American voters have banished US President Donald Trump to Mar-a-Lago while giving strong support to Republicans on Capitol Hill and in many state-level races. The country remains deeply divided, but his desire to see Joe Biden in the White House is clear. Trump's continued refusal to acknowledge his defeat adds to the damage to the Republican Party that the four years of Trump's mistake have already wrought.
What does this mean for the future of Republican foreign policy? We believe the elections are a promising start to renewal and rebuilding. Trump's exit on January 20 will free the Republicans from his acidic stranglehold on the executive's national security system, while the resilience of Republicans in Congress and elsewhere shows broad public support for our party. The question now is whether Republicans can take this opportunity to re-establish a coherent foreign policy vision and restore the strong national security credibility that the party enjoyed for many decades before Trump gave an ax to US global leadership.
To restore Republican credibility, there will be many tasks ahead of us across the spectrum of national security – including values, policies, institutions and people. We do not pretend to offer comprehensive accounting for the past four years or a detailed roadmap for the future. What we would like to propose are some initial considerations that may be useful for Republicans' foreign policy hands as they discuss the party's future in the weeks and months ahead.
Rebuilding credibility requires an honest reckoning with Trump's foreign policy legacy. Both his supporters and critics agree that he has broken sharply with traditional republican foreign policy. For any settlement, it must be recognized that while Trumpism was a disaster in practice, it has some advantages in theory.
In practice, Trumpist foreign policy has been hypertransactional without understanding that geopolitics and the advancement of US interests are a long game – that treason in early rounds will play a role in later rounds. Trump was narcissistic to a cultic degree and demanded submissive loyalty from subordinates and foreign interlocutors alike. He was corrupt and self-employed, and ignored conflicts of interest that affected his own and that of his family.
Every veteran national security politician we know inside and outside the Trump administration has a personal story – "Can you believe this?" – about how Trumpism has compromised US interests in big or small ways. And the whole world has watched Trump and his legal team attempt to steal an election with increasingly desperate and absurd allegations. To say the least, it didn't make the United States look great.
In theory, however, Trumpism is a rather mixed affair. Trumpism's efforts to identify deeper principles and outline a foreign policy framework around them aren't as ridiculous in practice as Trumpism – and contain elements worth saving.
Even so, any serious effort to defend Trumpism in theory suffers from a fatal flaw: it is not a credible attempt to reconcile these principles with the actual conduct of the Trump administration, especially in the areas in which Trump himself is most active and most personally involved. A good example is the Trump administration's National Security Strategy published in December 2017. This document is, in essence, a serious explanation of the traditional Republican perspective. It played a useful role in directing the pieces of defense and foreign policy that Trump didn't care about and that left the national security apparatus, but it didn't stop him from destroying U.S. interests in many other areas.
Compare Trumpism in theory to its practical implementation, and the conclusion is clear: every vision it may have had has been proven to have failed in practice. Its foreign policy record reflects – and exceeds – the worst mistakes of former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.
Like Carter, Trump weakened the United States by failing to tackle a historic crisis. Carter mistreated the hostage crisis in Iran, Trump the COVID-19 pandemic – a failure by several orders of magnitude. And there were many parallels with Obama's tenure in Trump's disdain for US allies, rejection of the American state of emergency, belief in the country's decline, attempts to withdraw from the Middle East without a strategy to mitigate the consequences, skepticism about free trade, Downplaying support for human rights and democracy, the military's distrust and resentment, premature claims of victory over terrorism, attempts to do business with China that undermine Beijing's anti-aggression efforts, and appeasement of Russian President Vladimir Putin instead of himself resolutely oppose Russia aggression – both against Russia's neighbors and against the US political process.
But Trump's narcissistic style went way beyond Carter's and Obama's shortcomings. Trump's disdain for the rule of law and the fair election game led him to force the Ukrainian government to smear Biden – which in turn led to his impeachment and tainted him with a historic stain well beyond Carter's and Obama's blemishes. His post-election efforts to stay in power by undermining the will of voters go beyond anything any US president has ever done.
Trump has left the United States weaker, more divided, less secure, less loved, less respected and less feared since he took office. This is not a legacy Republicans should accept.
That doesn't mean the Republicans or the Biden administration should oppose everything Trump has done or tried. On the contrary, Republicans should encourage the Biden administration to pursue policies that the Trump administration got right – or that created a new reality that can be used to the benefit of the United States. These include:
In the middle east: the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between several key Arab states and Israel; the move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; growing pressure on a weakened Iran; and the disruption of the Islamic State. These are all real achievements, even if some of them have come with a heavy cost of damaged allied relationships or the unnecessary sacrifice of US fundamental human rights obligations.
In Asia: Trump's belief that China is the United States' main adversary and is building a new bipartisan consensus; Steps to confront China's economic robbery; regulated arms sales to Taiwan; financial and diplomatic pressure from Huawei and other Chinese companies acting at the behest of the Chinese Communist Party; Sanctions against other malicious Chinese actors; increased resistance to Chinese espionage and information operations in the United States; and the revived "Quad" quasi-alliance for Indo-Pacific security with Australia, India and Japan.
In North America: the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which updates the North American Free Trade Agreement and provides a template for other new or updated trade agreements.
