Does Growing Interest in the New Right Indicate Trouble in US Diplomacy?

New Right conservatives, led by Sen. Rand Paul, have recently attracted a lot of attention in political circles. They support policies that are quite different from the political mainstream, such as maintaining stable relations with China and opposing the ban on TikTok. They advocate diplomatic non-interventionism, oppose globalism and any continued aid to Ukraine. Their positions are part of the backlash sparked by Washington’s geopolitical maneuvering, and these sober voices of reason are getting louder. What level of influence does the New Right hold over U.S. politics and diplomacy?

First, there is increasing clamor for a new diplomatic narrative, and clearheaded political figures are challenging the long-standing narratives of democracy and freedom, globalism and Americanization of the world. The U.S. has historically celebrated its isolationist policy, which spanned from the late 1790s to the late 1940s, for creating the conditions necessary to refine the free political system. Avoiding entanglement in European-style political quagmires helped. Then in the post-World War II world, the system was ready for export, and the U.S. began to offer a vision of permanent peace if the world would only Americanize, taking on the concepts and models of U.S. governance. The U.S. launched a global campaign to mold international rhetoric and sentiment, striving to indoctrinate the world so it would accept the American vision. This self-glamorizing narrative had a market during the post-Cold War unipolar moment. Currently, however, as chronic domestic and diplomatic issues are deepening, the instability, setbacks and failures are constantly on display for all to see. The U.S. diplomatic narrative is seriously divorced from reality, causing doubt around the world, and the New Right is making a commendable attempt at recalibration.

Second, while the global activity of the U.S. political elite is imperial in nature, the elite defines itself as peaceful cosmopolitans who stand against nationalism. In the last 70 years, U.S. diplomacy has wielded unparalleled power, compelling other countries to undergo significant changes. When countries engage in policies that conflict with U.S. interests, Washington criticizes them and appeals to international systems, rules and standards. Of course, the U.S. deliberately ignores that it itself violates those standards. The U.S. is usually reluctant to interpret its policies in terms of nationalism for fear of undermining the cosmopolitan credentials of its own diplomacy. However, the catastrophic results of U.S. imperial diplomacy and the deceitfulness of this “cosmopolitanism” are increasingly salient and met with hostility. Returning diplomacy to nationalism may be sobering for the U.S., as it realizes that it isn’t an exceptional country, and there is no longer any market for double standards. The New Right’s positions may be a powerful indicator of where U.S. identity is headed.

Third, Paul’s nationalism or “nativism” is deeply embedded in the historical soil of the U.S., and there is no shortage of domestic support. Since World War II, the U.S. has developed peacetime military alliances with European countries, and there has consistently been a robust counter-neo-isolationist movement. The New Right wants to focus policy on national sovereignty, improving the domestic system and tackling domestic problems. The New Right opposes large-scale foreign aid and international intervention, and they are especially disgusted with sending troops abroad with the energy of the Crusades. They often are America Firsters, who roughly include the likes of Sen. Robert A. Taft during World War II; President Richard Nixon, who promoted détente between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War; Ross Perot, who ran as an independent presidential candidate in 1992; and Pat Buchanan, who was a senior advisor to three presidents and is still relatively active.

Realists advocating for self-restraint often find it challenging to wield significant influence on policy in an environment dominated by liberal ideology. Yet, the realists’ role is special and offers a beacon through the decaying mess that is U.S. diplomacy. The sudden increase in their influence is a harbinger of setbacks in U.S. diplomacy. The New Right is currently attracting attention, reflecting growing concerns about the dangers brought by current failings.

Finally, Paul’s views on China are relatively restrained, which will provide Washington with sobering material for introspection when it considers intensifying competition with China. The New Right is labeled as “populist,” but this brand of populism isn’t packaged with extreme political opportunists. They don’t manipulate the masses in elections, but instead offer pragmatic remedies to the issues angering society. They want to focus on developing the domestic economy and society and to strengthen national culture and identity. In this regard, stabilizing U.S.-China relations is more important and indispensable to the U.S. itself. There can be competition between China and the U.S. but not confrontation. The U.S. should not arrogantly or blindly deal with China, thus shackling future self-improvement. The New Right’s policy prescriptions are not unreasonable.

Overall, the New Right is quite different from the liberal miasma enshrouding the U.S. political elite. The New Right is showing a strong commitment to the concept of nationhood, and their calls for restraint and prudence in foreign affairs merit attention. However, it is yet to be seen how influential they will be.

The author is a professor at the Institute of International Relations, China Foreign Affairs University.

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