The Republicans Could Win the U.S. Midterms. Here’s What that Means for the World.

It’s all about isolationists vs. internationalists.

By , a distinguished senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
McConnell and McCarthy are shown walking away from the White House.
McConnell and McCarthy are shown walking away from the White House.
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (left) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy arrive to speak to the media following their meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden and Democratic congressional leaders at the White House in Washington on May 12, 2021. NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images

Last month’s vote in the U.S. Congress to appropriate $40 billion in additional military and budgetary assistance for Ukraine laid bare fissures in the Republican congressional caucus: 11 of 50 Senate Republicans voted against the bill, as did 57 of 208 House Republicans.

Last month’s vote in the U.S. Congress to appropriate $40 billion in additional military and budgetary assistance for Ukraine laid bare fissures in the Republican congressional caucus: 11 of 50 Senate Republicans voted against the bill, as did 57 of 208 House Republicans.

Was the Ukraine vote a harbinger of Republican national security squabbles to come? Was it a partisan vote against anything associated with President Joe Biden? Or was it a one-off reflecting a poorly drafted bill with too much extraneous baggage? More importantly, who will hold the foreign-policy reins in the likely Republican House (and possibly Senate) majority to come in 2023—the isolationists or the internationalists?

Political pundits agree Republicans are likely to win back the House of Representatives and have a good shot at the Senate in the November 2022 midterm elections. That could—caucus permitting—propel House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to the speakership and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to the post of majority leader. Of the two, McConnell is the known quantity—an experienced legislator and parliamentarian and an old-school internationalist whose foreign-policy views were forged in the crucible of the Cold War. McCarthy, not so much. Indeed, it’s probably most accurate to say his foreign policy was forged in the crucible of former President Donald Trump.

As previous Republican speakers have learned to their displeasure, the Republican Party in today’s House is less a caucus and more a raucous battle for primacy. Former Speaker John Boehner struggled against rebellious Tea Party upstarts, his successor Paul Ryan struggled against the self-named Freedom Caucus, and McCarthy is unlikely to have much fun either. In the minority, the Republican Party tends—emphasis intended—to stand together because the Democratic speaker and the executive in the White House are deemed public enemies No. 1 and No. 2. But with the majority comes the battle to control the agenda.

Domestic policy will likely dominate the politicking in Congress: inflation, crime, education, the border. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, like so many conflicts before it, has proved that as much as politicians wish to focus on “nation building here at home,” global realities intrude. Ukraine is the tip of the iceberg, but Republicans have their eye on plenty of other issues as well, including relations with China, the question of defending Taiwan, the continued isolation of Russia, the Middle East (think energy, Iran, and Israel), and, more broadly, defense spending. But before the substance of the foreign-policy challenge hits the House and Senate floors, the ideological question merits examination.

American Enterprise Institute scholar Colin Dueck divides the Republican Party’s foreign policy into three schools: foreign-policy activists, foreign-policy hard-liners, and foreign-policy noninterventionists.

Looking back, it’s clear that so-called foreign-policy activists dominated Republican national security policymaking for much of the post-World War II era. These were the leaders who believed, as both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush regularly underscored, that the United States is not simply one nation among many but that it is a beacon of freedom to the world, a “shining city on a hill.”

Foreign-policy activists underwrote the Reagan Doctrine, the principle that the United States should lend a hand to all those hoping to halt the advance of communism wherever they were, including in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola, El Salvador, and Grenada. Bush faced different challenges, but his underlying faith in U.S. power and values was similar. Rather than fighting communism, what Bush dubbed his “Freedom Agenda” took on the tyrannies that he believed fueled Salafi-jihadis. Yet his efforts were neither clearly thought through nor appropriately resourced. Worse yet, Bush could not convincingly argue that he was advancing U.S. national interests in every case. For the activist school, Bush’s Iraq War proved to be their swan song.

Though the Iraq War offered an “I told you so” moment for the Republican Party’s isolationist wing, its immediate beneficiaries were President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party’s own “End the endless wars” crowd—or so it seemed at first. But the intervening years offered the Republican Party’s noninterventionists ample fodder: the disastrous war in Libya and the horrifying killing of a U.S. ambassador in Benghazi, the withdrawal from Iraq and the resulting rise of the Islamic State, the civil war in Syria and the ensuing cataclysmic refugee crisis. These crises were not the primary reason for Trump’s election, but they didn’t hurt his campaign. Rather, they—together with Obama’s self-labeled signature foreign-policy achievement, the Iran nuclear deal—offered an opportunity for Trump.

“Donald Trump’s political achievement in 2016 was to sense the possibility for a new [Republican] coalition unseen since before World War II,” Dueck writes. “He did this not by reiterating libertarian foreign-policy preferences. Rather, he combined non-interventionist criticism of ‘endless wars’ with hardline stands on China, jihadist terrorism, anti-American dictatorships in Latin America, and US defense spending.”

 This is a sweet spot for Republican foreign policy, and understanding the reluctant internationalism of most of the party’s voters—a repudiation of the embarrassed anti-Americanism of the Democratic Party’s far left and the activist internationalism that has heretofore characterized the Republican Party leadership—will be key to geolocating a new Republican Congress’s preferred national security policy.

