On a recent Monday at Washington’s Willard InterContinental hotel, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was schooled on the world by some of the GOP’s leading foreign-policy lights. In a two-hour tutorial, seated around a table in the Taft Room sipping sodas and coffee, they used detailed regional maps to lead the likely presidential candidate on a tour of the globe’s hot spots: Israel and the Middle East, Latin America, Russia and Ukraine.
The reason for Walker’s crash course was urgent: He has not impressed many leading Republicans with his grasp of foreign affairs. He drew mockery from members of both parties last month for refusing to talk about foreign policy on a trip to London and then for comparing his experience battling labor protesters to taking on Islamic State terrorists.
In contrast to the compelling and confident way Walker talks about his Wisconsin record, he has been shaky on foreign policy. He has traveled only rarely overseas and showed little interest in world politics in college or as governor. Policy experts and donors who have met with him privately said he lacks depth of knowledge about the international scene and speaks mostly in generalities. At a Club for Growth meeting last weekend, one major donor publicly portrayed Walker as “not prepared” to talk about global issues.
“I can pretty well guarantee you that he is not a subscriber to Foreign Affairs,” said Elliott Abrams, a prominent neoconservative who was among those briefing Walker at the Willard.
Still, several conservatives who have met with him said Walker has the right temperament and, with time, can gain more knowledge, comparing his foreign-policy outlook to that of former president George W. Bush. Abrams said Bush viewed diplomacy “as a form of politics. I saw that same phenomenon in Walker. Things like never make a pledge you don’t keep, never break your word, or you will not be trusted again by friends or opponents.”
Walker, who has surged into the top tier of Republican presidential contenders, has been packing his calendar with foreign-policy sessions like the one at the Willard — a visit with a former Navy secretary one day, a tête-à-tête with a former secretary of state on another. He has trips planned to five countries this spring, including Israel. This weekend, he has booked four sit-downs with foreign-policy scholars at the American Enterprise Institute’s summit in Sea Island, Ga.
This account of Walker’s global perspective and his mission to become an authoritative statesman is based on interviews with two dozen policy advisers and donors who have discussed foreign affairs with him in recent weeks.
Through 28 years in politics, from his run for student body president at Marquette University to the governor’s office, Walker’s worldview has been rooted in the dairy farms, factories and bureaucracies of Wisconsin.
“He’s been so wrapped up in his job in Wisconsin, which has been pretty sporty, that he has not spent a lot of time reading into these issues,” said John Lehman, secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan. Walker visited Lehman in New York on Feb. 19. On foreign policy, he said, “He is not strong in details or what to do about it, but he gets the problem.”
Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), a former chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, was less charitable.
“He has not shown much expertise or familiarity,” King said. “You can always learn the details — the names of presidents — but knowing how foreign policy works and understanding the nature of threats and how to counter them, you have to live with it, study it and have a sense of history.”
Walker’s defenders say it is unfair to expect a sitting governor to have adroitness on foreign affairs so early in an election cycle. “Once in a while, you get somebody like a Dwight Eisenhower, but it’s pretty rare,” said former Missouri senator Jim Talent, referring to the decorated World War II commander who became president.
Just as then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush did in 1999, Walker is trying to swiftly gain a fluency with foreign leaders, geography and history; recruit a coterie of national security advisers; and articulate a comprehensive foreign policy to help voters see him as commander-in-chief material.
Walker has yet to unveil a manifesto, but he has begun writing opinion pieces that place him comfortably within the Republican mainstream of a muscular approach to conflicts. On the Web site of the National Review earlier this week, he wrote a warning against a possible deal with Iran on nuclear capabilities. “We cannot afford to be passive spectators while the world descends into chaos,” Walker wrote.
For Walker, the stakes are high. Potential donors are watching to see whether he gets up to speed. Ken Abramowitz, a New York venture capitalist, said his advice to Walker is: “Send yourself to school so that when you’re ready to be the professor you know how to profess. Prime time is a few months away, so he better be reading till late at night.”
Some other candidates are far ahead of Walker in their preparations. As the son and brother of former presidents, former Florida governor Jeb Bush has been exposed to high-level diplomacy and has access to many of their past advisers. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has made his perch on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the defining mark of his Senate career and has traveled abroad extensively.
Republicans think foreign policy could shape the 2016 campaign — especially if former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee.
“Foreign policy is going to be a much bigger issue in 2016 than it has been in a long time, perhaps since 2004,” said John R. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under George W. Bush, who is considering his own campaign.
