The GOP in 2024 is moving toward a reprise of its most consequential foreign policy debate ever in a presidential primary. Only this time, the results may be reversed.
The 1952 GOP presidential nomination fight proved a turning point in the party’s history, when Dwight Eisenhower, a champion of internationalism and alliance with Europe to contain the Soviet Union, defeated Sen. Robert Taft, a skeptic of international alliances who wanted to shift America’s focus from defending Europe toward confronting communist China.
A similar divide is opening within the GOP now. In a distant echo of Taft, former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the race’s two front-runners have both declared that defending Ukraine against Russia is not an American “vital interest” and “distracts” (as DeSantis put it) from the more important challenge of confronting China. Other likely 2024 candidates, such as former Vice President Mike Pence and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, come closer to upholding the Eisenhower position that the US must remain steadfast in protecting Europe against Russian aggression – and insisting that abandoning Ukraine would embolden China and other potential US adversaries.
After Eisenhower’s landmark victory over Taft in 1952, every Republican presidential nominee over the next six decades – a list that extended from Richard Nixon through Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney – identified more with the internationalist than isolationist wing of the party.
But Trump broke that streak when he won the nomination in 2016 behind a message of brusque economic nationalism and skepticism of international alliances. Now, the GOP appears on track for a 2024 nomination fight which may demonstrate that Trump’s rise has lastingly shifted the party’s balance of power on foreign policy – and ended the long era of GOP internationalism Eisenhower’s victory began.
The fact that DeSantis unveiled his views about Ukraine in a statement to Fox News host Tucker Carlson, a fierce opponent of American engagement with allies, underscored the governor’s determination to court Trump’s base with his provocative remarks. After several days of intense criticism from Republican internationalists, DeSantis retreated last week from his description of the war as a “territorial dispute” and called Russian President Vladimir Putin “a war criminal,” much harsher language than Trump has ever used. But DeSantis, in his interview with British journalist Piers Morgan for another Fox outlet, also reiterated his skepticism of open-ended US support for Ukraine. “I just don’t think that’s a sufficient interest for us to escalate more involvement,” the governor said.
Even with his qualifying statements last week, DeSantis’ skeptical posture toward Ukraine shows the magnetic pull that Trump has exerted on his party, tugging it away from the Eisenhower tradition.
“Trump-ism is the dominant tendency in Republican foreign policy and it’s isolationist, its unilateralist, its amoral,” said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and former director of policy planning at the State Department under George W. Bush. The “traditional institutional approach to the world [which was] … the dominant Republican approach since World War II … has clearly been eclipsed for now,” said Haass, who also held foreign policy positions in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.
Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and former US permanent representative to NATO under Barack Obama, agrees. The fact that both 2024 GOP front-runners are expressing a broad skepticism about US engagement abroad, he said, raises the possibility that Republican “internationalists have not only lost in ’16 and ‘20” when Trump headed the GOP ticket, “but have lost the party forever.”
The 1952 presidential election, by contrast, was the moment when GOP internationalists seemed to win the party forever. Leading into World War II, the party had been closely split between an internationalist wing determined to counter Adolf Hitler and imperial Japan and an isolationist faction resistant to entanglement in the intensifying confrontation with fascism, especially in Europe. The divide was both ideological and geographic, pitting generally more moderate internationalist East Coast Republicans (many of them tied to Wall Street and international finance) against more conservative isolationist forces centered in the small towns and small businesses of the Midwest and the far West.
The Japanese surprise attack that triggered the US entry into World War II ended the political viability of a purely isolationist stance.
“After Pearl Harbor there was no way to be a strict isolationist and a national political [figure],” said Joyce Mao, an associate professor of history at Middlebury College and author of the book “Asia First,” which recounts the GOP foreign policy debates of that era.
After World War II, Republican internationalists joined with Democratic presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman to build the international institutions meant to prevent another global war: the United Nations, the Marshall Plan to economically rebuild Europe and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to militarily defend it from the Soviet Union. Eisenhower, who had organized the Allied invasion of Europe on D-Day in 1944, was firmly in that camp and, in fact, returned to Europe in January 1951 to serve as NATO’s first supreme commander.
