The new year has opened old rifts in the Republican Party. Before he was even seated in the Senate, Mitt Romney wrote a Washington Post op-ed piece attacking the unpresidential behavior of President Donald Trump. Romney’s blast fueled speculation about a primary challenge to the president (although Romney himself later said that he had no plans to aim for the White House), and it attracted the vitriol of Trump and his supporters. Yet the foreign policy implications of Romney’s broadside are equally important, because they reveal a high-stakes struggle for the soul of Republican statecraft.
In publicly taking on the leader of his own party, Romney appears to be pursuing two worthy foreign-policy goals. The first is to position himself as heir to John McCain as the congressional conscience of U.S. diplomacy. In his later years, McCain was treated as a quasi-head of state when he traveled abroad, in part because of his influence as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in part because of his longevity and reputation as a tireless advocate for U.S. internationalism, and in part because he was willing to condemn Trump’s America First ideas (if not, usually, the president himself). His death left a void that has yet to be filled, even though an array of GOP senators — notably Lindsey Graham — have criticized Trump’s recent policy decisions such as pulling U.S. troops out of Syria.
Romney’s op-ed represents his effort to fill that void. He laments the president’s characterization of U.S. engagement as a sucker bet, the declining international faith in American moral authority and diplomatic competence, the failure to support a united Europe and strengthen U.S. alliances, and so on. Even Trump’s domestic failings are framed as a geopolitical matter. “To reassume our leadership in world politics,” Romney writes, “we must repair failings in our politics at home.”
Second, and closely related, Romney is articulating a renewed Republican internationalism based on opposition to aggressive authoritarian regimes. In fairness, the former presidential candidate is not a Johnny-come-lately here: He deserves credit for being anti-Russia before being anti-Russia was cool. And his op-ed is noteworthy because it argues that the fundamental challenge to U.S. and global security is the geopolitical and ideological revisionism of Moscow and Beijing. “The alternative to U.S. world leadership offered by China and Russia is autocratic, corrupt and brutal,” he writes.
The U.S. cannot defeat the challenges posed by great-power competition if it retreats into narrow, xenophobic, self-isolating nationalism, Romney argues. If the nation is to preserve the relatively free, open and stable environment it has constructed, it must recommit to the alliances, democratic values and tradition of enlightened engagement that have served it so well in the past. The answer to a more dangerous world is not Trump’s America First agenda — it is a renewed American internationalism.
This is indeed the right frame for U.S. foreign policy. As Charles Edel and I argue in our forthcoming book, the central cleavage in global affairs is the divide between the U.S. and its largely democratic allies that want to preserve the existing global order, and the ambitious autocrats who want to remake it to their own advantage. There is little chance that the democratic world will triumph in that struggle if America becomes a sullen, disruptive or downright destructive superpower. What is less certain is whether Romney’s vision of foreign policy will carry the day within the Republican Party.
There are reasons for skepticism. Neither Romney nor any other prominent GOP internationalist has the institutional heft McCain had in the Senate or the global stature he possessed. And it is always difficult for senators to exert strong foreign policy leadership against a president from their own party — especially one, like Trump, who remains popular with the GOP base and shows little hesitation about using that popularity as a cudgel against his political enemies.
The good news is that Romney is not alone in this campaign. Nikki Haley used her perch at the United Nations to make similar arguments, focusing on the importance of promoting American values and resisting the depredations of authoritarian regimes, even as she worked carefully to limit the daylight between the president and herself. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska has been similarly outspoken in arguing for free trade, support for allies and other long-standing pillars of U.S. statecraft. What these Republicans — and a number of conservative intellectuals — have in common is that they are trying to make sure that the GOP remains committed to American internationalism after Trump departs the scene. And Trump’s popularity aside, there may be a political opening for this: Polling consistently indicates that while Republicans mostly support Trump, his more unorthodox views on foreign policy are not broadly or uniformly popular.
It’s important not to give anyone too much credit for one op-ed, of course. But all those — whether Republicans or Democrats — who worry that Trump is undoing much of what has made U.S. foreign policy effective in the past ought to be glad that Romney has chosen to pick this fight. U.S. internationalism has persisted for so long because it has been supported by both major political parties. If it is to survive for several more decades — or even several more years — it will need more champions who refuse to let Trump be the voice of Republican foreign policy.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Most recently, he is the co-author of “The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order.”