The Republican Establishment’s Sterile Foreign Policy Perspective

by | Jul 2, 2024

Those Americans who might hope that the growing public opposition to continuing U.S. aid to Ukraine might signal a wave of fresh thinking about foreign policy in the Republican party are likely to be disappointed. Most members of the establishment cling to the idea that the principal worry about Republican policy views is the growing appeal of “isolationism.”  A recent example was a Washington Post column by Marc A. Thiessen. Thiessen was responding to a speech by President Biden at the Normandy battlefield, and the exchange illustrated the utter sterility in America’s current foreign policy debate.

Thiessen is annoyed because Biden had accused GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump of isolationism. Instead of pointing out that isolationism has long been a vacuous epithet used to discredit critics who want to move beyond the policies created during the Cold War, Thiessen’s goal is quite different. It is to make the case that Trump is part of the Republican hawkish establishment: “Biden’s latest attack on Trump is wildly inaccurate.” The essence of Thiessen’s defense is that Trump is at least as hawkish as his more conventional Republican colleagues. He asserts, in essence, that “Trump is as hawkish as we are.”  Thiessen heaps praise on the former president for Trump’s hardline policies against Iran, including the assassination of General Quasem Soleimani.

Thiessen also points out that contrary to the mythology fostered by the Democrats that Trump was Vladimir Putin’s puppet, Trump had launched cyber attacks against Russia and, unlike the Obama administration, had provided weapons to Ukraine. Echoing allegations by Mitch McConnell and other GOP congressional leaders, Thiessen contends that there are indeed isolationists in the Republican Party, most notably Senator J.D. Vance (R-Ohio).  But, according to Thiessen, “Trump’s record suggests he is not the isolationist they hope him to be.”

Leaving aside Thiessen’s silly isolationist epithet, he’s likely correct that the foreign policy of a new Trump administration would differ little from the collection of obsolete assumptions and counterproductive policies that have plagued U.S. foreign policy for decades.  For real, beneficial change in U.S. foreign policy, a new administration would need to recognize the actual conditions of the world in the 21st century and make necessary policy adjustments.

The Biden administration clearly is incapable of doing that. Its policies, both in the Middle East and in Europe, have been disastrous. Entangling the United States in the Russia-Ukraine war and serving as Israel’s enabler for its brutal actions in Gaza are not effective or beneficial strategies for the American people.

To actually implement the strategy of “Peace through Strength” that Thiessen and so many other Republicans advocate requires fresh thinking on multiple fronts. It certainly requires going beyond the interventionist cliches that Thiessen and his colleagues embrace. Among other changes, it would require Washington to accept the reality that spheres of influence exist and will continue to exist in world affairs. Launching emotional crusades against Russia, Iran, and other major powers is precisely the dangerous, unrewarding approach that the U.S. must avoid. No longer confining America’s foreign policy options to the kind of thinking embraced by Mark Thiessen or Joe Biden is an essential first step.

The sterility of the Biden faction’s ideas is evident in multiple cases. Contrary to the expectations of many U.S. foreign policy experts, the Biden administration’s policy toward the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been far more confrontational than anticipated. In fact, there is little difference in Washington’s actions on either economic or strategic issues regarding China between the Trump and Biden years. In particular, Biden has continued Trump’s buildup of U.S. security support for Taiwan.  Moreover, the Biden administration has actually taken a harder line toward North Korea than Trump had adopted.

The United States is now in the ill-advised position of being on bad terms simultaneously with Moscow and Beijing. If productive policy change is to come, it will not likely take place  with either Joe Biden or Donald Trump in the White House.

Reprinted with permission from


  • Ted Galen Carpenter

    Ted Galen Carpenter is senior fellow for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. Carpenter served as Cato’s director of foreign policy studies from 1986 to 1995 and as vice president for defense and foreign policy studies from 1995 to 2011.

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