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.

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."

Ron Paul -- The Jealous Realist

"Don't get involved in these wars," the longtime Congressman from Texas bellowed during the August 11 Republican debate. Paul, a veteran who he served as a flight surgeon in the Air Force, decries reckless militarism and believes the post-Cold War foreign policy consensus has made the United States an "empire by any definition" that threatens liberty at home and abroad.

Paul is a longtime member of the legion of what I have called American "jealous guardians." The nation's jealous guardians -- present since the founding and in both parties -- are realists abroad to assure the nation is exceptional at home. While they understand the opportunities internationally, they agree that the nation's strength begins at home and want to ensure not just the security of the nation's borders but of the bold American Experiment. Paul fears the consequences, at home and abroad, of militarism, executive power, and international misadventures that often accompany an exceptionalist foreign policy.

Paul, as he noted in a 2007 Republican debate -- to wide criticism -- believes American global intervention has exposed the nation to "blowback," including the attacks of September 11. U.S. foreign policy since then has made its citizens less free by forcing them to pay and support "unconstitutional" wars. Paul, as with his libertarian approach to domestic affairs, advocates a restoration and preservation of the "American Republic" and a "policy of peace" based on free markets, free trade, and limited sanctioning.

Rick Perry - Thinks Exceptionalist, Talks Realist

Perry's foreign policy approach is a matter of some speculation, as the limited attention he has paid to national concerns during his governorship have tended toward federalist concerns. While it is too early to say whether his military background makes him a hawk -- one of his foreign policy advisors did tell Foreign Policy Magazine he was a "hawk internationalist" -- he tends to echo the militaristic exceptionalism that has been the Republican standard for much of the past decade. In fact, Perry has been meeting with neoconservative advisers, on the advice of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in the lead up to his presidential campaign launch.

"We cannot concede the moral authority of our nation to multi-lateral debating societies"

Still, Perry appreciates the realist winds blowing in this cash-strapped era: he said in a recent interview, "I think the most important thing that we can do from a foreign policy standpoint is to be strong economically." And in his recent speech to the VFW, which was less an exposition on the Perry foreign policy and more a collection of foreign policy fortune cookie platitudes, he said, "We should only risk shedding American blood and spending American treasure when our vital interests are threatened."

But his exceptionalist roots show in his book, Fed Up!, which he stands by despite his staff's efforts to retract parts of the book. Published just ten months ago, well after the rise of the Tea Party and of Americans distaste with the state of the nation's foreign engagement, Fed Up! reads like an echo of President George W. Bush's 2002 "Axis of Evil" State of the Union address. Perry argues that U.S. military missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere are "critical to our safety here at home," describes Iran and North Korea as an "imminent threat," and warns that "dealing with terrorists whose mission is to kill as many Americans as possible" is the "seminal issue of our time." It's significant that a book dedicated to saving "America from Washington" declares the war on terror is the "seminal issue of our time," the only time the phrase is used in the book.

Perry bemoans that the "unsustainable fiscal wreck created after decades of Washington run amok is now threatening the government's paramount security function." He criticizes the cuts in such defense programs as the F-22, which former Defense Secretary Bob Gates fought to eliminate because it "does not make much sense anyplace else in the spectrum of conflict."

International opinion ranks low on exceptionalists' list of concerns. In his VFW speech, Perry bumper-stickered his feeling about international organizations: "We cannot concede the moral authority of our nation to multi-lateral debating societies." And when confronted by opposition from Mexico, the International Court of Justice, the Obama administration, and three Supreme Court Justices to Texas's execution of Jose Medellín for rape and murder (these groups objected that Medellín was not informed of his right to consult the Mexican consulate, despite U.S. ratification of Vienna Convention on Consular Relations that guarantees exactly that), Perry sided with a Supreme Court majority and refused to stay the execution because he did not believe "international law should trump the laws of Texas."

Some observers have wondered whether the country would vote for another president with a Texan accent, or whether Perry sounds presidential enough. It is just as easy to ask whether the country is ready for another four years of Bush and Cheney foreign policy.

Sarah Palin -- The Opportunist

Just as the former Alaska Governor and 2008 Republican Vice Presidential Nominee keeps popping into the Republican nominating contest without officially entering the ring, Palin tries to have it both ways on exceptionalism and realism.

The U.S. has "a unique responsibility: to show the world the meaning and the rewards of freedom"

During the 2008 campaign and much of its aftermath, Palin was seen as a reliable exceptionalist, parrotting Reagan's 1970s criticism of Kissinger by mocking Obama's decision to "bow and kowtow" to American enemies and by comparing Obama's nuclear negotiations with Russia to those of Kissinger's dreaded détente. But Palin has since abandoned her neoconservative advisers and come to project a more realist tone, arguing, "We can't fight every war, we can't undo every injustice in the world."

This may sound like an evolution to some observers, political savvy to others, or a flip-flop to partisans, but it reflects the same intellectual untidiness and political opportunism of Palin's memoir Going Rogue. Throughout the chapter "The Way Forward," Palin sounds like a practical realist in one sentence and a hyper- exceptionalist in the next. Thus she can argue the nation should not "force our ideals" on other countries but also that the nation has "been given a unique responsibility: to show the world the meaning and the rewards of freedom."

Trying to be both a realist and an exceptionalist at the same time may work in her memoirs or on Facebook, but it remains to be seen whether this opportunism could survive the cross-examination should Palin officially join the campaign.

Newt Gingrich -- Exceptionalist's Exceptionalist

The former House speaker and beleaguered presidential candidate recently starred in a movie that news reports described as "a documentary-style film on 'American exceptionalism'" He served on the Bush Administration's Defense Policy Board and was an early, public advocate for the Iraq War: he argued in October 2001, "If we don't use this as the moment to replace Saddam after we replace the Taliban, we are setting the stage for disaster."

Unchastened by the debacle in Iraq or the enormous growth of the nation's military industrial complex after September 11, Gingrich proposed in his latest book To Save America, a "bigger national security system with a bigger budget and a more robust capacity to deal with multiple threats simultaneously." While this fits his past exceptionalist foreign policy approach, it may be out of step with some of those concerned with the nation's fiscal health, such as the Tea Party activists Gingrich has worked so hard to court.

It is not the only instance of his missteps in managing the conflicting realist and exceptionalist forces in the Republican contest. His early calls for a no-fly zone in Libya -- because, as he put it, the United States "doesn't need anybody's permission" -- were true to his exceptionalist roots, but wrong for a public leery of another expensive misadventure. He later flip-flopped, saying, "I would not have intervened."

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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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