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Regaining a Realistic Foreign Policy

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A period out of power has given conservatives and Republicans a golden opportunity to reassess their approach toward American foreign policy. Such periods in opposition are often fruitful for political parties, which can reformulate creative and winning ideas on issues of public policy. But there is nothing to say that they will necessarily do such reformulation. Success in political and conceptual rebuilding requires intellectual honesty regarding current strengths and weaknesses. Conservatives pride themselves on a clear-eyed view of political and policy realities. It is entirely fitting that this same clear-eyed view be turned on conservative foreign policy approaches.

The foreign policy of George W. Bush contained several major and underappreciated successes. Relations with Asia’s major powers were well-handled, the full scale of jihadist terrorism was comprehended, and terrorist attacks after 9/11 prevented. But conservatives have yet to admit the political damage sustained by the Republican Party because of Iraq. However sincere Bush’s intentions, the first three years of mismanaged war in Iraq fatally undermined the credibility of his presidency and his party with a majority of Americans. His eventual, courageous, and well justified embrace of a new surge strategy in 2006–07 could not erase the already firm popular impression of reckless incompetence. In truth, this firm impression created an environment that would have made it exceptionally difficult for any Republican presidential nominee to win election in 2008, even if the autumn financial meltdown had never occurred. It is therefore strange what little emphasis most conservatives and Republicans place on the Iraq war for their party’s comprehensive loss of power. Even more important, in terms of first principles, is the fact that Bush pursued an approach in Iraq that departed from traditional Republican strengths and conservative insights alike.

There have always been at least three main strains or schools of thought in conservative and Republican foreign policy thinking.

A curious narrative has taken hold among some conservatives, one that says that the greatest possible danger now would be for Republicans to embrace a “realist” foreign policy. According to this storyline, great Republican presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush pointed the way to principled success with a foreign policy of muscular idealism, while supposed disappointments such as Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and George H.W. Bush paid the price both politically and morally for embracing foreign policies of directionless, cynical realism. The only problem with this storyline is that it is quite inaccurate. The true history of the gop’s foreign policy traditions is actually more interesting than that, and over the long term more flattering to Republicans.

There have always been at least three main strains or schools of thought in conservative and Republican foreign policy thinking: those represented by nationalists, hawks, and realists. Nationalists emphasize the protection of American sovereignty. Hawks emphasize both the moral and the practical arguments for military intervention overseas. Realists emphasize the careful coordination of force and diplomacy. Successful Republican foreign policy presidents have been those who balanced all three of these strains. Unsuccessful presidents have been those who failed to do so. The relevant comparison is therefore not between stereotyped realists such as Eisenhower or Nixon and stereotyped idealists such as Roosevelt or Reagan. Rather, the relevant comparison is between those Republican presidents who implemented traditional conservative and American foreign policy ideas with skill, prudence, and care, and those who did not. On this score, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush really belong in the same category of successful and realistic yet principled foreign policy presidents. George W. Bush on the other hand, whatever his strengths, erred on the side of insufficient realism in Iraq, and he fumbled the central foreign policy decision of his tenure so seriously that Republicans have yet to recover from its consequences.

The reason that this matters going forward is that President Obama is really no more of a foreign policy realist than was George W. Bush. Obama made great gains politically by criticizing Bush on Iraq, and by touting the virtues of pragmatism. Yet the Obama administration has adopted a foreign policy approach that in important respects cannot be described as realistic. Obama seems to view himself as somehow uniquely capable of transcending international differences, partly through his sheer existence, and partly through what might be called the transformational power of unilateral diplomatic outreach. His basic foreign policy instincts are not so much realist as accommodationist. All the more reason for Republicans and conservatives to develop a cogent critique of Obama’s foreign policies — not one based upon a reflexive defense of every past feature of the Bush doctrine, but one based upon a greater dose of skepticism and tough-mindedness. In other words, Republicans need to reclaim their own history, and then they will be able to reclaim mastery of American foreign policy.

Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan are the most frequently cited examples of successful and idealistic Republican foreign policy presidents. There are timely lessons to be learned from a closer look at each of them. Both presidents promoted American leadership, a strong national defense, and an appropriately selective policy toward international organizations. Both emanated a sense of principled muscularity and deep patriotism. But both were also usually admirably shrewd, prudent, and realistic when it came to actual decisions regarding war and peace. Despite their famously spread-eagle rhetoric, Roosevelt and Reagan were each very careful regarding large-scale U.S. military interventions abroad. They did not view American ideas of democracy promotion as requiring the abandonment of traditional or prospective allies. They distinguished between greater or primary enemies and lesser or unrelated ones. They were willing to use diplomacy and hard-nosed negotiation when necessary in relation to international challengers. In practice they relied more heavily on assertive containment or deterrence than on strategies of direct military rollback. And they each maintained domestic support for essentially hawkish policies by refusing to overreach politically.


