Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
The New Republican Foreign Policy
Neither fascist nor trustworthy
Vivek Ramaswamy, the 38-year-old multimillionaire currently rising in the Republican primary, wants to ban anyone under 25 from voting unless they can pass a civics test. He has called the overall efforts to combat climate change a “hoax.” He wants to abolish the FBI, the IRS, the EPA, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Department of Commerce. He is a blind, unconditional Donald Trump sycophant, and owes some his support in the GOP primary to Trump voters willing to entertain him. He is not going to be the Republican nominee—barring a dramatic health setback, it will be the 77-year-old Trump—but he is, like fellow Harvard alum Pete Buttigieg four years ago, clearly setting himself up for something else. If Trump wins again, a cabinet post could be his. His ability to shout wildly over the field—to be, in the words of Josh Barro, the ultimate “section guy”—is going to pay dividends.
In the Guardian, Margaret Sullivan argues that Ramaswamy, like much of the Republican field, is quickly leading the United States towards fascism. Trump himself was too incompetent and unfocused to be an actual fascist, and his policy and political accomplishments as president—tax cuts for the rich, attacks on environmental regulations, and the selection of three conservative Supreme Court justices—would have been found in any other Republican administration, whether it was Ted Cruz’s or Marco Rubio’s. The insanity of Jan. 6, of course, was all Trump’s doing, and it’s not as if former President Cruz would have been indicted four separate times. There’s a distinct possibility Trump could defeat Joe Biden next November and head to prison—and then, perhaps, pardon himself. With Trump, we always swim in uncharted waters. It is true, as Sullivan and other liberal commentators have argued, Trump has no regard for the rule of law. This puts him in league with any good demagogue or dictator.
What was notable to me about Sullivan’s column was its first sentence and final two. The summation was blunt. The media, Sullivan argues, focuses far too much on the horse-race. “How can there be “winners” in yet another milestone on the way to fascism?” she asks. “Losers? That’s easier. I think we already know who they are: Americans who care about democracy.” It is plenty unsettling to see candidates gain popularity by denying the severity of climate change, promising to gut the federal government—though a leftist 30 years ago would have wanted to abolish the FBI for very different reasons—and defending Trump in various criminal cases. Sullivan’s lead, though, fixates on something else: Ramaswamy’s foreign policy.
“He thinks the climate crisis is a hoax, supports Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and would gladly pardon Donald Trump on day 1 of his would-be presidency,” she writes. When a columnist groups three items together, all are supposed to be held in roughly equal regard to create a cascading effect. Sullivan wants to underscore Ramaswamy is unfit for the presidency, even dangerous. It’s hard to dispute the first or third items, though there are debates over how much the apocalyptic rhetoric around climate change helps the cause of lowering emissions. (Ramaswamy isn’t a part of that debate; he wants to kill all environmental regulations in this country.) The second item, though, comes up once and never gets addressed again. Ramaswamy, Sullivan charges, supports Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine.
I’ve long been an admirer of Sullivan—she was the best public editor the New York Times ever had, and I’ve taught her short, excellent book Ghosting the News in college classes—and I was surprised she would toss off a clause like this without buttressing it further. I know what she wants us to think and where she stands on the worst geopolitical disaster since the Iraq War, but why would a columnist of this caliber merely mention Putin and Ukraine once and move on? Well, she’s not a foreign policy writer, and her concerns are plainly elsewhere. The mention of Ukraine serves as a shorthand for Ramaswamy’s alleged derangement and it’s the sort of rhetorical flourish Sullivan’s ideological enemies are guilty of all the time. It amounts to a morsel of red meat for her left-liberal audience, the kind who have been conditioned to believe, thanks to political polarization, there is only one way to think about an endless war abroad.
Ramaswamy is not a neoconservative—at least he claims to not be one and decries the ideology. It is difficult to know what most Republicans truly think because militarism is deeply ingrained in the party and the influence of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush is not easily shrugged off. Liberals must acknowledge, however, there is a robust foreign policy debate happening within the GOP and that the Trump wing is less interested in the violent interventions Democratic and Republican presidents alike have pursued over the last half century. Trump himself can’t be trusted, since he loved growing military budgets and ratcheting up tensions with China. But he won a Republican nomination criticizing the Iraq War (he had been a supporter in 2003) and created, for the moment at least, intellectual space for an anti-internationalist, war-skeptical far right. This far right has more purchase with the current electorate than the traditional neoconservative Republican establishment. Ramaswamy is rising in the polls, surging ahead of Mike Pence, Trump’s vice president and the most ardent defender of the Reagan and Bush legacies. Twenty years ago, Pence and his ilk were the populists, celebrating a war most Americans, terrified and furious in the wake of 9/11, poorly understood and very badly wanted. Now Pence and Nikki Haley, another neoconservative Trump administration alum, are the lonelier outliers, bellowing for more arms for Ukraine at a time when many Republican voters (and a growing number of Democrats) are wary of further entanglements.
