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Doug Burgum Is a Neocon

The selection of the North Dakota governor would be a cavalier choice on the issue of greatest presidential power: foreign policy.

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It’s July. In the coming days, the Republican presidential ticket will finalize, even as the Democratic ticket could evaporate.  

The former President Donald Trump is meditating on a raft of main choices—among them Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) and Senator J.D. Vance (R-OH). One contender of a previously lower profile, however, has evolved from dark horse to an apparent favorite in the sweepstakes. North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum is seen by his adherents as a well-suited, no-nonsense deputy for the second Trump tour of duty. 


Squint and you can see the case: younger, but not too much younger (at 67, Burgum will not overshadow Trump with youthful panache). He has a business record (he sold a software company to Microsoft in the Clinton-era tech craze). A non-factor rival for the nomination last year, Burgum is said to get on with the presumptive Republican nominee. Burgum’s wife is a recovering alcoholic—a point of sympathy from the ex-president who blames his brother Fred’s premature demise on the bottle. 

Many are hoping that a second Trump term would be a bespoke version of the first. Populists clamor for a more tough-minded focus on the issues—foreign policy restraint, trade realism and migration sanity—that helped make Trump the most powerful man in the world. 

The selection of Burgum would indeed be vintage—but not in an inspired way. 

For instance, Burgum has stated the U.S. is literally “at war” with Russia and appeared to leave the door open to future deployment of American troops. In one video interview, Burgum stated, “We’re in a cold war with China, and we’re actually at war with Russia–we just haven’t sent troops yet. We’re sending material, we’re sending funding, we’re sending advisors.”

It’s not just Eurasia that Burgum wants troops, but also that old standby: the Middle East. Burgum has been open to placing American troops in the maelstrom of the Israel-Gaza war. “Absolutely,” Burgum told voters in 2023. 


Burgum has said U.S. funding for the war in Ukraine, which now totals nearly $200 billion, is “a bargain” and was only “a little bit” of money—he also rejected that the spending was “irresponsible.” Burgum also suggested Ukraine should not cede any territory to Russia in peace negotiations, comparing that possible outcome to the cessation of the Korean War. 

(In fairness, that is not the most irresponsible analogy. Indeed, Washington may eventually have to assent to an armistice that its disputatious and radicalized ally government, led by Volodoymr Zelsensky, absents itself from. This was the case in Korea, with Syngman Rhee, who was committed to the war to the last American. But back in reality, full territorial restoration of Ukraine is out of the question, and such a stance could make the war permanent.)

While perhaps no John Bolton, Burgum is many ways more the archetype of the sort of regrettable selection at the commanding heights that Trump made in his first term. In other words, Burgum is Rex Tillerson, except that he ran North Dakota and a vassal company of Microsoft, and not the most powerful American oil company since the age of Rockefeller. 

(In a rather rib-tickling aside, Burgum has called Iran the “parent company” of Hamas, implying openness to a wider Middle East war. He appears to speak from some experience.)

Burgum has expressed his support for further funding for Ukraine, echoing President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s talking points that an endless war is somehow connected to competition with China, and even North Korea for good measure. Burgum appears to fear an axis of evil, a grandiose and discredited view of the non-American world, though he won’t call it that. 

“I support us making sure that Putin does not get a win in Ukraine...if we don’t defeat Putin it’s just basically handing another win to China,” Burgum has commented. “You can’t say ‘Oh, China’s our existential threat, but let’s not send money to Russia,’ Russia and China are absolutely connected and throw in North Korea, who’s been meeting both with China and Russia....”

At last Thursday’s prize-winning debate against Biden, Trump told the nation he would broker the end of the Russia–Ukraine war as president-elect. It was a callback to the kind of fast action pledged by Ronald Reagan in 1980 during the Iran crisis, and Richard Nixon amid the Vietnam War. 

Burgum’s record suggests he would be a hindrance to such an endeavor. Not in an overt way, a la Bolton. But in a way that is in some ways more familiar, and odious. 

Burgum’s record is establishmentarian to the core on the issue of greatest presidential power: foreign policy. It’s not clear that there is much daylight between Burgum and a figure such as Mike Pompeo, for instance, the former secretary of State who stumped for Trump rival Glenn Youngkin as he considered a presidential bid last year and a person the 45th president is said to have soured on. 

Most distressing: Burgum could help deprioritize the Trumpist signature issue of immigration as vice president, just as the public is coming around to realism on migration

Burgum also refused to prioritize border funding over Ukraine funding, rejecting demands of reformers in Congress. “The idea that some people are saying: ‘Oh, we shouldn’t send money to Ukraine because we need to spend it on our own border.’ Actually, America can do both of those things at the same time.... We can help Ukraine beat Russia and we can secure our own border at the same time,” Burgum told Forbes in 2023.

It goes on.

In a town hall with New Hampshire voters, Burgum said he thought “our obligations to Western Europe are significant,” adding “Ukraine is actually doing the work of NATO” by fighting Russia. And Burgum’s campaign website still lists two “common enemies” under the national security policy section, adding the U.S. should somehow unite against them: “China and Putin.” 

Many have long postulated Trump might attempt a “reverse” Nixon strategy—get tough with China and get real with Russia. Burgum apparently thinks Trump should not even try. 

There is a rich history on what actually constitutes a “neocon.” Some have argued that George W. Bush luminaries Bolton, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney were not neoconservatives—even in the arch-neocon administration. The argument is that they were conservative ultra-nationalists and militarists, in favor of manifold conflicts, but averse to nation-building. This tendency is contrasted with other Bushies like Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and Doug Feith.

As the late historian Mark Perry observed in “Talking To Terrorists”: “Wolfowitz was completely different. He was haunted by the slaughter of the Shias in the aftermath of the first Gulf War as America sat on its hands. It kept him awake nights.” But as Jacob Heilbrunn, editor of the National Interest, observed in his treatise They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons, at a certain point you can slice and dice the matter to the point that there are no gentile neocons. 

While fun to riff on, it is a distinction without a difference. 

The true rift in American national security debate is between cocksure primacy and chastened restraint. Either you believe the last quarter century of American foreign policy has been ruinous, or you seek to double down. Whatever his other virtues, Doug Burgum would be another neoconservative in power.