Are Republicans turning isolationist?
October 24th, 2011
03:15 PM ET

Are Republicans turning isolationist?

Editor's Note: Dr. James M. Lindsay is a Senior Vice President at the Council on Foreign Relations and co-author of America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy. Visit his blog here and follow him on Twitter

By James M. Lindsay - Special to CNN

Sam Tanenhaus argued in yesterday’s New York Times that Republicans are turning isolationist. It’s a provocative claim. It’s also not quite true.

Here is Tanenhaus’s argument in a nutshell:

In a time of severe economic woe—a “national emergency,” as Mr. Obama termed it in mid-September—foreign policy issues often lose their immediacy. But with the exception of impassioned support for Israel, conservatives have been embracing a retreat from the greater world that recalls the isolationism of a bygone age in which belief in American “exceptionalism” combined with distrust of other countries and “entangling alliances,” even with other democracies. The most conspicuous example is the strong anti-interventionist sentiment in the period leading up to World War II, when conservatives flocked to rallies organized by the America First Committee, with its slogan “England will fight to the last American.”

There are four good reasons to doubt that Republicans today are channeling their inner Charles Lindbergh.

First, the GOP presidential candidates—who, after all, have a good feel for the mood of Republican voters—aren’t calling for a return to Fortress America. To the contrary. Almost all of them criticized President Obama’s Friday announcement that all U.S. troops will be leaving Iraq by the end of the year. Michele Bachmann went so far as to complain:

In every case where the United States has liberated a people from dictatorial rule, we have kept troops in that country to ensure a peaceful transition and to protect fragile growing democracies. We will now have fewer troops in Iraq than we have in Honduras—despite a costly and protracted war.

Those are hardly the words of someone looking to shrink America’s global footprint.

Second, most GOP candidates are not looking to give up American global leadership. Indeed, the central criticism that Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich level against the White House is just the opposite: Obama is surrendering American leadership.

Third, most GOP candidates aren’t seeking to cut defense spending, even though their commitment (rhetorically at least) to balancing the federal budget gives them an additional incentive to do so. Mitt Romney actually vows (as Tanenhaus notes) to increase defense spending. Republicans voters aren’t much different. A recent Harris Interactive poll found that 70 percent of Republicans oppose cutting defense spending.

Fourth, the GOP presidential candidates who are campaigning on a pledge to do less in the world aren’t faring terribly well in the polls. The Wall Street Journal notes today that Ron Paul’s non-interventionist philosophy is a deal-breaker for many Republican voters. Jon Huntsman, who wants to do less in Afghanistan so America can focus on rebuilding its “core” back at home, registers between one and two percent in national polls. Gary Johnson, who like Paul is philosophically opposed to an interventionist foreign policy, doesn’t draw even that level of support.

What we are witnessing in the GOP foreign policy debate, then, is not an embrace of isolationism (or non-interventionism as proponents prefer to call it). Rather, we are seeing a change in the kind of internationalism the party favors. The neo-conservative approach to foreign policy that champions using U.S. diplomatic and military power to unseat unsavory regimes and promote democracy has lost its luster. Many Republicans have turned instead to a traditional hardline conservative foreign policy approach that takes American global leadership as a given, believes that military might drives world politics, doubts the value of soft power, foreign aid, and international institutions and cherishes the freedom of the United States to act unilaterally. This perspective has the virtue of reassuring its adherents that the one area in which the United States is dominant—military might—is also what matters most in world affairs.

Whether a traditional conservative hardline foreign policy would work in a globalized world where power is being dispersed and many problems resist military solutions is a good question. But that’s a topic for future blog posts.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of James Lindsay.

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Topics: 2012 Election

soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. Robert

    "isolationist" is a word used by those who support the status quo Obama/Bush foreign policy. What is more isolating than giving billions to an Egyptian dictator and bailing out the central bank of Libya before the latest unrest-propping up dictators in the middle east-using drones which kill many civilians. I say these are the policies that truly isolate us from peoples around the world.

