Where GOP Candidates Stand on the Party's Key Foreign-Policy Divide

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The Republican frontrunners are once again debating America's role in the world

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The Republican presidential nomination contest has made a surprising amount of foreign policy news given the focus on the economy, in Washington and around dinner tables across the country. With no clear party leader, Republicans are -- for the first significant time since September 11, 2001 -- soul-searching about the nation's role in the world. The leading candidates divide down an ideological line that has long defined political debates over U.S. foreign policy. How the GOP primary fight shakes out could determine which side of that line the Republican Party lands on, with possibly lasting implications for the party, for the politics of foreign policy, and for U.S. foreign policy itself.

The GOP's foreign policy debate is not between isolationists and internationalists, as some Senators and op-ed columnists believe. It is a fight between Republican realists and exceptionalists.  Realists believe that all nations are subject to the same economic, political, and military forces, and that nations seek power to confront these forces. Exceptionalists believe the United States can defy these forces by its very nature or should defy it because of its unique power, ideals, and history.

There are realists and exceptionalists in both parties. And for much of the past three decades, exceptionalists have been ascendant in both.

For Republicans, the rise of exceptionalists -- some of whom are the neoconservatives that drove much of George W. Bush administration's foreign policy -- gained steam in the 1970s when then-candidate Ronald Reagan campaigned against Gerald Ford's support for the realist détente policies of President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. In a prelude to modern Republican criticism of President Obama, Reagan accused Kissinger of "bowing and scraping" before the Soviets, undermining American values, and hurting American military preparedness with an over-commitment to nuclear negotiations and limitations. Reagan wanted to get rid of Kissinger and called for "Morality in Foreign Policy". Though he lost the nomination that year, Reagan's exceptionalist foreign policy ruled the 1976 Republican platform. Four years later, Reagan would ride an exceptionalist wave to the White House.

As in the 1970s, there is a tension between the real challenges facing the United States and the nation's exceptionalist ambitions. Beset from without by rising competitors and military overextension and from within by stagnant growth, rising deficits, and stalled governance, Americans are yet still accustomed to the glow of Cold War victory, the nearly 20-year "Unipolar Moment" and the nation's role as the "indispensable" nation.

American hearts may tend exceptionalist, but their heads are looking at the nation's circumstances and beginning to think more realistically. A recent Pew survey found that 38 percent of Americans believe the United States "stands above all other countries in the world" and another 53 percent believe it "is one of the greatest countries in the world, along with some others." While Republicans and Democrats feel equally about the nation minding "its own business," 67 percent of staunch conservatives (the type to vote in Republican primaries) believe the United States "stands above all other nations."

In May 2011, 46 percent of Americans said the nation should "mind its own business internationally." That's not a majority, but it is the highest support that this realistic position has received in the more than fifty years the question has been asked. In December 2002, just 30 percent expressed this sentiment.

This is not the first time that Americans have expressed conflicting beliefs. But Republican candidates, if they want to succeed in the primary and then the general election, will have to calibrate their foreign policy worldviews and rhetoric to address these conflicting realist and exceptionalist forces. The Tea Party's feverish preference for exceptionalist rhetoric on one hand and a more realist government financial footprint on the other has made this ideological conflict even more difficult to manage. How each Republican candidate handles the realism-exceptionalism divide in policy and in rhetoric, and how the candidates fare against one another, could determine how their party approaches foreign policy for years.

Attempting to fit candidates into ideological boxes can be helpful for understanding their thinking, but it presents three challenges at this stage of the campaign.

First, compared to this point in the 2008 competition, these candidates have said very little about foreign policy. We are left parsing past and current rhetoric and writing. But it can be instructive. For example, a line in April 2007 speech by then-candidate Obama foreshadowed his strategy in Libya: "when we use force in situations other than self-defense, we should make every effort to garner the clear support and participation of others."

Second, most politicians naturally want to have it both ways, attempting to mix-and-match rhetoric and positions.

Third, beliefs can change, as they have with past presidents. When someone goes from a senator's office or governor's mansion to commanding the armed forces and facing the myriad foreign policy crises that a president encounters in the White House Situation Room, they can look at the world, crises and other nations differently. Reagan himself was criticized by some and celebrated by others as he moved from his early administration's exceptionalism to a more realistic approach to negotiations and engagement with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

With these caveats in mind, here's a review of each candidate's attempt to meet the moment.

Mitt Romney -- Thinks Realist, Talks Exceptionalist

While exceptionalist in title, Romney's book No Apologies includes a revealing "Index of Leading Leading Indicators," as he terms them, meant to "anticipate the future level of America's prosperity and security." As Romney admits, such a list is "easy to criticize" and far from comprehensive. The mix, heavy on realistic benchmarks (for example, a comparison of American military capabilities against potential threats) with a few exceptional indices (for example, the global reach of freedom), reflects his attempt to balance between the realist and exceptionalist inclinations.

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John A. Gans Jr. studies international relations at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

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