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

Romney the former business leader worries about drags on American resources and strength in a realist global competition, but Romney the politician worries about sounding exceptionalist. His realistic assessment of the past performance of great powers is punctuated with such exceptionalist outbursts as, "It is inconceivable that America would ever be surpassed by another nation." He has mixed his sober review of U.S. power in the foreign policy landscape with references to tactics from Reagan's 1970s exceptionalist playbook, bemoaning the Obama administration nuclear arms negotiations with Russia.

Romney, once again, is trying to have it both ways. This ideology-straddling can be seen in Romney's comments about Afghanistan in the first Republican debate: he made the exceptionalist's commitment to victory, arguing American troops should "come home ... based upon the conditions on the ground," while nodding to realists that "we've learned that our troops shouldn't go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation."

Jon Huntsman -- Realist's Realist

Former Utah Governor John Huntsman's high-profile return from Beijing and subsequent campaign announcement have been undermined by internal campaign strife and back-of-the-pack polling. Huntsman's poor polling and foreign policy-heavy resume -- ambassadorial stints in China and Singapore -- have led some to speculate that he is less a viable presidential candidate than the likely next Republican Secretary of State.

Huntsman's decision to challenge his former boss for the White House has not been the only shock; he has brought a strong dose of realism, something underrepresented in American foreign policy debates of the past two decades. He has argued for a "foreign policy that is an extension of our core national interests" and criticized Obama's decision to intervene in Libya and too-slowly withdraw from Afghanistan. He says he wants to "reset our level of engagement and our deployments in some corners of the world" based on "core national interests." Huntsman is rumored to be advised by several well-regarded Republican realists, including former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft.

Like Romney, however, Huntsman seems to appreciate the importance -- especially in the Republican primary -- of exceptionalism. Like Reagan in the 1970s, Huntsman has been willing to bring 'morality' into foreign policy. In his last speech as Ambassador to China he celebrated the American role in "supporting human rights because we believe in the fundamental struggle for human dignity and justice wherever it may occur." He also happened upon a "Jasmine" style protest in China before leaving his post, a move that surprised the State Department and White House.

Michelle Bachmann -- Realist 'Student of Foreign Policy'

The Congresswoman from Minnesota was fortunate that her congressional career began after the invasion of Iraq; it allowed her to avoid committing the original foreign policy sin of the new century. This relative blank slate enabled her to be a self-described "student of foreign policy." But the slow development of her worldview has led to mistakes -- recall in 2007 when she said of Iran, "There's already an agreement made.  They are going to get half of Iraq and that is going to be a terrorist safe haven zone." Statements like these and others can look, depending on one's perspective, like either a lack of depth, raw political opportunism, reasoned caution, or a mask to a more nefarious set of beliefs.

"Why would be in [in Libya], for heaven's sake?"

At times she has resisted the exceptionalist consensus in the Republican Party only to later return to the team, as with her initial hesitance and eventual support for the 2007 surge in Iraq. At others, she has trumpeted lines, more traditionally espoused by some the nation's neoconservative exceptionalists, about uncritical support for Israel -- she believes that if the United States "fails to stand with Israel, that is the end of the United States" -- and on the dire threat posed by an "already" nuclear Iran, an assessment that the American intelligence community does not share.

But she has voiced more realistic views on Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq: she has suggested the following list of questions she says the nation must answer before intervening in another country:

"Number one, does that nation pose a threat to the United States? Number two, have they attacked the United States? Number three, are there vital American national interests at stake? Number four: the security of the American people."

This test was not met in Libya, according to Bachmann, who asked "why would we be there for heaven's sakes?" She also admits to being "tired of Afghanistan and Iraq, too. ... So, let's get them out as quickly as we can."

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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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