Respectable journalistic opinion in the United States and abroad has coalesced in recent months around several points of agreement regarding the current foreign policy tendencies of the Republican Party. First, that the Republican or Grand Old Party (GOP) has no foreign policy approach today—at least nothing worthy of the name. Second, that isolationism is on the upsurge within the GOP, as evidenced by the rise of the Tea Party since 2009. Third, that neoconservatives continue to have a stranglehold over Republican foreign policy approaches. Finally, that the GOP presidential candidates debates have demonstrated a complete lack of seriousness among Republicans regarding international issues. The fact that several of these four points are mutually contradictory has not restrained numerous critics from putting them forward, often within the same breath. Nevertheless, all four points are mistaken. Not only that—they reveal a lack of understanding about the internal dynamics of the Republican Party. The truth is much more interesting.

Let’s start with the last point first—the idea that the GOP as a whole has shown a lack of seriousness on foreign policy. In fact, for those paying close attention, Republicans are engaged in an open, earnest, and consequential debate right now over the precise foreign policy positions they should support, which is exactly what parties should do when they are out of power. Last November, for example, two leading conservative think tanks—the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute—co-hosted a televised debate specifically on foreign policy issues. That debate, like several others this season, contained a number of fascinating and instructive exchanges between various candidates on issues ranging from Afghanistan to Chinese economic challenges, to the interrogation of suspected terrorists. Discussion of foreign policy issues during primary season is rarely as detailed or extensive as foreign policy experts would like. Nevertheless these televised debates taken together have altered the dynamic of these primaries, and have actually punished the unserious and the unprepared. The candidates who were least able to articulate coherent, informed positions on foreign and domestic issues, Texas Governor Rick Perry and businessman Herman Cain, floundered. The candidates who were most able to do so, former speaker of the house Newt Gingrich, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Texas Representative Ron Paul, and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, ended up benefitting. So the idea that Tea Party supporters or GOP voters in general were looking for a know-nothing approach to major national and international challenges is demonstrably untrue. What is true is that conservative Republican audiences are looking for conservative candidates and conservative ideas in relation to US policy dilemmas. The real question is which precise GOP foreign policy stance will win out in 2012, and why.

One way to help answer that question is to start with the framework used so effectively by author Walter Russell Mead in his now classic work, Special Providence. Mead argued that American foreign policy is characterised by the interaction between four distinct traditions or subcultures: Wilsonian, Jeffersonian, Hamiltonian, and Jacksonian. Wilsonians believe that the United States has both a moral and a practical obligation to spread democratic forms of government worldwide in order to create a peaceful international community under the rule of law. This is the moralistic, crusading strain in American foreign policy, deeply interested in the domestic behaviour of other states and in how they treat their own people. Wilsonians have a strong initial preference for the peaceful resolution of international disputes, but can take on a militant and missionary cast once embarked on war.

Jeffersonians emphasise the need to avoid military interventions or alliances abroad. For proponents of this tradition, the United States must be an example to others, but should keep to its own affairs and not intervene forcibly overseas. Instead, the moral and financial costs of US foreign policy strategy should be kept to a bare minimum. The Jeffersonians’ chief concerns are the corrupting effects of international power politics and warfare on US traditions of limited government; effects that typically include increased debt, taxes, large standing armed forces, and erosions of civil liberties.

Hamiltonians view the United States as rightfully a great power, internationally active and engaged. They are comfortable with the traditional instruments of such power, including for example a professional military, centralised national policy institutions, and shrewd diplomacy with foreign regimes of various types. At the same time, they expect that the promotion of trade between nations will ultimately lead to the emergence of an international system that is freer, more prosperous, and friendly to the United States. Hamiltonians pay particular attention to the promotion of US commercial and financial interests overseas.

Finally, Jacksonians are intense American nationalists, based in the country’s heartland. They take great pride in the nation’s military, and look to protect the sovereignty, honour, economic wellbeing, and security of the United States within a dangerous world. Jacksonians are generally sceptical of elite-sponsored legal, multilateral, and idealistic plans for international improvement, including American commitments to that end, but once the United States is at war or has been attacked they tend to be relentless and unyielding.

