Pendulum of GOP Foreign Policy Is Swinging Away From the Neoconservatives of the Reagan Era

After Republicans vote in the Senate against a foreign aid bill they previously supported, Trump’s ‘America first’ foreign policy seems to be gaining steam.

Via Wikimedia Commons
President Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate, West Berlin, on June 12, 1987. Via Wikimedia Commons

The pendulum of the Republican Party appears, as a chaotic Congress argues over foreign military aid, to be swinging toward “strategic self-discipline” in foreign policy and away from internationalism. 

The Senate appears to be moving forward with a new aid package of $95 billion to Ukraine, Israel, and other American allies after voting to block a measure that would have paired foreign security assistance with new border restrictions.

Previously supported by the GOP, the combined border and aid bill had failed to advance Wednesday amid opposition from President Trump and top Republicans. Some of them demanded stronger security provisions for the southern United States border. Others feared alienating the presumptive Republican presidential candidate if he returns to the White House.

On a higher plane, though, this debate illuminates the fissures within the Republican Party over how much America should engage overseas. The party which not long ago proudly marched America into Iraq and Afghanistan is largely lacking its President Bush-era internationalist flavor, and with it, at least for the moment, the ability to achieve any sort of foreign policy consensus. 

Amid calamity overseas and chaos on the Southern border, a new strain of foreign policy, aligned with Mr. Trump’s “America First” agenda, is gaining steam. It might be too soon to give it a name — whether realism, idealism, or something else. It would be a mistake, though, to write it off as a momentary glitch.

“The neo-conservative brand of Republican foreign policy is probably dead. It no longer commands the loyalty or can command the loyalty of a sufficient number of Republican voters to carry it,” a senior research associate at Harvard’s center for international affairs, Evan Sankey, tells the Sun. Yet neither is full-blown isolationism dead, he says, for “American voters want America to be great and powerful as well.”

That leaves Republican lawmakers caught trying to balance the demands of party leaders for America to husband its resources and attention — even as they see American support for Israel’s war with Hamas as within the national interest. “Republicans aren’t necessarily going to pull up the drawbridge and go home,” Mr. Sankey says, “but there’s a strong sense in the party that there needs to be a reallocation of burdens between the US and its allies.”

So-called realist hawks like Senator Vance urged Speaker Johnson to push forward a bill that gives aid to Israel without depleting funding elsewhere. Seeing tradeoffs between different foreign entanglements, he has warned that blank check support for Kyiv will undermine America’s capacity to aid Israel in its offensive against Hamas and to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack.

It is in “America’s best interest,” Mr. Vance told CNN in December, “to accept Ukraine is going to have to cede some territory to the Russians.” Senator Graham, who voted against the new funding measure on Thursday, also said in a statement that it did not go far enough to secure the border and that while he “enthusiastically” supports Ukraine, Taiwan, and Israel, “we must protect America first.”

The former deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy, Elbridge Colby, writes that faced with a choice between aiding Ukraine and deterring a Chinese invasion, the United States should focus on the latter, America’s strongest rival, and leave it to Europe to deal with Russia. 

“As America faces deep strategic, economic, and immigration problems, many Americans are wondering whether staying engaged abroad is worth it,” Mr. Colby, who also refutes the term “isolationist,” said on X Thursday. “I argue it is, albeit more selectively and shifting to a partnership rather than dependency model.”

A push for diplomacy in Ukraine, rather than renewed military support, will minimize the risk of escalation, a professor of intelligence and national security at Texas A&M’s school of government, Christopher Layne, tells the Sun. “Reducing — or cutting off — funds to Ukraine will force Kyiv to face the logic of the situation and accept a negotiated settlement. Which is in the interests of all at this point.”

Critics say this view is isolationist and will expose Ukraine to Mr. Putin’s imperialist ambitions in the same way the 1938 policy of appeasement emboldened Adolf Hitler to conquer territory beyond Czechoslovakia. Mr. Layne rejects such a characterization. Isolationism is “a pejorative, and we should not let internationalist hawks define the debate that way,” he says. “This is about strategic self-discipline.”

Perhaps the new strain of foreign policy emerging on the right is neither isolationist nor realist. The Republicans pioneering this vision tend to be hawkish on Latin America, Iran, and China, and also encourage close US-Israel ties. At the same time, they are “more skeptical of liberal internationalist insistence that our security is tied up in places like Ukraine,” the policy director at the think tank Defense Priorities, Benjamin Friedman, tells the Sun. “I’d call it Jacksonian, with a lot of Trump influence.”

The New York Sun

© 2024 The New York Sun Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. The material on this site is protected by copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used.

The New York Sun

Sign in or  create a free account

By continuing you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use