Worldwide: Increased diplomatic support for religious freedom, which has accepted new countries into a multilateral coalition that protects this vital but endangered human right.
In security policy: Reversal of the ill-considered defense cuts of the Obama era.
Congressional Republicans, especially in the US Senate, now have the option to put these achievements on a bipartisan basis through the Biden candidate verification process, as well as through legislation and appropriation.
To begin healing and restoration within the Republican Party, its leaders must do two things – and one thing they don't have to do.
The first thing Republican leaders must do is advocate national security policies that are based on timeless and tried and tested Republican principles. In particular, there are four guiding principles that guided the party from 1952, when Dwight D. Eisenhower defeated Robert Taft for the Republican president nomination, to the Trump nomination in 2016. These principles still apply. In fact, they're especially topical in the post-Trump era.
The first great Republican foreign policy principle is peace through strength, achieved through the building and support of national security institutions such as the Department of Defense, the State Department, and the intelligence community.
The second principle of the Republicans is that opponents abroad should be challenged so they don't have to face them at home. The words of then President Ronald Reagan at the celebrations marking the 40th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1984 are just as true today: “It is better to be here to protect the peace than to be blind Looking for shelter across the sea and rushing there only answers when freedom is lost. We have learned that isolationism was never, and never will be, an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with expansive intent. "One of the great things about the United States has been its attractiveness as a partner, offering it a network of alliances around the world. The Republicans should recapture that height and be known again as the party that sustains these strengths of America.
The third republican principle is to be clear about the geopolitical challenges of renewed competition for great powers. This clarity is particularly necessary given the tendency for Democrats to shy away from this fact, as demonstrated in the 2012 presidential campaign when Obama ridiculed Republican candidate Mitt Romney for setting off the alarm of revanchist Russia and the growing threat from China. Republicans deliberately warned of the geopolitical changes that are now widely accepted on both sides of the aisle.
The fourth great republican principle was embodied by Reagan: Promoting US interests includes upholding US values at home and abroad. It is for this reason that freedom activists in tyrannical regimes have sought inspiration and support from the United States for so many decades. Trump abandoned this principle with his blatant embrace of autocrats, his sharp transactionalism even towards democratic allies and the attempt after the elections to deny Biden's victory. This principle should never have been abandoned and it is now time to restore it.
The second lesson Republican leaders must learn from Trump's experience is about popular support for their policies. Trump proved that the pre-2016 Republican narrative that linked the party's foreign policy to the American voter had lost much of its persuasiveness.
Republican leaders must reassign themselves to building and maintaining public support for their foreign policy. In part, this requires new ways of formulating proven guidelines. Even if surveys show that the public understands that trade is good for the United States, it doesn't make sense for Republicans to promote trade by emphasizing economy and comparative advantage. Rather, Republican leaders should talk about freedom – tariffs are effectively taxes for Americans – and insist on greater reciprocity – you treat me as I treat you – in trade with other countries. Republicans should also distinguish between enemy powers like China, which may require harsh trade measures, and another category of trade relations with US allies where closer economic ties can also bring national security benefits. Likewise, Republican leaders should not apologize for US allies' failure to spend enough on defense and should continue to urge them to increase their military budgets. The party should remind voters, however, that US allies still make other meaningful contributions – for example, through their treaty obligations to fight alongside the United States in the event of an attack, through the US bases they host and fund, through the information they share, and specifically on the more than 1,000 soldiers from United States allied countries who died in Afghanistan.
That brings us to what Republicans must avoid, or at least minimize: Stalinist purges. Those Trump candidates who have served the country honorably in exceptionally difficult circumstances should be welcomed in efforts to renew the Republican Party. Politics is a craft of addition and inclusion: every Republican who pledges to rebuild the party into a victorious coalition – both to win elections and to gain support for Republican foreign policy principles that advance the interests of the country – should have a place have at the table.
The Republican Party, reborn on November 3, owes nothing to Trump. Let him bitch and tweet while his audience dissolves. The voters rejected him, even if he wanted to keep power within the Republican Party. Yes, he remains a powerful force today, as evidenced by the many prominent Republicans who publicly support his efforts to undermine the democratic electoral process or are too intimidated to speak out. But Trump's post-election behavior strikingly underscores the fact that his interests differ widely from those of the party. Trump and his immediate family can't see it, but the Republicans who wanted to rule after Jan. 20 see it all too well.
Let the dwindling number of die-hard Trumpists cling to their nostalgia for "Make America Great Again", make a pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago and marginalize yourself. They have made it clear that they do not have the party's interests in mind. The bankruptcy of their approach is becoming more apparent every day – testify how their conspiracy and refusal to admit Trump's electoral loss are affecting Republicans' prospects in the important runoff for the two seats of the US Senate in Georgia.
In the meantime, we hope that all Republicans join us in serving the country as a loyal opposition to the Biden government. That means supporting Biden when he pushes wise policies, compromises when necessary, and delivers factual, fair criticism when Biden is wrong – or when his own left flank urges him into ill-advised endeavors. Above all, it means abandoning a destructively personalized and hyperpolarized style of politics. The last four years have provided enough of them to last the rest of our lives.