Rand Paul Rethinks the Art of Diplomacy

Parsing the senator's shrewd, subversive critique of U.S. foreign policy.
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Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky gestures at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Maryland, March 14, 2013. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Foreign-policy speeches by presidential aspirants are usually deadly dull. The standard formula is to say the world has never been more dangerous and complex, praise America’s noble history of global leadership, reject the false division between “realism” and “idealism,” and then pretend to bridge it with some meaningless phrase like “hard-headed idealism” or “principled realism.” 

By those, admittedly low, standards, Rand Paul’s address to the Center for the National Interest on Tuesday was pretty good.

It was good for two key reasons. First, Paul approvingly quoted the diplomat and scholar George Kennan as distinguishing “between vital and peripheral interests." That may not seem significant, but it is. For most of American history, U.S. foreign policymakers had a rough idea of which chunks of the globe really mattered to American security. They started with the Monroe Doctrine, the belief that no foreign power should make the Americas a base for operations against the United States. In the 20th century that expanded to include the belief that no single power should be allowed to dominate Western Europe or East Asia, since that power might then threaten American access to key overseas markets. That principle was finally extended to the Middle East on the theory that no adversary should be allowed to threaten America’s access to oil.

These rough parameters hardly made decisions simple. In a January 1950 speech, Secretary of State Dean Acheson famously did not include South Korea in America’s “defensive perimeter,” only to see Harry Truman send hundreds of thousands of troops to defend it a few months later. But at least past generations of American policymakers felt comfortable with the concept of national interest—the idea that because American power was limited, America must distinguish between those countries where it was worth expending blood and treasure and those where it was not.

When the Cold War ended, however, the idea of a foreign power dominating Western Europe or East Asia, or creating a beachhead in the Western Hemisphere, suddenly seemed fanciful. As a result, the language of national interest largely disappeared. It has been replaced by a discussion of foreign “threats” and American “values.” But without a definition of interests, it’s impossible to define what constitutes a threat. And without a definition of interests, supporting American “values” is a limitless pursuit. Americans will never reach a consensus on where exactly our interests lie, but just reintroducing the concept suggests an overdue recognition that because America’s power is finite, its interests must be too. Which is what Paul did on Tuesday night.

Paul’s second important point was about nationalism. It’s a sad irony that the most nationalistic Americans are often the ones least able to respect nationalism in other countries. Thus, Fox News commentators who would demand war if another country so much as sent a weather balloon over U.S. soil expect Pakistanis and Yemenis to be content with U.S. Predators killing their citizens. The very hawks who grow most irate when other countries spy on the United States show the least sympathy for other countries when the NSA spies on them.

Paul, by contrast, said something unusual for an American politician. He said America must take care not to humiliate weaker countries. Instead of expecting them to accept American dictates, he argued that we should recognize that “diplomacy only is successful when both parties feel that they have won…. If you insist on unconditional surrender as a prerequisite to diplomacy, there will be very little diplomacy.”

If that sounds obvious, consider how radically it differs from the stance many of Paul’s Senate colleagues are taking on Iran. The same senators who pounce on any sign that Iran may not be scrupulously adhering to last November’s interim nuclear agreement simultaneously demand sanctions that arguably violate the agreement themselves. The same commentators who denounce the bellicose rhetoric of Iran’s leaders simultaneously pledge support for an Israeli military attack. In official Washington, Paul’s call for respecting the pride and dignity of other nations, even ones whose regimes we oppose, is downright subversive.

Paul didn’t outline a full-blown foreign-policy strategy. And if he did, I suspect I’d disagree with parts of it. Paul, after all, has a record of not merely undervaluing international institutions, but of promoting paranoia about them. He has called for ending U.S. support for the United Nations and peddled absurd theories about the UN confiscating America’s guns.

But ironically, the same detachment from conventional Washington thinking that leads to Paul’s UN quackery makes him willing to challenge reigning foreign-policy assumptions in a way other candidates won’t. And given how badly those assumptions have served America in recent years, that’s a welcome thing.

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Peter Beinart is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Journal, an associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

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