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By Paul Lettow

In setting out what the future of conservative foreign policy should be, we can take some useful lessons from the past. The foundations of modern conservatism lie in leaders who, in times of confusion and discord, drew on and extended enduring principles to their trying circumstances, with the end of building toward something better— or at least avoiding the worst outcomes.

Edmund Burke is rightly seen as one of the fathers of modern conservatism. He was an exemplar of conveying a strategic vision to his compatriots during a time of turmoil. From his seat in Parliament, Burke cast a wary eye on events at home and abroad, and the connection between the two. Amidst a rancorous political atmosphere in London, Burke looked at upheavals first in America and then in France, and got them both right. In each case, Burke was working against what seemed to be the prevailing political temper of the times. (His colleagues were not wise enough to understand his sympathies for the American colonists; they soon enough realized his insights regarding the revolution in France.) He articulated fundamental principles to the public and his colleagues and then applied them to the crises at hand, clearly and compellingly.

Burke emphasized that navigating through crises had in the past, and would in future, require adherence to “the two principles of conservation and correction.” Those two principles are mutually reinforcing.

The first Republican president likewise remains a guide. “With firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.” That phrase from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address encapsulated his determination to preserve and extend first principles, as well as his dispassion and anti-utopianism.

And Winston Churchill, between the two world wars, remaining alert to the human capacity for destruction and tragedy, drew on the interests and principles he had inherited. He championed them when it seemed impolitic, insisting that they guide Britain—and the Free World—through strife.

The United States is now in the midst of a period of turmoil, at home and abroad. It seems evident that we are embarked on an era of transition in global politics. The Cold War and the immediate post- Cold War eras—the latter a time of enthusiasms and ultimately of disappointments and struggles—have given way to something new, something else: a revitalization of great power competition with different and unique challengers and challenges.

These changes are accompanied by uncertainty and discord about how to proceed. We could do worse than to keep in mind the two principles of conservation and correction. There is much to conserve. And there is much to correct.

We ought to strip things down to basics, to fundamentals. Geopolitics matters: before, now, and always. Preventing the destabilization or domination of East Asia, Europe, or the Middle East by a power hostile to the United States is an enduring first principle of U.S. foreign policy. A related principle is that America should maintain access to lines of communication between and among those regions and more broadly to the sea, air, space, and cyber commons.

“Americans want to avoid being taken advantage of by foe or friend but also undoubtedly appreciate that their country is greatest when held in esteem, even admired, abroad.”

Those principles have roots in the thought of, among others, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Theodore Roosevelt, Nicholas Spykman, and George F. Kennan, and in conceptions of the post-Cold War world by George H. W. Bush and his administration. They remain true and sound as framework principles for foreign policy today.

Elbridge Colby succinctly stated the positive case for pursuing those principles in recent congressional testimony. He said that maintaining favorable balances of power in these regions “preserve[s] our ability to trade with and access the world’s wealthiest and most important regions on fair grounds.” The negative case is that the destabilization or domination of one or more of those regions by forces hostile to the United States would prove disastrous.

That is a harsh lesson of history. As Robert D. Kaplan sums up, “Don’t ever think that things can’t get worse, because they can, and quickly.” A tragic sensibility has guided the strategies of America’s finest statesmen, from John Adams and John Quincy Adams to Dwight Eisenhower and beyond. Kaplan, describing George H. W. Bush’s successful national security approach, stated that “the way to avoid tragedy is to think tragically.” That sensibility should remain central to U.S. national security strategy today.

That necessitates communicating to the American people both the positive case and the negative case above. A number of the essays in this series discuss the existing domestic political currents: a wariness of major conflict involving U.S. forces, especially in the Middle East, but also a sense that the world is going to pot, there and elsewhere; a sense that the United States has been taken advantage of in recent years; and foreboding about what lies ahead for the world and America’s place in it.

Henry Kissinger observed that the role of a statesman is to lead a society from where it is to where it has never been, which requires both understanding the present and setting out a vision that inspires people to persist toward it. Our times necessitate a tough- minded analysis that forthrightly acknowledges the United States’ circumstances and results in a plausible way to get the country to a better, or at least not worse, place in the world in coming years. In short, the United States needs a sober foreign policy vision that aims to preserve American strength, prosperity, and freedom of action for the long haul. Americans sense the need for that kind of approach, one that allows them best to weather the storms that they know are coming.

Which brings us back to geopolitics and great power competition. The fundamental U.S. interests and principles described above are being challenged by China; by Russia, which is acting as a spoiler and destabilizer when and wherever it can; and at the regional level by Iran and North Korea.

The United States is in a geopolitical competition with each of them, and China in particular poses unique and profound challenges. The current administration has emphasized that in its National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and follow-on strategy documents, and it did so compellingly and resonantly.

The United States has succeeded at long-term, great power competition in the past. But it is out of practice. And the competition, and the competitors, while sharing similarities with the past, are different.

In 1946 and 1947, in a kind of Big Bang at the start of the Cold War, Kennan identified the threat posed by the Soviet Union and the outlines of a strategy that would ultimately guide U.S. policy for the ensuing decades. In contrast, today the United States finds itself in the midst of a long-term competition that rivals have been engaged in for years. It is behind—in grasping the nature of the challenge and in laying out long-term objectives. And at the moment, economic ties between the United States and its principal global competitor are extensive. The administration is presently reassessing and, it seems, aiming for a readjustment of those ties.