The beginning of wisdom in understanding the foreign policy tendencies of the modern Republican Party is to grasp that its centre of gravity within the country at large—politically, geographically, culturally, and ideologically—is Jacksonian. This has already been true for several decades, and has only become truer over time. The last time Jeffersonians were a dominant Republican force was before World War II. During the great debates of 1940-41 over whether to assist Great Britain against Nazi Germany, conservative GOP Midwesterners like senator Robert Taft argued for staying out of the war on the grounds that US intervention would corrupt and alter America’s traditionally limited forms of government. An opposing Hamiltonian element within the GOP, based among its more moderate Northeastern WASP elite, simultaneously argued for American intervention against Germany. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in effect settled that debate, leaving Hamiltonians to take the lead within the Republican Party on international issues and to regularly secure the party’s presidential nomination. Yet the more conservative, Midwestern wing of the party remained unhappy with this transformation, and eventually moved in a Jacksonian direction rather than signing on to any elite bipartisan foreign policy consensus.

During the 1950s, heartland GOP conservatives were fiercely anticommunist and favoured the most aggressive US policies against the Soviet Union and its allies. At the same time, they were deeply sceptical of internationalist projects such as the United Nations and foreign aid. This same Jacksonian combination of beliefs was shared by a rising new force within the Republican Party: upwardly mobile conservatives from the nation’s South and West. In 1964, these Sunbelt conservatives secured the nomination of their favourite candidate, senator Barry Goldwater, for president. Goldwater lost the fall election in a landslide, but the Republican Party would never be the same. Southern and Western Jacksonians had announced their presence as a powerful force within the GOP, and in the coming years they continued to abandon the national Democratic Party in droves, as did white working-class voters alienated by liberal stands on everything from civil rights and crime to anti-war protests.

Richard Nixon governed essentially as a Hamiltonian president, on foreign policy as well as domestic issues, though with some Jacksonian defiance over cultural issues along with Vietnam. Former California governor Ronald Reagan’s nomination and election in 1980 represented the definitive triumph of the GOP’s Jacksonian wing. In effect, over the course of the Cold War, the Republican Party moved from being an anti-interventionist, Jeffersonian party at heart, based in the old Midwest, to a hawkish, Jacksonian one, centred above all in the nation’s Sunbelt. It remains so today.

The phenomenon of neoconservatism has also been one of the most misunderstood and exaggerated influences within the modern GOP. Republican foreign policy hawkishness well predates the emergence of the neoconservatives. The original neoconservatives, like Jeane Kirkpatrick, were in many cases foreign policy Hamiltonians, committed to US international leadership and appalled by the moralistic self-flagellations of post-Vietnam liberals. Yet the Democratic Party’s internal agonies over Vietnam also had the effect of eventually driving numerous Cold War Wilsonian Democrats into the arms of the Republican Party on foreign policy and military issues. This Wilsonian strain had an impact on the foreign policies of Ronald Reagan, although less than is commonly assumed; Reagan personally was always more of a straightforward anticommunist than a global meliorist at heart.

The end of the Cold War and the election of Bill Clinton left Republicans rather divided and uncertain over how to approach foreign policy. A new cadre of muscular Wilsonians or second-generation neoconservatives at places like The Weekly Standard argued for benevolent American hegemony overseas. Hamiltonian realists and Jeffersonian isolationists each argued their case. Given the collapse of the USSR, one might have expected Republicans to return to their old Jeffersonian traditions. They did not. Instead, most Republicans rallied around the idea that the United States faced multiple ongoing security threats, and needed if anything to spend more on defence, albeit with greater caution in relation to humanitarian intervention overseas. This, for example, was the platform of Texas governor George W. Bush when he ran for president in 2000—a platform designed to satisfy the party’s Jacksonian base as well as its remaining Hamiltonian elites.

It was not until after the terrorist attacks of September 11, that Bush was persuaded of a different approach. Latching on to Wilsonian arguments regarding democracy promotion, Bush decided that the answer to 9/11 was to democratically transform the Middle East, beginning with a US invasion of Iraq. His 2005 second inaugural address, for example, spoke in the most sweeping terms of transforming the international system. At the same time, he gave voice to Jacksonian America’s more prosaic yet bloody-minded determination to hunt down and punish by whatever means necessary the terrorists responsible for 9/11. In the process, not only Iraq, but the Republican Party itself was transformed into a Wilsonian-Jacksonian alliance on foreign policy issues. To a remarkable extent, this alliance endured the political setbacks of the Bush years, for example, by nominating its best personal embodiment senator John McCain for president in 2008.

