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Reviving Conservative Internationalism

Reviving Conservative Internationalism

Six precepts to inject principled, strategic thinking back into Republican foreign policy.

Robert B. Zoellick

As Republicans debate their future, some internationalists are rightly seeking to leave Trump’s foreign policy behind. A new conservative approach should draw from history while adapting to modern conditions. Indeed, history points to six sound principles.

First, a Republican foreign policy should respect power—being neither ashamed to pursue America’s national interests, nor too quick to use the country’s might. By matching America’s power to its interests, U.S. policy can achieve its objectives and build credibility.

Power takes different forms. Alexander Hamilton recognized that economic vitality would build the sinews of American strength. As for diplomacy, Hamilton cautioned, “Strut is good for nothing.” “Real firmness … combine[s] energy with moderation.” Abraham Lincoln understood that the Union, if preserved, could create a new type of power, that of attractive example. Theodore Roosevelt used America’s influence to mediate conflicts in Asia and Europe, seeking to maintain balances of power. Decades later, Dwight Eisenhower marshaled American power carefully, building resilience for the long struggle with the Soviets.

Second, Republican foreign policy should add to America’s influence by enhancing alliances. The genius of America’s alliance leadership has been to mobilize support for key U.S. aims while enabling partners to advance their interests.

Senator Arthur Vandenberg became the congressional architect of the Marshall Plan, NATO, and the U.S. role in the UN. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger rebalanced alliance burden-sharing after the painful experience in Vietnam. Nixon’s new doctrine preserved American leadership and initiative under changed circumstances.

The grand masters of alliance leadership—George H. W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker—brought the Cold War to a peaceful end in Europe, organized a landmark coalition to reverse Saddam Hussein’s aggression, and laid the foundation for economic partnerships in North America, the Asia-Pacific, and globally. Their prudent yet highly competitive diplomacy fortified U.S. strength and advanced American principles.

Third, Republicans should judge international agreements and institutions as means to achieve ends, not as forms of political therapy. Agreements and institutions can help recognize common interests, mobilize resources, facilitate bargaining, encourage the development of shared rules, and resolve disputes. Yet conservatives recognize that international law, unlike domestic law, only codifies agreed-upon cooperation. Even among democracies, international law not backed by enforcement needs negotiations to work, and international law not backed by power cannot cope with dangerous states and people.

In the early 20th century, Republican Secretaries of State and War, Charles Evans Hughes and Elihu Root, pushed for a practical American internationalism in law, arms control, and regional security. George W. Bush created new international delivery systems in Africa to fight HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. Senator John McCain believed that national honor sustained international commitments.


Fourth, a modern Republican foreign policy must embrace revolutionary changes in information, communications, technology, commerce, science, finance, and the environment. These transformations will shape global politics, economics, and security. Communities of private groups, whether organized for business or social causes, will achieve results far beyond the reach of governments. The United States should leverage this dynamism to open minds, markets, and societies. America should ally with agents of change around the world through new networks of free trade, information, and investment.

It is a fool’s game—and a loser’s strategy—to compete with authoritarians by restricting America’s openness, whether to people, goods, capital, inventions, or ideas. Fortress America retreats to defense, instead of going on offense to reshape the competition.

Even in the aftermath of our terrifying Civil War, Secretary of State William Seward believed that America’s economy and its ideas could be a magnet—an attractive power—that contrasted with the dominating dictates of empires. Ronald Reagan recalled Seward’s vision for North America, declaring in 1979 that U.S. security would be enhanced if Mexico and Canada became stronger, and that “it is time we stopped thinking of our nearest neighbors as foreigners.” Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz shared an optimism about America’s engine of free enterprise in an information age. They recognized that the Soviet Union’s planned economy could never keep up with capitalism’s technological innovation.

Fifth, Americans know that there are people in the world who loathe the United States and the ideas it upholds. The United States must remain vigilant and have the strength to defeat its enemies. Lincoln, our most empathetic President, recognized that the evil of slavery had to be extirpated to preserve the “last, best hope” of the American democratic experiment.

Finally, all Republican policies—foreign and domestic—must be founded upon respect for the Constitution. The Constitution, taken together with the Declaration of Independence, points toward a national purpose of safeguarding the American people, forming a more perfect Union, protecting rights, and enabling Americans to pursue the fruits of their liberties—while furthering a world that respects free individuals, just governments, and the common dignity of humankind.

With a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” the Founders would urge their inheritors to explain America’s views while never shrinking from pursuing the country’s reasoned beliefs. Conservative internationalists need positive principles, not just enemies.

Robert B. Zoellick was president of the World Bank, U.S. trade representative, and U.S. deputy secretary of state. He recently published America in the World: A History of U.S. Diplomacy and Foreign Policy.

U.S. Foreign Policy

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