The Republican Foreign Policy Statement

June 13, 2016 7:00 AM

Last week, Speaker Paul Ryan unveiled a 25-page foreign policy strategy document at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he was joined by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and the House committee chairmen who formed the House GOP’s national security task force. Relentlessly negative on President Obama’s foreign policy, the report also sought to lay down markers for the Trump campaign from the Republican party in Congress. The report reflects some of the nominee’s preoccupations, but also tacks away from his more controversial comments on Asia. (In an incredibly useful service, the Korea Economic Institute has collated the statements of the two candidates). 

What jibes with Republican themes raised during the primary season is the strong focus on terrorism and homeland security. Indeed, fully half to the report is devoted to these issues. According to the document, “America faces the highest terror-threat level since 9/11,” which requires keeping terrorists out of the US, confronting homegrown threats, and securing the border and enforcing immigration laws; following the Orlando shootings, expect more on this front. Immigration and national security are joined at the hip, with the borders even portrayed as representing a WMD threat. In rhetoric reminiscent of the post-9/11 Bush administration, the report states bluntly that “we are at war” and that the US must “take the fight to the enemy,” which is identified—following Senator Cruz’s focus—as Islamic terrorism. Although short on detail, the Republican document does not rule out more American deployments to counter ISIS and to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Where the report seeks to constrain the Trump campaign is with respect to the alliances and and free trade, including an implicit endorsement of trade agreements such as the TPP.

Although recognizing the free-rider problem and the risk that NATO could decline into “irrelevance,” Russian malfeasance requires that “modernizing and solidifying NATO” would be a cornerstone of Republican diplomacy. In Asia, the report similarly sees challenges that require a strengthening of alliance relations. Somewhat contradictorily, the Obama administration is simultaneously blamed for its willingness to engage with rogue regimes such as North Korea and for the pursuit of strategic patience:

“The ‘strategic patience’ that the administration showed North Korea has emboldened the country’s rogue regime to test nuclear weapons and new missile systems that can reach our territory. Meanwhile, testing American resolve, China has ramped up and militarized its claims in the South China Sea—a vital shipping area for international commerce. These developments are undermining American influence in Asia and the confidence of our allies in the region.”

Although most Asia watchers would argue that American alliances in Asia are in quite robust shape—thanks in large part to China’s unfortunate new course—the Republican report begs to differ:

“Our allies are desperate for a greater American role. Our top priority must be to counter the threat of a nuclear North Korea. And we must respond strategically to expansionist China’s rise, including checking its territorial ambitions. These challenges create opportunities to bring together Japan and South Korea while strengthening our ties with Taiwan and the Philippines. We cannot allow our alliances in East Asia and the Pacific to atrophy and must shore up our defense arrangements to deter China from tilting the global balance of power toward autocracy.”

An even more sharp departure from Donald Trump’s primary campaign comes in the discussion of trade. The report is full-throated and unequivocal, joining economic and security arguments for free trade agreements:

“Trade plays an important role in our economy, supporting roughly 40 million jobs in the United States—more than one in five—and providing immeasurable benefits to American consumers by lowering prices and improving our standard of living. Because the vast majority of the world’s consumers live outside our borders, we must continue to open new markets for our businesses and build the capacity of tomorrow’s trade partners. For that reason, the United States must do more to support trade agreements with clear benefits, including job growth, to our economy. Trade can also play a key role in strengthening U.S. alliances.”

Despite its denigrating tone, the Ryan report in fact echoes the deep bipartisan consensus on a number of issues of significance to the Asia-Pacific

The TPP is not mentioned by name, but the report is clear on it stance, suggesting that if elected, President Clinton would be able to count on at least some Republican report if she reverses her opposition and pursues ratification of the agreement:

“By delaying the development of strong trade deals, we give our competitors time to undermine the global system of trade that the United States has worked so hard to build. Countries like China and Russia are creating their own closed trading systems. A modern, successful strategy will break down the barriers to trade and investment, open markets, create opportunities for American businesses, and enable countries to grow their way out of poverty. These agreements create common, high standards for trade around the world and make it easier for U.S. workers to compete.”

North Korea makes yet another appearance in a section discussing the need for the United States to “hold tyrannical regimes accountable and work to assist countries with peaceful democratic transitions”:

“The regime in North Korea likely has the worst human rights record in the world. Over 140,000 North Koreans are kept in forced labor camps where many are worked to death. Yet for years, the global community, including U.S. administrations, largely ignored this barbarity in a failed attempt to arrest North Korea’s nuclear development. With North Korea having flagrantly demonstrated its nuclear and ballistic-missile capabilities, the international community is finally bringing deserved attention to these abhorrent human rights abuses. International condemnation of the regime’s human rights abuses is not only morally justified, but it also weakens the regime’s autocratic grip on power.”

Hear, hear!

The tone of the Ryan report bears a strong family resemblance to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign, with its emphasis on the US as the indispensable and exceptional nation. The dominant focus on terrorism is also in synch with the Republican primary campaign. But the differences are not trivial. Despite its denigrating tone, the Ryan report in fact echoes the deep bipartisan consensus on a number of issues of significance to the Asia-Pacific, including the centrality of the alliances, extended deterrence, the importance of free trade and new trade agreements. I do not expect these differences to be directly joined. As David Brooks reflects, the challenges of “unifying” such positions extend from the logical to the psychological; whether Mr. Trump is amenable to moderation. Rather, we are likely to see a campaign characterized by mixed messages, with candidate Trump continuing to advance his free-rider and populist-protectionist themes while the Republican establishment sends more traditional signals to both domestic and foreign audiences. I have a hard time seeing how such mixed messages enhance the credibility of American foreign policy.

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