Yes, the economy is, by far, the number one issue right now. And when Democrats run for re-election in 2010 and President Obama runs for re-election in 2012, it will largely be based on how well the economy is doing and/or their excuses for why the economy hasn't significantly improved.
But foreign policy has been slowly creeping up the ladder in the news cycle: the Somali pirate situation, a new approach in Afghanistan, funding for Iraq, the North Korean missile launch, etc. Rarely are there opportunities for those in the minority to get out in front of an issue. And it might be hard for some to accept items of foreign policy as things we can battle the other side on because it is more proper for there to be "one foreign policy coming from the United States."
Keeping these things in mind though, I think there are a few things that the Right can get ahead of the curve on to prepare ourselves for debates/discussions on international affairs during future election cycles: free trade/international economic regulation, public diplomacy/strategic communications, and foreign aid reform. Yes, there are thinking conservatives that will disagree on approaches to many foreign policy issues, but I think there's much agreement to the following ...
Promoting Free Trade and Battling International Encroachment into America's Economic Affairs: It's unclear how Obama will approach presently-enacted, pending and future free trade agreements, bilateral and multilateral. Example: Joe Biden voted for NAFTA in 1993, the Africa free trade bill in 1999, and the U.S.-China Trade Relations Act, which normalized trade relations with China in 2000; yet, he voted against the creation of free trade agreements with Singapore and Chile in 2003, with Central America in 2005, and with Oman in 2006. (Someone should really ask Biden what makes China more deserving of free trade relations with the United States than Singapore.) While we should make clear the importance of free trade, we should also make clear that the United States should be wary of binding international agreements on financial regulations (in the midst of the current economic crisis), environmental regulations and the creation of new international institutions that might have the best of intentions but become self-serving and useless.
Recognizing the Importance in the "Battle Over Ideas" by Supporting Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communications Programs: Halle Dale over at the Heritage Foundation wrote an interesting piece last month on "Improving the International Marketplace of Ideas," promoting the establishment of an agency for strategic communications and reforming the State Department. A former senior White House official during the Bush administration told me recently that we are better off focusing on resources, mission and strategy for public diplomacy than on reorganizing the government. After President Obama's trip to Europe, it's clear that the administration's public diplomacy strategy is centered around a personality (the President) instead of a set of principles and ideas, which is both naive and dangerous. Lately, there has been some battling within the Democrat caucus over whether or not to fully fund public diplomacy operations. Republicans should be all over this, continuing their message of reform and transparency not only on economic issues, but on issues of foreign policy and how we communicate America's message to the world.
Continuing to Reform Foreign Aid and Connecting It to Efforts to Improve International Stability: One of the greatest, yet underreported achievements of the administration of George W. Bush was not only the substantial increase in the amount of foreign aid that went to places like Africa; it was a change in the way foreign aid was given. Former President Bush made a conscious effort to take paternalism out of foreign aid programs by giving incentives to third world nations to build institutions, political and economic, to stabilize their nations. This would ensure that foreign aid, in the short term, would be spent and invested wisely while the need for foreign aid in the long term would eventually decrease. The Bush administration decided to target HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa. Whatever the Obama administration's foreign aid priorities are (or whatever the Right's suggestions might be), Republicans should prod the President to continue reforming foreign aid programs (especially those run by international institutions) and making sure that our aid reduces paternalism and doesn't promote it.
These three items don't include many important things: how to deal with asymmetric warfare (Somali pirates and Islamic terrorists); how to deal with dangerous heads-of-state (Kim, Ahmadinejad, Chavez); etc. But while we're in the minority, the Right needs to start looking for issues in all areas, including foreign policy, where we can get our principles, policy and message out in front instead of responding to different situations or different proposals from Obama and the Democrats.