Can Mitt Romney Recover the Soul of Republican Foreign Policy?

The presidential candidate's party, after a long tradition of strong foreign policy, finds itself lost and divided. Can Romney reunite it, or will neoconservatism dominate by default?

romney article.jpg
Mitt Romney walks past an American flag on his way to a meeting with Hispanic business owners in Tempe, Arizona. (AP)

Americans will enter voting booths in November fixated on a sputtering domestic economy, but they will exit having elected the single most influential player on the world stage. That reflects a paradox of American power: a generally inward-looking electorate selects a leader with only scant attention to his foreign policies or international experience, and yet that person's actions undoubtedly will shape the course of global events. And into the center of that paradox walks the enigma that is Mitt Romney.

Given his limited foreign-policy experience and counterpuncher's strategy of defining himself primarily as what his opponent is not, it's difficult to know just what Romney's worldview is. His image as a moderate former Republican governor from the Northeast with a successful background in international business suggests a likely comfort level with the liberal-internationalist or moderate realist traditions of the Republican Party.

Yet as a candidate courting his party's conservative base, Romney has issued foreign-policy pronouncements with a harder line. He says his administration would align closely with Israel, view Russia as the United States' primary geostrategic foe and label China as a currency manipulator. The population of terrorist suspects at the Guantánamo Bay military prison might double, and "enhanced interrogation techniques" such as waterboarding could return to the counterterrorism toolbox. A Romney administration purportedly would increase defense spending and bolster rather than shrink the size of the U.S. military. There would be no diplomacy with Iran, which would be enjoined to abandon its nuclear-weapons ambitions or else. U.S. military forces would remain in Afghanistan until the Taliban is defeated decisively.

How Romney would balance such an aggressive foreign-affairs and national-security agenda with his pledge to cut taxes across the board and address a towering debt crisis remains an open question.

In truth, the prism of a presidential-election campaign offers a notoriously unreliable view of America's role in the world. Through this lens, the lands beyond our shores appear in broad strokes that lack detail and color. There is only black and white, friend and foe, and the president of the United States appears to have the power to magically realign the international landscape. Such a distorted viewfinder is not only imperfect for navigating the shoals of geopolitics but also a poor predictor of any president's ultimate path.

And yet, if the aperture is widened to include historical context and personal biography, a rigorous campaign may at least suggest the lodestar that a president will follow in charting an unpredictable course. The choice of a candidate provides insights as to which foreign-policy school of thought is ascendant within the party. The background of the candidate and his key foreign-policy and national-security advisers provides further pieces of the puzzle.

In emerging as the Republican nominee for president, Mitt Romney vanquished primary opponents representing venerable strains of GOP thinking. Representative Ron Paul, the libertarian from Texas, was the strongest voice for a more isolationist foreign policy. Former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania gave the most authentic voice to the populist nationalism of the Tea Party movement. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich most closely aligned with the neoconservatives who were ascendant in George W. Bush's first term with their staunch support for the Israeli Right and disdain for talking with distasteful adversaries. Gingrich blasted the Obama administration for being "wrong on Iran, wrong on the Muslim Brotherhood [and] wrong on Hezbollah." Former governor Jon Huntsman of Utah, former ambassador to China, stood in for the realist or liberal-internationalist wing of the party that dominated the George H. W. Bush administration.

Romney must reconcile these competing camps and weave their various policies and rhetorical positions into a coherent foreign-policy narrative. His task is complicated because the old Republican orthodoxy of staunch anticommunism and a strong defense was upended at the Cold War's end, and George W. Bush's Iraq invasion still generates controversy and dissention within the party. Beyond that, there are the added challenges of the country's deep partisan divide and political dysfunction, as well as a shifting global landscape.

Georgetown University's Charles Kupchan notes that "the old Cold War consensus has disappeared," which has put the Republican Party in "a period of great turmoil in terms of its foreign policy." Kupchan, author of No One's World: The West, the Rising Rest, and the Coming Global Turn, adds that the country finds itself searching for a proper role "in a world that is changing more fundamentally than at any time since the 1800s." Thus, the Republican Party is being pulled not only between liberal internationalists and neoconservatives but also by rank-and-file Republicans who identify with the Tea Party and favor a more restrained American role in the world. "After a decade of war, the Great Recession and the growth of a towering deficit, that view resonates with a large number of weary Republican voters," Kupchan said in an interview. "Meanwhile, we as a country are becoming as polarized on matters of foreign policy as we are on domestic issues, and that hasn't happened since before World War II."

