I haven’t yet had a chance to read political scientist Colin Dueck’s recent history of post-World War II Republican foreign policy, Hard Line, but Ross Douthat summarizes its thesis in a way that makes clear its relevance for the current political moment:
Beneath the Republican Party’s various divisions over the years, Dueck argues, there has always been an enduring unity: A commitment to American nationalism, “hawkish and intense,” that has sought the strongest possible military and the freest possible hand for American power. At the same time, though, Republicans have given their presidents a great deal of leeway to define what this nationalism requires – realism or neoconservatism, saber-rattling or negotiation, pre-emptive war in Iraq or disengagement from Vietnam and Korea.
Elsewhere, I’ve put a similar point somewhat differently, noting the ways in which neoconservatism — these days frequently portrayed either as a doctrine of unilateralism (in contrast to liberal internationalism) or democracy promotion (in contrast to realism) — in fact springs most directly from a kind of alarmist Manicheanism that can lead to a variety of concrete policy doctrines. (And which is far from averse to realist realpolitik, for instance.) In general, conservative movement politicians are characterized by hawkish nationalism, but this kind of hawkishness is just as conducive to skepticism about foreign engagements (as evinced by many Tea Partiers’ reactions to the Arab Spring) as to neocon overreach and democracy promotion.
This essential indeterminacy of “hawkish” foreign policy has perhaps reached its ultimate expression in that most indeterminate of candidates, Mitt Romney. Many observers have noted the perplexing quality of Romney’s foreign policy pronouncements: while his profile as a once-moderate Northeastern technocratic Republican — and the profile of key advisers like Mitchell Reiss — would seem to mark him as heir to realists like James Baker and Brent Scowcroft, Romney’s rhetoric on the stump has sounded the kind of aggressive nationalist notes that are the stock-in-trade of ultra-hawks like his current adviser John Bolton. (Romney’s widely-ridiculed comment that Russia is the U.S.’s “number one geopolitical foe” is a notable example of such hardline Boltonesque rhetoric.)
Yet although there is certainly some value in attempting to place Romney in either the realist or the neocon camp, we should recognize the limits of the enterprise. For one thing, Romney’s vagueness on foreign policy and his reliance on boilerplate right-wing rhetoric are merely one aspect of his broader (and obviously calculated) vagueness of virtually all policy issues. For another, labels like “neoconservative” or “realist” are most useful in referring to a small subset of highly-informed and ideologically self-conscious elites. Most conservative voters — and a good chunk of Americans at large — are more likely to think of themselves in terms of vaguer descriptors: “tough,” “patriotic,” “hard-nosed,” and the like. This can help explain why, for instance, so many Americans supported the Iraq war when it was marketed as tough-minded payback for the 9/11 attacks, and turned against it when it was marketed as idealistic exercise in nation-building.
Romney’s need to win over skeptical conservatives, combined with his famous opportunism — epitomized by his adviser Eric Fehrnstrom’s instantly-notorious “etch-a-sketch” comment — make him the perfect weather vane for determining which way the wind is blowing in the Republican party at any particular time. At the moment, his rhetoric seems to indicate that he sees neoconservatism and Bolton-style aggressive nationalism as the way to the White House. But as a candidate defined above all by ideological malleability, the precise shape of Romney’s hawkishness has the potential to shift along with the balance of forces in his party.