Republicans built a reputation over the second half of the last century as the most reliable party on matters of foreign policy. During that period we produced arguably the two most savvy world leaders, Eisenhower and Bush, Sr., while the Democrats produced the two worst, Carter and Johnson. In Presidential elections late in that period, debates on foreign policy matters could be almost comical as the Democratic and Republican candidates agreed with each other on issue after issue. Foreign policy was a Republican preserve and we handled it very capably.
However that period was defined by a nagging frustration shared by conservatives and liberals alike. Our desperate need to contain the advance of Communism made us vulnerable to being manipulated and even extorted by some very foul regimes.
A nation and a political party keenly interested in seeing the spread of basic human dignity and liberty across the planet found itself propping up crude dictators like Ferdinand Marcos, The Shah of Iran, the apartheid government in South Africa, and a long list of others. The long Cold War stalemate left much of the developing world with a depressingly brief political menu. “This evening we’re offering right-wing oppression, with a sprinkling of economic freedom under a fascist glaze, or perhaps you would prefer a left-wing reign of terror, pressed tightly beneath a faux equality, and served in identical gray jumpsuits?”
The collapse of communism brought with it the opportunity to move beyond that absurd dilemma. In spite of the complexities of our new, multi-polar world, anyone taking the time to look at the broad picture would have to admit that the planet is a safer place for liberty than it has ever been. In fact, much of the turmoil that has persisted is a consequence of the expansion of liberty. As people get a taste for freedom, they agitate for more.
But the twenty years that have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall have not been entirely a story of triumph for America or for liberty. There are many mistakes we have made that we should not repeat, and many of them have emerged from within our own Party.
There are sizeable fringes of the GOP who harbor competing fantasies about the Party’s future foreign policy direction. The Ron Paul wing would love nothing better than to see us leave the UN, bring our troops home, and hunker down behind a walled-off Mexican border, leaving the rest of the planet to collapse under the weight of their funny-sounding languages and garlicky foods. The Cheney wing encourages us to use America’s superior firepower to build a geopolitical empire, steering the world’s major resources toward America’s interests, under a very thin guise of democratization. Neither of these fringes is dominant, but they are noisy and distracting, and Cheney’s wing actually held significant influence in the last administration.
In reality the most important unresolved foreign policy issue within the GOP is how best to encourage the flowering of liberty in the world. In spite of the puzzling ineptitude of the previous administration, the world is still moving solidly toward greater human freedom. But that administration’s worst foreign policy legacy, out of what has to be regarded as an epic list, is its confusion over the difference between the democracy and liberty, and its failure to seriously evaluate the appropriate role of the military in achieving those goals. That, more than Ron Paul’s paranoid isolationism or Cheney’s dark vision of Empire, is the muddle that the Party must sort out if we are to find a path to a more peaceful, prosperous, and free world.