But Robert Taft led a block of “old guard” congressional Republicans that remained much more skeptical of European commitments. Taft, a senator from Ohio and the son of former Republican president William Howard Taft, had generally opposed American aid to Europe before Pearl Harbor and even after the war he pushed to reduce the Marshall Plan and voted against the creation of NATO. Like many of the Republicans who initially resisted involvement in World War II, Mao noted, Robert Taft in the post-war period tried to separate himself both from that isolationist past and the contemporary priorities of GOP internationalists like Eisenhower by arguing for an “Asia First” foreign policy that would shift resources and emphasis from defending Europe to confronting the Communists who had seized control of China.
“Eisenhower was viewed by Taft and his colleagues as much too moderate,” Mao said. “His European focus was deemed by that conservative wing of the party as much too similar to the liberal Democrats. If this was going to be a moment for conservatism to reassert itself not only against liberalism but also against the moderates in the Republican Party, China provided an ideal plank” to do so.
All these strains culminated in the landmark battle for the 1952 GOP presidential nomination. Taft, the Republican Senate leader, was a passionate favorite of conservatives. Eisenhower, still in Europe as NATO supreme commander, was in many respects a reluctant candidate. But as Stephen Ambrose showed in his classic biography, Eisenhower felt compelled to run largely from fear that Taft would lead the US out of NATO, while simultaneously risking a catastrophic war in China. (Eisenhower was also deeply disenchanted with Truman’s leadership.) Eisenhower resigned his NATO position, returned to the US, mobilized enough support from the GOP’s internationalist wing to beat Taft at the 1952 Republican convention, and then decisively won the presidency that November. “Eisenhower became president precisely because he did not trust this version of isolationism in Taft,” said Peter Feaver, a Duke University political scientist who served as a senior adviser for strategic planning on the National Security Council under George W. Bush.
Both as a general election candidate and as president, Eisenhower tried to minimize his public conflicts with his party’s “old guard.” But he unmistakably steered the party (and the nation) toward acceptance of American global leadership within a robust international system of alliances. With only modest variation, that became the dominant foreign policy ideology of the GOP for the next 60 years under Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Late in that period, George W. Bush offered a different emphasis by stressing unilateral American action over coordination with allies, but even he emphasized the need for the US to remain engaged with the world. “It’s a pretty unbroken streak,” said Geoffrey Kabaservice, author of “Rule and Ruin,” a history of the struggles between GOP conservatives and moderates.
Taft-like isolationism, coupled with nativist opposition to immigration and protectionist opposition to free trade, first resurfaced as a major force in the GOP with the long-shot presidential campaigns of conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan in 1992 and 1996. Two decades later, Trump revived that same triumvirate of isolationism, protectionism and nativism – what scholars sometimes call “defensive nationalism” – in his winning drive for the 2016 GOP nomination.
Though some traditional GOP internationalists had hoped that Trump in office might moderate those impulses, as president he barreled down all those roads, repeatedly clashing with traditional allies. Now, DeSantis’ choice to echo Trump in devaluing Ukraine – following the calls from so many House conservatives to reduce the US commitment there – is deflating another hope of the GOP’s beleaguered internationalist wing: that Trump’s ascent represented a temporary detour and the party would snap back to its traditional support for international engagement once he left office.
“Trump-ism has to be taken seriously,” as a long-term force in GOP thinking about the world, Haass said. The foreign policy center of gravity in the Republican Party, he added, has moved toward “a much more pinched or minimal American relationship with the world, [with] not a lot of interest in contributing to global responses to challenges like climate change or pandemics.”
Even before DeSantis qualified his comments in the interview with Morgan, Feaver believed the Florida governor was trying to find a position on Ukraine somewhere between Trump’s undiluted skepticism and the unreserved support of Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. But, Feaver said, by including such inflammatory language as “territorial dispute” in his initial comments, DeSantis demonstrated the risks of pursuing such a strategy of “triangulation.”
