For all the evidence that President Trump lacks principle and ideological coherence, it is ironic that the most controversial feature of his presidency comes closest to having both: his approach to foreign policy.
The cocktail of “America First,” ending endless wars, punishing free-riding allies, and seeking deals with dictators appalls establishment Democrats and Republicans alike, but it does amount to a general preference for “nation building at home.” Trump is the first president in nearly two decades not to get the U.S. into a new war. Despite its shambolic implementation, “America First” also hints at what a post-Trump Republican foreign policy might look like — one consistent with the goals of reformers hoping to reinvent the party as an advocate for working class interests. Those interests are best served by moderation abroad and investments at home, not by a restoration of assertive U.S. global leadership orchestrated by Never Trump security elites.
The choice comes, in part, in the context of a broader intra-conservative schism pitting conventional Republican conservatives or “fusionists” against new “national” conservatives aiming to recast the party as a champion of the social and economic interests of working families and their communities. Reformers are coalescing around family leave policies, wage subsidies, industrial policy, and even qualified support for collective bargaining. The potential of this “working class conservatism” is attracting adherents, including, to varying degrees, Senators Tom Cotton, Ben Sasse, Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio. But its relationship to the foreign policy debate remains unclear.
On one hand, Senator Rand Paul is a free market libertarian, not a nationalist, but hews closer to the president’s “America First” foreign policy goals than anyone else. On the other, Senators Cotton and Rubio, and much of the traditional Republican national security establishment take the opposite tack, supporting Cold War hawkishness.
A successful Republican leap from laissez-faire Reaganism to an electorally promising working class platform would raise the follow-up question: should Republicans also dispense with their exceptionalist globe-girdling foreign policy? The post-Trump temptation will be to default to old platitudes about American indispensability and invite Never Trumper security experts back into the fold. That would be a mistake. It would reward a cadre of elites who bear responsibility for ensnaring the U.S. in 19 years of wasteful war in the Middle East.
It would also neglect the preferences of the American people — 63 percent of whom prefer a foreign policy more responsive to domestic needs, according to polling by the Eurasia Group Foundation. If the Republican Party wants a bigger coalition it has to advocate popular policies, including in foreign affairs.
A foreign policy consonant with working class conservatism would begin at home. It would affirm that the purpose of the United States is to protect the natural rights and prosperity of the American people, not to be an institution of international security. It would be ideologically conservative and constitutionally compliant, rejecting extravagant crusades for a grand strategy sufficient to secure America and restoring a bias for prudence and epistemic humility to the conduct of foreign policy.
A new Republican foreign policy would emphasize the centrality of peace and prosperity in the Western Hemisphere to U.S. security in an era of great power competition. It would be open to constructive diplomacy with geopolitical rivals and skeptical of extended commitments in Eurasia.
Republicans concerned with working class interests would quit treating the military as the only institution worthy of federal largesse and get serious about resource trade-offs. Money spent on military excess is not available for working families, local communities, and long-run economic competitiveness. So Republicans would stop giving the military-industrial complex a blank check and keep the president’s hard line on alliance burden-sharing. A working class mindset would also emphasize the negative effects of wars of choice on the volunteer military, the ranks of which are disproportionately filled by working class Americans.
The party would no doubt continue to regard China as a competitor and unapologetically challenge foreign espionage and influence operations. But a working class approach argues for prioritizing investments in domestic competitiveness and carefully calibrating supply chain decoupling to avoid hitting working families’ pocketbooks. It cautions against treating Chinese power as a geopolitical emergency and rejects risky and expensive bids to restore American primacy in the First Island Chain or destabilize the Communist Party. A working class Republican Party would reject threat inflation for a prudent appreciation that China faces significant natural checks by its capable neighbors and confidence that success at home is the best guarantee of American security.
Finally, Republicans may find it easier to live up to their traditional limited government principles if they abandoned their hair trigger foreign policy. Preaching strict adherence to the Constitution while also bolstering an unaccountable imperial presidency has always been a glaring hypocrisy. More Republicans should cooperate with like-minded Democrats to strengthen atrophied constitutional checks on executive war powers and so limit the scope for all presidents to expand America’s military commitments. A Republican Party recently on the receiving end of a domestic intelligence operation should also take steps to place the intelligence community under more effective oversight, perhaps by advocating for a sequel to the 1975 Church Committee hearings, which documented decades of abuses by U.S. intelligence.
American conservatives are making halting progress toward a platform of active support for working class families and local communities. This new conservatism has the potential to refashion and permanently expand the Republican coalition, but it needs foreign policies to match. The reality is that Republicans’ default program of transformational interventionism, indulgence of wealthy allies, and military dominance at the frontiers of every rival power neither serves the interests of working families nor respects the Constitution. Conservative soul-searching on domestic questions should lead instead to a foreign policy that emphasizes security sufficiency over surplus and pays greater regard to needs on the home front, where the sources of US national security ultimately lie.