. And here we talk about starting wars. That's all Republicans on the defense side seem to want to talk about — not negotiating a way forward diplomatically, as we had under earlier Republican administrations, but always falling back on the war option as if we haven't had enough over the past 12 years."
It will take more than Huntsman's realism to repair Republicans' battered reputation on foreign policy, but it's a vitally important change that needs to be made to ensure that a future Republican administration will not make many of the same blunders as the last one. This is not just a matter of making Republican candidates more electable. It is necessary to improve the quality of the policies that Republicans pursue once in office. If Republicans can be trusted to end conflicts or manage them competently rather than recklessly start them, they will eventually be able to undo much of the damage they did to themselves with the Iraq war. Until Republicans begin making credible efforts to repair that damage, a majority will be wary of trusting them with the presidency.
Sen. Paul has likewise suggested that Republicans need to move toward a less aggressive foreign policy if they wish to remain a viable national party. Though he is less of a consistent non-interventionist than his father, Paul has so far been a skeptic of military action against Iran, and was one of the more principled conservative critics of the administration's war in Libya. Despite his brief time in office, Paul has the potential to be one of the most important advocates for foreign policy restraint in his party and in the Senate.
Nonetheless, Huntsman and Paul are the exceptions among national Republicans, and it is far easier to find rising stars in the party espousing many of the same failed policies of the previous administration. The most prominent and popular of these, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, has shown no interest in changing his mind about the need for an extremely activist and interventionist U.S. role in the world. In the near future, it seems likely that his views will remain ascendant among Republicans. As long as that is the case, Republican candidates will needlessly alienate younger and less ideological voters, and they will struggle to win at the national level.
The world and the U.S. role in it have been changing in ways that the conventional Republican hawks don't fully understand or accept. Because of that, Republicans will be at a significant disadvantage in policy debates and in crafting successful policies — until they adapt. Reforming Republican foreign policy is not a quick or easy solution to most of the party's electoral weaknesses, and it certainly isn't sufficient by itself, but it is part of a long-overdue response to changed circumstances.