The New Political Spectrum of U.S. Foreign Policy
It’s no longer red versus blue in the fluid, jumbled, trans-partisan politics of U.S. national security
A new domestic political landscape for U.S. foreign policy has been taking shape over the past few years, and it’s not the one you may have been reading on Twitter or in boutique, elite advocacy campaigns on foreign policy.
Though this landscape has yet to fully solidify, it’s possible to identify four main camps that will influence our foreign policy debates moving forward:
Gated Community Sentries
The first camp vastly outnumbers the other three, but those in that first camp are not as coordinated with each other and tend to shy away from being extremely online. Nevertheless, the Reformed Internationalists still hold the high ground in terms of practical ideas for U.S. foreign policy garnering broad U.S. public support.
Understanding this new emerging paradigm will help with the important task of discerning where America might go in the world in the coming years. Most Americans are rationally ignorant when it comes to many of the details of foreign policy—understandably so, given that most voters are concerned about issues closer to home. Nevertheless, foreign policy remains an important issue when voters are thinking about who to support for the next commander-in-chief.
If the early sniping in the race for the Republican presidential nomination is any indication, next year’s presidential election may feature a greater focus on foreign policy than any contest since 2004. That year, enough of the American public still backed the war in Iraq to hand President George W. Bush a second term in the White House. But public opinion soon soured on both the war itself and the president who embarked upon it, leaving the domestic politics of foreign policy unsettled for more than a decade and a half.
The specter of the Iraq war no longer dominates America’s foreign policy debates the way it did as recently as 2020, while differences between the nation’s foreign policy camps and coalitions have become increasingly stark and sharp—particularly in the wake of Russia’s war against Ukraine and the ongoing revival of conservative isolationism within the Republican Party.
Let’s take a look at each one in turn.
Reformed Internationalists: Linking America’s Strength at Home to a More Balanced Engagement Abroad
This big-tent revival currently underway includes a wide-range of perspectives from across America’s jumbled ideological and partisan spectrum who occupy the center ground of both elite and broader public opinion on foreign policy.
Galvanized by Russia’s war against Ukraine and concerned about the threat of Trump-style isolationism at home, they all share a fundamental commitment to active American involvement in the world that’s both pragmatic and principled. Even if they don’t agree on every tactical and operational aspect of what that involvement should look like, Reformed Internationalists share far more common ground with one another than they do with members of the other three factions.
Thanks to the wide range of political and ideological traditions that can be found in this camp, it’s fairly easy to break Reformed Internationalism down into a number of constituent factions. These groups stretch from liberal nationalists like us here at The Liberal Patriot to mainstream Democrats like President Biden and much of his administration to a small but proud band of conservative internationalists, now mostly on the outs with the new center of gravity in the GOP and who congregate in academia, think tanks, and anti-Trump media outlets. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, moreover, many Democrats and other mainstream center-left voices abandoned a misguided, post-Iraq flirtation with “restraint” foreign policy thought and became born-again internationalists.
What sort of foreign policy does this group support? They understand the need to defend America and its allies from threats in actions coordinated with allies and parties. Reformed Internationalists support a strong defense, especially in areas such as cybersecurity, and want to see these defense investments better complemented by and integrated with diplomatic and economic tools. One core idea animating Reformed Internationalists is the need for America to build its ability to compete economically in the world, which is why Biden’s national industrial policy has won support from both sides of the political aisle. This group also supports a continued role in defending freedom at home and abroad, though they are more realistic and pragmatic about what it takes to do so given America’s recent experiences at home and abroad on this front.
Reformed Internationalists by and large have the support of the American public: two-thirds of Americans, according to a recent Gallup poll, want the United States to play the leading or a major role in world affairs. That’s echoed in polling conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs last year, with 60 percent of Americans favoring an active U.S. role in world affairs and more than 80 percent supportive of maintaining or increasing the country’s commitment to NATO. These polls do indicate a recent slip in support for American involvement in the world, but they ultimately show strong majorities—often supermajorities—backing internationalism in terms both general and specific.
There will be lively policy debates within the big tent of Reformed Internationalism; this camp’s internal political and ideological diversity ensures as much. The future of America’s China and trade policies, respectively, will remain a point of contention between individuals who otherwise share internationalist commitments. But a solid consensus on American involvement in the world will continue to unite Reformed Internationalists in the America’s wider foreign policy debates to come.
