Republican Reincarnation

The GOP needs to let go of myths about its past to move forward.

There is much that I agree with in Danielle Pletka's article on the future of Republican foreign policy ("Think Again: The Republican Party," January/February 2013). Like her, I welcome a searching foreign-policy debate within the party and an exacting critique of the record of Barack Obama's administration: the botched reset with Russia, the mishandled withdrawal from Iraq and even worse handling of Afghanistan, the dangerous self-congratulation on al Qaeda's supposedly imminent "strategic defeat," the lack of a policy on Syria, the abandonment of trade diplomacy, the imminent crisis with Iran, and more.

But on two points I do not agree. It is not helpful to perpetuate the caricatured differences between "realists" and "neoconservatives." In U.S. foreign policy, American ideals and interests often coincide, and while they are occasionally at odds, it is the task of statecraft to handle those differences. From the Bahraini protest movement to the killing of American terrorists abroad, most policy dilemmas cannot be resolved by merely referring to principles, and they do not involve easy choices. Accepting the labels makes it easier for the other side to caricature one Republican camp as unprincipled and heartless, the other as naively feckless. To cast the Republicans' foreign-policy debate as a knock-down, drag-out fight between realists and idealists does not yield a useful discussion, which in the end is about coming to a sound conclusion.

More profoundly, it is a mistake to think that all the GOP needs is a reincarnation of President Ronald Reagan in the candidate of the Republicans' dreams. Without detracting from his achievements, we do not live in Reagan's time, we do not face his challenges, and we do not have his resources. The fact of the matter is that America is not quite what it was in 1980. To take just one example: The Soviet Union that Reagan faced was entering terminal decline; today, China's economy is growing fast.

So the first order of business is coming to grips with the nature of the more complex challenges that the United States now faces: the Arab turmoil, an ascendant China, middle powers that are not necessarily America's friends, the metastasis of Islamist movements well beyond al Qaeda, Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons, and much more.

Republicans should not skirt around their errors, including those of the most recent Republican administrations, from Reagan onward. Without pillorying those who had difficult decisions to make, there is a lot to think about, from waterboarding to targeted killing to the handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That does not mean, however, giving Obama's administration a pass on any of its mistakes or giving up on the importance of American leadership in an increasingly disorderly world.

The internationalist consensus in the Republican Party is strong, but under increasing pressure; the same can be said of the Democrats. Invocations of a heroic (and partly mythic) past will not meet the needs of a different day. As that greatest of Republicans said 150 years ago, "As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew."

Professor of Strategic Studies
School of Advanced International Studies
Johns Hopkins University
Washington, D.C.

FP invited Eliot Cohen to respond as part of an online roundtable it convened on Danielle Pletka's article and the future of the GOP's foreign policy. 

Danielle Pletka replies:

As I would have expected, Eliot Cohen provides a thoughtful response to my article on the question of a new foreign policy for the Republican Party. He also makes an important point about the Reagan era and my somewhat reflexive reference to it in order to frame a set of principles for a new conservative foreign-policy agenda.

Here's the rub. The reason so many of us fall back on the quotes and the principles articulated by the Great Communicator is similar to the reason we hark back so frequently to the soaring speeches -- and even greater resolve -- of Winston Churchill: because no one since has articulated so compelling a philosophy of freedom. The challenge at hand is not realism or idealism, but rather the prudent application of those principles, which stand the test of time.

Sure, Ronald Reagan and Churchill had their faults. Conservatives are far too prone to polish over the tarnished spots in Reagan's record. And we absolutely need new ideas about how best to carry forward America's ideals in a new era. The Cold War is over. But is life really more "complex," as Cohen suggests? Perhaps. But I would counter that the challenges we face are different, rather than qualitatively more complicated. The 20th century was complex enough for my taste.

As to the issue of labels, yes, they are rubbish. I believe firmly that it is the neoconservative wing of the conservative movement that embraces a true realism about the world, rather than head-in-the-sand paleoconservatives, who believe America should not mix principle with foreign policy. But these are the terms of reference for today's internecine fights, and as much as we dislike such false distinctions, they are here to stay. I suspect that Cohen, like me, would find it easier if the euphemisms were set aside and those who use the term "neocon" would simply say what they mean. But after more than a quarter-century in what is increasingly a mealy-mouthed and nasty town, my hopes are low.

