Updated at 12:30 p.m. ET on August 28, 2020.
Last week, more than 70 Republican foreign-policy officials, including two from the Trump administration, signed a letter endorsing Joe Biden for president. Dozens more Republican foreign-policy experts signed earlier letters condemning Donald Trump. Many of these officials hope that, if Trump loses, as current polls suggest, Republican foreign policy will revert to where it was before he was elected. That seems unlikely. As the Republican National Convention has vividly illustrated, the GOP has morphed into the Party of Trump, and Republican foreign policy will likely have to reckon with Trumpism for years to come.
Eric Edelman, who served as an undersecretary of defense in the George W. Bush administration and who signed the letter endorsing Biden, told me that if Trump is reelected, Trumpism will be impossible to dislodge. If Trump loses, the country’s foreign policy will be more open to debate, but the chances of a restoration are still low. “The traditional Republican internationalists will hope for a Dallas-style twist, with Bobby showing up in the shower after a bad dream,” Edelman said, referencing the 1980s show that revealed that a whole season of plot had been a dream. “But it will honestly be very hard to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. The 2024 hopefuls will likely say the message was right, but the messenger was flawed.”
Trump has upended decades of Republican foreign policy. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush put freedom and democracy at the heart of their worldview. They supported United States alliances and embraced free trade. Trump sees U.S. allies as free riders who take advantage of Americans. He is a protectionist who loves tariffs. He is naturally drawn to authoritarian strongmen. And he sees U.S. foreign policy as purely transactional, with no larger purpose of building a better world.
Trump did not just challenge Republican orthodoxy. He also blew up its establishment. Now, if he loses, his supporters will likely blame the Never Trumpers, now including former National Security Adviser John Bolton, for the president’s defeat and for everything a Biden administration subsequently does. With many of these officials pushed aside, new foreign-policy voices in the GOP are poised to fill the vacuum.
To understand where Republican foreign policy is headed, I recently had several conversations with Elbridge Colby and Wess Mitchell, who both served in the Trump administration (in the Defense and State Departments, respectively) and who have set up the Marathon Initiative, a new think tank focused on great-power competition, a concept they were closely associated with when they worked in government.
The history of U.S. foreign policy, particularly in the GOP, is characterized by the rise and fall of ideas—whether neoconservatism or realism in its Kissingerian and Scowcroftian guises. So a few people armed with a new idea can be highly effective, and Colby and Mitchell are widely regarded as two of the most influential geopolitical thinkers of the next generation of Republican foreign-policy experts.
They believe Republicans need a new worldview that incorporates significant elements of the Trump administration’s strategy. Mitchell told me:
The country is at a moment of self-correction. America’s external and internal environments have dramatically changed. We got used to three decades with no peer competitor and unlimited resources. These conditions are now gone. You can’t have a $24 trillion* debt and competition on all fronts and expect to continue business as usual. Far-reaching departures from our traditional foreign policy are now required. Otherwise, changes will be forced upon us later, with more pain than if we are proactive.
Colby and Mitchell believe the “unipolar moment,” where the United States is essentially unrivaled militarily, is over. The world is now bipolar, dominated by the dueling superpowers of China and the U.S., and features multipolarity in certain areas, such as nuclear weapons and the global economy. The end of unipolarity means that the U.S. must come to grips with new limits on its action. Washington must now make tough choices.
They believe the top priority for Republicans should be China’s rise. Deterring Russia and protecting NATO and the transatlantic alliance come second. Upholding the regional order in the Middle East is a distant third.
Although all Republicans are unified on the need to counter China’s power, Colby and Mitchell see the struggle less ideologically than many of their compatriots, and more in line with Trump’s personal view. The China challenge, Colby told me, has more to do with rising Chinese power than with the Chinese Communist Party. The risk to the American people is that China “could dominate the world’s wealthiest region and shape the global economy and global order in ways that are detrimental to the United States. The CCP makes it worse, but if China were a democracy, we would still need to worry about such a powerful country.”
For this reason, they think the United States should be wary of waging a long-term ideological competition that pits democracy against authoritarianism. “I’m in a hard-line place now,” Colby told me, “because we have neglected China for a very long time. But the goal of that hard line is to get to a place of strength where détente becomes possible. When we get to a stable equilibrium, we should be prepared to engage with China regardless of its system.” They are concerned about the clash-of-systems narrative for other reasons too. Universalism results in overextension. They worry that the democracy agenda has gotten out of control, that the U.S. invests resources in thorny challenges that are detached from the national strategy. And then on other occasions, Washington falls out with strategically important allies and partners—such as Hungary, India, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia—because the countries do not liberalize domestically.
Little daylight exists between Marathon and Bush Republicans on Russia and Europe. Unlike Trump, Colby and Mitchell are strong supporters of NATO and see Russia as a dangerous actor in the region. Mitchell did tell me that he is wary of European efforts to create a third pole between the United States and China, a strategy that some European policy makers are considering in response to Trump’s nationalism and China’s aggression.
They break from traditional Republican orthodoxy on the Middle East and are more in line with Trump’s personal views. Colby and Mitchell do not see Iran as a threat equal to China or even Russia. If the U.S. is serious about China, it cannot place Iran at the center of its national-security policy, as some in the Trump administration have done. Colby, for instance, was publicly vocal in calling for the Trump administration not to strike Iran after Iranian drones attacked a Saudi oil facility in June 2019, because it would have “wrested” America’s “military focus” away from Asia. They believe that the United States must remain active in the Middle East but with reduced ambition, relying more on allies and partners to do the work in the region. On Afghanistan, Colby told me, “Trump is right to reduce the presence in Afghanistan to as low a level as possible.”
