Ilan Goldenberg, policy director for the National Security Network, argues that Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama for president sounds the death knell for “the Republican foreign policy establishment as we know it. The final break between traditional pragmatic foreign policy conservatives and Neocons.”

  He cites several other developments along these lines, demonstrating that this has been a long time coming:

  • Richard Lugar, Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has endorsed Obama’s approach to diplomacy over that of McCain.
  • Brent Scowcroft refuses to endorse either way.  Pretty telling for a former Republican national security advisor, especially since he was opposed to the war in Iraq.
  • James Baker continues to support direct talks with Iran and has for the past two years. (Actually just read the entire five secretaries of state event transcript from CNN.  It’s one big endorsement of Obama’s foreign policy)
  • Kissinger and Schultz wrote op-eds in the Washington Post and Financial Times calling for a more moderate approach towards Russia.
  • Kissinger has also called for direct talks with Iran (at the Secretary of State level).
  • Chuck Hagel has traveled to Iraq with Obama and while not publicly endorsing, looks to be pretty clearly in favor of Obama.
  • Secretary of Defense Bob Gates is giving speeches that sound a lot more like an Obama foreign policy than a McCain foreign policy.

Goldenberg gushes, “[D]on’t be surprised if Powell’s endorsement will encourage more of these pragmatic foreign policy conservatives to come over to the Democrats over the next few years.  At the very least I wouldn’t be surprised if most of their proteges are soon working for Democrats.”

There are constant realignments in American politics and it wouldn’t be at all surprising if some old line Republicans switch parties over foreign policy issues, just as many Democrats did in the 1970s and 1980s.  This particular divide, though, tells us more about the congruity of American foreign policy than about problems with the GOP.

One of my formative experiences in thinking about this issue came on a visit as an undergraduate to the Carter Center in Atlanta for a symposium featuring all the living former Secretaries of State.  I won’t say how long ago that was, other than to note that Al Haig had just joined their ranks.  What struck me was how small the differences were between these men on the critical issues.  Some served very liberal presidents, others conservative ones.  There was very little light between their views on dealing with the Soviets (yes, there were still Soviets then), the Arab-Israeli dispute, Middle East oil, and other key matters.

Today, there’s widespread agreement within the so-called Foreign Policy Establishment that crosses party lines.  Even on the critical debate leading to the war in Iraq, as I noted in a piece published elsewhere, the Establishment tended to have a remarkably similar view.  We all agree on the importance of working with allies, the need for diplomacy, and so forth.

As incredible as it may seem today, it’s useful to recall that candidate George W. Bush ran in 2000 promising a “humble foreign policy” that eschewed “nation building.”  His chief foreign policy advisor, Condoleeza Rice, published a piece in the January/February 2000 Foreign Affairs arguing that American foreign policy needed to be refocused on non-trivial issues, especially “extending  free trade and a stable monetary system,” “having strong alliances,” and rebuilding a military weary from too many foreign interventions.  Beyond that, while promoting Western values was all well and good, “it is simply not possible to ignore and isolate other powerful states that do not share those values.”  Further, while expanding NATO should remain an option, “Membership in NATO will mean nothing to anyone if the organization is no longer militarily capable and if it is unclear about its mission.”  She warned that “the United States needs to recognize that Russia is a great power, and that we will always have interests that conflict as well as coincide.”  Barack Obama and Joe Biden could sign off on that today, just as George H.W. Bush, Colin Powell and Brent Scowcroft could have years before.

To be sure, the piece foreshadowed some of what was to come, repeatedly emphasizing a willingness to undertake unilateral action when deemed to serve American interests and pointing to rogue regimes in Iraq, North Korea, and Iran — the eventual “Axis of Evil” — as likely targets.  But even here, the discussion was simply hard line Realism with no talk of creating model democracies in the region.

Realism and its variants are the dominant mindset of that Establishment and neoconservatism (and its cross-party counterpart, liberal interventionism) is the decided outlier.  Relegating it to the margins isn’t killing the Republican foreign policy establishment:  it’s restoring it.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.  

Related Experts: James Joyner