The election and presidency of Barack Obama raised certain questions of Republican foreign policy identity that have yet to be resolved. The national mood today, including within the GOP, is one of general fatigue with international expenditures, interventions, and nation-building exercises in locations such as Afghanistan. Republicans, like most Americans, are now focused on the economy rather than on foreign policy issues as their main concern. For conservatives especially, this means a return to traditional principles of limited government, limited spending, limited deficits, and fiscal restraint, as against the economic and regulatory experiments of the Obama era. A minority of Republicans, led by Ron Paul, believe that such a return to fiscal restraint also requires a return to the Jeffersonian foreign policy approach of the 1930s, but most do not. On the contrary, most Republicans today, believe in strong national defences, aggressive counter-terrorism, support for US allies, and American leadership abroad. This has not prevented an interesting variety of specific foreign policy stands. Look at the positions taken by the GOP candidates for president over the course of 2011.

Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann is an excellent example of a foreign policy Jacksonian. She has argued for high levels of military spending, relentless counter-terrorism methods, and American persistence in Afghanistan. She characterises Obama in stark terms as incompetent and soft on national security. At the same time, she questions interventions like the one in Libya, which she describes as having no relation to US national security interests, and is deeply concerned that the Arab Spring may lead to the spread of radical Islam.

Rick Perry is another Jacksonian. In an August 2011 address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, he stated his opposition to military adventurism. At the same time, he calls for robust measures against terrorism, US success in Afghanistan, firm support for Israel, and an end to cuts to national defence. Perry advocates deep reductions in foreign aid, as Jacksonians frequently do. He has expressed in pungent terms his belief that the Communist Party of China will end up on the “ash heap of history”.

Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman’s approach is primarily Hamiltonian, albeit with a strong Jeffersonian dosage. A Huntsman administration would emphasise pragmatic diplomacy and strategic retrenchment alongside continuing American internationalism. The former ambassador to China recommends US engagement overseas, pivoting from a military focus to an economic and diplomatic one. He argues for disentangling from counterinsurgency warfare against radical Islam in Iraq and Afghanistan, and shifting attention to the commercial challenges emanating from East Asia. Finally, he regularly calls for a movement toward what he calls, “nation-building at home”, a Jeffersonian pitch that foreign policy as a whole cannot be allowed to distract from the basic task of rejuvenating America’s domestic welfare. Huntsman’s posture of cool foreign policy realism appeals to some journalists and experts, but not to the base of the Republican Party, which is sceptical of his overall tone.

Mitt Romney, one suspects, is a Hamiltonian at heart, although his detailed foreign policy platform also contains strong Jacksonian and Wilsonian elements. He would doubtless keep the United States active overseas, militarily, diplomatically, and economically. If anything, he argues that Obama is surrendering American primacy abroad through a set of naive, mistaken policies in relation to multiple security challenges. Romney has the most impressive foreign policy team of any of the candidates. His decision-making style is typically careful and methodical. He has made Jacksonian criticisms of Obama as weak and indecisive. He has also offered the Wilsonian argument that America should do more to stand up for democratic principles abroad. Yet Romney’s whole manner suggests somebody who would ultimately tend toward the Hamiltonian, internationally as elsewhere: practical, business-minded, and engaged, rather than belligerent, ideological, or crusading. The result would probably be a foreign policy more hawkish than Obama’s, but fundamentally pragmatic and internationalist in orientation.

Newt Gingrich is sui generis, on foreign policy as on other matters, but he is clearly not a Jeffersonian. On the contrary, his foreign policy statements might be said to combine Hamiltonian, Jacksonian, and even to some extent Wilsonian themes. He obviously takes seriously the idea that Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela all pose major security challenges to the United States, as do jihadist terrorists. He upbraids President Obama for failing to support America’s friends or oppose its enemies with adequate intensity. Gingrich enjoys poking holes in liberal shibboleths. He calls for US international leadership to promote democracy, but has warned in specific cases like Egypt against allowing Islamists to come to power. He also has a longstanding, special interest in maintaining America’s competitive edge in science and technology. Altogether, he is a conservative internationalist and not a Jeffersonian.

