On 10 June, the Republican Study Committee—comprising 147 Republican Party members of the US House of Representatives—released its national security strategy. The 120-page document, titled Strengthening America and countering global threats, outlines a series of mainly punitive policy measures and, its authors claim, ‘offers 130 solutions to counter America’s most aggressive global adversaries, including the toughest sanctions ever proposed by Congress against the Chinese Communist Party, Russia and the Putin regime, and Iran’.
The document doesn’t represent formal US foreign policy, but it will have an influence on foreign policy under a Republican administration. It offers an insight into the world view of a significant number of conservatives in US politics and how they perceive their nation’s ongoing role in global affairs.
While the strategy is presented as ‘a blueprint for a stable 21st-century order, led by an independent United States and committed to peace’, much of it is devoted to cataloguing new sanctions regimes and coercive strategies targeting America’s adversaries and imposing Washington’s will on the world.
It runs through a litany of grievances relating to Chinese industrial espionage and intellectual property theft and outlines Beijing’s intention to ‘exploit the free and open rules based order and attempt to reshape the international system in its favor’.
In the section on Russia, the strategy proposes imposing further sanctions, enhancing support for NATO partners, and supporting the pro-democracy movement inside Russia. The focus on new sanctions will likely prove ineffective, and the plan to support the pro-democracy movement will likely see Moscow step up its own ‘hybrid warfare’ campaign against the US and the West.
Many of the issues and transgressions identified in the strategy, particularly those associated with the actions of China and Russia, are legitimate. Nevertheless, almost no space is devoted to constructing collaborative processes or dispute-resolution frameworks—so critical to managing emerging geopolitical challenges.
The strategy does offer a roadmap for remaking the system of international institutions and identifies a number of significant problems with international organisations. But its proposal to defund a range of UN agencies—including the UN Development Programme, the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, the UN Human Settlements Programme, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change—will likely create a void in the international institutional architecture.
The strategy proposes establishing a community of democracies as an alternative to the UN in what appears to be a measure designed primarily to counter the influence of countries such as China and Russia in international organisations.
The approach outlined in the strategy also explicitly undermines the State Department’s role in the conduct of foreign policy. This department has already been significantly disempowered under President Donald Trump—it lost around 12% of its Foreign Service personnel during the Trump administration’s first eight months and is likely to be hit with a further 8% cut to its Foreign Service budget in 2021. The strategy goes even further, proposing that the department give up ‘its control over aspects of foreign policy which are best done by other government agencies’, with the Foreign Service to be replaced by ‘a new diplomatic corps that hires to fill specific jobs and encourages a flow of personnel between the private sector and the Department of State’.
The impact of this plan on the US’s ability to undertake constructive diplomacy may prove catastrophic. The perils of appointing candidates with no meaningful foreign policy experience to critical diplomatic roles has become apparent during the Trump administration, and direct links have been drawn between the ‘hollowing out’ of the US Foreign Service and Washington’s declining capacity to negotiate critical arms-control agreements. In this context, the proposal will likely do little more than hasten the already apparent decline in the US’s diplomatic competence.
One more curious element of the strategy is its ambition to maintain an ‘international order based on American values’. The strategy’s authors see the US as ‘the best force for good in the world’ and declare that ‘[the US’s] strength creates more freedom, prosperity, and potential for people everywhere’. In proclaiming this, the authors appear not only detached from the reality of contemporary US democracy but also wilfully ignorant of the trajectory of US global influence under Trump.
The Trump administration’s disastrous failure to respond coherently to both the Covid-19 pandemic and the events following the murder of George Floyd has exposed not only the chronic dysfunction at the state and federal levels of government—some domestic commentators have categorised the US as a failed state—but also the deep fractures at the heart of US society. It’s also clear that the very foundations of US democracy are under attack from within, with electoral integrity under threat at all levels of US government.
Furthermore, as argued by journalist Anne Applebaum, the rank and file of the Republican Party are increasingly embracing an ‘alternative value system’ embodied by the Trump presidency. In the process, they are radically reshaping the American political landscape as a more arbitrary, authoritarian and unaccountable system that promotes vested interests and undermines the rule of law, targets the media, manipulates divisions for political gain and hijacks debate on public policy through the use of lies and misrepresentation.
All of this will have a fundamental impact on the way the US acts globally and how it pursues its own foreign and strategic policy agenda. And, as noted by Richard Haass, ‘The example the United States sets at home and the image it projects abroad can either magnify American power or detract from it.’
The strategy defines the Republican Study Committee’s view of the world and the US’s place in it. It would also provide Washington with a catalogue of policy options that would arguably position the US as a pernicious and destabilising force in international affairs, repudiating its largely constructive legacy from the second half of the 20th century.