Republicans and Democrats act resigned to two more years of retreat and setbacks for the United States in international affairs, particularly when it comes to Russia. President Obama remains commander-in-chief and has at his disposal vast diplomatic, military, and intelligence resources. But a House and Senate unified under conservative leadership could use its own constitutional powers to counter presidential passivity toward Russia and begin to rebuild American influence.
How so? Unlike the president’s domestic policy, foreign-policy decisions cannot be reversed by the other branches of government. Congress cannot order the Air Force to bomb the Assad regime in Syria. It cannot hold a summit meeting with Vladimir Putin and force Russia to vacate Crimea. It cannot reach agreements with new governments in Iraq or Afghanistan. Still, a conservative Congress could take concrete action now to strengthen American power and enhance security cooperation with our embattled allies. A strong Congress can pressure a weak president, and when such a president refuses to lead on foreign policy, Congress must do it for him. Congress may lack executive powers, including those of a commander-in-chief, but it controls the purse, the size and shape of the armed forces, and foreign commerce, including arms exports. While Congress cannot make international agreements such as treaties, it can provide material assistance to other countries. While it cannot launch attacks, Congress can fund new classes of weapons, such as cyber technologies, that improve our defenses.
There is precedent for this sort of congressional activity. In the 1970s, for example, President Jimmy Carter pursued an Obama-like policy of détente toward the Soviet Union, despite all the evidence that Moscow was continuing a nuclear- and conventional-weapons buildup and destabilizing Third World regimes. Conservative Republicans and Democrats in Congress, such as Senator Scoop Jackson of Washington, responded by successfully opposing the SALT II agreement on nuclear weapons and beginning a buildup of the American nuclear and conventional arsenal. Congress launched programs for stealth aircraft, the M1 Abrams tank, and other technologies responsible for the stunning American battlefield victories of the 1990s and 2000s.
Missile defense provides another striking example. In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton chased the Democratic-party dream of killing off Reagan’s Star Wars program. Star Wars had helped drive the Soviets into bankruptcy, but Senate Democrats led by Joe Biden argued that it undermined the strategy of mutually assured destruction. The Clinton administration tried to maintain the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty’s ban on defensive systems, even though the Soviet Union, the treaty’s other signatory, had dissolved. After Newt Gingrich led the 1994 midterm landslide, the Republican-controlled House and Senate fully funded national missile-defense programs in defiance of the Clinton White House. President George W. Bush eventually deployed missile defense in Alaska against possible North Korean missiles and terminated the ABM treaty.
These precedents provide direction for a new conservative Congress to respond to Russia and begin the restoration of America’s world standing. The first policy to adopt, and the most urgent, would be to clear the way for sales of military equipment and weapons systems to allies in Ukraine and the rest of the world. Congress should resuscitate FDR’s Arsenal of Democracy for the 21st century. The pivot point of FDR’s military-aid program was the Lend-Lease Act of 1941, which enabled American defense contractors to supply arms at American expense — more than $500 billion, in today’s dollars — to the Soviet Union, Nationalist China, and other countries under attack from Axis powers.
Congress’s task today would be far simpler and far less costly — it could even be profitable. Congress would have to significantly amend two pieces of legislation that oversee American arms sales to foreign powers: the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and the Arms Export Control Act of 1976. Relics of the Cold War, they steer arms sales abroad through a complicated labyrinth involving myriad congressional committees and Pentagon and State Department bureaucrats. As defense experts know, the Arms Export Control Act encourages the Pentagon to peddle big-ticket items such as F-35 fighters by giving the Defense Department an 8 percent surcharge on all sales. Instead, Congress should encourage the sale of the arms that our allies in Europe really need: destroyers, frigates, helicopters, anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, and conventional fighters such as the F-16 and F/A-18.
Our allies know they must revamp and modernize their forces, especially in the face of a resurgent Russia and an aggressive China. Earlier this year Japan’s defense ministry proposed a budget increase of 3 percent, to about $49 billion. That’s the biggest defense budget Japan has seen since 2003. South Korea is considering an even bigger boost, of 4.2 percent, while the Philippines is gearing up to modernize its air and sea forces. In Europe, NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen has called for members to begin increasing their defense spending to 2 to 2.5 percent of GDP. Most don’t spend anything close to that proportion; Germany, for example, spends barely 1.3 percent. But a jump to 2 or even 2.5 percent could mean up to $43 billion in additional funding for its military — with American defense companies poised to help out.
To streamline rearmament by Western Europe, Japan, and Korea, Congress must change existing laws to allow more transfer of advanced technology to our most trusted allies when they need it, not when Washington bureaucrats decide they may have it. Sentiment already exists on the Hill to update these 40- and 50-year-old laws. President Obama himself has recognized the need to update them for a changing defense landscape, but the changes made so far have been piecemeal. Congress can take the lead and make it possible for our allies to buy the arms and equipment to modernize their forces.