To understand the foreign-policy narrative Mitt Romney is attempting to articulate, it's important to grasp the threads of foreign-policy thought that he and the campaign are drawing on. In his 2001 book Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World, historian Walter Russell Mead traced those threads back to their historical antecedents to show that today's arguments have a venerable history.

Republican realists and liberal internationalists, most notably represented by former stalwarts Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Brent Scowcroft and Colin Powell, harken back to Alexander Hamilton, champion of a strong and internationally engaged federal government. Neoisolationists and libertarians such as Patrick Buchanan and Ron Paul, wary of international entanglements, trace their philosophy to Thomas Jefferson's belief in small government, states' rights and the avoidance of "entangling alliances." Neoconservatives share the idealism of President Woodrow Wilson's values-based foreign policy and his belief that America has a special calling to fight on behalf of liberty and democracy, though they evince little of Wilson's deference to international institutions. The Tea Party movement follows in the tradition of Andrew Jackson, the populist champion of "American exceptionalism" who believed in limited government and personified a nationalistic "don't tread on me" pugnacity.

While the Republican worldview is an amalgam of these philosophies, at different periods in the nation's history events have conspired to advance some of them over others, at times dramatically reshaping the party's dominant narrative.

After the horrific carnage of World War I, for instance, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge was so furious at President Woodrow Wilson that he led the fight to block America's entry into the League of Nations, a precursor of the United Nations. The next year, Republican presidential nominee Warren G. Harding was elected on the rallying cry of a "return to normalcy," which meant domestic issues and homeland defense over Wilson's democratic evangelism. By the 1930s, with Franklin D. Roosevelt in the White House and the GOP in the opposition, "normalcy" for Republicans meant support for the Neutrality Act of 1935, designed to keep the United States out of war in Europe.

The 1952 presidential election of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, with the Cold War in full swing, elevated the realists and internationalists, setting the Republican Party back on the path of American engagement and global leadership. A bipartisan Cold War consensus had emerged in support of an outsized American role in countering communism around the world. Nearly all of the post-World War II building blocks designed to undergird the "American Century" passed with bipartisan congressional support--creation of the United Nations and NATO; establishment of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund; and passage of the Marshall Plan for the rebuilding of Europe.

President Richard Nixon's administration was another high-water line for the realists, revealed in his ideologically flexible outreach to Communist China. Nixon's top foreign-policy hand, Henry Kissinger, first national-security adviser and then secretary of state, was an über-realist who believed in a carefully maintained balance of power among global powers. That view held that it was in the United States' interest to gain legitimacy by leading through the architecture of multilateral institutions, alliances and treaties that the nation so painstakingly constructed after World War II. Given the obvious advantages that accrued to the United States under that system, the realists naturally embraced a status quo worldview that prized stability.

But Democrats, traumatized by the Vietnam War and energized by the antiwar movement, entered into their own isolationist phase during the 1970s, characterized by presidential candidate George McGovern's "Come Home, America" platform in 1972 and President Jimmy Carter's defense cutbacks and threats to pull U.S. troops out of South Korea. But after the humiliation of the Iranian hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the pendulum of politics began to swing in a new direction that would rewrite the Republican narrative.

After a decade of trauma -- defeat in Vietnam, Watergate, the Arab oil embargo, hyperinflation, Soviet expansionism, and the Iranian hostage crisis -- Ronald Reagan's 1980 election heralded another inflection point for Republican foreign policy. Reagan's administration included a number of senior officials comfortable in the realist wing of the party, including Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.

But Reagan's party also picked up political refugees from the Henry "Scoop" Jackson wing of the Democratic Party disillusioned with their party's antiwar stance and flirtation with isolationism. Though moderate or liberal on domestic issues, they were fervently anticommunist and pro-defense. These included former Jackson staffer Richard Perle, who became an influential assistant secretary of defense, as well as Jeane Kirkpatrick, Reagan's ambassador to the United Nations.

For these neoconservatives, their seminal professional experience was Reagan's decision to discard détente with the Soviet Union in favor of a more confrontational approach. His foreign-policy ideology could be seen in the largest peacetime defense buildup in American history, support for anticommunist proxies in Central America and Africa, his description of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" and his spirited demand in Berlin that Mikhail Gorbachev "tear down this wall." This neoconservative outlook generally stood for the values-based proposition that U.S. military power should be unsurpassed and largely unconstrained in confronting and defeating (rather than accommodating) evil empires and nations, the better to advance the march of democracy. Neoconservatives also have a famously close affinity for Israel as a scrappy democracy amid autocracies.