A unifying theme for the Republican Party will be the challenge presented by China. It sells well with the base, and with trade liberalization off the table for the moment (for both parties), the question of China will likely come down to economic disengagement and Beijing’s threat to Taiwan.

A case in point is a recent letter co-written by Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito (respectively the Democratic and Republican senators from West Virginia) urging Biden to include Taiwan in his newly proposed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. Republican signatories to the letter included James Risch, who is likely to be the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a new Republican-held Senate; Roger Wicker, the likely chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee; Marco Rubio, the likely chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence; and most of the Republican members of the current Senate Appropriations Committee. Notably, several of the Senate’s more ardent Trump supporters, including Marsha Blackburn and Kevin Cramer, also joined the letter. (A similar House effort was also joined by likely future national security heavyweights, including probable House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul.)

Defense spending will be another key theme for the Republican Party. House and Senate Republicans have repeatedly slammed Biden’s defense spending as inadequate to address the country’s many national security challenges and have only escalated those charges since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. McConnell has called for a 5 percent increase in defense spending above inflation, and McCarthy has been equally energetic. Both understand—as Trump did—that investing in the military can be cast as a deterrent as well as a down payment on victory in any eventual conflict. And here again, the base is with them.

Ditto for energy security: While there is a bipartisan constituency for pivoting away from the Middle East—and a growing bipartisan opposition to renewing the Iran nuclear deal—Republicans are less focused on climate change issues and more on basic pocketbook challenges. That will mean more enthusiasm for restoring American energy independence, avoiding unnecessary bickering with Saudi Arabia (still a major swing producer of oil), and easing regulations on U.S. oil and gas production.

But what about Ukraine and cases like it? What about those 11 in the Senate and the 57 in the House? What about the conservative powerhouse think tank the Heritage Foundation and its political action committee drawing a line in the sand against the $40 billion Ukraine aid package? Like Heritage, Sen. Mike Braun finessed his opposition based not on the policy of aiding Ukraine but on the cost of doing so and the spiraling U.S. debt. Sen. Rand Paul, a perennial opponent of U.S. overseas engagement, pinned his “no” vote on the lack of an inspector general in the bill to oversee how the funds are spent.

That’s fair enough, but it’s hard to picture every one of those “no” votes switching tack if presented with a better or cleaner bill—not when the Republican Party’s rising stars include the likes of Senate candidate J.D. Vance, who during his campaign said, “I gotta be honest with you, I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another.”

It’s relatively easy to predict that a Republican majority will continue to support arming and aiding Ukraine, because the vote has already happened. And though a significant minority of the Republican caucus voted no, it was a minority. But there are harder cases (though not just for the Republicans): the looming Chinese threat to Taiwan, for one.

Sure, there’s a majority in both houses for including Taiwan in trading arrangements, and there are vocal advocates in both chambers for ending the U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taipei. But where will the Republican Party be on defending Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack? Will isolationists on both left and right actually have the power to steer a course? On its face, the answer appears to be no, but the devil is, proverbially, in the details. Sanctions on China would hit the Republican base hard, raising costs for basic goods even higher.

As with all such crystal ball gazing, sorting the powerful from the merely loud will be a chore. Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene is ever-so-vocal and enjoys a substantial Twitter following, but she has little clout in the House of Representatives. Paul is consistently isolationist, but few ask how he will vote as they decide their stance on major issues.

More importantly, the majority of the Republican Party is not actually with them. Case in point: The TV host Tucker Carlson, pocket deity of Trump nostalgics, initially came out swinging against NATO’s condemnations of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine, but he soon tempered his position once it became clear that ranging himself on the side of the Russian dictator was a losing cause.

Similarly, while all eyes focus on the Vances and Greenes, there actually remains a strong hawkish contingent in the Republican Party that is well represented on Capitol Hill, including by Sens. Tom Cotton, Rubio, and Ted Cruz, as well as Reps. Mike Gallagher, Elise Stefanik, and likely incoming House Armed Services Committee Chair Mike Turner, among others. Although these members may not be interventionists in the style of George W. Bush, there should be no question that they are national security hawks keen on defending both U.S. interests and U.S. allies. That will almost certainly mean efforts to increase the defense budget; pressure to increase the quality, consistency, and speed of arms deliveries to Ukraine; and an even harder line on China, potentially including additional sanctions on Beijing (notwithstanding grumbling from certain quarters).

Finally, it pays to recall Trump’s term in office—not the tweets, the bickering, the preening, or even the man himself, but rather the actual national security policy of the Trump administration, largely backed by the congressional Republican Party and its base. Trump’s administration was tough on China, tough on Russia, tough on failed allied burden sharing, tough on Iran, pro-defense investment, pro-Israel, and, at the end of the day, actually pro-human rights (think troops in Syria to fight the Islamic State and counter the Russians, limitations on support for Saudi operations in Yemen, Magnitsky sanctions over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, sanctions over the Uyghurs, a hard line on hostage taking). That, perhaps, is a better guide to the future than the huffing and puffing of the Charles Lindbergh wing of the Republican Party.

Danielle Pletka is a distinguished senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and co-host of the podcast What the Hell is Going On? Twitter: @dpletka

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