The dust has settled. Now, Republicans need to ask what their foreign policy should be after being muddled by Mitt Romney's oscillating maneuvering. It stands now to be more confused, or worse, reflexively opposed to President Barack Obama's policy. Instead, a Republican vision should embrace six elements, for the good of the country and party, in that order.
First, comity and compromise are essential. Republican Gov. Chris Christie embraced Obama's visit to New Jersey following superstorm Sandy. But consider how Christie's earlier words at the Republican National Convention apply to foreign policy: "We are demanding that our leaders stop tearing each other down, and work together to take action on the big things facing America … achieve principled compromise and get results." Similarly, I have worked for Republicans Jeane Kirkpatrick, William Kristol, Jesse Helms and Condoleezza Rice but have experienced bipartisan compromise eliciting United Nations reforms, moving human trafficking from an unknown to a central issue and shining a spotlight on repression in China.
Next, China should be the very top priority — not a veritably intransigent Russia (as Romney suggested), not Iraq and not a "global war" on terrorism. Republicans should back Obama's "Asia pivot," just as Obama, without acknowledgment, built upon President George W. Bush's deepening of Asian democratic alliances as a hedge against China. Romney stressed China's currency manipulation. The U.S. must go even further to question how much of a partner China's autocracy can be when it represses dissenters, worshippers and Uighur and Tibetan minorities, and when it fails to act like a stakeholder in peace in the U.N. Security Council.
Third, resuscitate compassion. Many dismiss Bush's "compassionate conservatism" as artificial or budget-busting. Yet his most successful policies stemmed from compassion knowing no ideology. While Obama embraced fighting human trafficking, it was Bush who prioritized fighting it as "slavery." And while candidate Bush in 2000 intimated Africa would be a backwater, his President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and his enlarged development aid for the continent helped many thankful Africa nations. That compassion arguably facilitated African burden-sharing in peacekeeping.
Compassion shows, fourth, that Republicans must not assume ideals antithetical to U.S. interests. Instead, supporting democracy represents the vital center of U.S. foreign policy — between a Kissingerian realpolitik the American culture properly rejects and democracy promotion by U.S. invasion, which often does not yield democracy. Forced by the Arab Spring, Obama came around after initially eschewing the "D" and "F" words stressed by Bush (democracy and freedom). Republicans should stiffen Obama's spine on democracy-support as a blend of interests and ideals.
Fifth, the U.S. must be an exemplar of democracy and dignity. Detainees' treatment in Camp X-Ray's early days and "black sites" deeply harmed U.S. influence. Obama has not closed Guantanamo as promised, and further undercuts influence by "droning on" — speaking loudly, carrying as his only stick, the drone. Republicans must reject a detainee policy that is the poster child of an unaccountable, ineffective state they regularly lambaste. They also should urge Obama not to rely on drones, which gives the U.S. the image of a distant, dehumanized killer of not only of radicals but innocent people, which serves only to create more radicals.
Finally, as U.S. strength depends on tackling the deficit, Republicans need to get the balance between defense and diplomacy right. Deterrent strength requires modernizing assets and not withdrawing from the world militarily. Many Republicans wrongly think we need to keep boosting defense budgets while cutting the already small resources for instruments of persuasion. Traditional and public diplomacy (the true bargains of exchange programs, broadcasting and nimble social media sharing our values of freedom) must not be slashed, but increased as a tiny proportion of the deficit.
Principled compromise, prioritizing China, compassion, democracy-support, addressing detainee and drone policy as blemishes on our brand, and re-balancing soft and hard power tools ought to be touchstones of a post-2012 GOP foreign policy. They would make Republicans more effective as a loyal opposition influencing Obama's foreign policy, more poised to earn back the White House, and more likely to govern effectively if they do so.
Mark P. Lagon is an international affairs professor at Georgetown University and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was U.S. Ambassador-at-large to Combat Trafficking in Persons from 2007 to 2009.