Take theodore roosevelt. He is often caricatured by supporters and detractors alike as something of a bombastic cowboy. In fact, his foreign policy as president was characterized by considerable skill, caution, and realism. Prior to entering the White House, Roosevelt often called for American military action overseas, but as president, he showed no interest in launching the United States on any costly wars. Roosevelt believed that the U.S. — along with other major powers — had an obligation to extend orderly and humane government abroad. He also believed that in an era of intense great power competition, the United States would be outmaneuvered internationally unless it acquired a stronger navy, control over maritime trade routes, and naval bases overseas. Roosevelt’s most famous saying with regard to foreign affairs was “speak softly and carry a big stick.” He did not mean this as an admonition to strut and swagger. On the contrary, he meant that the United States should avoid commitments it could not keep; be firm, tactful, and patient in negotiations; and not expect diplomacy to be effective unless backed by sufficient military power.

Roosevelt’s focus was not on disarmament, but on building up U.S. naval power to support a more active role from the Pacific to the Caribbean.

Roosevelt presided over an immensely wealthy country that had not yet converted its potential into a major diplomatic role or useable military power with regard to the Eurasian mainland. Even in much of Latin America, the economic and political influence of European powers was often still greater than that of the United States. Roosevelt’s specific concern was that outside powers such as Germany would take advantage of political and financial disorder in states in and around the Caribbean to intervene and establish new military bases there. This overarching geopolitical concern motivated him to engage in some reluctant and small-scale but generally effective military and diplomatic interventions in the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Venezuela. It was also the strategic context for his autumn 1903 support of Panama’s rebellion against Colombian rule, a rebellion that allowed the United States to secure a permanent lease as well as titular sovereignty over a canal zone ten miles wide. In East Asia, Roosevelt supported a regional balance of power by first welcoming Japanese resistance to Russian expansion and then mediating a peace agreement between Russia and Japan in 1905. He refused to issue toothless declarations against Japan’s subsequent expansion into Manchuria, because he knew that the United States had little military ability to back up such declarations or defend the Philippines from Japanese attack. Instead, he signed a sphere of influence arrangement with Tokyo that recognized American influence over the Philippines and Japanese influence over Manchuria.

In Europe, Roosevelt’s ability to check German power was very limited, but he interceded at the Algeciras conference in 1906 to side with Britain and France against Germany on the issue of Morocco, while somehow maintaining cordial relations with Berlin. Between 1904 and 1907, Roosevelt helped organize a second Hague conference on international peace and disarmament, and he was open to arbitration efforts on matters of secondary importance. Fundamentally, however, he believed that the best guarantee of peace was military strength, and he had modest expectations for what disarmament talks could accomplish. Indeed, when it came to America’s own navy, Roosevelt’s focus was not on disarmament, but on building up U.S. naval power to support a more active role from the Pacific to the Caribbean. Overall, the Republican Party benefited politically from Roosevelt’s image as a strong, successful leader in foreign affairs, a benefit of which he was well aware. Yet for the most part, domestic political pressures at the time ran against rather than toward the kind of foreign policy he would have preferred: global, active, and engaged. Roosevelt understood these constraints and managed them quite skillfully, but ultimately he hit the limits of public and congressional tolerance on the question of America’s international commitments. His response to these limits, as president, was to work as effectively as he could to promote U.S. national interests under the conditions of existing public opinion.


Ronald reagan is another successful Republican foreign policy president whose record is often oversimplified, by both the left and the right. Years before entering the White House, Reagan warned that America was letting down its defenses against the ussr. Obviously Reagan took the Soviet threat very seriously. Yet he also held the belief — well-documented and unusual at the time — that through a strategy of relentless American pressure Moscow could be forced into deep arms reductions on terms favorable to the United States. As president, Reagan implemented several key measures to that end. He accelerated the American military buildup that had begun under the previous administration. He provided indirect U.S. aid, weapons, and training to anti-communist insurgents in Afghanistan and Nicaragua. He downplayed the necessity for any immediate arms control agreement with Moscow, arguing that the U.S. needed to restore its military and diplomatic leverage first. He disputed the legitimacy of communist rule within Eastern Europe, and provided covert aid to the Polish trade union movement Solidarity. He waged economic warfare against the ussr, restricting U.S. trade, credit, and technology transfer to the Soviet bloc. He issued sharp rhetorical and ideological challenges to the Soviet system itself, describing it as immoral, dysfunctional, and inevitably doomed. And he tried to pressure Moscow and take advantage of U.S. technological superiority by pursuing national missile defenses. The overall strategy — bold and deliberate — was to challenge the ussr comprehensively, exploit its weaknesses, and if possible reverse Soviet expansion using a wide array of policy instruments.