    October 24, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Reply
  2. Reggie

    You want isolationist? How does building a fence all across Texas to keep the Mexicans out sound?
    Or how about maintaining the Cuba embargo?
    THAT'S isolationist. How do those ideas sound?
    Because almost every single candidate except Paul is for them.

    October 24, 2011 at 4:43 pm | Reply
    • Onesmallvoice

      Such is to be expect from someone like you with your obvious limitations. In fact, we need to normalize relations with Cuba. All this right-wing hatred does get old and is totally unproductive too!

      October 24, 2011 at 5:40 pm | Reply
      • Reggie

        Whereas someone like YOU, OSV, is to be expected to completely miss the point of a post like mine by your total incomprehension of tone and nuance in the written form.
        And you did not disappoint.

        October 24, 2011 at 11:31 pm |
    • Thinker23

      So you're telling us that Paul is willing to open the border with Mexico and allow millions of illegals and thousands of tons of narcotics into the US? This alone is a pretty good reason for most Americans to vote for someone else.

      October 24, 2011 at 6:22 pm | Reply
      • Reggie

        Why do they come here is the question. Why not Brazil or Costa Rica or Uruguay? They come here because of the incentives.
        So yes, I AM for Ron Paul because he wants to remove the incentives, like sanctuary cities and tuition cuts for example.
        As opposed to spending millions upon millions building and manning an ISOLATIONIST (for that is the word) 12ft fence across thousands of miles of Texan toundra which is apparently sophisticated enough to withstand any 13ft ladder.
        Remove the incentives; that's what Ron Paul says.
        Open and let everyone in? That's what Romney and Perry say.
        And you, just got burned.
        So run along and tell your masters you need better material because Free America is winning.

        October 24, 2011 at 11:28 pm |
      • Thinker23

        Reggie... I do not think that you're THAT naive to believe that "removing the incentives" will stop illegal immigration. I can assure you that it will not. It is possible to prevent their children from attending public schools and they'll all join violent gangs. It is possible to prevent them from getting subsidized medical care and they'll come to the emergency rooms in critical condition. "Removing the incentives" will make the illegal immigration problem MUCH WORSE... And then Mr. Paul will blame the Democrats, the Republicans, the Zionists but not himself for it.

        October 25, 2011 at 6:58 am |
      • Reggie

        Good 'ole demaguoging, huh? First it was "opening the border and letting in thousands of tons of drugs" and once that argument is destroyed, it's "removing the incentives will make things worse!!!" Why? Well, because you can "assure it".
        Ok. If such nonsense is what you assure, it definitely PROVES that the globalists are scared and have to send their shill armies out in force to block him every step of the way, shills such as yourself, sir.
        Tell your masters it's not working; we're not buying their garbage anymore. Vote how you wanna vote, shill.
        To the rest of us patriots: Free America Now.

        October 25, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  3. Onesmallvoice

    If the Republicans aren't turning Isolationist, they need to. Isolationism is an excellent idea whose time has indeed come. We desperately need to stop trying to bully the rest of the world and concentrate on our internal peoblems. Let the rest of the world take care of itself. It worked for thousands of years on end!!!

    October 24, 2011 at 5:37 pm | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    I hope the GOP candidates would realise how contradictory their polices are. Isolationalism and militarism don't go hand in hand. It looks as if they swim with the stream and make inconsistent statements all the time.

    October 25, 2011 at 10:29 am | Reply
    • Occupado

      You mean contradictory like a presidential candidate who said he wouldn't get us into anymore dumb wars? Or that he was going to reduce the deficit? Or that he would have the most transparent administration in the history of the United States? Or that C-Span would have cameras in the room when they drafted the healthcare bill? Or that he would be a uniter and not a divider? Or that he'd close Gitmo? Or civilian trials for Al Quada suspects? Or trickle up prosperity?

      You mean contradictory like that?

      October 27, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Reply
  5. Cantmakethisup

    The republicans only want isolation for the American people while the big companies are ready to give away the store for the all mighty dollar.

    November 15, 2011 at 6:48 pm | Reply

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