(CNN) 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.
Read More: In 2024 Republicans may complete a historic foreign policy reversal