Pipe Dreamers: Unwilling to Bear Any Burden or Pay Any Price—So They Lean Heavily on Rhetoric and Slogans Rather Than Substance
The second camp includes individuals and institutions, mostly on the progressive left but also a few on the libertarian right, who imagine the world to be more conducive to their ideas and ideals than it is in reality.
As global activists who propose more aid and more diplomacy as the solution to just about every problem, Pipe Dreamers talk a good game about principles like democracy and human rights but seem as willing to jettison them in pursuit of their own objectives—say, calling for America’s policy toward China to focus on climate change to the exclusion of virtually all other issues and concerns—as the most cynical foreign policy realist. Climate change is a top priority for many in this group, for instance, but they usually don’t offer practical plans for managing the shift from fossil fuels already underway and too often ignore the need to advance energy abundance and security in the process.
This camp frequently rails against what some call “The Blob” (aka the foreign policy establishment), but they lack of practical ideas to address the real world challenges in places like Ukraine, Syria, or Yemen. They bifurcate diplomacy and the use of military force, treating one as an alternative to the other rather than understanding the fundamental relationship between the two and leading them to advocate for peace at virtually any price.
To conceal this deficit of practical ideas, they rely heavily on slogans such as “ending endless wars” or “forever wars,” using imprecise language that perpetuates the globalization of indifference. Focused on winning past foreign policy debates—whether Iraq in 2003 or the Iran nuclear deal in 2015—Pipe Dreamers themselves have been receptive to the arguments of the restraint camp, which has taken pains to portray itself as “progressive” even as it remains stuck in the past.
Quite often these voices try to inject their own form of identity politics into thorny, complicated foreign policy issues involving people on the other side of the planet. That leads them to project some of America’s own internal social and political debates on those problems in ways that render their views impractical and irrelevant. A sure sign of a Pipe Dreamer is someone who spends most of their intellectual energy arguing against ideas that had far more reach and relevance two decades ago than they do today.
Politically, many Pipe Dreamers find a home in the self-proclaimed progressive left and among the activist fringes of the Democratic Party. They likely constitute no more than ten percent of the overall electorate and about the same proportion of the Democratic coalition, but many of their policy views—support for international cooperation on climate change and poverty, for instance, both of which understandably concern Pipe Dreamers—frequently find sympathetic hearings among left-leaning and mainstream Reformed Internationalists who might consider themselves global activists.
Towards the right end of the spectrum in this Pipe Dreamer camp are the libertarian elements who push hard for defense spending cuts and retrenching America’s role in the world. Though smaller in number than their left-wing counterparts, they’re equally loud and aggressive on social media and have captured the attention of some in the media and politics as a result. But the ideas put forward by this coalition of the confused have mostly proven impractical and were ultimately ignored by most U.S. administrations in recent years—or disastrous when actually implemented, as in the retreat from Afghanistan negotiated by President Trump and implemented by President Biden.
Finally, there’s overlap between this category and the next in the new foreign policy political spectrum: the Pipe Dreamers who say America does more harm than good in the world essentially call for a retreat from the world resembles the impulses animating the Gated Community mindset that first emerged during the Obama administration more than many would admit.
Gated Community Sentries: Trying to Turn Back the Clock in More Ways Than One
Concentrated mainly on the America First right, Gated Community Sentries want the United States to retreat behind its own borders, build walls to keep the world out, and lash out violently at perceived threats. Ironically, many in this camp barely conceal their admiration for right-wing dictators and self-proclaimed “illiberal democrats” overseas, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Hungary’s Viktor Orban. Like Pipe Dreamers on the left, Gated Community Sentries find intellectual sustenance in the arguments of the restraint crowd and seek to fight the last war—whether Iraq or Vietnam or even the World Wars.
Trump and his America First acolytes merely constitute the vulgar manifestation of an underlying impulse toward retreat from the world and bunker down. This coalition includes so-called “Jacksonian” conservatives, many of whom comprised the foot soldiers of the Tea Party movement a decade ago. Pre-pandemic polling indicated a third of the public agreed or sympathized with Trump-style gated-community nationalism, though more recent surveys indicate that such voters may constitute roughly a fifth of the overall electorate. However, Gated Community Sentries and their fellow travelers amounted to nearly half—some 46 percent—of the Republican Party coalition.