In adopting a more confrontational stance toward the Soviet Union and engaging it in an arms buildup that bankrupted Moscow into submission, Reagan was the proverbial "right leader at the right time." A strong case can be and has been made that he deserves much credit for winning the Cold War. Even by his own second term, however, Reagan had moderated his foreign policy to the extent of proposing a world without nuclear weapons to Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986 (a suggestion that appalled true neoconservatives such as Perle). Reagan's proxy war also came back to haunt him in the form of the Iran-contra affair, the worst scandal of his Oval Office years.

By the time Vice President George H. W. Bush was elected president in 1988, more moderate internationalists and realists emerged once again in the embodiment of James Baker, Brent Scowcroft and Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs who had served as Reagan's national-security adviser. Bush 41 himself had a résumé right out of the liberal-internationalist playbook--northeastern patrician, Ivy Leaguer, successful in business, former envoy to China, head of the CIA and vice president.

The Bush team engineered a peaceful end to the Cold War and a soft landing for a disintegrating Soviet empire; the successful reunification of Germany; and a victorious Persian Gulf War to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait. It was an impressive foreign-policy trifecta, and the Bush team used the momentum to pursue a "new world order" in which the twentieth-century scourge of state-on-state aggression would be consigned to history and Israel would be pressured to reach a two-state solution to its conflict with the Palestinians to stabilize the Middle East.

But back home, amid recession, a weary public was looking for a "peace dividend" and listening to an upstart Democrat from the baby boom generation who argued that "it's the economy, stupid." Because the Cold War and opposition to communist tyranny had energized Republicans so intensely, the GOP was set adrift by the disappearance of an overarching Soviet threat. The 1992 defeat of George H. W. Bush by Democrat Bill Clinton, a former southern governor with little international experience, certainly heightened that sense of confusion. Throughout the 1990s, Democrats searching for their own foreign-policy narrative in a transformed world would have the benefit of one of their own in the White House, riding herd over a fractious caucus and controlling the most powerful levers in foreign affairs. Clinton's narrative held that America's role in the world was still that of the "indispensable nation" leading like-minded countries in collective actions against common threats. He led NATO into the Balkans, proposed landmark arms-control agreements and tried to reach a peaceful settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at Camp David.

Clinton's election and Newt Gingrich's counterwave "Republican revolution" of 1994 represented a generational passing of the torch. The World War II generation, bedrock of the Cold War consensus, began passing from the scene. In its place rose the baby boom politicians who never had reconciled deep partisan ruptures over the 1960s counterculture revolution and Vietnam. Deep foreign-policy disagreements soon seeped into the hyperpartisan catfight of Washington politics.

The 1994 GOP revolution also heralded a seismic shift in the domestic political landscape. The party had waned in those areas of the country that represented the liberal-internationalist tradition--the Northeast, West Coast and upper Midwest. The post-1994 party reflected the views of the Deep South and Mountain West, fertile ground for Jacksonian "don't tread on me" nationalism as well as unilateral and isolationist impulses.

Not surprisingly, this younger generation of Republican politicians was committed to shrinking the size of government, even if that meant a smaller role for the United States overseas. Gingrich's poll-tested "Contract with America" hardly mentioned foreign policy or national security, other than supporting a national missile-defense system advocated by Reagan.

For a time in the 1990s, the Republican Party flirted with isolationism, the theme of former Republican presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan's book A Republic, Not an Empire. Echoing isolationists from the 1930s, it argued that the United States need not have been drawn into World War II. Though that made the book controversial, Buchanan's essential argument resonated strongly with many of the new southern Republican leaders who rode Gingrich's revolution to Washington or to the chairmanships of key congressional committees. Arrogant U.S. foreign-policy elites had overcommitted America to wars in regions where it had no vital interests, Buchanan argued, and betrayed U.S. sovereignty by tying its fortunes to agencies of "an embryonic world government" such as the UN, WTO and IMF.

These Republicans thus criticized Clinton's nation-building interventions in Bosnia and Haiti as international social work. After aligning with powerful committee chairmen such as Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Republican revolutionaries pushed for withholding dues from the UN, cutting State Department funding and reducing foreign aid. Republicans also disavowed NATO's air war over Kosovo as "Clinton's war," and in 1999 the Republican Senate defeated the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The dominant narrative offered by the Republican revolutionaries about America's rightful role in the world probably hewed closest to Andrew Jackson's populist nationalism. Philosophically, they were suspicious of the federal government and of multilateral engagement that could impinge on U.S. sovereignty, whether expressed in international treaties or in undue deference to the UN.