In terms of the economy, Colby and Mitchell are avowed capitalists, but they see unfettered globalization as a strategic vulnerability and think that partial decoupling from China is merited. They believe the global economy must also serve the interests of the middle class, rather than primarily facilitating the free flow of capital, goods, and services. This idea may seem rare among Republicans, but it reflects a growing body of opinion within the party that a shift of this kind may allow them to siphon off some of the progressive Democratic voters who support candidates such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
Marathon is a small think tank, but is important because it represents one of the most serious attempts to date to reconcile Trumpism with elements of traditional Republican foreign policy. Nadia Schadlow, who served on the Trump National Security Council and authored the National Security Strategy, has also written about the future of foreign policy in the party. In an article for Foreign Affairs titled “The End of American Illusion,” she wrote:
Trump has been a disrupter, and his policies, informed by his heterodox perspective, have set in motion a series of long-overdue corrections. Many of these necessary adjustments have been misrepresented or misunderstood in today’s vitriolic, partisan debates. But the changes Trump has initiated will help ensure that the international order remains favorable to U.S. interests and values and to those of other free and open societies.
Schadlow ignores Trump’s personal hostility to alliances and democracy promotion and focuses on the great-power-competition concept that she and others in his administration championed.
Ironically, these efforts to define Trumpism are only likely to succeed if Trump loses. If he is reelected, he alone will decide, and the MAGA faction—ultra-loyalist operatives such as the former Trump Cabinet member Richard Grenell and cable-news commentators such as Douglas Macgregor—will be in the ascendant.
A number of Republicans still make the argument that Trumpism itself must be discarded altogether. Kori Schake is the director of foreign- and defense-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and previously served in the George W. Bush administration. She signed the letter against Trump and has endorsed Biden, but has not given up on the Republican Party. Classic liberal internationalism—support for alliances, freedom, democracy, and an open global economy—remains conservatives’ best option, she told me. Nothing else would have delivered the successes of the past half century. The party must learn the right lessons from the Bush years and from the mistake of the Iraq War. It must demilitarize U.S. foreign policy, avoid foolish interventions, and strengthen diplomacy, but it should not shrink its ambition. By helping others with their problems, she said, the United States can persuade others to help us with our challenges. Having a universal vision is a strategic asset. Marathon, Schake said, is “trying to move the needle away from its natural resting place.”
Internationalists such as Schake have an uphill fight in the GOP. Most Republican members of Congress are likely to try to preserve Trumpism. Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, for instance, has been very active in arguing for many of the policies the Marathon Initiative stands for—on China, Iran (where he opposed strikes in June 2019), and globalized finance (where he is critical of its effects on the middle class). Only a few politicians—led by Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming—are likely to speak out against Trumpism if the president loses. Senator Mitt Romney of Utah could play a role in restoring the old GOP strategy, but some political operatives speculate that he could be offered a senior role in a Biden administration. Even if that proves to be untrue, his impeachment vote, to remove Trump from office, could result in his exile if Biden wins.
For a significant number of the Republican Party’s Reagan-Bush foreign-policy establishment, Trump represents the greatest internal threat to the republic since the Civil War and a profound danger to U.S. interests internationally. They want to see Trump and Trumpism repudiated, not embraced and redefined.
The other force within the party is the neo-isolationists. They are sick and tired of U.S. involvement in the Middle East and have little interest in America’s alliances with Europe. They are mainly worried about the economic challenge from China. They’d pull up the drawbridge, build the wall, and live in the fortress. This faction has traditionally been led by a Paul—first Ron and then his son Rand—but others have joined the fray, including Senator Mike Lee of Utah and Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida. Several Republicans have told me that it is impossible to understate the appeal that this view has in the grassroots factions of the party, even though most elected officials are uncomfortable with it.
If the Reagan-Bush Republicans are finished, and the fight is about what Trumpism means, the struggle could redefine the foreign-policy debate between Democrats and Republicans as well.
A key lesson that Democrats have taken from the past four years is that democracy is in crisis at home and abroad, so a Biden administration must move to the forefront of defending it. This viewpoint certainly includes competing with China and Russia, but it also means strengthening democracy domestically and overseas; standing up to authoritarian strongmen in Hungary, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, all of whom have worked more closely with China as they have become more repressive; and reforming the global economy so it works for the middle and working class (a point on which some Trump supporters agree). Democrats also believe that nesting competition with China inside an affirmative agenda for democracies and free societies is a way of naturally limiting it and addressing other issues that the public cares about, including climate change and public health.
The post-Trump Republicans, including Colby and Mitchell, reject the idea that democracy is in crisis. They are generally comfortable with the nationalist and populist turns in the world, whether in the United States or Europe. They believe that putting pressure on the U.S. or its allies to reform will simply weaken them and highlight the west’s divisions. The party will use values and ideology instrumentally to put pressure on China, but these factors will not guide the party’s foreign policy toward other nations or the international order more generally.
In trying to claim and redefine Trump’s mantle, these Republicans will encounter substantive challenges, including criticism from the president’s ultra-loyalists. Also, Americans and citizens of other democracies may want to deal with the China challenge, but not at the expense of working on other problems. A nearly singular focus on great-power competition may seem detached from everyday lives.
Finally, not believing in—and not tending to—the crisis of democracy is a strategic liability for the U.S. and an asset for our rivals. The weakening of democracy provides China, Russia, and other authoritarian states with an opening to interfere in free societies, a reality that Australia and the European Union are grappling with now. This threat should be America’s focus after Russia’s attack on the 2016 election. However, the U.S. can’t fully tackle that problem until it fixes the fraying of democracy at home.
* This article previously misstated the U.S. national debt.