Finally, let's agree: However you slice it, the time has come for the Republican Party to "think anew and act anew."


Mind the Gap

Charles Kenny is too quick to call off the clash of civilizations.

Talk of a global "clash of civilizations," first propounded by Samuel P. Huntington in the early 1990s, has been criticized and debated for many years -- and like the current vogue for the walking dead, the "clash" thesis refuses to lie down. In his article ("The Convergence of Civilizations," January/February 2013), Charles Kenny takes aim at this thesis, arguing, quite rightly, that the West is not on an inevitable collision course with the Muslim world.

At the same time, however, it is unclear that "shared values are converging across countries," as Kenny argues. The convergence thesis rests on the premise that repeated exposure to the ideas and images transmitted by Hollywood during the heyday of movies, CNN International during the 1980s, and YouTube and Twitter today will gradually undermine indigenous values and local norms. Consequently, many deeply conservative cultures fear that opening the floodgates to Western media will erode faith in religion, respect for marriage and the family, and deference toward traditional sources of authority. This argument, however, exaggerates the impact of, and access to, globalized mass communications and social media in many of the world's poorer countries.

Evidence from the World Values Survey now covers almost 90 percent of the world's population, and the data allow analysis of trends in public opinion since the early 1980s. The results reveal the stubborn persistence of substantial contrasts in values among rich and poor societies around the globe.

Religiosity, for example, persists most strongly among poor populations vulnerable to physical and other harms. At the same time, secularization and the concomitant eroding of religious practices, values, and beliefs have occurred most clearly among wealthy, secure demographics in post-industrial societies. Thus a large -- and sometimes growing -- values gap driven by socioeconomic conditions persists between religious and secular societies irrespective of Western communications.

Similarly, the residents of affluent countries have become far more liberal over time on a wide range of social values and matters of sexual morality, exemplified by issues such as tolerance of homosexuality and support for gay rights, attitudes toward marriage and divorce, and ideas about the appropriate role of the different sexes. In high-income countries, the prevailing norms concerning gender and sexual orientation are changing much more rapidly than in low-income countries, with the result that a growing gap is opening between these societies. As illustrated by the deepening schism in the Episcopal Church over the role of female religious leaders, poorer countries often sharply reject this liberalization as Western decadence.

Cultural values are deep-rooted, evolving over generations and even centuries, resting ultimately on levels of societal modernization and religious traditions. Thus Niger is not suddenly becoming transformed into Nicaragua -- still less Norway. Many Americans like to imagine that the world is moving their way and adopting their values, but the evidence from the World Values Survey does not support this view -- which may be reassuring to people in other parts of the world.

President, World Values Survey Association
Ann Arbor, Mich.
Lecturer in Comparative Politics, Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.

Charles Kenny replies:

Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart are giants in the field of studying global values. Inglehart is the driving force behind the incredible venture that is the World Values Survey. So I'm very grateful not just for their reply but for all that they have done to make possible the study of global cultural convergence -- or its absence.

Clearly, straying too far from their interpretation of the survey results is more likely an act of ignorance than insight. I think (hope) I don't fall into that trap.

As Norris's work illustrates, the gap between popular support for democracy and its underlying civil liberties -- in addition to the fact that many countries with regular elections also regularly abuse minority rights and lock up people without trial -- illustrates that democratic rights mean different things to different people, and different political leaders. And while I accept the caution that exposure to Western television does not necessarily lead to instant adoption of Western values, some of the biggest recorded impacts of television on behaviors like sending girls to school appear to be through watching local shows rather than Hollywood reruns. Again, I emphasize in the article that convergence in values doesn't necessarily mean convergence on American values.

But given that more than 90 percent of surveyed countries saw declines in religious intolerance and homophobia between the 1993 and 2006 survey waves, that around three-quarters saw a decline in racist values, and that almost every country worldwide is seeing declining fertility and rising school enrollment of girls -- it all adds up to a world where attitudes are moving in the same direction. This isn't the end of history; as Norris and Inglehart point out, plenty of gaping gaps between values remain. And while I completely accept that Niger is not about to become Norway, in all likelihood they're more similar in attitudes today than they were 20 years ago.