But this minimalist outlook was opposed by the neoconservatives. In 1999, Senate Republicans voted to oppose NATO airstrikes in Kosovo, even while the Republican House was impeaching the president. The editors of the Weekly Standard, an influential neoconservative journal, came to Clinton's defense. "As a result of that vote, and of the neo-isolationist arguments that leading Republicans made to support their position, Republican foreign policy is now mired in pathetic incoherence," the editors wrote. "Is this the party of Reagan or the party of [Patrick] Buchanan?"

After the 2000 election, George W. Bush had to confront that question. In building his foreign-policy and national-security teams, Bush drew from each of the party's competing foreign-policy camps. Most prominently standing in for the hard-line nationalists were Vice President Dick Cheney, a Wyoming native whose mild demeanor belied a bone-deep conservatism, and John Bolton, a favorite of Jesse Helms who served under Bush as a top arms-control official at the State Department and later as ambassador to the United Nations. (He was so openly disdainful of both arms control and the world body that the Senate refused to confirm him as ambassador, and he was seated under a recess appointment.) The internationalists were represented at the State Department through Secretary of State Colin Powell, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and State Department policy head Richard Haass.

But the Bush administration also was stocked with leading neoconservative lights, most notably Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, considered an intellectual high priest among neoconservatives; Pentagon number-three Douglas Feith, a former protégé of Richard Perle; National Security Council official Zalmay Khalilzad and Cheney chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby, both former Wolfowitz protégés; and Perle, a member of the Defense Policy Board.

No one knows how Bush might have used the dynamic tension between those camps to forge a new Republican narrative. After the national trauma of 9/11, his foreign policy quickly emerged as an alliance of the hard-line nationalists and neoconservatives with the rapid marginalization of Powell and the internationalists. Bush himself revealed this in his January 2002 State of the Union address, in which he declared that the war on terrorism would be global and go far beyond targeting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Evoking an image of America anointed by God to confront a spreading evil around the world, preemptively and unilaterally if need be, Bush also put nations seeking weapons of mass destruction (an "axis of evil" that included North Korea, Iraq and Iran) directly in the U.S. crosshairs.

While Bush's speech played well in the U.S. heartland, it struck much of the world as messianic and menacing. The American superpower, fresh from "victory" in Afghanistan, now was brandishing its sword at rejectionist nations, with almost no consultation with allies or coalition partners. The Bush neoconservatives believed that American ideals and the U.S. military would not just contain or deter but decisively defeat Islamic extremism, the spread of weapons of mass destruction and the radical states that nourished those scourges. From that vision flowed other elements of the Bush doctrine: a focus on coercion and regime change, preventive war and unilateral action masked by ad hoc "coalitions of the willing."

As former national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski told me at the time, "After victory in the Cold War, a number of 'grand visions' competed conceptually for preeminence in the United States, and one of them was the neoconservative vision. President Bush adopted their worldview."

This worldview yielded a costly and unpopular preventive war in Iraq, the spread of anti-Americanism worldwide and a pronounced decline of trust in the quality of U.S. leadership. For perhaps the first time in the modern era, even close U.S. allies came to distrust American motives. The eventual result was that top neoconservatives and hard-liners who stoked the ideological fires and steered foreign policy in the first Bush term, winning the president to their cause in the process, were shown the door during his second term (including Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, Scooter Libby and Donald Rumsfeld).

The second Bush term was driven by the more cautious and moderate vision of Republican realists and liberal internationalists, most notably Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. They attempted to mend ties with bruised Western allies, engaged in negotiations even with "evil regimes" in North Korea and Iran, and reinserted the United States into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a mediator. This won the derision of neoconservatives. "What we've seen is a real wavering on the principles that were articulated throughout the first term, when Bush seemed to be a truly revolutionary figure," Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank and intellectual home to many neoconservatives, told me at the time.

Now Mitt Romney must reconcile the tensions between these competing foreign-policy camps. That will require, first, the rendering of a verdict on the Bush years. The neoconservatives who dominated Bush's first term, unrepentant about the Iraq War, continue to argue for greater American assertiveness against adversaries such as Iran and military support for democratic revolutions in places such as Libya and Syria. Tea Party hard-liners remain suspicious of entangling alliances, arms-control treaties and institutions of global governance such as the United Nations, while the evangelicals among them have a visceral connection to the Israeli Right.

