When national conservatives flail at foreign policy

Daniel W. Drezner, Professor of International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

Natcons have not handled Russia’s invasion of Ukraine terribly well.

As a close observer of the ideas industry, one of the more amusing aspects of the past six years has been watching national conservative intellectuals try to reverse-engineer a coherent philosophy to Donald Trump’s immature impulses. It has mostly been a bust. To be fair, however, Trump’s rise did have one interesting effect on the GOP’s intellectual edifice: it cast out neoconservative foreign policy hawks.

In bashing the Iraq war and then winning the GOP nomination, Trump’s biting critique of the Iraq war in particular and neoconservative foreign policy pronouncements in general caused a sea change in GOP discourse. Trump’s worldview was grounded in more reactionary, nationalist, Jacksonian impulses. Sometimes this meant a more dovish approach toward U.S. adversaries, although just as often it meant acting unilaterally and/or incoherently, since Trump’s national security team was not always on board with his policies.

This has left the GOP’s foreign policy discourse in something of a mess. A motley crew of paleoconservatives, traditional conservatives, right-wing economic populists, and Trump grifters have attempted to reorient Republican foreign policy toward their more insular worldview. They have partially succeeded in areas like trade and immigration.

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, it appears that national conservatives have met their own version of the war in Iraq. Many of them pooh-poohed the idea of a war occurring prior to the invasion, and many others pooh-poohed the very idea of Ukrainian statehood. Even after the invasion began, some Republicans defended Vladimir Putin while sympathizers of national conservatism argued that the war itself did not undercut the ideas animating their movement.

Five weeks later, polling shows most Americans oppose Putin’s invasion of its sovereign neighbor. Americans support U.S. efforts to bolster Ukraine’s defenses, helped in no small part by Ukraine proving to be more stalwart on the battlefield than many expected (due in no small part to assistance from NATO countries). At the same time Americans want to avoid a wider war with Russia. In other words, the mass American public is pretty prudent.

In response, national conservatives are left… well, sounding pretty weird to be honest.

This topic has been Jacob Heilbrunn’s beat for some time now, and in his latest for Politico he reports on “a self-described ‘emergency’ meeting organized by the Trumpian wing of the GOP to grapple with the political fallout from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.”

The problem, as Heilbrunn notes, is that national conservatives do not have much to say about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: “it was notable that at the conference, speaker after speaker targeted the GOP hawks more often than they spoke about Ukraine itself. Indeed, Kyiv itself was essentially MIA — serving more as a proxy for a dispute about America nationhood than about the country’s own fate as it’s mercilessly pummeled by Putin.” Their actual suggestions about Ukraine ranged from acquiescing to all of Putin’s demands to ignoring the conflict altogether.

That last gambit is understandable, given that some of their statements sit oddly with the moment at hand. For example, one recent statement declared “The crisis created by Russia’s war on Ukraine demands de-escalation, not imperial aggrandizement and schemes of regime change.” I completely agree, except that it is very difficult to de-escalate when Putin’s imperial aspirations and desire for regime change in Ukraine persists. Russian war crimes will also complicate any future pathway to peace as well.

National conservatism mostly boils down to a “but he fights” style of politics. I therefore suspect that they will be reluctant to swallow any of the following hard truths: They were wrong about Vladimir Putin as conservative savior. Their cautionary warning about too much escalation is hardly unique to their tribe and therefore not terribly distinctive. Their savior Donald Trump keeps asking Putin for political dirt on President Biden, which seems treason-adjacent. Finally, it turns out that the neoconservative warnings about Trump as foreign policy disaster held up well.

I take national conservatives at their word that they want de-escalation in Ukraine. But I am also quite sure they want de-escalation so they can avoid further difficult conversations about their own foreign policy misperceptions and delusions.

This piece is republished from The Washington Post.

Leave a Reply