The aggressiveness of this strategy, and its ultimate vindication, tends to obscure other features of Reagan’s foreign policy approach that were no less important and essential to his overall success. The United States did not embark on any large-scale or lasting military interventions under Reagan. He used force in a way that was brief, small-scale, and popular domestically, and when these conditions did not obtain, he extricated the U.S. from the possibility of protracted military entanglements. Reagan was also eager to reassure Moscow, in private and in public, that he sought no open warfare. He was deeply disturbed to learn that Soviet leaders suspected the U.S. of plotting preventive military strikes on the ussr, and went out of his way to assure them of the contrary. When a genuinely new type of Soviet leader took over, and the possibility of a favorable arms control agreement finally presented itself, Reagan seized it, by signing the inf Treaty of 1988. This step was highly controversial with many of Reagan’s core supporters, but he correctly saw it as the diplomatic payoff for years of tenacity. Reagan undoubtedly believed in the virtues of democracy, but he also believed that there could hardly be any worse outcome than the international spread of communism — especially if it was unintentionally assisted by ham-handed U.S. pressures on autocratic yet allied regimes.

His basic inclination was therefore to bolster and reassure anti-Communist allies rather than to hector them on domestic affairs, albeit with increased attention to the democracy agenda over time. Reagan perceived that the United States was fundamentally strong and would outlast the Soviet system. He consequently saw no need to wage direct military action or preventive war against Moscow. By the time he left office the ussr was conceding on one Cold War issue after another. Reagan’s approach carried political as well as foreign policy dividends. A majority of the American public, while appreciative of Reagan’s reassertion of national pride, were also deeply concerned by the possibility of nuclear war. Many of his specific initiatives such as aid to the Nicaraguan contras were not popular with the general public. By avoiding open warfare or direct U.S. intervention in places such as Poland or Nicaragua, though, Reagan helped reassure the American people of his basic good sense and desire for peace — a reassurance that in turn allowed him to keep his party and its priorities in government throughout the 1980s.

George W. Bush

Now compare the foreign policy approach of these two presidents to that of George W. Bush. Bush was sincerely convinced that in the wake of 9/11 the U.S. could no longer rely on techniques of containment and deterrence. On this point, he was absolutely right — in relation to terrorist organizations like al Qaeda. To this day, however, it remains unclear why strategies of deterrence and containment are irrelevant in relation to rogue states like North Korea and Iran. Bush argued that these rogue states present such an intolerable threat that there can be no delay in overthrowing them, since they might otherwise give weapons of mass destruction to terrorists. But dictators, unlike suicide bombers, look to survive, which in turn affects their readiness to use such terrible weapons against Americans. The rationale for the invasion of Iraq was also curiously blind to local historical circumstances. Bush claimed that Saddam’s overthrow would lead to the spread of democracy throughout the Middle East, and hence to the decline of terrorist groups like al Qaeda. Skepticism regarding Iraq’s suitability for rapid democratization was dismissed by Bush, in a strained use of liberal pieties, as ethnocentric and culturally biased. Yet the forcible creation of an entirely new democracy amidst traditionally inhospitable conditions is truly among the most difficult things any government could possibly undertake.

Skepticism regarding Iraq’s suitability for rapid democratization was dismissed by Bush as ethnocentric.

