May 23, 2019  

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Conservative Internationalism Not Realism

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Rand Paul has called for “a common sense conservative realism of strength and action” to guide American foreign policy in the future. He highlighted three principles: military strength but use of force only as a last resort, public support, and only Congress deciding on the use of force, and diplomacy as a way to coexist with Iran, Russia and militant Islam.

Rand has come a long way from his earlier isolationism. But it may not be far enough. He praises the Weinberger principle of having overwhelming force but never using it short of immediate attack or threat. And he criticizes the use of drones and supply of arms but embraces air strikes to defeat ISIS.

This is at best a holding strategy because he “doubt(s) that a decisive victory is possible in the short term, even with the participation of the Kurds, the Iraqi government, and other moderate Arab states . . . In the end, the long war will end only when civilized Islam steps up to defeat this barbaric aberration.”

That might be a long wait. And in the meantime, ISIS controls territory in which it trains terrorists to attack Europe and the United States. That’s what the Taliban government did in Afghanistan. If that’s not an immediate threat, what is?

Rand goes on to call for diplomacy and sanctions to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and “to achieve a diplomatic settlement that takes into account Russia’s long-standing ties with Ukraine and allows Kiev to develop its relations both with Russia and the West.” Like Henry Kissinger, he wants Ukraine to serve as a bridge between democracy and authoritarianism, not an outpost of either.

This, of course, is Obama’s policy toward Iran and Russia, And it is not working.

Rand worries too much about the use of force before diplomacy and not enough about the use of force with diplomacy. Diplomacy cannot be effective unless the adversary knows it cannot achieve its objective by force outside diplomacy. Why should Iran concede a nuclear capability inside negotiations if it is marching steadily toward the acquisition of a nuclear capability outside negotiations? Why should Putin stop destabilizing Russia’s border if there is no effective western response?

What is that response? Is there nothing between diplomacy without force and force without diplomacy? There is. It would involve using smaller force early to avoid using greater force later.

Here’s how it might have worked a few years ago in Syria. The West would have armed the moderate Syrian opposition, just as Russia was arming the Assad government. Obama says we don’t know who the moderate opposition is and can’t afford to have these weapons wind up on the hands of the militants. Assad has no trouble identifying the moderates. He is now attacking them relentlessly while the United States and allies conduct air strikes against ISIS. Meanwhile, weapons the Unite States supplied to Iraqi forces fall into the hands of ISIS. It never made any sense to say Assad must go and then have no idea whom to support to replace him.

Here’s how it might have worked in Ukraine. After Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, the United States would have warned that this type of aggression would not stand the next time, urged the European Union to expedite Ukraine membership, rallied neighboring NATO countries to support Ukraine, moved a few aircraft and logistical forces into eastern Europe and the Baltic states, a border where Russia doubled the number of its troops after 2009, and worried sooner about overall US and European defense budgets and capabilities. Had Putin seen a protective reaction by NATO, yes he might have complained that NATO was a threat, which he will do in any case, but it’s unlikely he would have destabilized and invaded Ukraine.

Rand is right about the failure of nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nation-building does not work in regions remote from the borders of existing freedom. That was a lesson we should have learned in Vietnam. But it does work on the borders of existing freedom, namely today in Europe where a free Germany and whole of Europe exist and in Asia where a free Japan, South Korea and so far Taiwan exist.  On these borders, the loss of freedom matters more than in remote regions, and the presence of nearby strong alliances and capitalist markets increase the prospects of successful nation-building.

Rand acknowledges that countries hate America for what it is as much as what it does. The battle between freedom and despotism is paramount. But he overlooks the gains from a foreign policy that promotes nation-building on the borders of existing freedom. Europe and Asia in 2014 prove the point. Both were prosperous in 1914, but prosperity alone did not spare the world the modernized autocracies of Nazi Germany and Tojo Japan. In the end democracy made the difference, and a true conservative foreign policy is not realist and content with coexisting with despots but internationalist and seeking an ever freer world, especially on the borders of freedom as in Ukraine.