As far as policy goes, journalists tend to view presidential campaigns through the lens of Bill Clinton’s unofficial campaign slogan from 1992: “It’s the economy, stupid.” And so it goes this year. To the extent that they cover policy rather than personality clashes and outlandish, offensive announcements, the headlines are dominated by stories about Donald Trump’s radically belligerent economic agenda and Bernie Sanders’ railing against income inequality and Wall Street.
But it’s wrong to reduce the current election to nothing more than a contest of differing economic visions. In fact, a closer look reveals a wealth of information about many crucial issues – particularly about foreign policy.
And while there are important differences in the foreign policy platforms of Sanders and Clinton, the more intriguing, and potentially momentous, divide is on the Republican side. While the media has largely neglected this aspect of the Republican race, the leading candidates are fighting for nothing less than sway over the party’s vision of America’s place in the world.
On one side stands Marco Rubio, who remains the leading candidate in the so-called “establishment lane”. The junior senator from Florida advocates an unapologetic vision of American exceptionalism; he sees the US as obligated to address all the trouble spots across the globe vigorously and (apparently) simultaneously. So he would confront Russia, China, and Iran more forcefully than President Obama, and calls for a large increase in defence spending. He also argues that the US should ramp up its involvement in Syria.
This worldview is closely related to neoconservatism, a worldview that first began to focus on foreign policy in the 1970s and which reached its disastrous peak influence during the presidency of George W. Bush. Rubio’s call for “moral clarity regarding America’s core values”, for example, is quintessentially neoconservative language.
This platform is crafted to appeal to the party’s establishment elite. Indeed, influential neoconservatives such as Robert Kagan and Bill Kristol are reportedly advising him on foreign policy.
Rubio’s main challengers, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, also loudly proclaim American greatness and have harshly criticised Obama’s foreign policy. But they are less eager to launch new military incursions abroad, and both oppose the sort of long-term interventions that have entangled the US in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Cruz, for instance, has bluntly stated that “it’s not the job of the US military to do nation building or produce democratic utopias”.
Trump, characteristically, is more colourful and has called the invasion of Iraq a “big, fat mistake”. In fact, in the recent debate in South Carolina, Trump challenged Republican orthodoxy — and the party establishment —directly, by accusing George W. Bush of lying about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and of failing to prevent the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
The sharp contrast between Trump and Cruz, on the one hand, and Rubio on the other, underscores a crucial ideological divide that has re-emerged in Republican thinking. Rubio represents the neoconservative orthodoxy that has mostly held sway for the last 15 years among party elites, while Cruz and Trump are espousing an updated form of conservative nationalism.
Perhaps the most eloquent representative of this strand of thinking was Robert Taft. A Republican senator from Ohio and one of the party’s leaders in the 1940s and early 1950s, Taft questioned many of the new international commitments the US made in the early years of the Cold War. Though this perspective largely disappeared after the Korean War, it has resurfaced periodically since 1990 – if never becoming dominant.
Trump and Cruz don’t agree on all the issues. Cruz is committed to free trade, for instance, whereas Trump has made protectionism one of his signature issues. To an extent, this is because Cruz and Trump represent different constituencies.
Cruz tends to channel supporters of the Tea Party, many of whose activists have long been sceptical of neoconservative thinking (though they have mainly confronted the Republican establishment on domestic issues), and has been making a strong pitch to evangelical conservatives. The base of Trump’s support, meanwhile, seems to consist of working-class whites who are overwhelmingly hawkish on national security, but who have little patience for sending troops abroad for long periods.
It’s easy to ignore the Republicans' raging debate on foreign policy, especially since the press is inclined to focus on more lurid themes – the threat of making Mexico pay for a wall on the border, say. But even if the US is declining relative to rising powers such as China, as many observers now believe it is, foreign policy decisions in Washington DC still have enormous consequences for those of us in the rest of the world.
As the nominating contests reach a fever pitch, perhaps we should pay a bit less attention to Trump’s latest insult, or stories of Rubio’s robotic debate performances, and a bit more to the type of commander-in-chief they would be.