Nor were American forces properly prepared in 2003 to ease that mammoth undertaking through postwar stability operations, counterinsurgency, or reconstruction efforts — contingencies that were entirely foreseeable and that followed necessarily from the invasion. In terms of why such preparations were not made, there is plenty of blame to go around, but ultimately the responsibility was the president’s. Consequently, Bush must be said to have badly mismanaged the initial phase of the war, allowing for the rise of sectarian violence and chaos in Iraq along with an inflow of jihadist terrorism. Iraq then became what it had not been until after the invasion: a base for al Qaeda and a genuine test of American willpower. Even more baffling was Bush’s refusal over a period of not months, but years, to admit the full gravity of the situation in Iraq, and adjust U.S. efforts to it. It was not until 2006–07 that he finally adopted a policy suited to realities on the ground. It is easy to say that the problem was one of initial policy execution, and most conservatives have conceded this much, but Bush’s errors went beyond that. The implementation and even the very conception of the war were based upon seriously overoptimistic ideas regarding the ease of democracy’s export by force — ideas that should have been suspect to any self-described conservative. For the most part, however, conservatives went along for the ride.

In sum, Bush turned out to be a poor wartime president. His central foreign policy initiative was marked by wishful thinking, unrealistic analysis, misadministration, and a reckless inattention to detail. To be sure, we can and should certainly hope that continuing American efforts are successful in Iraq, as in Afghanistan. It is not possible to abandon these struggles now. But Bush and his legacy no longer require the unquestioning allegiance of conservatives. It is time to rethink the Republican Party’s foreign policy approach, keep that which was admirable about Bush, and reject that which was not.

Bush famously put a sweeping call for the energetic and worldwide promotion of democracy at the center of his second inaugural address, as a kind of permanent solution to all international security problems. Republicans are not about to abandon hope for democracy promotion abroad, nor should they. Indeed, Americans of all parties have long believed that the United States has a special role to play in promoting democratic freedoms worldwide. A common assumption or animating vision throughout the history of American diplomacy has been that the spread of democracy and trade overseas will create a more peaceful, transformed international system, friendlier to U.S. interests and to the democratic way of life. Of course, this vision is not classically conservative, but classically liberal. For this reason, it might be said that classical liberal idealism is hard-wired into the American way of thinking when it comes to foreign policy. There is, however, a wide range of practical policy options that might follow from this premise. The particular challenge for conservatives in the United States has been to fuse or integrate classical liberal and classical conservative insights in a principled and viable way. Any foreign policy approach that completely rejects liberal idealism cannot be called American. But any foreign policy approach that completely rejects traditional conservative insights cannot be called conservative.

A new realism

Traditional conservative approaches to world politics — like traditional conservative approaches to domestic socioeconomic issues — are essentially skeptical and anti-utopian. This is the comparative advantage that conservatives bring to public policy debates. One might say that conservatives are more convincing, and contribute more to the American two-party system, when they do not try too much to act and sound like liberals. The new Republican realism would therefore begin from a principled and genuinely conservative philosophical basis. It would start by recognizing that the international political arena is in important respects a perennially dangerous place, unlikely to be entirely transformed by visions of international law, world disarmament, or global governance. Under such circumstances, the possibility of the use of force always looms in the background. The freedom, safety, and position of any one nation-state are never entirely secure. This is all the more reason to approach transformational or radical foreign policy proposals with a skeptical mindset, which is to say, the traditional conservative mindset.

Conservatism has sometimes been described as the politics of reality. Conservatives pride themselves on their gritty resistance to sweeping, messianic promises of progress from politicians when it comes to domestic matters. That very same tough-mindedness must be applied to foreign policy. There are no permanent solutions to the problems of international security, just as there are no permanent solutions relating to the balancing of freedom, authority, and justice in domestic politics. The preservation of a viable, ordered liberty in even one country is not a foregone conclusion; it requires constant vigilance and care. Conservatives should therefore approach universalistic or perfectionist ideas regarding perpetual peace in world affairs with the same skepticism that they rightly apply to such ideas in domestic politics: they should consider the risk of unintended consequences and think, like Hippocrates, to first do no harm.

A new conservative realism would encompass several broad guidelines or implications for American foreign policy. Call them the ten commandments of Republican realism.

A new conservative realism would encompass several broad guidelines or implications for American foreign policy.

First, consider every major American foreign policy decision in light of whether it safeguards or undermines U.S. primacy in world affairs. This is not only in America’s self-interest. U.S. global preponderance since 1945 has been a central pillar of international prosperity, peace, and freedom. The economic, military, political, and demographic foundations of American preponderance are stronger than commonly believed. But in the spirit of putting first things first, debates over specific decisions such as military intervention must not be wrongly conflated with broader and more fundamental questions of U.S. primacy. To take only one example, superior conventional military capabilities help buttress America’s international position by deterring rivals and reassuring allies. From a conservative realist perspective, there is no excuse for letting such capabilities atrophy. Yet great care and preparation must be taken when it comes to actually sending American troops into armed conflict abroad. The fact that the political left conflates U.S. intervention and American primacy, and therefore resists both, is no reason to fall into the opposite trap.

