Why the GOP is punting on foreign policy

October 5, 2011

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.

Three years ago in the presidential primary debates, it would’ve been stunning if practically the only mention of foreign policy had come when a candidate suggested sending troops to Mexico to help fight the drug war. Yet in this year’s contentious Republican debate season, that’s exactly what’s happened, with Texas Governor Rick Perry being the one to float the lead trial balloon.

The surprise here isn’t that Republican candidates’ views on foreign policy are both underdeveloped and unimportant to their base — more on both of those points later — but how dramatically our world has changed in the past three years, largely due to the global financial crisis and recession.

Let’s think back even further, to 2000, when another Texas Governor, George W. Bush, promised America that he wouldn’t engage in Clintonian “nation-building” if elected. Needless to say, the shock of 9/11 changed the international calculus, forcing the Bush administration to develop a response that involved two wars and intense diplomacy with nearly every global power and international institution in existence. But the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks has provided a symbolic moment of closure. More importantly, President Obama has largely kept his promise to withdraw troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, outlining a plan more in line with opinion polls than General Petraeus’ guidance.   (Sadly, the withdrawal doesn’t mean Afghanistan won’t face quagmire — it just means U.S. forces won’t be the ones bogged down.)

When the boldest foreign policy idea GOP candidates put forward is to send troops to Mexico, the internationalism that mainstream Republicans once preached is at a nadir. That’s probably because that internationalism was more Wilsonian in nature, and the ideological base of the Republican party has shifted to the right.  Unfortunately for Republicans, this is going to create a conflict down the line in how they present their nominee to the general electorate.

Right now, Republican candidates are talking the Tea Party’s language — energizing the base by focusing on cutting spending and entitlements at home, and delivering them the “Fortress America” they thirst for. Yet military spending has been America’s largest single budget expenditure for decades now. And the military-industrial complex employs an awful lot of people around the U.S. The Tea Party’s other big underpinning is of course patriotism. How does the Republican nominee square a “strong” U.S. with the need to reduce spending by cutting budgets at the Defense Department?

It stands to reason that GOP candidates give voters what they want:  they’re pledging to cut spending and create jobs while maintaining a strong defense. But the promises the presidential candidates are making are simply incompatible under scrutiny. That’s why, when pressed at the debates on which departments they’d cut first, they resort to low-hanging fruit like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Education. But GOP candidates are going down this path with a purpose:  maintaining a laser-like focus on the economy works. They are hammering away at President Obama’s failure to provide an economic U-turn in his first term, which is all straw poll and primary voters want to hear about.

It’s fine to focus on the difficult problems facing our country economically, but reality is that U.S. presidents have a far freer hand in setting foreign policy than in dictating economic agendas, as the domestic travails of the Obama administration have shown us. While the president is moving troops as if on a chessboard and killing terrorists with drone attacks, when it comes to the economy, Congress holds all the cards. Obama can’t get the Congress to raise the debt ceiling in a peaceful fashion or work on his jobs bill. And Congress, it turns out, is focused on foreign policy too, of a kind, by introducing a trade bill targeting currency manipulators, namely China. The bill also carries significant economic repercussions — China claims that such a bill would spark a trade war– but even here, the leading GOP candidates are largely silent. (That being said, Obama surely hopes the bill will dissolve before he has to voice his opinion with a veto or a signature).   China is the biggest issue facing the U.S., long term, right now. Yet, good luck getting any Republican with decent poll numbers to talk about it.

There is a vast spectrum of foreign policy sentiment across the GOP field, from Ron Paul to Mitt Romney, that, should one of them become our next president, will arguably shape our country’s future far more than their economic policies will.  The GOP candidates’ positions are all over the board, but the current scope of the presidential discussion does not necessitate precision.  George W. Bush had to reprioritize and transform his foreign policy strategy in the wake of 9/11—but at least he had a strategy and priorities to begin with.

Therein lies the problem: short of a huge international catastrophe, whether natural or man-made, nothing is going to distract voters and the media from the economy and the high unemployment rate plaguing the U.S. And these *international* issues must be addressed by both Obama and the GOP nominee. It would still be helpful, however, to know the foreign policy positions of the Republican candidates, besides invading Mexico, before such a catastrophe occurs.

This essay is based on a transcribed interview with Bremmer.

Photo: (L-R) U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, (R-TX), Texas Governor Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and businessman Herman Cain pose before the Republican Party of Florida presidential candidates debate in Orlando, Florida, September 22, 2011. REUTERS/Scott Audette

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According to the US Census Bureau, exports to China about 91 billion in 2010. Imports from China (lost American economic activity) about 365 billion. A trade war or “taxing the rich” would be a benefit to the American worker.

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