The demise of the Republican national security establishment
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Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioApple under pressure to unlock Pensacola shooter's phones Senators offer bill to create alternatives to Huawei in 5G tech Surging Sanders draws fresh scrutiny ahead of debate MORE (R-Fla.) and 32 of his colleagues sent a letter to President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaNational Archives says it altered Trump signs, other messages in Women's March photo Climate 'religion' is fueling Australia's wildfires Biden's new campaign ad features Obama speech praising him MORE on Sept. 8 arguing that the United States should no longer adhere to the provisions of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, while announcing their intention to stop funding the Treaty Organization’s international system to detect underground tests. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il offered the best rebuttal to this ill-considered Republican initiative the following day by carrying out another test.

Four Republican Presidents sought treaty limitations on nuclear testing. Senator Rubio now seeks to lead in the opposite direction. Just as there is no functioning Republican political establishment, there is no longer a functioning Republican national-security establishment. The presidential campaign of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump's newest Russia adviser, Andrew Peek, leaves post: report Hawley expects McConnell's final impeachment resolution to give White House defense ability to motion to dismiss Trump rips New York City sea wall: 'Costly, foolish' and 'environmentally unfriendly idea' MORE, which takes issue with policies pursued by the George W. Bush Administration, reflects this condition. Other aspiring Republican leaders see virtues in muscle flexing while dismissing diplomacy. Reconstituting an internationalist, Republican “establishment” won’t be easy. Elders have retired from public life or have passed on. A new generation of Republican elected officials does not share their sensibilities.


This is the third time over the past 90 years that a major political party in the United States has lost its moorings on U.S. national and international security policy. The proximate cause in each instance has been wars with unsatisfying outcomes – World War I, Vietnam, and President Bush’s ill-conceived war of choice in Iraq that opened the floodgates of extremism and sectarianism across the Middle East.

After the horrors of trench warfare in World War I, many Republicans found refuge in isolationism. President Woodrow Wilson failed to secure the Senate’s consent to join the League of Nations. In 1941, an extension of the draft (the Selective Training and Service Act) passed the House of Representatives by only a single vote. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and U.S. entry into World War II placed isolationism in disrepute. Republicans then found themselves shut out of the White House and as a minority party on Capitol Hill for many years.

The Democratic Party lost its bearings as a result of the stresses and strains of the Vietnam War. Democrats recoiled against the Nixon Administration and against “the best and the brightest” in Washington that championed and prosecuted this punishing, futile war. In 1972, Presidential candidate George McGovern’s acceptance speech struck the theme of “Come Home America.” McGovern lost the Electoral College vote to Nixon by 520 to 17. 

Now it’s the Republican Party’s turn to lose its moorings. Presidential candidate Donald Trump has espoused an “America First” posture, echoing the Republican isolationist refrain prior to Pearl Harbor. Other Republican leaders sharply disagree and seek greater U.S. military involvement in conflict zones. Factions within the Republican Party find agreement by disagreeing with President Barack Obama.

Telling indicators of the crack-up of the Republican national security establishment were evident at least a decade before the Bush administration’s decisions accelerated its demise. After finally regaining control of the House of Representatives in 1995, House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” focused on domestic, not international concerns. In 1999, only four Republican Senators voted for ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). In 2012, there was the object lesson of Richard Lugar -- the internationalist-minded former Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – who lost by 22 percentage points to a hard-right challenger in the Indiana Republican primary.

Nowhere is the demise of Republican internationalism more evident than in reflexive opposition to diplomatic accords that reduce nuclear dangers, including those negotiated by Republican national-security elders like Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Melvin Laird, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Paul Nitze, George Shultz, George H.W. Bush, Brent Scowcroft and James Baker.

The accomplishments of these Republican elders include the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Interim Strategic Arms Limitation Accord, the Vladivostok Accord, the Threshold Test Ban Treaty, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, two strategic arms reduction treaties, and the Open Skies Treaty. These accomplishments no longer account for much on the Republican side of the aisle on Capitol Hill, where Republican insurgents now apply Nancy Reagan’s dictum of “Just Say No” to diplomacy to reduce nuclear threats.

Reflexive opposition has reached systemic proportions. Not one Republican on Capitol Hill broke ranks to support an agreement that, if properly implemented by Iran and the United States, can prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons for the next fifteen years, if not indefinitely. None of the stage-full of Republican candidates in this presidential cycle reminded voters of past Republican diplomatic accomplishments to reduce nuclear dangers, or promised to pursue new ones.

To support diplomacy to reduce nuclear dangers is to invite fierce opposition – not from Democrats, but from fellow Republicans. This wall of opposition is cemented by a pervasive, visceral dislike of the last two Democratic Presidents – one that will assuredly carry over to the next. The challenges posed by Vladimir Putin’s revanchist tendencies, China’s rise, and reducing nuclear dangers are daunting without some measure of bipartisanship.  

“Just Say No” isn’t a policy; it’s a posture. The equation of useful compromise with defeat leads to train wrecks, whether in the Legislative or Executive Branch. During these hard times, no single step by the Senate could have more beneficial consequences to improve America’s international standing and to reduce nuclear dangers than the Senate’s consent to ratify the CTBT. If the United States takes this step, China, India, Pakistan, and Israel are likely to follow. Iran and Egypt would then face added pressure to ratify. If the Senate blocks U.S. ratification, nuclear dangers will be compounded in East Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East.

The main arguments against the Senate’s consent to ratification have been addressed. The Treaty’s monitoring organization has set up several-hundred monitoring stations to detect very low yield, covert tests, and the ambitious U.S. stockpile stewardship program has proven itself to ensure reliability absent testing.

Two lesser arguments remain against the CTBT: whether there is a common understanding about what exactly is meant by nuclear-explosive testing and whether extremely low-yield tests – even those that have little or no military significance -- can be detected. Rejecting the Treaty won’t address these concerns. Instead, these concerns can be satisfactorily addressed with the Treaty’s entry into force by common understandings regarding the scope of the CTBT and even more monitoring stations.

Lengthy, fair-minded hearings on the Treaty could clarify benefits and insurance policies. Voting for ratification is one way that Republicans can rejoin the mainstream that seeks to reduce nuclear dangers by diplomatic means. This will be a steep uphill climb, but one that is required for U.S. national and international security.

Michael Krepon is Co-founder of the Stimson Center.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.