“Triangulation is a risky game because if you get the language off, you may commit yourself in a campaign to a line that makes no sense when you are governing,” Feaver said. “This is one of the hardest problems for newcomers and challengers when they are campaigning for president. By giving applause lines that work for the narrow segments of ideologically hardened factions that they are trying to win over for the primary, they can lock themselves into policy positions that are not sound when they actually win.”
As an example, Feaver said DeSantis’ insistence that the US should shift more attention from countering Russia to containing China – an argument he repeated with Morgan – was illogical because “abandoning Ukraine assists China’s most significant ally, Russia.” Haley made a similar case in her recent Wall Street Journal article criticizing DeSantis (though not by name) for his comments to Carlson. “It’s naive to think we can counter China by ignoring Russia,” Haley wrote.
Daalder points out another logical flaw in the updated “Asia First” arguments from DeSantis and Trump. “If the US were to abandon its allies in Europe … our allies in Asia are going to ask, ‘What’s to say they are not going to do the same with regards to China?’” Daalder said. “By demonstrating your willingness to stand up to Russia you are also strengthening the view that in Asia that when it comes to it that we will be there to help them.”
But polls leave no doubt that both prongs of the modern Robert Taft position – that the US should reduce its commitment to Europe-focused international alliances and harden its resistance to China – have a substantial base of support in the contemporary Republican coalition. In a Gallup poll released earlier this month, by a lopsided margin of 76% to 12%, Republican voters were more likely to identify China than Russia as the principal US adversary in the world. (More Democrats picked Russia than China.) Polls have also found a steady decline in Republican support for US aid to Ukraine: polls this year by both the Pew Research Center and Quinnipiac University found that the share of GOP voters who believe the US is doing too much now equals the combined percentage who think it is doing too little or the right amount. (Quinnipiac found big majorities of Democrats and independents still believe the US is doing the right amount or not enough.)
The latest Chicago Council on Global Affairs annual survey also tracks a broader retreat from the world among GOP voters. In that poll, conducted last November, the share of Republicans who said the US should take an active role in world affairs fell to 55% – the lowest the survey has ever recorded. Underscoring that erosion, a slight majority of Republicans in the poll said the costs of an active US international role now exceed the benefits.
Opinions in the GOP about whether the US should do more or less in Ukraine don’t vary much along lines of education or age, the Pew poll found. But generally, these surveys show that the turn away from global leadership is most powerful among two distinct groups of Republicans: those who are younger, and those who lack college degrees. While a solid three-fifths of Republicans with a college degree in the Chicago Council poll said the benefits of US leadership exceed the costs, for instance, a majority of non-college Republicans disagreed. Younger Republicans were also much more likely than those over 60 to say the costs exceed the benefits.
It’s probably no coincidence that those two groups – Republicans without a college degree and those who are younger – have consistently registered as Trump’s strongest supporters in early polls about the 2024 race.
Trump is signaling that in a second term he will likely push even further in an isolationist and protectionist direction. John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, has said he believed the former president came close to withdrawing the US from NATO and would likely do so if elected to a second term. Trump certainly hinted at that possibility in a recent campaign video in which he declared, “we have to finish the process we began under my administration of fundamentally reevaluating NATO’s purpose and NATO’s mission.” Trump has also said he would impose a four-year plan “to phase out all Chinese imports of essential goods, everything from electronics to steel to pharmaceuticals.” That would be a wrenching change in the global economy.
In all these ways, Trump is promising to fulfill Robert Taft’s vision from seven decades ago – and to erase Eisenhower’s lasting victory in setting the GOP’s direction. DeSantis does not appear to have decided to jump entirely on that Trump train – but neither is he lying down on the tracks to stop it. With these two men far ahead of any potential rival, it seems highly likely that the GOP in 2024 will continue to move away from Eisenhower-style international cooperation toward a volatile compound of isolationism and unilateralism. And that could generate enormous turbulence across the globe.
Trump’s first term, as Daalder noted, was a chaotic time for the international order and traditional US alliances. But “If an isolationist leader gets elected president in 2024,” Daalder added, “you haven’t seen nothing yet.”