Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), predictably, is getting all kinds of flak for his recent trip to Russia in which he promoted dialogue between the two countries and invited the Russian equivalent of a foreign relations committee to the Capitol for an official visit.
From the New York Times to Vanity Fair to pundit S.E. Cupp (the latter two renowned for their foreign policy expertise . . . Oh, wait.), Paul’s been labeled Trump’s Russia wingman, Trump’s perfect Russia stooge, Trump’s most reliable errand boy, and excoriated for abandoning his principles.
It’s a head-scratcher of a claim from people who are supposed to be in the news business. (Disclosure: I once worked for Senator Paul and handled his foreign relations portfolio.) To paint Paul’s actions on Russia as a symptom of Trump sycophancy requires intentional ignorance of the senator’s long-held view that diplomatic engagement should be a priority in international relations. He has, for years, prioritized this approach over the shoot-first-aim-later groupthink that has characterized the foreign relations of both parties over the last several decades.
For all the media’s attempts to make Paul’s approach out to be simplistic and naïve, he seems to have a better grasp of reality than many in the foreign policy establishment.
“The world is too dangerous to threaten war over hacked emails, and it is too dangerous to choose isolation when confronted with challenges to our relations and world peace,” he said recently. (Another reason the foreign policy establishment should be paying attention to Paul? Millennials, the country’s largest adult generation, largely agree with his views.)
Don’t Let Cheap Rhetoric Overshadow Paul’s Argument
For years, Paul has been outlining a dialogue-first type of foreign policy. He’s praised Reagan’s willingness to sit down with the Russians at the peak of the Cold War, cautioned against an overly aggressive response to Russia’s misadventuring in Ukraine, and is constantly (at times, crankily) pushing for international engagement that reflects “a common-sense conservative realism.”
Throwing out inflammatory terms like “Russian patsy” or a “Trump sycophant” obscures the depth and nuance of Paul’s argument. This inability (or, let’s face it, unwillingness) of the conventional foreign-policy thinkers to stop conflating dialogue with capitulation has troubling ramifications for a country exhausted by endless conflict. Because it is exactly this type of nuance that can mean the difference between strategic engagement and, well, flat-out war.
As Paul noted in a recent floor speech, “Nobody is . . . excusing Russia’s meddling in our elections. But neither should anyone say, ‘We’re done with diplomacy, we’re going to add more sanctions and more sanctions.’ You know what, I would rather that we still have open channels of discussion with the Russians.”
He went on, “Does anyone remember that Ronald Reagan sat down with Gorbachev and we lessened the nuclear tensions? Kennedy, at the height of the Cold War, had a direct line to Khrushchev, and it may have prevented the end of the world.”
Somewhere along the line, simple dialogue with an adversary became akin to bending the knee, or a statement on American might, or a value judgment on someone’s personal patriotism. This is a false and, frankly, dangerous way of looking at a world in which actors move far more as shades of gray than they do as black and white.
But set aside for a moment the merits of Paul’s approach to international relations, and the media’s refusal to grasp those merits. There is another reason Paul’s trip is undeserving of the scorn that is being so unceremoniously dumped upon it.
Paul, as a U.S. senator and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also has a right to be in Russia. In going there, he is fulfilling a long established but rarely used role of the senator-as-statesman. In that sense, as Bonnie Kristian wrote recently, Paul’s efforts are a “welcome reassertion of congressional authority in foreign affairs.” The last several decades have seen Congress willingly hand over more and more authority in world affairs to the executive, concentrating international decision making into the hands of the very few.
Though the Constitution properly limits treaty-making and other direct foreign policy actions to the domain of the executive, the role of the Senate and individual senators engaging in diplomacy is well defined. Not only do all international treaties require the advice and consent of the Senate, but so do appointments to international positions and, (in theory, anyway) war-making.
Hubert Humphrey, former Democratic senator, presidential candidate and vice president to Lyndon Johnson opined in long form on the topic. Writing in Foreign Affairs in 1959, he discussed the value of his own visit to Russia in the midst of the Cold War:
One of the best ways for a Senator to comprehend both the limits and possibilities of foreign policy is to have direct contact with the leaders and peoples of other nations . . . I benefited greatly by my visit with Premier Khrushchev, and I believe he gained a clearer understanding about the unity of the American people behind the essential elements of our foreign policy precisely because I was a politician … Visits with foreign officials which do not confuse contact with contract do not presume upon the exclusive Presidential prerogative.
Striving for a Better Relationship
Paul isn’t the first senator to make his way to Russia this year. A group of Republican senators, including Senator John Thune (R-S.D.), a member of Republican leadership, traveled to Moscow over the July 4 recess. Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), sounding very Paul-esque, told Russia’s foreign minister that while Russia and the United States were competitors, “we don’t necessarily need to be adversaries.” He later told the Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, “I’m not here today to accuse Russia of this or that or so forth . . . I’m saying that we should all strive for a better relationship.”
Unsurprisingly, the national media noted both the trip and Shelby’s comments in flippant passing. None of the attending senators received the same glaring vitriol that accompanied Paul’s trip, most likely because they are thought to be less allied with the president. Obsession with Trump, perceived Trump allies, and Russia, or “Russianism,” as Victor Davis Hanson calls it, is just another way for those who still cannot come to grips with Trump’s election to further seek to invalidate it. Everyone else outside of Trump’s orbit gets a pass.
Far from being some kind of naïve kookery, Paul’s vision for engagement with the world is reflective of a shift in how Americans want to engage overseas. It’s also just smart. We no longer live in a bipolar world. Rather, the multipolarity of our international system, combined with the convergence of interests between our allies and our adversaries, requires constant engagement, dialogue, and a deft, sophisticated diplomacy far more advanced than simply pushing the red button, or exporting democracy in a box.
Rand Paul gets this. To an extent, President Trump appears to grasp it as well. It would be nice if the rest of the chattering classes would finally catch on.
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