Your Great-Grandfather’s Republicanism
Ron DeSantis’s remarks on Ukraine were textbook realism and a throwback to an old Republican Party.
Perhaps the most bizarre combination of phrases was seen on a New York Post editorial concern-trolling Governor Ron DeSantis, who finally has started to comment carefully on foreign policy and who, judging by the looks of those angered, appears to be making the right noises. When asked by Tucker Carlson for comment about Ukraine, DeSantis said that while America has many direct strategic interests, such as the southern border, energy independence, and the rise of China, “becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them.”
“The U.S. should not provide assistance that could require the deployment of American troops or enable Ukraine to engage in offensive operations beyond its borders. F-16s and long-range missiles should therefore be off the table.” DeSantis continued: “These moves would risk explicitly drawing the United States into the conflict and drawing us closer to a hot war between the world’s two largest nuclear powers. That risk is unacceptable. A policy of ‘regime change’ in Russia (no doubt popular among the D.C. foreign policy interventionists) would greatly increase the stakes of the conflict, making the use of nuclear weapons more likely.”
The answer was textbook foreign policy realism, almost as if formulated in the International Relations department of the University of Chicago or MIT or the pages of International Security. Comically, the New York Post conceded DeSantis’s original point about American interest: “Fine: America faces no direct threat from Russia. But this is far more than ‘a territorial dispute.’ …This is a naked attack on the entire world order — and thus on a vital US interest.” More simply: Even if there is no geographical interest, upholding the whole order is an American interest. Simpler still: There is nothing in which it is not in our interests to meddle.
The usual reactions came from the usual suspects, from Liz Cheney to Lindsey Graham, David French to Bill Kristol, all of whom compared DeSantis to an “appeaser,” displaying their Wikipedia-level knowledge of the only historical event they apparently studied. In a triumph of originality and historic erudition, Julia Ioffe (who once notably said Russia was safer than Donald Trump’s America) went ahead to claim that DeSantis is an accidental Putinist.
Other than the structural causes—such as America’s diminished relative power, internal decay, loss of identity and kinship, and declining industrial capacity—a major reason why the consensus foreign policy is collapsing is perhaps because the American people now see through this guilt-by-association nonsense.
The end of unipolarity is a fact; it is self-evident even without elaborate charts or graphs. Primacy has proven to be fiscally unsustainable, and Americans worried about their own border, crumbling infrastructure, diminishing life quality, and broken sense of law and order; they increasingly don’t like the burden of hubris anyway.
Yet any small deviation from consensus foreign policy invites a reaction similar to the Angel Trap from the Saw franchise: the more you try to break free from what’s slowly killing you, the more vicious it gets. DeSantis in this case faces the same dynamic, generated by a gaggle of narrative-weavers, intellectual peasants who are ideologically stuck in the mid-`90s, and national security has-beens dutifully calling him a fascist authoritarian Putin sympathizer.
DeSantis has been carefully avoiding foreign policy thus far. It is not his comfort lane, and as an instinctive nationalist, he seems to be genuinely more interested in focusing on America’s internal rot and reversing it with policy. He has correctly identified the activist-churning institutions attempting to reshape the framework of debate within this country. Others have warily taken note. “DeSantis has ignited so many cultural confrontations that it’s difficult to keep track of them, but he has acted most aggressively on education,” an Atlantic essay noted, while another Vanity Fair dubbed DeSantis the more-competent ideological heir of the Trump moment, as leaders who are both cut from “the same autocratic cloth”—“They are not the kind of leaders that we’re accustomed to seeing in a democracy.”
It is a fact that Americans in general and Republicans in particular have soured on the false promises of interventionism. A common talking point among the sophisticates is that this isn’t the Republican Party of our father’s generation. True. This isn’t even the Republicanism of our grandfathers. This harks back to a deeper, older worldview. Consider that both Trump and DeSantis are both disinclined to be further entangled in the sink-hole that is Europe. They both are far more interested in Mexico and China.
Given their shared popularity within the Republican Party, when last was there such a spectacular shift? That DeSantis chose Carlson’s show to point out his foreign policy realism instincts also demonstrates that he understands the shifting lines within his own party base, the threats posed by his potential adversaries, as well as the general public mood.
Ultimately, DeSantis has his work cut out for him. One doesn’t need to be a foreign policy president to change the overall grand strategy of the country. The same instincts that led the United States to overstretch its foreign policy, promoting rights abroad often through force, are the same instincts that increasingly consider conservatism to be an illiberal ideology, and therefore, functionally no different than fascism.
As I wrote last year,
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Consider the institutional push to “fight against fascism” at both home and abroad, where anything an inch to the right of Trotsky is considered fascist. Consider the coordinated leaks; the comments about abortion laws from the national security bureaucracy; the Covid-19 mandates on members of the armed forces; the intelligence agencies’ hunt for “right-wing terrorists” while completely ignoring BLM and Antifa violence; the critical race theory-induced federal reading materials; the billions of tax dollars spent in global advocacy and LGBT rights promotion at home and abroad, through government agencies, USAID, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, embassies, and national-security-funded NGOs and “civil society orgs” abroad. The people behind these policies are the same, they share the same ideology, they promote the same worldview, and they are fueled by the same crusading, homogenizing, and revolutionary impulse at home and abroad.
The reaction to DeSantis’s foreign policy pronouncements, however, shows something bigger at play. While the liberal internationalists and their neoconservative cousins seek to return to a muscular phase of ideological monoculture, this is the last gasp of a crumbling and panicked worldview. The Trump revolution wasn't just a one-time event. The structural forces, as well as the public mood, are increasingly opposed to utopian “permanent social revolutions” in semi-feudal backwaters of no strategic value. If DeSantis can gut the woke and weaponized national security bureaucracy and the universities-to-“disinfo experts”-to-NGOs-to-foreign policy pipeline, then that would be a better day’s work than any Republican president since Richard Nixon.
It would also be an extremely brutal fight. If the national security “total state” bureaucracy is a beast, every single cell will resist a cull. Prudent Republicans understand that and know that they will get the public support needed to move our foreign policy in a conservative realist direction. DeSantis should cry God and St. George (and Calvin Coolidge, while he’s at it), and confidently proceed to slay the dragon.