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American foreign policy – in search of a New Grand Strategy

American foreign policy – in search of a New Grand Strategy
Governor Ron DeSantis, Republican candidate for Florida, speaks to the crowd with former US President Donald J Trump (L) at a rally in Pensacola, Florida, USA, 3 November 2018. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Dan Anderson)

The new battle in American foreign policy is shaping up to be one that pits support for the internationalist, idealist values of freedom and democracy in supporting Ukraine versus realpolitik attitudes in confronting China. This is already animating the beginning months of the 2024 presidential race and is opening a big fissure among Republican politicians.

Throughout its history, American foreign policy has been a mix of values — idealism, realpolitik, and liberal interventionism. Sometimes the country’s foreign policy becomes a strange amalgam of two, or even all of them. The current war in Ukraine is exposing strongly divergent ideas in Republican ranks on foreign policy as the race for their party’s presidential nomination heats up.

As CNNs “Meanwhile in America” noted on 16 March, “A fierce dispute over US President Joe Biden’s multi-billion dollar lifeline to Kyiv has taken over the early exchanges of the 2024 presidential race. It all started when Fox opinion host Tucker Carlson – a noted skeptic of US involvement in the conflict – asked potential Republican candidates to answer a questionnaire about what they would do in the White House.

 “Ex-President Donald Trump said he’d easily stop the conflict if he were elected to another term and declared himself the only potential president who could prevent World War III. But Florida Gov Ron DeSantis – seen as Trump’s biggest rival but he is not a declared candidate yet – caused the biggest stir by declaring that the conflict was not a core national interest of the United States and that it was a mere territorial dispute.

 “The two men are showing how ‘America First’ Republicans have transformed a party that was led by President Ronald Reagan to victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War. And their influence is sure to deepen the split in the US House between traditional GOP hawks and followers of the ex-president, which is already threatening future aid to Ukraine – even before the 2024 presidential election.”

 Of course there is some really deep history that helps foreshadow all of this. Following World War II, the elevation of the Soviet Union into a global power, the shock of the Communist Party’s army success in China – and then, most convincingly, the eruption of the Korean conflict – American government leaders, diplomats, and academics began rethinking the country’s grand strategy – even if they did not give it such a grand title. 

Prior to the Second World War, for most Americans, the basic tenets of a global grand strategy were quite simple and largely dictated by geography. 

Geography really was destiny. Before the development of nuclear weapons and missiles, America was protected by two vast oceans from any ructions in Europe or Asia. Simultaneously, the Western Hemisphere was seen as an informal American sphere of influence where the key operating principle was warding off other foreign influences. 

This was true whether it was Britain with its border dispute with Venezuela in the late nineteenth century, or more forceful German efforts to exercise a major influence on some of the region’s nations during both world wars. (Back in 1916 it was a German promise to Mexico to return California and the Southwestern US to Mexico if it would join in to help defeat the US, if the latter entered the European war. Then, in the early days of World War II, it was concerns over South American nations that were already transfixed by the ideas of fascism.) That version of realpolitik ideology remained closely aligned with the idea of isolationism. 

But the shock of the Soviet advance across Eastern Europe in the 1940s pushed heretofore isolationist senators such as Wisconsin’s Arthur Vandenberg into embracing the idea of an ongoing engagement with Europe via the Marshall Plan to rebuild the continent’s devastated economies. Further, in a volte face of historic proportions, the Republican Party joined Democratic President Harry Truman to support the UN as a legitimate tool for foreign policy (in contrast to opposition to the League of Nations after World War I) and, then, subsequently, supporting creation of Nato to defend Western Europe.

(In an interesting historical footnote that speaks to the times, in the first years of World War II, then-leftist writer John Steinbeck was sent by President Franklin Roosevelt to visit Latin America to assess German influence there and recommend what should be done to counter it. 

Steinbeck’s proposals became the core of America’s first official international engagement of an intellectual, cultural and educational initiative. It set up libraries, sent guest speakers, and offered scholarships — and the whole project was headed by a young, thirty-something, Nelson Rockefeller. This programme became a progenitor of the US Information Agency. Repurposed during the Cold War, that agency’s task was to win the hearts, minds, and sympathies of people around the world – in the midst of the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union.)

Nevertheless, during much of the nation’s history, for most Americans, foreign policy was largely centred on tariffs and trade such as ensuring equal access for Americans to China’s vast market or fighting tariffs against American commodity exports. There was also an occasional glance at what is now labelled human rights issues.

For the latter, it could come via outrage over the ill-treatment of Russian-ruled Poland or a pervasive mistreatment of Russia’s Jewish population, or the circumstances of Hungary as part of the Habsburg empire. Nonetheless, for most Americans, foreign policy was significantly based on feelings about ancestral origins, as with a pervasive mistrust of Great Britain (ie, “perfidious Albion”) by Irish-Americans.

Still, realpolitik (and sometimes isolationist), idealist (and sometimes internationalist), and interventionist impulses (sometimes in conflict, sometimes even woven together in sync) reach back to the beginnings of European settlement. Even before Puritan minister and governor John Winthrop had first made landfall at what became Boston, he articulated the enduring idea of America as the shining city upon a hill – an idea reaching back to St Augustine’s “The City of God”. As Winthrop said in his shipboard sermon, “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” This formulation, or words much like it, continues to echo in presidential speeches, right through to the incumbent. 

