Sen. Tom Cotton tried to define what he calls a "conservative foreign policy" in a speech at the National Review Institute earlier this week, and in doing so he demonstrated just how devoid of wisdom and prudence Republican hawks are. "Foreign policy is emphatically not the province of doctrines," Cotton declared, but it would be difficult to find a more doctrinaire and inflexible ideologue than Cotton himself. In much the same way that Mike Pompeo tried to hijack the concepts of realism and restraint to promote the reckless and bombastic foreign policy that he implemented under Trump, Cotton pretends that his hardline obsessions have something to do with prudence.
Throughout the speech he dwells on the idea that the government should seek to "preserve the blessings of liberty," but there has been nothing more harmful to the liberties of Americans than the permanent warfare state that Cotton extols and defends. While the United States is extraordinarily secure from physical attack, Cotton has been one of the chief fearmongers exaggerating foreign threats from every direction in order to demand increased military spending. The aggressive policies he promotes will sooner or later ensnare the U.S. in costly new wars against Iran and China if they are not stopped. Cotton embodies everything that is wrong with Republican foreign policy today. His militarism is antithetical to American freedom and American interests, and most earlier generations of Americans would have recoiled from his ideas in disgust.
A large part of the speech is an absurd exercise in claiming George Washington and John Quincy Adams for modern interventionists. Cotton praises both men as great conservative statesmen in order to reject their specific recommendations. Cotton dismisses applying Washington’s advice to the modern world as "lazy, sloppy thinking," but there is nothing lazier than ignoring the words of the first president so that you can recruit him to your side of the argument. He tells us that the Farewell Address should continue to guide us, but not in any way that might interfere with Cotton’s own preferred policies.
He treats the Farewell Address as being so defined by the circumstances of its time that it has almost nothing relevant to say about how the US should conduct itself in the world today. It’s not surprising that Cotton wants to ignore the substance of the address, because it represents the opposite of everything he believes. Washington’s injunctions to "observe good faith and justice towards all nations" and to "cultivate peace and harmony with all" could not be more at odds with Cotton’s own worldview, which is defined by advocacy for breaking diplomatic commitments and agitating for war.
John Quincy Adams receives the same dishonest treatment from Cotton, who asserts that Adams presided over an "activist" foreign policy in order to deny the obvious reality that he was a strict non-interventionist in word and deed. Adams’ long record of principled non-interventionism is evidently galling to modern hardliners, since they keep trying to reinvent him as a nineteenth century neocon or hegemonist-in-waiting. Confronted with Adams’ clear statement that America "goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy," Cotton conjures up a completely different Adams to suit his purposes. In Cotton’s fevered imagination, Adams would have been gung-ho for invading Grenada just like Reagan was.
Cotton’s own foreign policy record has been almost comically imprudent. He is predictably a reflexive interventionist, but he also shares with John Bolton a deep-seated hostility to diplomacy, including all arms control and nonproliferation agreements. He was one of the loudest advocates for quitting the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the Treaty on Open Skies, both of which had been very useful to the United States and its European allies for decades and would have continued to be useful if Trump hadn’t withdrawn from them. Cotton’s enthusiasm for wrecking diplomatic agreements hasn’t stopped there. He has been one of the lead saboteurs of the nuclear deal with Iran, and he complained bitterly when Biden renewed New START at the beginning of 2021. Like any other Republican partisan, Cotton is full of praise for Reagan in the speech, but even here he can’t stop from distorting the record by leaving out Reagan’s own support for arms control and his openness to nuclear abolition.
Like Bolton, Cotton is fanatically opposed to anything that limits the US nuclear arsenal and would prefer a world endangered by escalating arms races with Russia and China. Like Bolton, he is also irrationally fixated on Iran and has been intent on getting the US to attack that country for years. When he was still in the House, he endorsed military action against Syria when most of Congress and the public were against it. None of Cotton’s obsessions has anything to do with the security of the United States, but it is what one would expect from a hardline militarist. In each case where Cotton has succeeded in getting his way, he has helped to make the country and the world less secure.
Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.