After a 2010 Congressional election completely absent foreign policy debates, the irony is lost on no one that events around the world now completely dominate recent headlines. At first glance, it would be easy to see the Republican Party as divided from within as it tries to figure out how America should engage the world. On the one hand, the Tea Party is looking to slash America's foreign policy budget down to the bone. One the other hand, we have Republican presidential hopefuls calling on the U.S. to do more and more by itself around the globe as they jockey with each other to see who can be more aggressively unilateralist and interventionist.
But there is a common thread here. Both the Tea Partiers and GOP presidential aspirants believe that essence of foreign policy is almost purely military, and thus the Pentagon is the only foreign policy instrument worth funding.
Let's consider the Tea Party budget war on foreign policy first. No less than 177 Republicans in the House of Representatives voted to have the United States simply stop paying its dues to the United Nations, essentially eliminating the UN as an international partner for the United States. This is a position so anti-UN, so divorced from how America actually operates in the world, that even John Bolton never embraced it when he served in New York -- much less Ronald Reagan. The GOP's strong anti-UN vote came as the UN is playing a key part in America's Iraq and Afghanistan exit strategies and just weeks before the United States pushed the Security Council to authorize airstrikes in Libya.
It is easy to beat up on the UN because of its shortcomings, but let's be honest: we continue to work with the UN because it is in our vital national interest to do so.
Similarly, newly elected Tea Party Senator Rand Paul came out for eliminating all U.S. foreign aid, another popular populist target. But does eliminating foreign aid make any sense at all as we are trying to help secure historic transitions across much of the Middle East and battling global battles diseases like malaria and HIV/AIDS? No, of course not. Many of the cuts proposed by new Tea Party members in the House Republican budget were put together on the back of an envelope with no consultation with Republican foreign policy experts. There are of course areas where money can be saved in carrying out U.S. foreign policy, but the cuts offered by the House appear to be based purely on the ideological belief that we are doing too much around the globe and that multilateral institutions are bad, bad, bad. In short, the Tea Party approach would leave the U.S. military to go it alone at a time when the U.S. military thinks that is an awful idea.
What makes the Republican approach in the House jarring is how much it contrasts with the approach of potential Republican presidential candidates who behave as if the United States should be omnipotent. A number of these candidates pushed hard for the United States to intervene in Libya with no UN authorization, no Arab League support, no alliance, and no one to help foot the bill. As Winston Churchill once noted, "There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them." Yet, Newt Gingrich, when not berating the president for filling out an office basketball pool, said the U.S. should "exercise a no fly zone this evening." Tim Pawlenty, showing a deft touch for public diplomacy, boldly proclaimed, "I'm not overly concerned about our popularity ratings in Europe or the Middle East," as he pushed for early intervention sans allies. Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee also pushed for instant air strikes. All were united in the opinion that the United States should be doing more, not less, and acting regardless of any international authorization or alliance.
The common theme among all the Republican candidates: the United States needs to be more muscular and less bound by diplomacy or convention. The United States needs to stride the globe like a colossus, striking down all those who oppose us, outflanking the Chinese, and making the world safe for democracy. How exactly the United States is supposed to achieve these lofty ambitions as it slashes funding for the United Nations, the State Department, and USAID remains a mystery.
John Norris is the Executive Director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.