U.S. Foreign Policy Discourse Needs a Dose of (Conservative) Realism

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BOLOGNA, Italy — In a speech delivered Oct. 23, Rand Paul—the golden child of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party—rejected the basis of U.S. foreign policy since World War II. Paul laid out four principles which form the basis of what he called the “case for conservative realism” in what is an obvious step by him in the process of securing the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. His four principles recognize that (1) military force is and always has been an important role in national defense; (2) only Congress can authorize the use of force and intervention, (3) peace and security require diplomacy and leadership; and (4) the nation is only as strong as the economy.

Whatever one’s political leanings, this is a groundbreaking moment in the development of foreign policy discourse in the United States. Even taking into account the vagueness inherent in his speech’s policy prescriptions and the difficulty he (along with any other politician trying to articulate a coherent foreign policy as President Barack Obama’s trouble tackling the issue shows) faces in dealing with problem of ISIS, it revives a debate that has not been heard in this country in over half a century. Since the closing days of World War II when the looming Cold War subsumed all other foreign policy discourse, advocacy of the traditionally American policy of non-intervention has been suspiciously absent in mainstream circles.

For almost 70 years, the only foreign policy choice offered to voters was what color of necktie they preferred their leaders to wear while they drove up military expenditures and entangled the country in conflicts abroad that seemed to the average citizen to be outside of the U.S.’s vital national interest. The lack of a counterweight in the post-Cold War world enabled the past three presidents to engage in unrestricted military adventurism which has overextended the U.S. military and damaged the country’s prestige.

Paul staked out ground on foreign policy that rejects this long-standing bilateral consensus and puts him in opposition to Republican Party dogma. For a party that suffers from an aging voter base and political positions out of touch with key demographics, and that has struggled to put forward a Presidential candidate who can capture even just 50 percent of the vote since George W. Bush won reelection in 2004, this is the next in a long string of wake-up calls. Unlike his father Ron Paul —who was unable to gain traction for his much more extreme and almost isolationist views during the 2008 and 2012 Republican primary elections— Rand Paul appears at this stage to have the momentum moving into the 2016 primaries that will force the neo-conservative party wing to fight tooth and nail if it wants to preserve its hegemony, giving the American electorate a chance to re-evaluate the role that the United States should play in the world.

If Paul’s four principles resonate with a wider audience than the long-neglected libertarian wing of Ronald Reagan’s big tent and gain traction with the rest of the party, they could be put before the entire American electorate. If Hillary Clinton receives the Democratic nomination, the 2016 presidential election might even become a national referendum on the foreign policy of the United States. Clinton’s increasingly hawkish views might even create a situation where idealistic voters who turned out in droves to vote for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 in response to his promises of hope and change will do the unthinkable and turn their backs on a Democratic Party that has failed to offer a competitive policy alternative to Bush’s irresponsible military adventurism in all corners of the globe.

During his six years in office, Obama’s foreign policy waffled between the naïve and the reckless with equally disastrous results. The withdrawal from Iraq that was supposed to remove a costly U.S. commitment and produce greater peace and stability in the region set into motion a chain of events that threatens to once again involve the United States, while the unconstitutional and illegal intervention in Libya to depose Muammar Gaddafi resulted in the collapse of that state, the spread of conflict to Mali, and caused instability across the region.

What the United States needs more than anything is a serious re-evaluation of its foreign policy priorities and strategies. Paul’s Oct. 23 speech promises to deliver that by offering a different vision for the world where the United States can return to its constitutional system of checks and balances, determine its true vital national security interests, and fulfill its role as a superpower in the international system in the same way as it calls on China to act as a responsible stakeholder. If it does not come this time, the Republican Party will likely continue floundering in darkness until it decides to return to its roots and begin offering competitive policy alternatives to those put forward by the Democratic Party.

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