A New Republican Foreign Policy? by Kevin Sullivan

Despite the centrality of economic issues in voters’ minds, foreign policy has surprisingly played a prominent role in a number of Republican debates.

But what makes this election’s foreign policy discussion different from prior Republican contests?  The candidates still attempt to ground their foreign policy in mutual reverence for President Reagan, but in this election there is an emerging realization by the GOP electorate, that foreign policy is firmly grounded in economic relationships. The era of great ideological struggle is over, as the United States seeks to find its place in a profoundly changed world. The emergence of a multilateral economic order has forced the candidates to reevaluate the American role in world affairs.

While globalization has been a buzzword for decades, Americans are now feeling its effects more strongly than ever. And just as the United States is suffering an identity crisis, so is the Republican field. The global political economy has forced its way into issues where national security once dominated.

The Republican debate over immigration reform has provided a fiery starting point. Amnesty is still an anathema to Republican voters, but debate exists on topics rarely heard before, such as “good immigration.” If the United States is going to stop its economic decline, it needs to offer a friendly environment for educated foreign workers. However, the candidates’ are still scrambling to be the toughest on illegal immigrants, with Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich facing harsh criticism for their perceived past immigration heresies.

Candidates have struggled to seem pro-free trade while wooing the blue-collar vote. President Obama’s tardiness in enacting free trade agreements with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia, is not a prominent line of attack. Will the GOP be the free trade party in this election, or attempt to reinvent themselves with an economically nationalist platform? Former Senator Rick Santorum’s attempt to bring the blue-collar electorate to the aid of the GOP by promoting manufacturing conflicts with Governor Mitt Romney’s free-trade enthusiasm.

The candidates’ positions on the critical issue of trade with China have failed to attract significant attention; despite an interesting debate on the topic between Governor Romney and Governor Jon Huntsman, prior to the latter’s withdrawal. Mr. Romney’s threats of employing tariffs against China were rebuffed as naive by Mr. Huntsman, who Governor Romney criticized for serving as the President’s ambassador to China. While Congress has mulled anti-Chinese currency manipulation legislation, discussion has been surprisingly quiet among the candidates.

While economic concerns have seized those issues for both major parties, the GOP’s greatest identity crisis comes from Representative Ron Paul. Despite minimal media attention for Representative Paul, it is clear that the presidency of George W. Bush has forced some conservatives to reassess their foreign policy priorities. Several factors have influenced this development.

If the GOP is seriously concerned with the national debt, then its support for vast military spending must come to an end. Given political realities, the party cannot provide a balanced budget purely through cuts to domestic entitlement programs and remain successful. Given the Republican opposition to tax cuts, the necessary spending cuts must come from American military spending. Mr. Paul is one of the greatest potential allies to President Obama in his fast-approaching battle with House Republicans over the new defense budget.

However, the roots of Representative Paul’s position predate this issue. The tea party has targeted foreign aid as taking from the American poor and giving to the developing-world rich. A military capable of fighting two overseas wars is no longer popular, because of the damage America suffered in Afghanistan and Iraq. The War on Terror rallying cry of the GOP field remains, but public support for continued involvement in Iraq and the military occupation of Afghanistan is lower than ever. This anti-war sentiment has made its way into the ranks of the GOP primarily thanks to Mr. Paul.

This identity crisis will keep the discussion of foreign policy alive in an election focused on the economy. Hypocrisies among GOP domestic economic goals and national security goals undoubtedly exist, but the economic philosophy of lower taxes and less regulation in broadly shared. While Mr. Paul’s challenge is real, we must wait to see if his movement prompts a major revision of American foreign policy.

Kevin Sullivan is a sophomore in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, and he serves as a section editor for the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs' Look Back section