Three Takeaways from Rand Paul's Foreign Policy Speech

What does the senator mean when he espouses 'conservative realism'?
Photograph by Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

Senator Rand Paul's foreign policy speech Thursday night in New York was his chance to lay out his vision for diplomacy, economic policy and the proper role the U.S. should take in shaping world affairs.  Filled with quotes from historical figures and a few specifics, the speech will be certain to be cited frequently as the Kentucky Republican considers a 2016 presidential bid, a road map to understanding Paul's platform and what he means when he says he's for “conservative realism.”

 Three takeaways:

 1. No more isolationism

Paul has been modifying his stance and rhetoric against interventions overseas including to deal with the Islamic State, which along with the views of his father, Ron Paul, led him to be tagged as an isolationist.

“War is necessary when America is attacked or threatened, when vital American interests are attacked and threatened, and when we have exhausted all other measures short of war,” he said. “The war on terror is not over, and America cannot disengage from the world.”

At the same time, he said America shouldn't fight “wars where the best outcome is stalemate” or “when there is no plan for victory” or “wars that aren’t authorized by the American people, by Congress.”

And he defines his doctrine as this: “A foreign policy that recognizes our limits and preserves our might, a common-sense conservative realism of strength and action. We can’t retreat from the world, but we can’t remake it in our own image either.”

2. A student of history

In one speech, Paul quoted Francis Fukuyama, Ronald Reagan, George Kennan, Bob Gates, Malala Yousafzai (the Pakistanti teenager who just won the Nobel Peace Prize), Bismarck, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen and Henry Kissinger.

Fukuyama is an interesting choice. The intellectual who wrote “The End of History and the Last Man” once was seen as a key thinker in shaping the neoconservative movement and later stepped away from the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld gang, renounced the war in Iraq and threw his support behind Barack Obama. 

“Immediately before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Francis Fukuyama wrote that we are at 'the end of history,'” Paul said. “The world, Fukuyama argued, had arrived at what he called the universal triumph of 'Western liberal democracy as the final point of human government.' Almost 25 years later, we know Fukuyama was either wrong or, at the very least, a bit optimistic.”

3. He's not Obama

Paul said he would ask Congress to authorize any military intervention. He wouldn't have done the mission in Libya or armed moderate Syrian rebels. But he does support airstrikes against the Islamic State and the U.S. and E.U. sanctions on Russia. And he did favor the war in Afghanistan started under President Bush and continued by Obama. From Russia's bravado to Islamic extremism, Paul said bad actors have been emboldened in part by the president's projection of weakness or uncertainty. "These challenges are in part consequences of failing to define our national security interest in a new era," he said.

Paul also suggests he would befriend world leaders on a more personal level and that this would have some impact on policy outcomes. “President Obama never invested in relationships with Congress, and the same is true of his foreign policy,” he said. “To have friends, you have to be a friend.”