"The ghost of the Cold War consensus that supported U.S. leadership of a global, commercial order has passed," says Walter Russell Mead, "and that has created disarray in U.S. foreign policy in general and a civil war in the Republican Party in particular." The GOP's populist energy now comes from people who want the United States to stop being the world's policeman and social worker, focusing instead on fixing what's broken at home. Mead sees the party factions competing to enlist the Jacksonian tea partiers as foot soldiers in their particular causes. He adds:

My reading of the popular psychology is that the neoconservatives will win that competition by providing the foreign-policy strategy and political language that attracts very threat-sensitive Jacksonian populists. If I'm right, the Republican foreign policy that emerges from this election will favor global engagement, assertive interactions in the Middle East and a large military budget.

In other words, the tea partiers will back the neoconservative worldview that dominated the first Bush term. What is perhaps most notable about that shift, however, is the degree to which more moderate Republican realists and liberal internationalists feel increasingly marginalized in a party that continues to move markedly to the right.

Brent Scowcroft, a lifelong Republican who served in the Gerald Ford and Bush 41 presidencies, notes that there always have been strident people in American politics, but in the past there were a greater number willing to aim for cooperation and compromise. Now his party has embraced the Newt Gingrich approach of "rote opposition and 'just say no,'" says Scowcroft, who calls this approach "grossly dysfunctional." He adds, "That makes it very hard for any president to lead internationally."

Romney's task of articulating a Republican foreign-policy narrative is complicated also by Obama's deftness in occupying the middle ground of liberal internationalism, most obviously evidenced by his decision to keep Robert Gates on as defense secretary. Thus, some of his foreign-policy initiatives in the realms of nonproliferation and Middle East peacemaking have been supported by moderate Republicans, including Scowcroft, George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell, Richard Lugar, Gates, and Chuck Hagel.

To draw clear distinctions with the Obama record, Romney has attacked the president from the right while embracing Ronald Reagan's "peace through strength" rhetoric. That explains both Romney's endorsement of major increases in defense spending and the size of the military even as the nation ends two ground wars and his criticism of Obama as weak and conciliatory toward adversaries.

In Romney's narrative, Obama's outreach to the Islamic world and talk about past U.S. missteps--supporting autocrats in Muslim countries or adopting counter-terrorism policies that ran "contrary to our ideals"--amounts to apologizing for America's greatness. "Never before in American history has its president gone before so many foreign audiences to apologize for so many American misdeeds," Romney wrote in his 2010 book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness. "It is his way of signaling to foreign countries and foreign leaders that their dislike for America is something he understands and that is, at least in part, understandable."

Romney has focused his most intense criticism at Obama's pressure on Israel to end settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem as a way to bring Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Successive Democratic and Republican administrations going back decades have opposed settlements, but Romney argues that Obama's approach amounts to "[throwing] Israel under the bus." The clear message, driven home by Romney's visit to Israel this summer in his sole overseas trip of the campaign, is that Romney would back Israel unconditionally and adopt the "hands-off" approach to the Middle East peace process that George W. Bush took in his first term.

Regarding great-power relations, Romney also has taken a hard line, criticizing the Obama administration's "reset" in relations with Moscow and tolerance of China's unfair trade practices. "Russia, this is, without question, our number one geopolitical foe. They fight every cause for the world's worst actors," Romney told CNN. And Romney has threatened to label Beijing a "currency manipulator" on his first day in office if the communist regime continues to refuse to float its currency against the dollar. "If you are not willing to stand up to China, you will get run over by China, and that's what's happened for twenty years," Romney said.

Romney's surrogates also criticize Obama's attempts to build international consensus for action at the United Nations as multilateralism run amok, too often tying America's hands. They accuse the administration of "leading from behind" in the NATO operation to oust Libya's Muammar el-Qaddafi, belittle its willingness to negotiate with adversaries such as Syria and Iran, and deride its attempts to close the Guantánamo Bay prison as being soft on terrorism.

"Like Ronald Reagan, Governor Romney believes that America and the world are better off when the United States leads from a position of unchallenged strength, and that our values should animate our foreign policy," former ambassador Richard Williamson, a foreign-policy adviser to Romney, said in an interview. "Contrast that to President Obama's preference for 'leading from behind,' for engagement for engagement's sake, and his undue deference to multilateralism that has compromised U.S. policies towards Syria, Iran and North Korea."