Second, count on rising and resurgent great powers to be a continuing challenge to American statecraft. Do not expect great power competition to disappear altogether because of the pacifying influence of multilateral institutions or economic interdependence. Russia and China are both autocracies possessed of considerable material capabilities, keen national pride, and a determination to assert their influence regionally and geopolitically. The United States can and should work cooperatively with each of these of these great powers in certain areas such as trade, counterterrorism, and nonproliferation. But strategic competition between Washington, Beijing, and Moscow will persist, requiring steady American diplomacy, strong regional alliances, and a forward military presence on the part of the United States.

Third, distinguish the jihadist terrorist threat from other more distant dangers, name it, and treat it as the deadly threat that it is. The United States is not engaged in a war on terror, or a war on Islamic fundamentalism: It is engaged in a war against specific Islamist terrorist groups who openly declare that they seek to kill mass numbers of American civilians. If anything, Presidents Bush and Obama both understated the sympathy that these groups enjoy among millions in the Muslim world — sympathy that can be converted into new recruits, funding, and shelter. The United States need not be apologetic about using every available policy instrument to prevent such terrorists from inflicting catastrophic harm on the citizens of the U.S. and its allies. Afghanistan is obviously a central front in this struggle, and so is Iraq today, whether or not it was before 2003. The United States cannot afford to lose on either front.

The world’s leading nuclear powers are not about to give up their nuclear arsenals, and it is folly to think that they will.

Fourth, have modest expectations for what nonproliferation regimes can accomplish. Such regimes are fairly easy to circumvent for those nations bent on doing so. Moreover, the world’s leading nuclear powers are not about to give up their nuclear arsenals, and it is folly to think that they will. The U.S. should certainly try to limit nuclear proliferation where possible, but in practical terms the genie is out of the bottle. As a matter of elemental prudence therefore, Americans should maintain their own defenses against these terrible weapons, including a safe, reliable nuclear deterrent, along with anti-ballistic missiles as added insurance.

Fifth, think of diplomacy as simply one tool in America’s foreign policy toolkit, to be used in coordination with other instruments. In itself, diplomacy is neither good nor bad. Diplomacy or negotiations alone cannot transform hostile regimes, and it is useless in the absence of material power. At the same time, conservative realists recognize that there is nothing inherently objectionable about using tough negotiations in concert with other policy instruments to pressure hostile regimes. Indeed, to avoid negotiations altogether would be to surrender a form of power that America possesses. The key under such circumstances is to bargain from strength, and to secure worthwhile concessions in exchange for whatever is given.

Sixth, recognize that deterrence and containment are not entirely outmoded as strategic options in the 21st century. Certainly, suicide bombers cannot be deterred. But the governing elites of Tehran and Pyongyang, however despicable, hope for survival and not for death. The distinction is crucial. It is the reason why deterrence can still work in relation to existing rogue states such as North Korea and Iran. The U.S. can exhaust, contain, and wear down these regimes. They will break down before the United States does.

Seventh, with regard to military intervention, the U.S. should be much more careful than it has been over the past 20 years about intervening abroad, and at the same time much more capable, overwhelming, and relentless when it chooses to do so. From Somalia to Iraq, the pattern must be broken of initially inadequate interventions in peripheral locations of questionable centrality to U.S. security. Picking fights in unpromising locations only encourages the impression of weakness when these fights go badly. Once American forces are committed, however, there can hardly be anything more important than winning the wars the U.S. is actually fighting. This means, among other things, building on the dramatic improvements in recent years in American capacities when it comes to counter-insurgency. If the United States is going to intervene militarily abroad, it must be adequately prepared for the constabulary and reconstruction duties that inevitably follow, or it will only invite humiliation.

Once American forces are committed there can hardly be anything more important than winning the wars.

Eighth, take demands for multilateralism with a grain of salt. Genuine allies are useful, but international organizations such as the United Nations are frequently powerless to shape the central foreign policy decisions of other countries. Nor is the stamp of approval from such organizations obviously of superior value morally, containing as they do a wide range of unelected and unsavory governments amongst their membership. The United States need not apologize for protecting its sovereign decision-making authority on matters of vital interest, as other nations try to do. And certainly on domestic policy issues Americans have the right to choose their own laws through their own democratically elected representatives rather than seeing those laws determined by transnational legal initiatives.

