Are the Republicans and Democrats Trading Places On Foreign Policy?


It is true that in the early years of the 21st century some might see Democrats as growing more aggressively Hawkish on foreign policy, while Republicans seem to be turning more anti-war and isolationist. Reality, as usual, lies somewhere in between.

The genesis of this view might come from remarks by Tea Party standard bearer (and likely 2016 presidential candidate) Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who stirred the multitudes at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference with a ringing swords-to-plowshares speech. Many saw that speech as a fundamental shift in the core values of the Republican Party toward a leave-things-be position. In fact it wasn’t that at all. The strong national security, pro-drug war, pro-gun, and tight immigration ideals of GOP stalwarts like Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham remain – as they have for generations – at the core of mainstream Republican conservative beliefs.

To me, we aren’t as much seeing a schism in the Republican Party as we are the emergence of the Tea Party as a fully grown libertarian-flavored movement whose social views – unlike conservatism’s active opposition to gay marriage, marijuana, and undocumented immigrants – are live and let live. Their economic views are for smaller far less-costly central government and their stance on personal freedoms runs toward the Jeffersonian view that, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

That is nothing new for libertarians and is actually a somewhat softer position than that taken by older libertarian leaders like Paul’s father, former Congressman Ron Paul, who two years ago said he was seeking, “a return to the traditional U.S. foreign policy of active private engagement but government noninterventionism [that] is the only alternative that can restore our moral and fiscal health.”

What is telling is that the sequester, which cut 10% from the discretionary portion of the federal budget, and hit the defense portion particularly hard, was, in fact, as a commentary in Foreign Policy put it “a budgetary sword of Damocles … positioned over the one form of expenditure the party holds most dear: the defense budget,” yet urged on by Tea Party activists, was kept in place and allowed to make those deep defense cuts. 

The true test will come when we see who – someone like Rand Paul from the Tea Party? or some more traditional conservative Republican? – will be the Republican presidential candidate in 2016. By then, we will see if what is not yet an irreparable schism in the party, will become a permanent split if libertarian and traditional conservative views are not reconciled. That may push the Tea Party faction into splitting off into a new political party of its own.

Meanwhile, Democrats are far from the wimpy, knee jerk peaceniks the right tries to paint them. Yes, there is a strong anti-war, world comity wing of the Democrats. But the positions of Democratic moderates have long dominated the party. For instance, every Democratic president of the 20th century except Carter was a wartime president and all but one of the significant wars in that century (the first Gulf War being the exception) were fought entirely or in large part under Democratic presidents: WWI, Wilson; WWII, Roosevelt and Truman; Korean War, mostly under Truman; the Vietnam War, began under Kennedy and Johnson; Kosovo, under Clinton. In this century, the last part of the Iraq War and the last half of the war in Afghanistan were fought under Obama.

A piece last September in the global affairs magazine Diplomatic Courier noted that in the recent past the view many Americans had of Democrats was as a party with a “distrust of military force in favor of diplomacy [which] has also opened them up to attacks that Democrats are weak on national security issues and (according to the stereotype) therefore would prefer to talk their way out of problems rather than assertively confront them.” But the piece adds that the 2012 Democratic platform, “tangibly demonstrated how Democratic thinking on national security has evolved: the platform listed the ‘three key pillars’ of global leadership as ‘a prosperous and inclusive economy ... unsurpassed military strength, and enduring commitment to advancing universal values.’”

With big swaths of the world from North Korea through the Middle East to Central Africa at war or threatening it, with political and economic instability almost ubiquitous worldwide (North America seems an island of tranquility by comparison), it seems unlikely that a political movement espousing US disengagement or actively isolationist will assume leadership in this country.