Romney's critique has a common theme: Obama's outreach to global constituencies, and embrace of a multilateral worldview, represent a turning away from "American exceptionalism," or the notion that the United States embodies a unique set of values, principles and attributes that make it a beacon of democracy and the natural global leader. "I believe we are an exceptional country with a unique destiny and role in the world," Romney said at the Citadel last year. "Not exceptional, as the President has derisively said, in the way that the British think Great Britain is exceptional or the Greeks think Greece is exceptional. In Barack Obama's profoundly mistaken view, there is nothing unique about the United States." He adds, "If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your President. You have that President today."

Of course, one danger of such a hard-line foreign-policy narrative is that it takes lessons from the Reagan era out of time and context. Reagan burdened the country with high levels of debt, for instance, to overwhelm the monolithic threat of the Soviet Union. That gamble paid off with the Soviet collapse. Today, by contrast, both the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and secretary of defense argue persuasively that the United States' crippling debt is the number one national-security threat to the nation. Yet when Obama proposed creating a bipartisan deficit-reduction commission whose hard medicine would be guaranteed an up-or-down vote in Congress, a number of Republicans who had previously supported the idea changed positions to thwart the president, a clear indication that a post-Cold War consensus for addressing the nation's most pressing problems remains elusive.

There also is a danger that the Romney narrative may remind voters less of Ronald Reagan than of George W. Bush, and it could lead to a repeat of Bush's controversial first-term mistakes. Chief among them, in the view of some, was the failure to recognize some of the important implications of the current age of globalization, such as the erosion of national borders, empowerment of nonstate actors and political awakening of ordinary citizens around the world. These developments have created problems such as terrorism, the threat of proliferation and destabilizing revolutions that can be dealt with only through multilateral cooperation. As Scowcroft puts it, "The decision by the [Bush 43] administration to go in the opposite direction, and try and deal with those problems as a unilateral nation-state using traditional military power, is what brought America to the point of crisis."

One interpretation of the evolving narrative of American power is that after periods of transformative upheaval brought about by crisis or confrontation, the system ultimately self-corrects to a more sustainable foreign policy bearing hallmarks of the liberal-internationalist worldview. Something similar happened after the revolutionary first terms of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, when the foreign-policy pendulum eventually swung back to more realist sensibilities during their second terms. In that view, the obvious foreign-policy continuity between the second Reagan term and the George H. W. Bush administration and between the second George W. Bush term and the Obama administration may represent a sort of sweet spot between the dynamic political tensions that shape America's role in the world.

Trying to explain American foreign policy by the various "schools" of foreign-policy thought is ultimately too simplistic, because modern American presidents have pursued a pretty consistent set of general principles you might call "pragmatic idealism," which is heavily guided both by American ideals but also by situational balances of power,

said Robert Kagan, the neoconservative intellectual and author whose book, The World America Made, has been lauded by both Romney and Obama. He goes on:

We will have predictable arguments between different foreign-policy camps that end predictably, but there is far more continuity to U.S. foreign policy than the candidates and experts like to acknowledge. That's why despite Obama's running as the polar opposite of President Bush, Obama's foreign policy looks more like the Bush administration's than almost anyone expected.

A more ominous interpretation of the current debate about American power would view the steady disappearance of traditional realists and liberal internationalists within the Republican Party as enduring. The realist/internationalist wing of the party may be fading with the passing of the Cold War generation of Republicans who championed it and as a result of the party's shift toward the South and Mountain West.

"In terms of the division between the neoconservative and realist wings of the Republican Party, I would argue that all of the intellectual energy is on the neoconservative side," Elliot Abrams, a deputy national-security adviser in the Bush 43 administration, told me in a comment echoed by other prominent Republicans. "It's hard to think of anyone below the age of forty who is pushing those ideas anymore. Where is the next generation of Republican realists?"

If the Republican Party moves so far to the right that liberal internationalists have no home other than with the Democrats, their brand of international engagement and moderation risks becoming just another political football tossed about in the partisan scrum of Washington politics. In that case, U.S. foreign policy will continue to vacillate wildly whenever power changes hands between the parties, the congressional opposition will keep stubbornly obstructing the president's foreign-policy initiatives out of a sense of duty and ideology, and the perceived erosion in the quality of U.S. global leadership will persist. Meanwhile, the ongoing quest for a bipartisan, post-Cold War consensus on America's rightful role in the world will remain quixotic. That's not a prescription for American exceptionalism but rather a narrative of continued American decline.

This article originally appeared at The National Interest, an Atlantic partner site. Follow @TheNatlInterest on Twitter.