A second major step would be to downgrade Russia’s influence in the world and, correspondingly, restore ours to its former strength. Putin has used the pretense of Russia’s great-power status to win popularity at home — he has never ridden so high in domestic opinion polls as he does now — and to humiliate the United States in Iran, Syria, and Ukraine. In response, the United States should stop regarding Russia as a superpower and instead conduct foreign policy in ways that take advantage of its declining military capability, its shrinking population, and its crumbling economy (whose growth now depends on commodity prices). Reducing the international position of Russia and its authoritarian allies would neatly match the steps discussed above to strengthen U.S. allies. In the absence of any policy from President Obama, Congress should again take the lead.
Congress can begin by terminating the New START treaty, which placed the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals under the same limits. There is no reason to impose the same ceiling of 1,550 nuclear warheads on Russia, which can no longer afford to project power beyond its region, and on the U.S., which has a worldwide network of alliances and broader responsibilities to ensure international stability. Russia cannot afford a nuclear arsenal higher than New START’s 1,550-warhead limit, while the United States needs broader capabilities to deter rising threats in several regions at once.
Congress can further sanction Russia and restore the strategic balance of power by withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. In late July, the Obama administration publicly revealed that Russia had violated the 1987 agreement, which bans ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Even faced with demographic and economic decline, Moscow is overhauling its nuclear and conventional arsenal with new, multiple-warhead ballistic missiles, and it has suspended the treaty limiting its European conventional forces. It claims that the rise of its neighbor in the East, China, and new threats along its southern border justify new delivery systems.
Rather than struggle to save the INF treaty, the United States should use Russia’s breach as another opportunity. The treaty has become obsolete. Nuclear war in Europe no longer looms as it did during the Cold War. NATO can counter Russian deployment of intermediate-range missiles with air- and sea-based weapons of greater accuracy. The treaty also interferes with Washington’s ability to preserve global security, a responsibility that Moscow does not share. Maintaining the international system that has brought peace and prosperity for the last seven decades demands that America have access to the full spectrum of conventional and nuclear options. Withdrawing from the INF treaty would signal that the United States will consider Russia a strategic rival if it seeks to redraw borders in Europe.
Next, Congress could restore anti-ballistic-missile (ABM) defense systems in Eastern Europe. Concerned about Iran’s push for ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, the Bush administration began the process of deploying advanced ABM systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. As part of its effort to reset relations with Russia, the Obama administration canceled the program without securing any reciprocal concessions from Moscow or Iran. Redeploying the missile-defense systems would send an important signal of American support for our NATO allies, especially those near Russia, and raise the costs on Russia and its allies of seeking to keep pace with the American military.
A last facet of Congress’s initiative on foreign policy should be to craft new legislation that mandates a comprehensive plan to share information with our NATO allies on cyber attacks, which both Russia and China have used to coerce their neighbors and to inflict costs on the United States. The Obama administration’s handling over the past six years of this urgent security threat has been feckless when it hasn’t been nonexistent. The Justice Department’s recent indictment of five Chinese intelligence officers for alleged hacking is too little too late.
The Defense Department’s Cyber Command should establish strong cooperative links with the intelligence services of our closest allies. The U.S. should share more information on cyber attacks and vulnerabilities and shape a strong counter-strategy including retaliation in kind when evidence of an attack is clear. Plans for such data exchange and collaboration with allies have been in the works inside NATO since last year. It’s time Congress insisted that those plans become reality and that a similar exchange be set up to share information and shape strategy with Asian allies, including South Korea, Japan, and even India.
All of these steps rest within Congress’s undisputed constitutional powers. Congress can use its authority over military spending to fund new intermediate-range weapons systems. It can counter Russian testing and deployment of new missile systems by funding research and development of similar American weapons. It can fund the deployment of new ABM systems and stop the reduction of our nuclear arsenals to New START levels. Congress has longstanding precedent for terminating treaties, beginning with the 1798 Quasi-War with France, which ended the 1778 alliance made with the government of Louis XVI. More recently, Republican Congresses in 1995–2000 established the groundwork for withdrawal from the ABM treaty by supporting the development of national missile-defense systems. Once Bush took office, Congress and the president agreed on the ABM treaty’s obsolescence, and the president terminated the agreement.
Chances for a decisive conservative victory this coming November, with Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, are still good. Such a victory would present an extraordinary opportunity for the GOP to take leadership and reverse the course of American decline, not just at home but abroad as well. It is important that conservatives realize that they need not wait two more years for Obamapolitik to come to its end.
This article originally appeared in the October 20, 2014 issue of National Review.