Thousands of Russian troops are massed near the Ukrainian border, threatening to invade and annex a large chunk of the Eastern European country. As expected, there have been plenty of criticisms of the way Biden is handling the issue. However, the current crisis is also showing a new division within the American right in foreign policy: the neoconservative “hawks” and the national conservatives “doves.”
The argument is not necessarily a new one in American conservatism, there was a strong isolationist conservative school of thought before WWII. Yet, it does represent a very interesting change in the recent history of how American conservatives think about foreign policy, a complete change from the epoch of interventionism that characterized the Republican Party of the George W. Bush years.
Just to illustrate how drastically the political climate has changed, it was not too long ago when the left was rallying up against the Iraq war and in favor of controversial figures like Assange, while the right was on the opposite side of the issue. However, now Tucker Carlson takes it upon himself to invite the Assange family to push for his freedom and blame Biden and the establishment for venting the flames of war against Russia.
The American right has very different views on Foreign Policy
This does not mean the right universally agrees on the same foreign policy principles. There are some clear divisions on how to approach not only the issue of Ukraine but foreign policy in general. Although almost no one is pushing for the same policy that characterized American Foreign policy after 9/11, there are some who think the U.S. should continue to retain a big role in the world, while others are more skeptical, questioning how foreign policy would help the problems the country is facing today.
For example, when referring to the ongoing crisis in Eastern Ukraine, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) tweeted: “I’m more concerned with the US-Mexico border than the Russia-Ukraine border. Not sorry.” J.D Vance, an Ohio primary candidate for Senate, similarly posted in a tweet: “Our leaders care more about Ukraine than they do our own.” In a nutshell, a message that is centered in the idea that foreign policy and domestic policy are an either/or and that when faced with the choice, the president should always select domestic policy rather than foreign affairs.
On the other side of the argument, former Ambassador Nikki Haley has heavily criticized the Biden administration not for being too hawkish or putting too much attention to Ukraine, but has also attacked the president for not having a consistent and tough foreign policy. In an interview on Fox News, Haley said that Biden’s weakness (especially his Afghan retreat and the Nordstream 2 deal) has created the conditions for Russia to move, saying that Putin “smells blood in the water.” This is a very different way to analyze foreign policy than the Gaetz, Carlson, or Vance school of thought.
Is Foreign Policy a distraction or an unavoidable necessity?
The best example of the current dilemma in the American conservative movement is the discussion between Sohrab Ahmari, the former editor of the New York Post, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-FL), with the former representing the “national conservative” way of thinking of foreign policy and Mr. Cruz espousing a more aggressive, slightly more neoconservative, mindset towards international relations.
In an opinion piece to the Washington Post, Ahmari defended President Biden’s (and Ahmari is not someone who tends to defend the President) response implying the United States would not respond harshly to a “limited incursion” by Russia. Ahmari said Biden’s press conference, albeit not eloquent, presented a “refreshing realism” and said “Biden’s posture was perfectly sensible” and actually decried that the “hawks always-escalate reflex continue to distort national priorities.” Sohrab explained it made no sense for America to care that much on European security when not even the Germans seem to care that much.
In a paragraph, Ahmari perfectly summarized the way many conservatives view foreign policy. Sohrab wrote “What, exactly, does our deeply divided America stand for abroad? Will a potentially catastrophic confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia over Europe’s miserable peripheries —or with nuclear China over the island of Taiwan— address any of our deeper internal crises?”
Ted Cruz, who cannot be accused of not being conservative enough, responded to Sohrab in a Twitter thread. Cruz, who has blasted Biden for having a weak foreign policy, said that Sohrab’s arguments were strawman arguments. The senator said “NOBODY reasonable wants to go to war with Russia OR to send troops to Russia” but that the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw the sanctions on the Nordstream 2 pipeline directly permitted Putin to invade Ukraine.
Cruz has previously criticized the Biden administration’s foreign policy approach. He has lambasted Biden for his decision to not keep sanctions for the Nordstream 2 pipeline, his muted response towards Russian malware attacks, and he has said that Biden is “weak” on China. For Cruz, Biden’s weakness and aloofness in foreign policy only invite more aggression, since “appeasement never works.”
The key difference is that while Sohrab views Russia’s threats against Ukraine or China’s menacing posture against Taiwan as a distraction from the inner problems America faces, Cruz thinks an accommodating and weak foreign policy will in the end be bad for America as it would create a more unstable and aggressive world for American interests.
The American right has to decide whether Foreign policy is nothing more than a distraction to the real issues America faces or if a world without a strong American influence (and hence a strong China or Russia) is a perilous one that would eventually hurt Americans profoundly.