Henry Kissinger once observed that U.S. foreign policy in the twentieth century was characterized by “disastrous oscillations between over-commitment and isolation”. The oscillation was especially pronounced for republicans in the first half of the century from president Theodore Roosevelt’s great white fleet of 1907-9 to secretary of state Charles evens Hughes Washington naval treaty in 1922 and from senator Robert taft’s isolationism before world war II to sentor Arthur Vandenberg’s 1945 conversion to internationalism- although the internal difference became much less pronounced in the second half. Now that the pendulum appears to be swinging again republican have an interest in seeing that it doesn’t do so wildly.
How to do that? Every type of persuasion moral, political, policy, carries with it the temptation of extremes. Contrary to the stereotype, big-military conservatives (along with neoconservatives) do not want to bomb every troublesome country into submission, or rebuild the U.S. armed forces to their 1960s proportions, or resume the cold war with Russia. Nor is the problem that big-military conservatives some appreciate the limits-but they also understand the United States is nowhere near
reaching them. Even at the height of the Iraq war. U.S. military spending consorted a smaller percentage of GDP 5.1 per cent in 2008 than it did during the final full year of the carter administration (six percent in 1980). The real limits of American power haven’t been seriously tested since World War II.
They fancy that a retreat from the United States global commitments could save lives without storing trouble. The record of the twentieth century tells different story
Instead, the problem with big military conservatives is that they fail to appreciate the limits of American will of Washington capacity to generate broad political support for military endeavours that since 9/11 have proved not only bloody and costly but also exceedingly lengthy. Taking a heroic view America purpose, these conservatives are tempted by a heroic view of the American public, emphasizing its willingness to pay any price and bear any burden. Yet there is a wide gap between what the United States can achieve abroad, given unlimited political support, and what Americans want to achieve, as determined by the abb and flow of the political tides in a democracy innately reluctant to wage wars.
Small government conservatives have their own temptation when it comes to foreign policy. At the far extreme, there is the insipid libertarianism of Rou Paul, the former Texas representative, who has claimed that Marine detachments guarding U.S. embassies count as examples of military overstretch. Paul showed remarkable strength in the last GOP presidential primary and has, in his son Rand Paul, the junior senator from Kentucky, a politically potent heir.
Most small government conservatives aren’t about to jump off the libertarian cliff: they may want to reduce the United States footprint in the world, at least for the time being, but they don’t want to erase it completely. Yet the purism that tends to drive the small government view of the world also has a way of absorbing its vision, If we don’t take defence spending seriously, it undermines our credibility on other spending issues,” Mick Mulvaney, the conservative south Carolina congressman,
told politico in December.
The heart of the United States spending issue, however, has increasingly little to do with the defense budget (which constituted 19 percent of overall federal outlays in 2012, down from 49 percent in 2012, increasingly more to do with entitlement programs (62 percent in 2012, up frorn 31 percent half a century ago). Just as the Obama administration cannot hope to erase the federal deficit by raising taxes on the rich but wants to do so anyway out of a notion of social justice, small government conservatives cannot hope to runaway spending through large cuts to the defense budget. But ideological blinders get in the way.
More broadly, small government conservatives are too often tempted to treat small government as an end in itself, not as a means to achieve greater opportunity and freedom. They make a fetish of thrift at the expense of prosperity. They fancy that a retreat from the United States global commitments could save lives without storing trouble. The record of the twentieth century tells different story. Republicans should not wish to again become the party of such isolationists as Taft and Charles
Fortunately, there is a happy medium. It’s not what goes today under the name “realism” – a term of considerable self-flattery and negligible popular appeal.
Republicans, in particular, will never stand for any kind of foreign policy that lacks a clear moral anchor. As it is, the GOP does not need a total makeover: what it needs is a refurbished modus vivendi between small government and big military conservatives, two sides that need not become antagonists and have valuable things to teach each other.
Small government conservatives, for their part, can teach their big military friends that the pentagon doesn’t need more money, what it needs desperately is a functional procurement system. The costs of U.S. jet fighters, for example, have skyrocketed: the F-4 Phantom, introduced in 1960, cost $16 million (in inflation-adjusted 2010 dollars) per plane, excluding research and development, whereas the equivalent figure for the F-35 Lightning II, in development now, is $120 million. The result is an underequipped air force that inverts bilions of dollars for the research and development costs of planes, such as the B-2 Bomber and the F-22 fighter that it can afford to procure only in inadequate number. The result is not just the ordinary waste, fraud, and abuse of any bureaucracy but also deep and lasting damage to the country’s ability to project power and wage war.
Finally, those in the government camp understand that unlike authoritarian states, democratic ones will not indefinitely sustain large militaries in the face of prolonged economic stagnation of contraction. Except in moments of supreme emergency,
when it comes to choice, butter always beats guns. Big-military conservatives, therefore cannot stay indifferent to issues of long term economic competiveness and the things that sustain it, not least of which is a government that facilitates wealth creation at home, promotes free trade globally, is fundamentally friendly to immigrants, and seeks to live within its means.
Then there are the things big military conservatives can teach their small government friends. First, they should make clear that a robust military is a net economic asset to the United States. A peaceful, trad-ing, and increasingly free and prosperous world has been sustained for over six decades thanks in large part to a U.S. military with the power to make good on U.S. guarantees and deter read (or would be) aggressors. And although the small government purist might dismiss as corporate welfare the job, skills, and technology base that the so called military industrial complex support supports, there are some industries that on great power can allow to wither or move offshore.
In retooling foreign policy, the experts should heed lessons from both types of conservatives. What does this mean in practice? Consider China, where an atavistic nationalism, emboldened by an increasingly modern military, threatens to overtake the rational economic decision making that largely characterized the tenures of deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. U.S. policymakers need to restrain the former and encourage the latter.