Successful long-term competition requires an understanding of one’s rivals, what they’re up to, and why. That includes emphasizing intelligence and net assessment, but also conveying the facts clearly to the public. Americans are ready for that—and may think it’s overdue.

The United States must prepare for, and play, the long game. That means marshaling and sustaining resources, including military, fiscal, and otherwise; exploiting comparative advantages; shoring up relative weaknesses; and establishing priorities.

Peace through strength is now mostly associated with Ronald Reagan. But it has a long lineage in conservative internationalism. Theodore Roosevelt was a master of the art of leveraging hard power, both extant and latent, to maintain favorable balances of power and serve geopolitical ends. So was Eisenhower, whose motto Suaviter in modo, fortiter in re (“Gently in manner, powerfully in deed”) was an adaptation of Roosevelt’s “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” George H. W. Bush in turn consciously sought to draw on Eisenhower’s approach. He referenced a line of principles from Lincoln to Theodore Roosevelt to Eisenhower and quoted Eisenhower directly: “There is in world affairs a steady course to be followed between an assertion of strength that is truculent and a confession of helplessness that is cowardly.”

That is a legacy worth extending. Strong, global military power in the service of a long-term competition is sound strategy and is historically precedented. It is also politically resonant. At its best—as in the Theodore Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Reagan administrations—it helps ensure that U.S. forces are engaged in actual combat only rarely and in limited scope and thus aids in its own political sustainability. Polling for decades has generally shown that Americans trust Republicans more than Democrats on national security issues. There have been exceptions, such as during the worst of the war in Iraq, but the basic point has endured. The tenets of conservative internationalism—seeing rivals for who and what they are; a tragic sensibility; and steady, long-term strategy underpinned by hard power—should remain the foundations for that trust.

They are also the surest way to preserve and extend American constitutional rights and values based on human freedom. Disregarding or downplaying American values, much less demeaning them or engaging in relativism, is anathema to past U.S. foreign policy successes and to the conservative tradition and is profoundly counterproductive. But American hard power is essential to the salience and attractiveness of those values. Invocations and championing of fundamental values are most potent when America’s hard-power trajectory and geopolitical standing are moving upward, a point that is innately understood at home and abroad. Hence, the contrast between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Americans often cite John Winthrop’s words about the “city on a hill” and “the eyes of all people are upon us” in a positive, inspirational sense. That is good and right. But Winthrop also meant his message to be a warning, and his words foreshadow Lincoln. If we fail, Winthrop said, “we shall be made a story and a byword through the world” and “shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants.”

A long-term strategy focused on maintaining favorable regional power balances, enabled by sustainable U.S. and allied hard power, and guided by enduring values would be compelling and galvanizing for America’s allies and partners. Indeed, it may be the only strategy that can ensure the maintenance of America’s alliance and partner relationships. They are, in turn, indispensable to and a powerful comparative advantage for the United States in great power competition. Acknowledging that would help not just abroad but politically at home. Americans want to avoid being taken advantage of by foe or friend but also undoubtedly appreciate that their country is greatest when held in esteem, even admired, abroad.

A number of the papers in this series have addressed the foreign policy inclinations of millennials and related analyses of the tumultuous politics of our moment. Those are important issues. I have tried here to make the case, both strategic and political, for a long-term U.S. strategy grounded in geopolitics and in the traditions of conservative internationalism, as adapted to our times. Presented clearly and coherently, that kind of approach may be accepted and even welcomed politically by Americans; and it provides the best opportunity for them to persevere and thrive in a difficult era and to avoid a precipitous slide in world standing or falling into conflict from a position of geopolitical disadvantage.

I want to end by addressing how such a strategy intersects with two pressing political issues.

One is the greater Middle East and the quandary of military action there. In the Middle East, the United States must play the long game to prevent destabilization or domination of the region by hostile external actors, a principle set out in the Carter Doctrine. It must also prevent destabilization or domination of the Middle East from hostile forces within the region (e.g., Iran). Plainly setting out that latter principle would give coherence to U.S. policy now and in the future, clarifying that working to shape a favorable regional balance of power peacefully, through diplomacy backed by America’s and its partners’ hard power, is itself an important means of avoiding further large-scale combat by U.S. troops in the region.

Yet, in the meantime, the United States must also undertake the near-term and gritty work of preventing the worst terrorist attacks, which means doing the best it reasonably can to eradicate or prevent terrorist hotbeds and otherwise neutralize the threat at the source. In order of long-term priority, America’s eyes should be on East Asia, first, and Europe, second. But having relatively small numbers of U.S. forces operating on antiterrorism missions is prudent, perhaps necessary, and—as long as it does not make situations worse— consonant with what Americans see as the lessons of the last two decades.

The other issue is climate change. Here again one can find guidance in the principles of conservation and correction. It means seeing and acknowledging the facts as they are and pursuing an approach that is grounded and plausible. The innovations of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, and the relatively clean natural gas bonanza they have brought about, are the kinds of solutions that play to U.S. strengths. With some cooperative government involvement, driven by the private sector and deployed at scale by its markets, these solutions may even advance, rather than trammel, the U.S. economy. That kind of precedent and the sober realization that not much will work if the rapidly growing major carbon emitters do not curtail or reduce emissions seem good places for conservatives to start working on the problem.

Paul Lettow served as the senior director for Strategic Planning on the National Security Council staff from 2007 to 2009. The views expressed here are his alone.
"The Future of Conservative Internationalism," which is a collection of essays from the Reagan Institute Strategy Group, convened in Beaver Creek, Colorado, in July 2019.