At the outset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, establishment Republicans seized the opportunity to score political points by placing the blame for Putin’s aggression squarely upon the shoulders of their primary political rival: former president Donald Trump. Noted renowned neocon and former ambassador to the UN John Bolton:
“I think one of the reasons Putin did not move during Trump’s term in office was he saw the president’s hostility in NATO…. I think Putin saw Trump doing a lot of his work for him and thought maybe in a second term, Trump would make good on his desire to get out of NATO, and then it would just ease Putin’s path [for invading Ukraine] just that much more,”
Former GOP presidential nominee Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) similarly attacked Trump’s foreign policy, arguing:
“Putin’s impunity predictably follows our tepid response to his previous horrors in Georgia and Crimea, our naive efforts at a one-sided ‘reset,’ and the shortsightedness of ‘America First.’”
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) also joined the fray, tweeting:
“President Trump’s adulation of Putin today – including calling him a ‘genius’ – aids our enemies. Trump’s interests don’t seem to align with the interests of the United States of America.”
Attacks by the GOP establishment against Trump’s foreign policy come at a time when the former President seems to be at his most vulnerable. A number of Trump-endorsed candidates have struggled with fundraising, a potential sign of waning influence. Several polls also suggest that Trump’s grip over the GOP is weakening, driven in part by his continued focus on voter fraud in the 2020 election. Editorials suggest that the GOP is moving away from Trump. The hawkish branch of the GOP sees American passivity in the face of Russian aggression as the ideal opportunity to regain the grip over the party that they had throughout the 2000s. Ironically, attacks from the GOP’s hawkish wing only serve to make Trump more relevant, given the GOP establishment’s disastrous failures on foreign policy front.
Trump’s Foreign Policy
Former President Trump’s “America First” foreign policy had the unique ability to simultaneously delight and enrage both the hawkish neoconservatives and dovish isolationists within the GOP. Trump demonstrated a willingness to confront foreign aggression with military action as needed, rapidly destroying ISIS (including eliminating it’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), killing Iranian terrorist Qasem Soleimani, authorizing air strikes on Syria’s chemical weapons facilities, and pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, for example. In each act of aggression, however, Trump accomplished something unique compared to his predecessors: he did not start a new war during his term.
On the contrary, Trump managed to effectively broker numerous high profile peace treaties, including the Serbia/Kosovo agreement and the Abraham Accords. Trump exhibited a willingness to defy foreign policy “conventional wisdom” in pursuit of American interests. He enraged the foreign policy establishment by meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in North Korea. Trump would ultimately leave North Korea with no deal in place, but his decision to engage with Kim Jong Un was a far cry from the media’s hysteria suggesting that Trump was driving the US into a full-blown nuclear war. The neocons howled when Trump negotiated a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban. While this deal has received additional scrutiny following Biden’s complete and utter failure of a withdrawal, it is important to note that not a single American solider was killed in the 18 months following the agreement.
Similarly, the deep state wrung their hands as Trump successfully pressured NATO allies to contribute more to their defense budget. Unlike the Bush/Obama years that saw the US get involved militarily in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, and Pakistan, Trump’s foreign policy was generally one of restraint: Trump was selective about when to exert military strength (e.g. the fight against ISIS), while exhibiting a willingness to seek peace whenever possible (e.g. the Abraham accords, negotiating with Kim Jong Un).
However, it is the current Russia-Ukraine conflict that best illustrates Trump’s foreign policy prowess. Under Trump, American became a net exporter of petroleum for the first time in 75 years, an achievement that even George W. Bush, frequently attacked for his ties to “big oil,” could not attain. While Trump achieved energy independence, his European counterparts became increasingly dependent upon Russian energy. Now, under Biden, gasoline has reached new record prices, while we beg hostile nations like Venezuela to sell us oil. Trump imposed sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Europe; Biden waived the sanctions. Trump observed in 2018 that NATO, and Germany in particular, would be unable to stand up to Russia due to their dependence on Russian energy. Four years later, Europe is scrambling to change their energy policy in response to Russia’s aggression. Trump faced severe criticism from his own party for playing hardball with NATO and demanding that member states contribute more to their defense budget. Suddenly, with war on their doorstep, Europe has decided to heed Trump’s advice by increasing defense spending. Despite Bolton and Romney’s criticisms, Trump’s policies on energy and NATO were prescient, suggesting he understood Russia far better than so-called foreign policy “experts” in the West.
The ‘West’ Cannot Just Be America
Russia’s aggression in the face of “Western” weakness has led pundits on the right to fear that China and other hostile nations will be emboldened to act with aggression. Such fears are justified. Russia may eventually attack a NATO member state. China may soon move into Taiwan. It follows, then, that “the West” could face major war on two fronts. To be clear, Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine is reprehensible, just as China’s treatment of Taiwan is a moral travesty. However, too often “the West” is synonymous for “America,” and America cannot do it alone. We are expected to provide for the defense and security of the rest of the world, take in most of the world’s immigrants, and serve as a marketplace for the world’s good. This is simply neither sustainable nor just.
Surprisingly, former President Barack Obama may have offered the best description of the current state of “the West” in a 2016 interview with The Atlantic. When discussing challenges associated with the US-led military intervention to depose Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, Obama correctly lamented that Western nations are often the fiercest advocates of US military adventurism abroad, while refusing to commit significant resources themselves: “[Y]ou’ve got Europe and a number of Gulf countries…who are calling for action [in Libya]. But what has been a habit over the last several decades in these circumstances is people pushing us to act but then showing an unwillingness to put any skin in the game.” Europe, not the US, is right on the border of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and it is imperative that they have “skin in the game” should the conflict spread. Trump, with his willingness to pressure NATO into meeting their defense obligations, understood this. The neocons do not.
The Current State of US Foreign Policy
The reality is that Americans have no appetite for a war with Russia, as evidenced by a recent poll about US military involvement in Ukraine. The irony is that this is likely due in part to the failed foreign policy of the Bush-era GOP, in which Bolton played a major role. While Biden’s handling of the Afghanistan was an unmitigated disaster, the optics of our war effort are equally terrible: we spent over 20 years in that country, spent $2.3 trillion dollars, provided training and support… all to see the country fall back to the Taliban in a matter of days.
Meanwhile, Libya remains unstable a decade after US intervention, and Iraq continues to face significant challenges. None of these situations instill public trust in our foreign policy establishment. Ironically, Russia’s military adventurism is following the same trajectory as the neocon’s wars, at even greater costs: thus far, they have lost an estimated 7,000 soldiers, spent tens of billions of dollars each day of the invasion, destroyed their economy, and faced nationwide protests. “Nation-building,” as it turns out, is extraordinarily costly. Unfortunately for the Ukrainian people, Putin did not learn from the neocons’ failures.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign of the Trump presidency was the absence of notable GOP hawks (George W. Bush, John McCain, even Mitt Romney) at the 2016 convention, suggesting that the party’s flawed foreign policy of the past had been rejected. Six years later, the neoconservative movement is down, but not out. While highly unlikely, Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney are being floated as GOP presidential candidates in 2024, with the goal of re-establishing a hawkish foreign policy as the center of their campaign platform. For those who don’t want to return to a 2000s-era foreign policy, it may be premature to put Trump out to pasture.