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Republicans are the new isolationists; will US retreat from world stage?

Vladimir Putin
Sputnik, Government Pool Photo via AP
From left, Moscow-appointed head of Kherson Region Vladimir Saldo, Moscow-appointed head of Zaporizhzhia region Yevgeny Balitsky, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Denis Pushilin, leader of self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Leonid Pasechnik, leader of self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic applaud during a ceremony to sign the treaties for four regions of Ukraine to join Russia, at the Kremlin in Moscow, Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. The signing of the treaties making the four regions part of Russia follows the completion of the Kremlin-orchestrated “referendums.”

The world is facing the most serious threat of nuclear confrontation since the Cuban missile crisis 60 years ago. At the same time, we’re seeing a growing isolationist movement in the U.S. The Republican Party has been taken over by Donald Trump and his army of right-wing populists.

The GOP is becoming an isolationist party. It is no longer the party that embraces the bold foreign policy of Ronald Reagan or the Bushes. By more than two to one, Republicans endorse the view that “We should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems here at home.” Only 30 percent of Republicans believe “It is best for the future of our country to be active in world affairs.”

Whenever a policy becomes difficult or costly, populist isolationism emerges. Americans were happy to win easy and decisive military victories in Granada and Panama and Kuwait. The public never supported President Reagan’s complicated policies of second-hand intervention in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

In his Second Inaugural Address in 1997, Bill Clinton said, “America stands alone as the world’s indispensable nation.” Since World War II, whenever there has been a serious threat to world order or to humanitarian values, one rule has applied: If the United States does not do anything, nothing will be done.

What would have happened if the United States had failed to act after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990? Most likely, nothing. Kuwait would have become part of Iraq. Having acted in Kuwait, the first President Bush left the crisis in Bosnia to the Europeans; Bosnia was in Europe’s backyard. The U.S. had no vital interests there. What happened? Nothing. The Europeans failed to act, and a new horror entered the world’s vocabulary: ethnic cleansing. Finally, the U.S. felt morally compelled to step in and lead a coalition to end the brutality. When atrocities occurred in Cambodia, Rwanda, Congo and Darfur, the whole world — including the United States — looked away. So nothing was done. The result was genocide.

The message is that the United States has international interests as well as national interests. That has been the consensus of the political establishment since 1947. The American people have never completely bought into the idea of international interests, however.

The war in Ukraine is the latest test. Now that the Cold War is over, the conflict seemingly has nothing to do with ideology. The rest of the world, including the United States, sees the Russian invasion as an act of aggression against a neighboring state. Very much like Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

When President George H.W. Bush addressed Congress in September 1990 after the invasion, he offered a stirring call to internationalist principle. Our purpose, Bush said, was to “defend civilized values around the world,” among them our willingness to “defend common vital interests,” “support the rule of law” and “stand up to aggression.”

President Biden sounded a similar theme when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly last month. “This war is about extinguishing Ukraine’s right to exist as a state, pure and simple … That should make your blood run cold.” However, Russian President Vladimir Putin justifies the invasion as a defensive rather than an aggressive action. Putin has warned, “If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will of course use all means at our disposal to defend Russia and our people.”

Putin defines Ukraine and its people as intrinsically Russian, and he is trying to turn it into a “fact” by annexing large parts of Ukrainian territory. In an address to the Russian nation on Sept. 21, Putin framed the war as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that wants to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.”

The U.S. interest is to prevent nuclear war.

“If the territorial integrity of our nation is threatened,” Putin said, “we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people. This is not a bluff.”

With Putin now positioning himself as a strong and tough nationalist, and in the absence of a communist threat, Putin is actually getting some support from far-right conservatives in the U.S. and Europe — especially because his views on traditional cultural values are in line with theirs.

Former President Donald Trump has praised Putin as a “genius” and criticized Ukraine for corruption and supposed interference in U.S. elections. As a result, isolationist sentiment has become resurgent in the far right of the Republican party. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, only 12 percent of Republicans expressed a “very favorable” opinion of NATO; among Democrats, the figure was 34 percent.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) has warned, “If Republicans win the House and word starts to leak out that they’re done funding Ukraine, that has potentially catastrophic impacts on Ukrainian morale and their ability to carry the fight.” Populist opposition to continued U.S. aid for Ukraine is likely to come from grass-roots conservatives — and resonate with a Republican Congress.

Bill Schneider is an emeritus professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable” (Simon & Schuster).

Tags Biden Bill Clinton Bush Chris Murphy Conservative Donald Trump isolationism isolationist MAGA Republicans nuclear threat Republican Party Right-wing populism Ronald Reagan Russian invasion of Ukraine trumpism Ukraine US foreign policy US military aid to Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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