What About Ron?
DeSantis has clarified some things about where he stands on foreign policy. But a big question remains.
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Back on January 9, I wrote a post titled “Foreign Policy and the Right.” The subtitle—"What do Republicans think about America’s role in the world? Lots of clashing, contradictory things!”—nicely summarized its content.
Donald Trump—the last Republican president and still (for now) the frontrunner for the 2024 GOP nomination—is, as I argued at greater length in a subsequent post, an impulsive unilateralist and transactionalist in foreign policy who defines our national interests extremely narrowly. This doesn’t make him a “dove.” But it does make him inclined to favor the U.S. playing a much less prominent role in NATO and consequently allowing Russia to do whatever it wants unimpeded in its near-abroad. It’s hardly surprising, then, that Trump has begun boasting he would end the war in Ukraine within “24 hours” if he were president—no doubt by cutting off aide and weapons to Kyiv, thereby allowing Russian President Vladimir Putin to accomplish his goals much more quickly.
But this isn’t a view universally affirmed by Republicans. A number of people preparing to run or already running for president—including former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and former National Security Advisor John Bolton—are full-spectrum hawks who talk as if they think the United States should be confronting Russia and Iran and North Korea and China with equal measures of courage, resolve, and threats of sanctions and military intervention. Such views are also quite common among Republicans in the Senate, some of whom defend them in terms of national interest and others in terms of defending democracy and the liberal international order.
This leaves the party pretty deeply divided, with Trump, along with a number of GOP members of the House, a handful of senators, growing numbers of Republican voters, and several prominent right-wing commentators (Tucker Carlson being the most prominent) taking the MAGA line, and much of the rest of the party holding views similar to those that have prevailed in the GOP for decades.
Has DeSantis Gone Full MAGA?
This has left quite uncertain where the party would come down if a Republican takes the White House in 2024.
Until this past week, that is, when we received some clarity from Trump’s primary rival for the nomination, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Up until now, DeSantis has stayed quiet on foreign policy. But on Monday morning, the day of President Joe Biden’s surprise visit to Ukraine, he spoke out on Fox & Friends, implying he would cut aide to Kyiv, denying Russia poses a threat to NATO, blaming the invasion on Biden, and suggesting the president cares more about securing Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia than America’s southern border with Mexico.
On first blush, that sounds like DeSantis has gone full MAGA on foreign policy.
In terms of political tactics, the move is shrewd. In an era of negative partisanship, drawing sharp contrasts with Biden is imperative for anyone angling to win the GOP nomination. Moving closer to Trump on Ukraine also allows DeSantis to avoid attacks from the former president on that issue, while also enabling him to stand out from the anti-Trump crowd in what will likely be a crowded field, and to benefit from the direction public opinion is moving on the right.
Of course, by taking the position he has, DeSantis will likely hasten that shift of public opinion as well, since at this point it seems overwhelmingly likely that either Trump or DeSantis will end up being the party’s nominee in 2024. If the party’s two major contenders for the nomination are hostile toward aiding Ukraine, that will quickly become the party line.
Yet it’s also important that we pay close attention to precisely where DeSantis has placed himself—which is close to but not identical to the MAGA position. That position is defined by blaming Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Western policy since 2014, if not earlier, with the threat of NATO expansion and interference in the domestic politics of a country on Russia’s border supposedly provoking a predictable and understandable response from Moscow.
But that isn’t what DeSantis said on Fox News. Rather, he blamed the invasion on the weakness Biden displayed in his hapless withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021. That’s very clever—first, because Biden was fulfilling a policy initiated by Trump, thereby allowing DeSantis to criticize Trump’s judgment indirectly while placing the lion’s share of the blame on the Biden administration’s execution of the policy; second, because it enables DeSantis to portray himself as a hawk while also taking a Ukraine-skeptical stance.
But where does this leave us? With a lot of questions for DeSantis. Regardless of how much blame Biden deserves for setting the stage for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the invasion happened. Why does DeSantis think the outcome is a matter of relative indifference to the U.S. in strategic terms? Would a move against Taiwan by China matter more? If so, why?
Trump seemed to favor the U.S. playing a much less decisive role in NATO, in terms of both financial and operational support. Does DeSantis favor something similar, as his skeptical comments about Biden’s policies would seem to imply? If so, doesn’t that run the risk of repeating Biden’s show of “weakness” in Afghanistan, thereby emboldening Beijing to act against Taiwan? And what about if China begins arming Russia, moving the world one step closer to a bipolar conflict pitting NATO and our Asian allies against a Sino-Russian alliance? Would DeSantis’ hawkish instincts give way to risk aversion, or risk aversion give way to a need to stand tough against America’s most formidable geopolitical opponents since the end of the Cold War?
The Big Question
But behind all of those important questions lies the even more sweeping one implied by Trump’s dislike of entangling alliances.