Conservatives Can’t Go Back to Ignoring the Limits of American Power

As the U.S. Republican presidential primary heats up, so too will the debate about the future of conservative American foreign policy. Although most of the declared and likely candidates will probably attempt to assume the mantle of “America first,” there are substantial differences among them on the question of what a conservative foreign policy should entail. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have indicated that they see continued military support for Ukraine as essential, for instance, whereas former U.S. President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis have questioned the wisdom of becoming further entangled in a distant conflict that could ultimately land the United States in a shooting war with Russia.

A debate about Republican foreign policy could be healthy for the party and draw attention to important global issues that are often crowded out by pressing domestic concerns. But such a debate would be fruitless if conservative candidates used it as an excuse to pine for a return to caricatures of the foreign policies of former U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Trump. It is no longer 1983, when Reagan correctly labeled the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and was able to oversee a relatively rapid military buildup to counter it. Nor is it 2016, when Trump won the presidency in part by righteously condemning the foreign policy failures of not just Democratic former presidents but also Republican ones.

Conservatives need to accept that the world has changed dramatically over the last seven years, to say nothing of the last 40. The United States faces much greater economic and military constraints today than it did at the end of the Cold War, and these constraints can’t be overcome through inauthentic optimism or sheer willpower. By its very nature, conservatism recognizes limits—whether of government, social progress, or human nature. A conservative foreign policy should accept that the United States exists in a world of limits and must behave accordingly.

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