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date: 28 February 2021

The Republican Party and US Foreign Relationslocked

  • David L. PrenticeDavid L. PrenticeOsher Lifelong Learning Institute, Oklahoma State University


The history of the Republican Party’s foreign policy reminds historians that national politics often entails efforts to hold together a diverse coalition. The party’s regional alignments, ideas, and positions were seldom static. Rarely has it enjoyed unity on foreign relations. Intra-party differences mattered as wings, factions, and insurgents feuded over both domestic policy and America’s aims, interests, and engagement with the world. Mugwumps, jingoes, insurgents, Irreconcilables, the Republican Right, and neoconservatives, among others, interpreted events differently. These differences modulated the party’s swings from isolationism to interventionism, pulling it closer to the center of American politics.

Regarding foreign relations, Republicans have generally united around five themes. First, there existed a common understanding that US interests were paramount in defining foreign policy. A shared “America first” ethos made Republicans wary of liberal internationalism and reluctant to concede any autonomy on foreign or economic affairs. While different wings of the Republican Party may have backed divergent policies, each agreed the United States should preserve its flexibility and engage in unilateral action when necessary. Second, Republicans have supported preparedness for national defense and military superiority even when members may oppose US intervention in a foreign conflict. As for diplomacy, they maintained sound negotiations would come from victory or positions of strength. In a world of dangers, the strong survive. Third, the nature of the foreign foe mattered. Republicans opposed revolutionary regimes abroad whereas anti-fascist or anti-authoritarian causes drew weak or belated interest. The common Republican perception that the Soviet Union posed a greater threat to the international order than Nazi Germany accounted for much of the party’s isolationism before World War II. And during the Cold War, Republicans frequently turned a blind eye to the human rights and political abuses of America’s allies while condemning communist nations for the same. Fourth, the Republican preference for limited government influenced how they approached armed conflict. They resisted large peacetime armies and land wars while, in recent eras, placing inordinate faith in modern firepower to deter enemies and accomplish swift victory when used properly. They feared long wars encouraged the growth of the federal government. Finally, opposition to Democratic alternatives, especially in an election year, could bridge some of the party’s greatest chasms.

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