The Future Is Realism

Source: The American Conservative

Recent Republican primary elections have made one thing clear: The future of Republican foreign policy is based on the world as it is, not as one wishes it to be. This may seem like an obvious concept to many normal Americans, but for decades successive administrations made policy based on what they wished reality would be instead of on reality as it was. Bill Clinton desired to “enlarge” the democratic sphere of influence, and in 2000, political scientist Kenneth Waltz wrote that he expected “the United States [would soon] take measures to enhance democracy around the world” and that the “task, one fears, will be taken up by the American military with some enthusiasm.”

He was correct, as any reader of The American Conservative knows. What followed was a series of wars of ideals, overseen by presidents from both parties. The initial invasion of Afghanistan under George W. Bush was clearly a result of 9/11, but the following 20-year occupation was bent on building a liberal democracy in a place which did not want one. The Iraq War was built just as much upon the spread of democracy as it was on finding weapons of mass destruction, and there has never been a real indication that Iraqis were desperate for democracy any more than Afghans were. When Barack Obama followed Bush into the presidency, he failed to truly repudiate the Bush Doctrine and continued a policy of interventions based on ideals in Syria and Libya—both of which proved disastrous.

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The Trump administration was the first to break away from this path, as Donald Trump himself disdained the concept of endless wars and championed the cause of “America First” in his inaugural address. It has been unclear, though, whether Trump’s way would be the future for the GOP or just a blip. Trump was, after all, leading a GOP still composed in part of people who adhered to an idealized foreign policy, even if over the course of his administration many elderly neocons, such as Bill Kristol, openly defected to the Democrats. This kept the future of American foreign policy relatively unclear. Would both parties continue to have essentially the same approach? Or could the GOP break away? 

Over the course of the war in Ukraine, it has become clear which way the cookie is crumbling. Members of the establishment, especially the Democrats, have accelerated their previous foreign policy of idealism into one of utter fantasy. Meanwhile, the future of GOP foreign policy appears primed for reality.

Consider the case of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s recent statement that the war in Ukraine “must end with [Crimea’s] liberation.” Such a goal is effectively impossible; for Russia to relinquish Crimea it would have to face total state collapse and forget that its has nuclear weapons. But in the midst of war, it is understandable for a statesman to give his soldiers something aspirational to fight for; he can work toward a palatable agreement during the inevitable negotiations. What is not understandable is the Biden administration’s reaction, or lack thereof, to these pronouncements. Far from quietly trying to reel in Ukraine’s president, this administration has effectively given Ukraine the go-ahead, implying that support for Ukraine will go as long as Ukraine wishes to fight, regardless of whether it aids U.S. interests. 

The establishment’s seeming lack of care over how aid is being used is also of concern. America has spent over $50 billion on Ukraine; around $10 billion of this spending went to the “Economic Support Fund”—essentially a pure cash injection into the Ukrainian treasury. The rest was a mixture of weapons and aid, but a startling recent CBS report questioned how much of those materials were actually reaching the front lines.

All of this, along with an inability to question it without being labeled pro-Russian, has accelerated a shift in how the GOP thinks about Ukraine and foreign policy writ large. What started over the course of the Trump administration has grown as Republican candidates across the country have increasingly rejected the idealized foreign policy of their recent party forefathers and have been rewarded for doing so. Joe Kent, who recently bested Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler in a Washington primary, campaigned explicitly against a policy of idealism on Ukraine, calling Putin’s demands in Ukraine “very reasonable” and concurring with descriptions of Zelensky as a thug. His victory over Herrera Beutler, a more doctrinaire GOPer, suggests the changes to foreign policy thinking Trump brought, far from being a blip, are here to stay.

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Kent follows many other primary victors and rising elected officials who are skeptical of wanton idealism. J.D. Vance, the GOP nominee for Senate in Ohio, said that he “didn’t care” what happens in Ukraine to much media backlash—and went on to win his primary. Blake Masters, Vance’s Arizonan counterpart, tweeted that the “new liberal Doctor Strangeloves” would “get us all killed” with their ignorance of reality, and likewise won his primary. Incumbent Senator Josh Hawley, a rapidly rising star, recently explained in the National Interest why he was voting against adding Sweden and Finland to NATO, saying that America needed a “truly strategic…foreign policy—one that looks to this nation’s strategic interests now, rather than the world of years ago.” And Trump himself has said that Ukraine “should have made a deal” with Russia and should have bowed to reality over certain things like Crimea and NATO.

Reality, not ideals, appears set to rule Republican foreign policy. And it is likely that the next two rounds of elections will confirm this. All of the aforementioned candidates have a strong chance to win in November; should Donald Trump take the White House in 2025, he would likely return to Washington alongside even more newly elected senators and representatives who share these views.

This should all be a wake-up call to Ukrainian leadership, and the uniparty. Instead of Vogue shoots and legalizing gay marriage, if they want the gravy train to continue they should be developing arguments as to why support for Ukraine is in America’s national interest. By 2025 “Because we’re a democracy and Russia isn’t” simply won’t hold water anymore, and it certainly won’t convince GOP-led executive and legislative branches to give billions more in aid. The Republican Party, and the American government soon after, seems set to ask a more reality-based question: “What will this do for us?” Problems will be seen through the lens of America First, and if Ukraine cannot adapt to that reality, it will lose its strongest and wealthiest supporting state.

This sea change will extend to the rest of Europe and the world as well. In 2020 Germany’s foreign minister called it “unacceptable” for President Trump to move one-third of his own troops out of the country, and two years before that German officials laughed during a speech Trump delivered at the U.N. in which he suggested that Germany would one day pay for its over-reliance on Russian oil. And now, even after the Russian invasion, a think tank has concluded that Germany would be unlikely to keep its promise of spending 2 percent on defense by 2024. It is clear that Germany, and much of Europe, is simply hoping that the war in Ukraine can soon end so that they can return to business as usual. 

When it was uncertain which direction the Republican Party would go, this hope was reasonable. But the new crop of America First Republicans says otherwise. Europeans and defense companies who assume that America will always be a part of NATO should start considering alternate possibilities. But the new foreign policy will not stop at NATO. For decades after the Cold War it was a keystone of American policy to secure as many free trade agreements as possible; at times it seemed like each administration would compete with the last for who could secure the most FTAs. But the trade policies Trump brought are here to stay, as all of the aforementioned candidates (and many more) have expressed skepticism toward free trade and shipping industries overseas. Trump himself at CPAC 2022 called for the tariffs he placed on China to be written into law and for expanded presidential tariff powers. Should he regain power in 2025 with a GOP Congress, passage of such a bill would be almost a certainty.

As the saying goes, either you deal with reality, or you can be sure that reality is going to deal with you. The new GOP is ready to deal with reality. Is the rest of the world?