Then, in the 19th century, the nation’s westward expansion was animated by the idea of America having a “manifest destiny.” In 1845, magazine editor John O’Sullivan had written of “…the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.” 

Sometimes, exceptionalism, interventionist, and realpolitik views could combine, most notably in the mix of influences that had eventually led the country to participate in the two world wars. More darkly, it also led to an ultimately disastrous military crusade in Indochina. There, blending in some murky way were the ideals of spreading democracy, opposing communist domination, and halting the expansion of Chinese (and Russian) influence in the third world.  

The newest efflorescence of a mix of isolationism and realpolitik stances is now surfacing in an emerging debate, still largely within the Republican Party but with deeper roots in American history, over how, or even whether, the US should continue to support Ukraine’s efforts to repel the Russian invasion. The isolationist strand of thinking, as with realpolitik views, are becoming more prominent, partly in reaction to the failure, waste and futility of interventionism in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 21st century. 


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The other day, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis made headlines, effectively declaring his opposition to the Biden administration’s position, any remnant of internationalist interventionism among Republicans, as well as commitments from the rest of the Nato alliance. DeSantis has argued Ukraine is not a vital American interest – merely a “territorial dispute”.

Some on the American left are taking that position as well, seeing the country’s support of Ukraine as an effort to thrust America into a war that only an arms manufacturer could love. 

Meanwhile, from the realpolitik corner, University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, among others, have made the case for stepping back from the Ukrainian struggle. 

Such opponents of supporting Ukraine have even tried to invoke the late George Kennan, the man who had first articulated “containment” as the grand strategy for restraining Stalin’s Soviet Union (Wanted: A rallying cry to hold back the coming ‘Dark Time’ – and someone to write it ).

Even as he nears his hundredth birthday, Kissinger remains someone many look to as the country’s preeminent realpolitik theorist — arguing that Nato’s growth proved to be the goad that “forced” Vladimir Putin to attack Ukraine. Kissinger is credited with achieving an international triangulation for the US between the then-Soviet Union and China in the early 1970s. His view was that the nation’s strategic success is based on a stable balance of power that maintains spheres of influence and adjudicates disagreements among the great powers. With a view like that, there is precious little of that shining city upon a hill nonsense as an inspiration for the rest of the human race.

This quick gallop through diplomatic history helps us interpret the growing fissure among Republicans over the proper uses of American resources and strength and their presumed goal of conserving those resources for another, bigger fight ahead. In that argument, the nation’s preeminent strategic opponent is China, and any distraction from that Manichean struggle is dangerous. This is not an inconsequential dispute. 

Given the nature of politics and the impact of issues other than Ukraine on the shape of the upcoming election, Republicans may well end up with real influence about how much – or how little – the US remains as an essential supporter of Ukraine in its struggle against a revanchist, expansionist Russia. Thus what to do about Ukraine from the perspective of US domestic politics becomes important for the future of the West more generally, if the internationalist position in US politics loses strength. 

Just the other day, Axios reported, “For people like Florida Gov Ron DeSantis’ new declaration that protecting Ukraine isn’t in the ‘vital’ interest of the U.S. has widened a huge GOP foreign-policy split. It pits the party’s top two presidential candidates against the more hawkish Republican establishment.” Axios went on to say, “The move by DeSantis – echoing President Trump – is a shift from most of the past four decades. Republicans typically have subscribed to the Reagan era’s ‘peace through strength’ internationalism.” DeSantis had given his views in a written statement to Fox News that read, “While the U.S. has many vital national interests, … becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them.” 

In response, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said, ”[DeSantis] sounds like Neville Chamberlain talking about when Germany had designs on Czechoslovakia. I don’t think that’s what America stands for … For anyone who’s considering running for president to fundamentally misunderstand that or to be cynical enough to change their views in order to please any particular constituency is very concerning.”

And commentator Ishaan Tharoor, writing in The Washington Post, argued that opposition to Ukrainian aid had previously been an isolated view among Republicans. That party’s senior leaders had argued, such people  “…were a small, noisy minority. Ignore self-styled nationalist populists like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), they insisted. Consider, instead, the overwhelming majority of elected members of both chambers of Congress who back Ukraine’s efforts to defeat the invading Russians.

“But away from the halls of power, the picture was rather different. While broad bipartisan agreement may exist on Ukraine among Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Washington, opinion polls show a growing number of U.S. Republicans are skeptical of Ukraine’s importance to the United States, believe the United States has done enough or should do less to back Kyiv, and are open to a scenario where Ukraine concedes further territory to Russia if it means bringing about peace sooner.”

Tharoor cited DeSantis’ argument about the invasion as a territorial dispute as he pointed instead towards the “need to check ‘the economic, cultural and military power of the Chinese Communist Party.’”

With a Republican Party eager to regain the White House next year and with two of its three (so far) presumed presidential candidates arguing for much less attention towards Ukraine and much more towards China, the struggle within the party – and for voters’ attention – is shaping up as one that seemingly will pit support for the principles of freedom and democracy versus economic and strategic realpolitik goals in confronting China. The 2024 campaign will not be a pretty one. DM

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  • Johann Olivier says:

    Surely there is an understanding that an easy capitulation on the illegal invasion of Ukraine would be an invitation to China to move on Taiwan. Authoritarian thugs everywhere believe that they can outlast Western interest or/and determination. De-coupling from the Ukrainian conflict would reinforce the notion that, even if it does not go well at first, hanging in without regard to cost, will ultimately snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

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