Two panels on Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) dramatically underscore the tensions over foreign policy among conservatives in the Donald Trump era.
The first was conversation on foreign policy realism sponsored by the Charles Koch Institute (CKI) and the second was a panel on "China's expansion." There were a number of other panels and addresses related to foreign policy during the conservative conference, mostly focused on threats abroad, like North Korea, China, and Russia, and threats at home (from abroad), but rarely advocating constraint. (Disclosure: Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this website, receives support from CKI and David Koch sits on its board of trustees).
Addressing the main hall earlier in the day on Friday, John Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush, defined a conservative foreign policy as one that addressed "foreign threats and ideologies and protecting American interests around the world." The phrase "American interests" (or "national security interests") in that statement, and statements like it, is doing a lot of work in the definition because it remains mostly undefined and therefore malleable to whatever particular agenda whoever is using it wants to advance.
At the CKI conversation, where American Conservative's Daniel McCarthy interviewed CKI Vice President of Research & Policy William Ruger, Ruger explained that within the context of foreign policy realism, national interests are "narrowly defined," largely around territorial integrity. Ruger also explained that there wasn't really such a thing as conservative foreign policy. Instead, "there are foreign policies that fit for a time, a place, a threat environment that make sense to secure a state."
Ruger highlighted the compatibility between foreign policy realism and conservatism, saying that contemporary foreign policy suffered from Friedrich Hayek's knowledge problem and and ignored constraints like human nature, balance of power, geography, and even unknown unknowns, relying instead on a hubris exemplified by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albrights's statement that the U.S. stands taller and can "see further" than other countries (it can't). "Conservatives should recognize those things," Ruger told the audience. "because they're fundamentally a part of realism and conservative principles."
Ruger stressed that "isolationism and the foreign policy of the Weekly Standard" were not the only options. "There are many options between those two." Ruger also rejected the idea that realist foreign policy was isolationist, pointing out that it relied on free trade, because of the understanding that economic power is tied to military power, and that realism would also "suggest certain views about grand strategy—the use of military power to secure our ends—but it does not say that we have to stick our head in the hands."
"The United States should stand up in its diplomacy and rhetoric for values of democracy and liberties," Ruger added. It should not, he explained, seek out monsters abroad to slay, pointing out that America's founders recognized that foreign policies of meddling had the effect of threatening the experiment of liberty at home, in part by "giving up the advantages of the new world [and the constraint of geography] by getting embroiled in the old." War, the founders understood, "would make us more like those old, corrupt European countries, and less the glorious city on a hill."
"The United States used to have a more realist foreign policy," Ruger explained, "From Washington's farewell address to 1898 and the Spanish-American war, the U.S. pursued a very restrained, very realist, very prudentialist foreign policy. The United States eschewed general peacetime alliances, and did not intervene aggressively abroad, particularly for liberal causes." He pointed out the U.S. declined to get involved in the European revolutions of the late 18th century, because its leaders "differentiated between those things that were necessary for America's safety, and those that were unnecessary or even harmful."
Interventionist foreign policy put "conservative principles at stake," Ruger noted, stressing that it did not mean that any conservative should be "against all war period—the U.S. has to defend itself," but that it was crucial to understand there are unintended consequences.
"Realism is about the use of military power and support for liberalization and free trade," Ruger explained. "That's very different from spreading democracy or liberalism through the bayonet or the sword. We aren't even making the world safer for the people we say that we are helping." Ruger pointed to Libya as a prime example of the U.S. intervening in a foreign country and leaving it far worse off than it was before, adding that the Iraq war was also a failure (Ruger, who served in Afghanistan, points to the 2001 invasion as an example of a war justified under a realist foreign policy because of the 9/11 attacks and the Taliban's support for and sheltering of Al-Qaeda).
"The idealism you see in liberal internationalism and neoconservatism doesn't take the world as it is," Ruger pointed out, even though outside of foreign policy such a view is often a conservative one. Ruger pointed out that had President Reagan made the decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Lebanon after the Beirut barracks bombing in today's political climate, he would be called a surrenderer.
"War is the health of the state, war grows budgets, war grows government, war grows the surveillance state, war threatens liberty," Ruger stressed. "We have to make sure it's absolutely necessary for our safety."
"7,000 Americans were killed since 9/11 in our wars, that's a consequences, that's a cost we have to work through," Ruger said. "We have to be clear-eyed about what those costs (of war) are."
Addressing the issue of NATO, the alliance President Trump questioned the fairness and usefulness of on the campaign trail, Ruger explained that one had to "look at alliances not in a kind of ideological fashion but in a sense of do these alliances help make us safer. Are they necessary for our security, relative to the costs (not just manpower and budgetary) but also the potential of being dragged into a war, or have an ally act in a way that provokes war?"
Ruger said he had a hard time seeing how NATO expansion makes America safer. "Sometimes you can stimulate conflicts you don't intend." Ruger acknowledged there were many reasons NATO made sense,. "Does it make sense now?" Ruger asked. "We ought to have a real conversation about that, because they commit us potentially to war."