At last weekend’s Club for Growth meeting in Palm Beach, Fla., Walker told potential donors that “foreign policy is something that’s not just about having a PhD or talking to PhDs. It’s about leadership.”
Walker’s message resonates with some donors. Marc Goldman, a Florida businessman who funds pro-Israel initiatives, said he likes Walker’s worldview. “Everything can be complicated with layer upon layer of nuance added on until you paralyze yourself,” he said. “It just comes down to knowing the difference between right and wrong and acting accordingly.”
Walker came of age during the Reagan presidency and was influenced by the end of the Cold War. He has told associates that watching tanks rolling through Moscow’s Red Square as the Soviet Union was collapsing had a lasting impact on him, as did the recent killing of a Jordanian pilot by Islamic terrorists.
Walker has sought counsel from Reagan administration figures, including former secretary of state George P. Shultz, who singled out Reagan’s move to bust a 1981 strike of air traffic controllers as an example of showing toughness to adversaries and allies alike.
Walker has been repeating Shultz’s example in recent weeks, calling it “the most significant foreign policy decision of my lifetime.”
In a February interview with The Washington Post, Walker said the firings “sent a powerful message around the world that this guy was serious. It told our allies, if he said he was with you, he was with you, and it told our adversaries not to mess with us.”
Walker said global dynamics have become more complex since Reagan’s era. “This is an example where you can’t sit down at Reykjavik and negotiate with [last Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev, no doubt about it,” he said. “It’s a different world and a different time.”
Lee Edwards, a Reagan biographer and distinguished fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Walker has “plenty of homework to do” before he catches up to Reagan’s level of preparation ahead of the 1980 campaign.
“The world was on Reagan’s mind years, even decades, before he ran for president,” Edwards said. “He spent the mid-to-late 1970s studying and discussing the issues on his radio program, so he was comfortable with any question that came his way. That’s something Walker can’t claim.”
Walker is also seeking counsel from several hawks from George W. Bush’s administration — including Abrams, Bush’s deputy national security adviser, and Marc A. Thiessen, a Post columnist and former Bush speechwriter known for his staunch defense of waterboarding and other interrogation tactics barred by President Obama. Walker selected Thiessen to co-write his 2013 book, “Unintimidated,” and the two men became confidants during hours of Skype conversations each weekend.
Walker hired Michael J. Gallagher, 31, a Marine captain and Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer, as his foreign-policy aide. Gallagher has moved to Madison, Wis., and began work this week.
Gallagher is little known outside of Capitol Hill. The native of Green Bay, Wis., is still a PhD student at Georgetown University. “He just sent me some draft chapters for his thesis,” professor Andrew Bennett, Gallagher’s adviser, said this week.
Throughout his life, Walker, 47, has only occasionally traveled internationally. Michael Fleet, who taught Walker in a Marquette class on third-world politics, which covered Latin America and Africa, recalled Walker being “an ill fit.”
“He never really caught the wave, as it were, to any other level or dimension of international politics,” Fleet said. “He seemed to be a localist person.”
In 2008, as the Milwaukee County executive, Walker visited the Czech Republic, where the U.S. ambassador at the time, Rick Graber, was a friend and former Wisconsin Republican Party chairman. As governor, in 2013, Walker led a trade mission to China, where he secured an exclusive deal with a large Chinese medicine company to sell Wisconsin-grown ginseng in its retail stores. Walker also has visited Japan and Canada.
The governor’s trip in January to the United Kingdom — his first overseas as a likely presidential candidate — was widely panned. When he addressed Chatham House, a prestigious London think tank, he refused to answer questions about foreign policy — although he had a lot to say about Wisconsin cheese.
“He has taken a bit of a tumble with his first baby steps,” said Gabriel Schoenfeld, a former foreign-policy aide to Former Mass. governor Mitt Romney. He suggested that Walker should recruit a heavyweight adviser and “almost shack up with that person” to absorb the nuances of national security.
Walker will have opportunities to redeem himself on foreign tours he is planning to Germany, France and Spain in April, as well as to Israel and Canada in May.
R. James Woolsey Jr., a former director of the CIA, said Walker’s limited international exposure is not necessarily a liability.
“Remember, a bankrupt haberdasher named Harry Truman, a machine politician who got shunted in by Franklin Roosevelt, turned out to be a great president,” Woolsey said. “You really don’t know how people will be until they get there.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.