As Russia’s war on Ukraine enters its second, destructive year, the Republican Party must decide what its foreign policy will be. Certainly, GOP support for Ukraine cannot be taken for granted given the responses of some presidential candidates, or potential candidates, to a questionnaire issued by Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. Asked by Carlson whether “opposing Russia in Ukraine [is] a vital American national strategic interest,” former President Donald Trump declared, “No, but it is for Europe.” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis agreed that defense of Ukraine is not vital to the US. Russia’s war, DeSantis said, is “a territorial dispute.”
Although DeSantis later dialed back on this stance, such rhetoric risks ceding the high ground of freedom’s cause to President Biden. While he could do more, Biden is right to support and arm Ukraine. This is not to absolve the president of his myriad policy failures. History will offer no excuse for Biden’s disastrous, aggression-provoking withdrawal from Afghanistan, his appeasement of and weakness toward Russia in the lead-up to its Ukraine invasion, and his insufficient support of Kyiv in the early phases of the war. For the good of America and the world, Republicans should work to defeat Biden in 2024.
To establish the right Ukraine policy, however, the GOP cannot simply oppose the president. It must instead draw the right lessons from history, including from the foreign policy successes of the Trump administration.
One narrative, embraced by some on the right, is that China poses the real threat, whereas Russia’s war on Ukraine, however unfortunate, does not truly affect US interests. According to this thinking, the war in Ukraine is a “distraction” from China, and the US should turn its focus from Europe to the Pacific.
Arguments of this sort are logically flawed. Russian success in Ukraine would give China what it wants: a defeat for democracy, a defeat for international law, and a defeat of America’s leadership in the world. If Ukraine’s sovereignty is lost, China will likely conclude that it can take Taiwan. The world will become more dangerous.
Along with the faulty “turn to China” idea, there are calls to announce time and resource limits on America’s commitment to Ukraine. This may sound like a reasonable, conservative stance. But conservatives should see that such self-imposed limits would incentivize Russia and China to outlast the US in a contest of power and values. Where our will and commitment are weak, theirs will be strong; and they are ready for a war of attrition.
Consider the likely result if Ronald Reagan, while confronting the Soviet Union, announced in advance the limits of America’s ultimate resolve during the Cold War. The USSR would have patiently awaited America’s inevitable surrender. Millions would still live under Soviet oppression. There would be no independent, democratic Ukraine to defend.
At first glance, Republican distancing from Ukraine may look consistent with Trump’s foreign policy. But Trump’s political heirs — and Trump himself, as a candidate — would do well to remember the distinction between the former president’s rhetoric and his actions in office. Trump, as a negotiator, consistently used rhetoric to achieve his goals as he sought the best “deal” for the American people from adversaries, allies, and even his own military brass.
Alongside the talk and the dealmaking, though, Trump practiced a foreign policy of strength. For instance, he heaped criticism on former President George W. Bush’s Iraq War, but he decimated the territorial ISIS caliphate. He questioned the importance of NATO, but, after successfully cajoling member states to contribute more to its budget, he boosted the organization.
He wanted to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan, but he kept a residual force on the ground and the country’s fragile democracy intact. And while Trump spoke of a better relationship with Moscow, he also sold Ukraine weapons — something the Obama-Biden Administration never did, even after Vladimir Putin’s 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea.
In today’s foreign policy debate, the GOP should look to Reagan and the record — if not always the rhetoric — of Trump. Neocon excesses and globalist false promises are worth criticizing. But isolationism, or a policy of self-containment announced in advance to America’s enemies, will only lead to a more dangerous world. For the globe’s sole democratic superpower, there can be no retreat.
Augustus Howard is a columnist focusing on national politics and foreign policy.