Ask Republican foreign policy gurus—the ones who advised plausible presidential candidates such as Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush—whether Donald Trump’s candidacy will change the party’s approach to the world, and you’ll inevitably hear a litany of protests and deflections.
They’ll argue that Trump is a unique figure, one which nabbed the nomination only because of a series of unfortunate coincidences. They’ll see a public poll showing that more than 60 percent of Republicans are skeptical of U.S. international engagement and blame the question. Or they’ll say President Obama is partly responsible for the public’s retreat from the world, since he didn’t explain well enough our special role in it.
Finally, they’ll maintain that the majority of the party is still with them, as is the GOP’s next generation of leaders, and that there needs to be only a few changes in messaging and policy, not an evolution in thought. But their first reactions, when asked what happens next in the Republican foreign policy world, may prove to be the most telling.
“I have no idea—is the bottom line, up front,” said William Inboden, a former national security aide to President George W. Bush, now at the University of Texas.
“God only knows,” added Dr. Eliot Cohen, a former top State Department official during the same Bush administration. “I just think nobody can tell what the outcome of this is going to be.”
Trump’s rise has magnified the protectionist and nationalist voices that have long been within the Republican Party—and upended the conservative internationalism espoused by most of his rivals in the primary. Even if Trump loses badly on Election Day, those voices and voters won’t stop trying to shift the GOP away from some of its most-enduring positions.
While Trump’s personal attacks—from his ridicule of Sen. John McCain for being a prisoner of war to his hostility towards the parents of a slain Muslim soldier—have drawn intraparty criticism, his success despite apostate foreign policy prescriptions have caused deeper ideological concerns. His proposed ban against Muslims, threats to tear up major international trade deals, apparent admiration of Russian president Vladimir Putin, suggestion for the U.S. to withdraw military support from Japan and South Korea, and hedged commitment to defend NATO allies have all raised questions and contempt from Republican foreign policy experts.
“We are going to take care of this country first,” he told The New York Times in July, “before we worry about everyone else in the world.”
So far, many of those ideas have spurred revolt. Dozens of senior Republican national security officials who worked from the Nixon to Bush administrations, including Inboden and Cohen, have signed a letter saying they won’t vote for Trump, charging that he “would be the most reckless president in American history.” Some neoconservatives have even announced support for Hillary Clinton.
And there’ll be other protests. About a year ago, the John Hay Initiative—a collection of 250 or so foreign policy experts who advised GOP presidential candidates Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Rick Perry, and Scott Walker—released its playbook; much of the field was literally reading from the same page. And soon it’ll release another round of analysis on issues ranging from the Trans-Pacific Partnership to relations with Russia, according to Cohen, a leader of the group.
“The work that is being done is even more important going ahead,” said Cohen.
But there is little evidence that Trump’s success has caused these influential conservatives to change their minds much. Some acknowledged the challenge: Inboden said that Republicans will have to distinguish between the “illegitimacy” of Trump’s campaign and the legitimate concerns of his voters.
In an interview, Peter Feaver, another former top National Security Council staffer in the Bush administration who doesn’t support Trump, said the response to Trump essentially challenges Republicans to be more effective messengers of largely the same ideas, albeit with some policy reforms, including targeted assistance for those who are left behind in international trade deals.
Feaver also compared the party to a patient.
“I wouldn’t say, ‘Well, we need to kill the patient because we have this gangrenous toe,’” said Feaver. “Yes, we have to deal with the toe, but it’s just a toe.”
There is evidence that the Republican Party is still unified around some foreign policy principles. According to the Pew Research Center, 61 percent of Republicans now favor higher defense spending—up 24 points in a few years—while a vast majority of the GOP favors the use of military force against global terrorism and sees ISIS as a major threat.
But Pew also notes that there are other major fault lines within the party, particularly on how differently Trump’s Republican supporters and opponents view immigrants, anti-terrorism efforts scrutinizing Muslims, and free trade deals like TPP, which many GOP proponents say will help deepen America’s security and defense relationships in Asia. To some Republicans, Trump’s impact on the party has poisoned more than “just a toe”; the sickness could consume the host.
If successful, Trump could change the GOP’s global outlook in the long term. But even if he doesn’t win, Trump has revealed divisions within the party. And in real terms, his candidacy, along with the changing minds of key Democrats such as Clinton, could change policies even in the immediate term, helping to hurt TPP’s chances through Congress before the Obama administration leaves.
“We’ve made promises to our allies out there; we’ve tried to cajole them and persuade them,” said Cohen. “It just reinforces the sense that we don’t know what we’re doing and that our commitments don’t mean anything. It will be a serious, serious hit if this thing gets killed.”
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