What sort of foreign policy does this group support? First, they are heavily focused on immigration and back the idea of building walls. They tend to blame foreigners for America’s problems and want to keep many of them out of the country and back efforts to get those countries to pay more and do more. That’s why many supported Trump’s failed efforts to turn alliances like NATO into a protection racket. Like Reformed Internationalists, they support a strong defense, but they are much more skeptical of the role formal military alliances play in that defense. For all their bluster, they favor accommodation with autocratic powers like Russia—typically at the expense of fellow democracies.
Though they often pose as super-patriots, Gated Community Sentries prove just as apt as some Pipe Dreamers and restrainer intellectuals to blame America first for the world’s problems. While restraint advocates and many Pipe Dreamers are obviously more erudite than Trump and a number of other Gated Community Sentries, they share a common impulse to see America’s involvement overseas as the root of both the world’s troubles and our own domestic problems. If America were simply to pull back from the world, things would improve both at home and abroad.
Indeed, restrainers and some Pipe Dreamers are much closer to Gated Community Sentries in outlook than they might like to admit—to the point where they may as well be functionally similar when it comes to substance on important issues like Ukraine and Taiwan.
Weathervanes: You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows
Finally, there’s a distinct category of individuals—mostly elected officials—whose pronouncements on foreign policy appear to depend on which way they feel the political winds happen to be blowing at any given moment. These winds aren’t necessarily national, however, and indeed some of the most prominent foreign policy Weathervanes seem to follow the prevalent currents blowing in from activists or primary voters. Weathervanes often flit in and out of the three main camps outlined here as a result, seemingly adjusting their foreign policy views to achieve maximum social media impact more than anything else.
As their name suggests, Weathervanes display almost no leadership on foreign policy issues. They prefer to follow the lead of activist campaigns or the perceived positions of primary voters rather than think for themselves about principles and policies. Weathervanes are similar to Pipe Dreamers in their heavy social media use, and some Congressional members in both camps and their staffers are quite active on social media. Weathervanes may in fact have fixed views on various issues, but these views are not held strongly enough to override keep them from going with what they see as the flow of internal party politics or the social media zeitgeist. Ultimately, Weathervanes are less interested in solving foreign policy problems than they are posturing in our own domestic political debates.
The end result can be seen among Democrats who vociferously backed activist campaigns to “end to the war in Yemen” (remember that?), for instance, now equally strongly support President Biden’s policy on Ukraine. But perhaps the most prominent Weathervane is a Republican: Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who in 2014 accused then-President Barack Obama of “weakness” for failing to send weapons to Ukraine. As an all-but-declared Republican presidential contender seeking votes from Gated Community Sentries in 2023, however, DeSantis now proclaims that support for Ukraine’s war against Russian aggression isn’t in America’s national interests.
The current moment—Russia’s war against Ukraine, China’s threats against Taiwan, a slew of countries expanding their nuclear arsenals, and a steady decline in global freedom—was brought to us in part by a mix of the last three foreign policy camps who agree on the faulty notion that America does more harm than good in the world. Even though these three camps remain outnumbered by the Reformed Internationalists and the public support for the ideas in these last three camps are small, they currently exert far more influence in today’s media and political landscape than their numbers would imply.
After more than a decade of turmoil, the domestic politics of America’s foreign policy seems to be settling into a new paradigm—one more akin to the debates of a century ago than the Cold War or post-Cold War eras. Then as now, a politically and ideologically diverse coalition of internationalists will face off against an equally heterogeneous congregation of idealistic activists and inward-looking reactionaries who, each for their own reasons, counsel isolation from a corrupt and dangerous world.
That wider debate will frame and define the concrete issues that America will confront in the years and decades to come—from Russia’s war against Ukraine, strategic competition with China and its ruling Communist Party, an international industrial policy, and the emergence of new and potentially destabilizing technologies like quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and bio-engineering
One thing’s certain: the outcome of America’s foreign policy debate at home will matter more for the world than it has in decades.