Ninth, maintain and promote free trade wherever possible, not only in the immediate interest of American exporters and consumers, but in the broader interest of buttressing a world order that is astonishingly democratic, prosperous, and peaceful by historical standards. If today’s relatively open international economic system were to truly break down, this might very well cost the average American more than breaking all other nine commandments combined.

Tenth, be realistically modest about America’s ability to fine-tune political reform in other countries. Promote democracy abroad primarily by example. This does not mean that the U.S. must suddenly reform itself domestically to look more like Western Europe. It means that democracy promotion overseas cannot be divorced from a truly well-informed sense of local political and cultural conditions. The United States government has limited ability to engineer positive social change even in some of its own towns and cities, as conservatives are usually the first to understand. Why would such engineering be any less difficult much further far afield, in relation to a region as politically tortuous as the Middle East?

Critics of realism are right to say that power and self-interest cannot be the final end of American foreign policy, but they often draw the wrong conclusions from this insight, assuming that the only idealistic alternative is to focus on the forcible expansion of democracy overseas. The proper and true end of American foreign policy is neither gross international power, nor the export of democracy, but rather the preservation of a republican and constitutional system of government inside the United States. Both the nation’s international power and its promotion of democracy abroad are ultimately means to that end. The gop during the Bush years embraced a foreign policy approach in invading Iraq that, whatever its merits, deviated from that understanding in important respects, and led to a series of electoral and policy failures.

The alternative

While many republicans have yet to admit it, the initial years of frustration in Iraq did much to hurt the gop’s reputation for competence on matters of foreign policy. Still, this does not mean that a majority of Americans suddenly trust the Democrats on such matters. Democrats have been given a chance to showcase their approach toward national security, nothing more. It is not yet clear whether defense and foreign policy issues will have a central role in the 2012 presidential elections, but as Republicans build their central message, national security will no doubt play a part. The political possibilities for conservative foreign policy realism are intriguing. A wide array of swing voting groups including moderates, independents, married women, and college-educated suburbanites tend to appreciate the gop’s traditional reputation for vigilance on national security, but such voters look for peace through strength and not bungled or reckless interventions abroad. The Republican Party must convince these voters that it values peace as well as strength, and that it is willing to use careful diplomacy as well as military vigilance to that end.

Playing down revolutionary visions abroad will not hurt the gop politically. The general public is actually more realistic about foreign policy than is commonly believed. Most Americans, for example, rank the prevention of terrorism and proliferation as significantly higher priorities than the promotion of democracy overseas. To a much greater extent than the country’s intellectual elite, the public instinctively understands that other countries look out for their own interests and that the United States should do the same. The public also tends to be rather skeptical about arguments for U.S. military intervention and prefers working with allies not so much for idealistic reasons as to limit the burden on Americans. To be sure, the U.S. public wants a foreign policy that does not violate core national values, but it also prefers practical strength and success in foreign relations over philosophical debates.

Barack Obama appealed to this popular sense of pragmatism by claiming to be the true foreign policy realist in 2008, one who would keep the country strong while pursuing responsible diplomacy. But the jury is out as to whether Obama’s foreign policy approach in office is actually realistic, and so far the signs are mixed, to say the least. The president’s assumption seems to be that if only the United States reaches out and makes concessions to international competitors, they will reciprocate. True realists make no such assumption. Nor do foreign policy realists place much weight, as Obama appears to, on the possibility that an American president’s personal style, autobiography, and conciliatory language might alter other countries’ perceptions of their own vital interests. Conservative realism would thus be quite distinct from Obama’s own approach, as well as from the approach taken by George W. Bush in going to war with Iraq.

Republicans have numerous models of successful foreign policy presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan from whom to draw positive example today. There is no longer any need for Republican conservatives to defend the overarching approach of George W. Bush, a president whose chief legacies were not conservative. Bush led the gop away from its central ideal: namely, limited government in domestic affairs. This political transformation went hand in hand with an embrace of idealistic overstretch in foreign affairs.

There were signs in 2009 and earlier this year that Republicans are starting to rediscover their central identity as the party of limited government in opposition to the endless spending, regulation, and domestic economic experiments of the Obama administration. If so, this would be an entirely healthy development. The true meaning of American exceptionalism is not to be finally found in its foreign policy, but in a domestic system of governance based upon principles of constitutionalism, individual freedom, and the rule of law. The U.S. founders understood this and said as much. A genuinely conservative approach would therefore be one of realism abroad, and limited government at home, with the former securing the latter.