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, of all the candidates, sounds the most Wilsonian and the most like George W. Bush circa 2005. Santorum says repeatedly in speeches and debates that it is incumbent upon the United States to spread democracy throughout the world, a theme to which he returns with obvious sincerity. This stance has not especially hurt him, but nor has it helped him politically. Republican primary voters are simply not all that interested in Wilsonian foreign policy visions right now. Like most of the GOP candidates, however, Santorum also strikes strongly Jacksonian notes on foreign policy and military issues.

Ron Paul is pure Jeffersonian. He consistently opposes American interventions in conflicts abroad, and warns of the dangers these interventions ultimately cause to civil liberties at home. Indeed Paul opposes virtually the entire apparatus of US military bases and overseas alliances inherited from the early Cold War era, and calls for a radically different foreign policy approach based on strict economy, strategic independence, and non-intervention. He would not only bring home American troops from Afghanistan immediately, he would slash defence spending, disband NATO, and dismantle US foreign aid expenditures. Paul has generally been written off by journalists even when he does well, but he is no joke. He advocates with great consistency a distinctly libertarian and anti-interventionist political tradition that has not been well represented within any major American political party in recent years. His core supporters are intensely devoted to him for this very reason. They will organise, donate, and turn out in winter blizzards to vote for him. Still, Paul is not going to be the Republican nominee. His strict isolationism, while very appealing to his most devoted followers, is a political liability within a Republican primary. Many grassroots Republicans admire Paul for his transparent honesty and his advocacy of limited government, not for his dovish foreign policy views. The GOP hasn’t nominated a genuine isolationist for president since 1936. It is not about to do so this year.

A brief additional list of leading Republican non-candidates or failed candidates reinforces the central point: there is no latent Jeffersonian or isolationist majority within the GOP on foreign policy issues. Herman Cain was a know-nothing candidate with regard to foreign policy, and he received his comeuppance, but he never advocated a clear anti-interventionist approach along the lines of Ron Paul’s. Appealing candidates who did not run—for example, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Florida senator Marco Rubio, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Wisconsin representative Paul Ryan, South Dakota senator John Thune, and Indiana representative Mike Pence—all espouse various types of conservative internationalism that combine Hamiltonian, Jacksonian, and even sometimes Wilsonian elements.

In the end, we can say that over the course of 2011, between 80 per cent and 90 per cent of likely Republican primary voters indicated their support for candidates who basically agreed on the following things:

  • Defence cuts have gone too far since 2009.
  • China is a strategic rival of the United States.
  • Iran’s nuclear weapons program must be stopped, by US military intervention if necessary.
  • Washington should support Israel unequivocally against all of its enemies within the Middle East.
  • Suspected terrorists should be subject to very aggressive interrogations.
  • Foreign aid should be reformed in the direction of greater economy.
  • The United States needs to stick it out in Afghanistan, militarily.
  • President Obama is disturbingly weak in his handling of US national security.
  • America should remain the world’s leading power.

The lesson is clear: the bulk of the GOP is not Jeffersonian, dovish, or truly anti-interventionist in its foreign policy approach. The base of the party is essentially Jacksonian, and as long as Obama remains in the White House, Republicans will make Jacksonian criticisms of him. Costly nation-building and international improvement missions are not politically popular right now. But the Wilsonian element in American and for that matter Republican foreign policy approaches is too deeply rooted to disappear altogether. Both major parties, once in power, generally lean toward US engagement rather than disengagement overseas for reasons of international necessity. Moreover GOP foreign policy elites in Washington tend to be either Hamiltonian or Wilsonian at heart. The most likely direction for any future Republican administration, therefore, is some sort of Hamiltonian-Jacksonian alliance, with or without a Wilsonian addendum. And indeed the leading GOP candidate as of January, Mitt Romney, advocated just that sort of direction.

This is an article from the American Review issue "The right candidate" available as an iPad app.