America First; or America -- First in the World?
July 31, 2012
Despite the rancor and simplification of what passes for Presidential campaigning in the USA at present, the challenge presented by Republicans to the Democrats in foreign policy is elemental. There used to be an internationalist wing of the Republican Party that supported parts of the“liberal” global agenda: free trade, democracy, human rights, international co-operation, perhaps best represented by what we used to call the Rockefeller wing of the party. George H.W. Bush emerged from this tradition. (Some people think George the Younger distorted this tradition by claiming to invade Iraq in part to establish democracy there, i.e. after coming up empty on the weapons of destruction front.)
These days one would be hard-pressed to find remnants of this tradition in the Romney campaign. Despite a certain contradiction, Republicans vacillate between poles of isolationism and muscular interventionism. Admittedly, most voters do not choose between candidates based on foreign policy considerations. Ethnic groups with connections to foreign countries may be sensitive to issues concerning “the old country.” Immigration from Latin America is an obvious example. So Romney’s sojourn in Poland had some resonance with Polish and maybe Catholic voters in the USA. “The Jewish vote” in the US is clearly connected to US policy toward Israel and Romney’s visit there. But besides the idea that the US should throw its weight around abroad to help blood relatives in the USA, the ordinary Republican supporter probably wants the US to disentangle ourselves from the rest of the world…especially now inexplicable wars in places like Afghanistan and considerable military presence in places like Iraq, not to speak of scores of military bases all over the world. A strong defense of the American homeland is always a campaign winner, but economic and defense assistance for foreign countries requires extreme parsimony. Jihadi terrorism is today’s anti-communism, but funds are more easily justified for your local police than for the Libyan constabulary. So that’s the “America First” part of Republican foreign policy.
The “America First in the World” part consists of throwing our considerable international weight around to serve American interests. Another reason Romney went to Poland was to illustrate his differences with Obama on US military bases abroad—the present Administration has set aside its previous interest in anti-missile bases in Poland (supposedly versus Iran). Romney also wants to “get tough” with China (now that he is no longer exporting jobs there!). He has said that Russia remains an adversary to the US.
So it has been left to the Obama Administration to uphold the tattered banner of liberal internationalism, although such a stance is always vulnerable to disenchantment. For example, supporting the end of authoritarianism in the Middle East (“the Arab Spring”) permits the return of extremist political partiesand may not lead to democracy; supporting elections does not necessarily lead to democratic government (Iraq, Russia, and most African countries). Respect for international constitutionalism, i.e. the United Nations with its great power vetoes, does not permit a NATO style intervention in Syria.
The Republican campaign versus Obama represents an assault on tattered liberal internationalism from present day isolationists and present day muscular interventionists. Right now, the Obama Administration’s counter-terrorism policy has taken out Bin Laden, is substituting drones for many American combat personnel in Afghanistan, and utilizing combined persuasion and military equipment in a variety of hot spots around the world. It appears the Democrats today have unified and implemented the official Republican aspirations of the past; the Republicans today reflect their 1930s, 1960s and 2001 heritage. They seem to have no new ideas for the world of 2012.