The debate over what, exactly, a Republican foreign policy should look like began with the fallout from the Iraq war. It gained steam with the GOP's 2016 nomination of Donald Trump, who spurned many of what had once been core GOP foreign policy principles, and was a throughline of his presidency.
We didn't get many answers. Now, a new organization aims to define the contours of a foreign policy vision for the post-Trump GOP that unites American internationalists across the political spectrum. Named after former senator and cold warrior Arthur Vandenberg (R., Mich.), the Vandenberg Coalition will advocate a platform of conservative internationalism—characterized by a strong military, maintaining alliances, and fair trade, all of which the coalition's leaders believe counter U.S. adversaries, keep the country safe, and protect the interests of working Americans.
"There is a great tradition of Republican and conservative internationalism that starts with Arthur Vandenberg and goes right on through Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and right on to today, but it was divided in 2016," said Elliott Abrams, the chairman of the group. "Some of us were ‘Never Trumpers,' and many of us were in the administration. We thought this coalition should reunite now because we were divided over Trump, but we were not divided over policy: over China, Iran, Russia, or the defense budget. Now is the time to get this started, and we've had a terrific reaction."
Trump's inchoate foreign policy views divided conservatives throughout his presidency. The former president faced internal pushback for attempting to withdraw from Afghanistan and abandoning Kurdish allies in Syria and elsewhere. Many erstwhile Republicans also took offense to the president's eagerness to cozy up to autocratic strongmen like North Korea's Kim Jong-un and Russia's Vladimir Putin. Others found much to like in the confrontational tack he adopted toward Iran and China and his historic support for the State of Israel.
The Vandenberg Coalition's board of directors and advisory board include former Trump administration national security adviser H.R. McMaster and deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger, as well as prominent anti-Trumpers Eric Edelman and Peter Feaver, both signatories of a 2016 letter arguing that Trump posed a threat to national security.
As for bringing these people together, Abrams said, "It is not a problem because we never disagreed about national security policy. There is an effort here to show really, and show symbolically, that we want to put that division behind us."
According to Carrie Filipetti, the executive director of the group and former deputy assistant secretary for Venezuela and Cuba under the Trump administration, the nature of foreign policy challenges that emerged at the end of the last administration offers an opportunity for Trumpers and anti-Trumpers to reunite, or at least to shrink the rift between those who disagreed on the question of Trump.
"The stakes are exceptionally high," Filipetti said. "We've never faced the chance that we may no longer be the only superpower, or that we might not be a superpower at all. … If we don't lead, somebody else will take advantage of the gap that we've left. More likely than not, that is going to be an authoritarian or communist system, whether that's Russia, China, or someone else."
The Vandenberg Coalition will also provide a counterpoint to the Biden administration's nascent foreign policy, which Abrams slammed for a "dangerous" lack of focus on national defense.
"There was almost nothing about defense, and there was nothing serious about defense," Abrams said of President Joe Biden's joint address to Congress on Wednesday. "There are an awful lot of Americans who would agree that that's a mistake and that that's dangerous."
The Vandenberg Coalition joins a crowded field of nonprofits trying to shape the course of national security politics. Among its rivals, the coalition may count the cash-flush Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a controversial think tank associated with the isolationist wings of both political parties and the recipient of big money donations from George Soros, Charles Koch, and others. Filipetti said one of the main goals of the coalition will be to fight isolationist thinking in both political parties.
"There are a lot of voices that are coming from both the left and the right that are arguing for isolationism and retreat. America doesn't retreat," Filipetti said. "The reason why we have the lives we have today is because of American leadership and strength."
As for Vandenberg—whom some historians have described as an unsung hero of the Cold War for his help in designing NATO and the Marshall Plan—Abrams hopes the former senator's legacy will inspire and educate Americans about the kind of foreign policy that has made the United States powerful, peaceful, and prosperous.
"There is a little bit of an educational project here reminding people that there is a tradition of conservative internationalism that does not want to sacrifice American security interests or American economic interests, but believes that American leadership can protect them," Abrams said. "And in fact, only American leadership can protect them."