Talking Points

Elite Republicans aren't the obstacle to a dovish GOP. Voters are.

Three of the most prominent populist conservative writers around — Sohrab Ahmari, Patrick Deneen, and Gladden Pappin — have taken to The New York Times to launch a broadside against Republican foreign policy hawks, especially those otherwise aligned with the party's Trumpian shift in style and substance. The result is an important intervention, but also one deeply ensnared in the GOP's internal contradictions.

The authors argue that conservatives need to "make a clear break" from the military interventionism that has dominated the Republican Party for decades in favor of a commitment to foster "material development at home and cultural nonaggression abroad." Prioritizing foreign policy "restraint," they claim, will place the GOP firmly in the camp of those Americans who have historically embraced a vision of America as an "exemplary republic" attempting to perfect self-government at home rather than striving to spread liberal democracy abroad by military force. Ahmari, Deneen, and Pappin somewhat polemically describe the latter, more imperialistic approach as a vision of the country as a "crusader nation."

I have a long track record opposing the series of small (but extended) wars the United States launched in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and favoring a less hubristic approach to geopolitics more generally. Yet the problem, for me as well as for anyone advocating such a change in orientation, is getting from the present to a more restrained future.

The United States has extended security guarantees all over the world. Some of these are formal (based on treaties) and others informal (through rhetorical gestures). Once made, such guarantees are difficult to walk back without creating a power vacuum that invites other powers (primarily Russia and China at the present moment) to make their own aggrandizing moves in our place. That's a challenge the authors of the Times op-ed don't even begin to address.

Then there's the related difficulty facing any Republican inclined toward foreign policy retrenchment. How is the Republican base likely to respond to an American president shrugging in indifference at a Russian invasion of Ukraine — or a Chinese invasion of Taiwan?

The unsettling truth is that Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and other ambitious Republican office holders are likely staking out unilaterally hawkish, Jacksonian positions instead of a more dovish stance. They know where the party's voters are. The GOP base might be skeptical of grand plans to democratize the world, but they're unlikely to accept cheerfully a passive response to a power grab by a rival on the world stage.

The op-ed concludes with a swipe at "donor-backed Republican hawkishness." But the truth is it's Republican voters who are the greater obstacle standing in the way of any serious turn toward a dovish foreign policy on the American right.