Ruger discussed illiberal regimes abroad, including Russia and China, and how the U.S. ought to relate to them. "U.S. foreign policy should be aimed at making America safer," Ruger explained. "Sometimes that means that you have to tolerate other states doing things internally that we don't love… because there's nothing we can do about it." The U.S. had to be "kind of hardheaded" about the limits of the power to effect regime change.
"A realist approach isn't a naive or pacifist approach," Ruger stressed. "We don't have to love Russia or Putin… but what could the United States have done [over Crimea]? Were we supposed to fight a war to protect the sovereignty of Ukraine, which is not an ally of the United States?"
Ruger highlighted the importance of the U.S. nuclear arsenal as a deterrent, and that it shouldn't be undervalued. "That should give us some confidence that it would have to be a very, very foolhardy and irrational set of leaders in another country" to threaten the U.S. Ruger said it was important to talk about modernizing nuclear capabilities, including asking questions like whether all three legs of the nuclear trident were necessary. "Maybe not," he offered, pointing out that China has an effective nuclear deterrent with a far smaller nuclear arsenal. The most important part, according to Ruger, was demonstrating that the U.S. has the capacity and the credibility on its nuclear arsenal, and that it has the commitments that "sends the signal to the world, if you do X, then this could happen to you." Ruger pointed to the role of nuclear proliferation and deterrence in India and Pakistan had as a "pacifying effect in those relations."
Asked about China's expansion, a fear that ran through a number of the CPAC events, Ruger suggested that the U.S. should "try to command the global commons… what that means is that the United States should have a robust blue water navy, it should be able to do presence patrols in key areas in the world," and make sure that sea lanes of vital trade routes are open. "We should be able to have protection of government systems from cyberattacks," he added. "We should be sure we're very alive to new challenges."
Neverthless, given all that, Ruger continued that "in some cases, we don't have to worry so much about China threatening our blue water capability. China is a rising power but still not a peer competitor, and certainly not a peer competitor in open water."
"We have a lot of ability to cramp the style of China if it tried to break out," Ruger explained, "there are also other powers in the region that want" to be a balance to China.
"It's not as if China's course is obvious," Ruger continued. "The progress and the rate of change does not predict that it will go on forever. They're not going to grow at the same economic rate forever." Ruger recalled a line by President Calvin Coolidge that the thing to remember when looking to deal with 10 problems coming down the road is that "you don't have to deal with all 10 at once—nine could end up in the ditch."
"You don't want to undermine our economy today," Ruger warned, "in case China does become a peer competitor in the future." Less government spending now, then, Ruger explained, could help make a necessary build up in the future possible. Ruger stressed that increased military spending did not mean increased defense, and told conservatives they ought to stop treating the military bureaucracy as an "honorary member of the private sector," saying it was prone to the same problems any other part of the government is.
"Let's try to spend the money we do allocate better before we spend more," Ruger offered, suggesting that that was something the American people would support. He pointed to polling by CKI on military defense spending that showed the public in general underestimating how much the U.S. spends on defense but believing that that low-ball amount was sufficient. "We're not, as conservatives, treating the Defense Department the way we treat other government spending," Ruger noted. "Terrorism is a threat, it's not the same kind of threat the Soviet Union posed during the Cold War." Some of the best counterterrorism, Ruger explained, is "done through policing and police cooperation," not regime change and/or large-footprint military excursions.
Ruger was also asked about Iran, another country whose threat ran through other events at CPAC. Bolton called on Trump to abrogate the Iran nuclear deal—the president was one of a few Republican candidates who declined to tear up the deal on day one of his administration, and his defense secretary, James Mattis, has expressed support in the U.S. continuing to make a good-faith effort to honor the deal so long as Iran does. The questioner pointed out Iran was a "theocratic regime," and in his answer Ruger stressed that that "doesn't necessarily matter for what the U.S. should do" because it "can't just deal with countries that look like" the United States. "We shouldn't think of the regime type of another state" to determine how to deal with that state, Ruger explained. "The American national interest is territorial integrity. That should be number one."
Ruger warned about the "fatal conceit" in contemporary U.S. foreign policy that "you can control the world and achieve the results" you want, and pointed out that it was necessary in order to defend and protect the country.
"The United States is the greatest country in the world," Ruger told the audience, "but it doesn't mean we're responsible for every good or bad thing that happens in the world."
Earlier in the day, John Bolton boasted that the U.S. had created its "own world order," saying the U.S. had to fight ISIS in a way that would not only destroy them but keep Iran from taking advantage of that. "Our worldview rests on the exceptionalism of America," Bolton told the crowd in the main hall, "faced often with a hostile world that neither understands nor appreciates what makes America different. We are not looking to be a part of an international world order." Bolton and his fellow-travelers just want to shape it. Ruger's want to engage the countries of the world where it works, but avoid engagements that end up putting America's homeland at greater risk. Bolton echoed another fear common at CPAC, about globalists looking to tell the U.S. want to do. But foreign policy realism—which focuses on America's national interests in a narrow way and sees the rest of the world as full of potential partners—not as one giant playground for the U.S. to reshape in its image—is the surest way to protect the country from bulwarking. A world in which you don't meddle will likely not be as interested in meddling with you.