WASHINGTON — From the early days of his first presidential campaign, Donald Trump has aggressively challenged the pillars of Republican foreign policy that have defined the party since World War II.
He mocked the capture of John McCain in the Vietnam War, validated autocrats with his platitudes, questioned longstanding military and security alliances, and embraced an isolationist worldview. And much to the horror of many GOP leaders at the time, it worked, resonating with voters who believed, in part, that a bipartisan establishment in Washington brokered trade deals that hurt American workers and stumbled recklessly into of the so-called “eternal wars”.
But Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is a serious test for Trump and his “America First” doctrine at a time when he eyes another presidential election and uses this year’s midterm elections. to continue to bend the GOP to its will. He is largely alone in consistently praising Russian President Vladimir Putin as “smart”, an assessment he reiterated last week in speeches to donors and conservative activists. His often deferential vice president, Mike Pence, parted ways with him on the issue Friday night.
Meanwhile, the multinational partnerships that Trump has repeatedly undermined have allowed the West to quickly unite to hobble Russia’s economy with coordinated sanctions. The NATO alliance, which Trump once called “obsolete,” is deploying its strength as a foil to Russia’s aggression.
Perhaps more fundamentally, the war is yet another reminder, observers say, that the United States cannot simply ignore the world’s problems, even if it is sometimes a politically attractive way to connect with voters facing their own daily struggles.
“It’s a stark reminder to both parties that not only will we not be able to do less in the world,” said Richard Haass, chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former diplomat. “We’re going to have to do more.”
While he argued that broad elements of both parties have shown a willingness to turn inward, the current situation poses a “particular problem” for Republicans and “American Firsts” who have previously attempted to paint the Russia as a benign actor.
“I would say the whole America First push was misguided in a world where what happens anywhere can and will affect us,” he said.
It is unclear whether the Western unity that has built up against Russia can be sustained if the war escalates, spreads beyond Ukraine or drags on indefinitely. And after two decades of US foreign policy failures, including the war in Iraq and the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, many Americans approach the moment with caution.
On the eve of the Russian invasion, only 26% of Americans said they supported the United States playing a major role in the conflict, according to a poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
But the challenges to Trump’s approach to the world are clear.
Sweden and Finland have ditched their long-held neutrality and warmed to the idea of joining NATO, expanding an alliance that Trump continued to criticize this week. Germany, a country Trump has spent years trying to bully into spending more on defense, broke its long-standing policy after World War II by sending anti-tank weapons and surface-to-air missiles to Israel. Ukraine and committing to significantly increase its defense budget.
Trump and his allies insist that Russia would never have invaded Ukraine if he was still president. And Russia has failed to take aggressive action under his watch, which former aides and others attribute to his erratic behavior and outright threats that left world leaders unsure of how Trump would react to a provocation.
Roger Zakheim, Washington director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, credited Trump with deterring Putin, who he said had “validated the need for allies to invest more in their security and defense.”
“I think President Trump, at least as far as Ukraine is concerned, has successfully deterred Vladimir Putin. And that was a function of unpredictability, which is valuable in deterring an autocrat like Vladimir Putin,” he said. Yet he argued that Putin’s actions had been “so aggressive, so brazen and so immoral” that they had “blurred the difference” between different foreign policy approaches.
Yet the war renews attention to the controversial role Ukraine played during Trump’s tenure, particularly how the then-president used the beleaguered country’s defense as a bargaining tool to improve its domestic political position.
Trump was first impeached for trying to pressure Ukraine to investigate his 2020 Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter Biden. The effort included blocking nearly $400 million in US security aid to Ukraine and leveraging an Oval Office visit requested by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Trump also pushed discredited claims that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 election, repeatedly siding with Putin at the expense of his own domestic intelligence agencies.
“Putin is the critical agent, but Trump certainly contributed to it with his scheme at the time and continued to contribute to it by undermining national security,” said retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman , the former National Security Council whistleblower who sounded the alarm. Trump’s pressure tactics. “Ultimately, the president undermined American foreign policy because he weakened Ukraine.”
As he aims to play a strong role in this year’s midterm elections and run for president again in 2024, Trump has shown little interest in calibrating his approach to Putin.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who laid the groundwork for his own potential presidential run, has largely abandoned the language he was criticized for using before the invasion, when he called Putin a ” very capable” and said he had “tremendous respect for him.” Even Tucker Carlson, the popular Fox News host who openly asked why he shouldn’t side with Russia on Ukraine, tried to backtrack on his pro-Russian rhetoric by saying, “We was taken by surprise by it all. ”
It left Trump relatively isolated, defending his decision to call Putin “smart” and criticizing the response from Biden and other Western leaders, even as he denounced the invasion as “horrible” and a “very sad thing.” for the world”.
“NATO has the money now, but they’re not doing the job they should be doing,” he said on Fox Business this week. “It’s almost like they’re staying away.”
This earned criticism from some members of his party.
In a speech to GOP donors Friday night, Pence forcefully defended NATO and chastised those who have defended Putin as he too contemplates a presidential race.
“There is no place in this party for Putin apologists,” he said, in his prepared remarks. “There is only room for champions of freedom.”
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell told Fox News that “there should be no confusion about Vladimir Putin.
“He’s a thug. He’s a killer,” McConnell said. “He went wild and it’s not going to end well for him.”
Chris Stirewalt, a senior fellow at the right-wing think tank American Enterprise Institute and editor of The Dispatch, said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is fundamentally different from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq which have returned large sections of the American public against foreign intervention. and which Trump was able to use to his political advantage.
“Putin,” he said, “undid much of what Trump and nationalists in the United States had done to change the world order.”
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