Recently Ramaswamy fully outlined his foreign policy views. Unlike Trump, who could ramble about slapping tariffs on Chinese imports and little else, Ramaswamy has the native intelligence to think his positions through. Rather than pay tribute to Reagan, he praises the realpolitik of the Richard Nixon years, pointing to Nixon’s willingness to travel to Communist China, restrain the American military footprint in the Middle East, and not intervene in the war between India and Pakistan. “As U.S. president, I will respect and revive Nixon’s legacy by rejecting the bloodthirsty blather of the useful idiots who preach a no-win war in Ukraine that forces our two great power foes ever closer,” Ramaswamy writes in the American Conservative. “The longer the war in Ukraine goes on, it becomes ever clearer that there is only one winner: China. I will lead America from moralism to realism by executing the inverse of what Nixon did in 1972: I will go to Moscow in 2025. I will deliver peace in Ukraine under the only terms that should matter to us—terms that put American interests first. The Biden administration has foolishly tried to get Xi to dump Putin. In reality, we should get Putin to dump Xi.”
There is plenty of bluster here. The United States can’t force Vladimir Putin to “dump” Xi Jinping. Their alliance predates Russia’s savage invasion of Ukraine and will continue after the war ends. The war has drawn the two despots closer together, and failed to create the sort of anti-Russian intercontinental coalitions that liberals and neoconservatives hoped for a year ago. While Europe remains united against Putin and NATO has continued to expand, many of the large South American nations have refused to send arms to Russia or involve themselves further in the war. India is still importing Russian oil. Liberals like Sullivan are horrified that Ramaswamy, as president, would want to oversee peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine and cede Crimea, the territory Russia seized in 2014, to Putin. “I will accept Russian control of the occupied territories and pledge to block Ukraine’s candidacy for NATO in exchange for Russia exiting its military alliance with China,” Ramaswamy continues. “I will end sanctions and bring Russia back into the world market. In this way, I will elevate Russia as a strategic check on China’s designs in East Asia.”
To many American pundits and Ukrainian partisans, this is madness or something even worse: appeasement. It is World War II all over again. Here, establishment liberals and neoconservatives speak almost identically about the war. If you are in proper company in New York or Washington, you are supposed to say the following: we must support Ukraine indefinitely until they win the war against Russia. Russia invaded first and therefore none of their territorial gains can be recognized. The Ukrainians alone must negotiate for peace when they are ready. The United States and Europe cannot impose any terms because they are not being invaded. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president, must lead the way. He is a hero, a modern day Churchill, and he is not to be questioned.
Ramaswamy’s isolationism differs from that of the Chomsky Left’s because he seems more than willing to one day wage war against China. Economic populists in both political parties are right that the United States made an enormous strategic error offshoring so much factory production to China and believing capitalism could make an autocratic nation more democratic. Xi’s China has refuted the 1990s canard that a richer, globalized nation would naturally bend toward democracy. Today, literal fascism reins in China, and Hong Kong is quickly being swallowed up. Taiwan might be next. What Republicans like Ramaswamy and most Democrats need to realize is that the United States cannot fight a land war with China over Taiwan. Millions could die in a new world war and an outright victory for the U.S. would be far from assured. Diplomacy is the only answer. In the meantime, the American government must do everything it can to incentivize manufacturing here or ensure supply chains are bound up with more reliable, democratic partners abroad. Japan, mostly ignored on the international stage since the 1980s, appears to be having a small resurgence as an affordable site for manufacturing that is also free from autocratic meddling.
What to do about Russia and Ukraine? And who is the real fascist here? Is it Ramaswamy, aiming for a quick exit? Pence, who wants to win the war at all costs? The Biden administration, which has shown restraint in not dispatching American troops to Ukraine but has funneled billions of dollars in armaments to the country, bolstered it with widely banned cluster munitions, and ignored all calls for a negotiated settlement? Many liberals have delighted at Oppenheimer, the blockbuster on the Manhattan project architect, but they seem strangely unable to apply some of the movie’s lessons to today’s conflicts. J. Robert Oppenheimer himself was a complex figure, culpable in the annihilation of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians but wary of nuclear proliferation. He would have been horrified to know Russia and the United States, in 2023, have the largest nuclear stockpiles on Earth and are in possession of enough bombs to obliterate human civilization many times over. The U.S. has directed the Ukrainian war effort, helping to plan their counteroffensive and aggressively fund their military. Americans must accept they are in a proxy war with Russia, an outcome that would have made even the Cold War hawks uneasy. The foreign policy minds of the twentieth century were comfortable with wars that countered Russian interests but they never wanted the two great superpowers of the world to engage directly, either near Russian or American soil. There is a reason many of them, like George Kennan and William Perry, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Defense, preferred to see NATO wound down after the Cold War and post-Soviet Russia accepted as an equal partner on the world stage. This stance had little to do with morality—Americans and Soviets alike had much blood on their hands—and everything to do with the practicality of ensuring new world wars never broke out again. The nuclear threat made this all the more necessary.
One year ago, I wondered when it would be time for the United States—yes, the United States—to engage with Russia over peace talks. Still smarting from Russia’s attempt to interfere in the 2016 election and aid Trump, many Democrats cannot accept a concept they would, in another context, be enthusiastic about: diplomacy to end violence. Putin is the vile aggressor but the causes of this war date back decades, to the very treatment of the Russian state at the dawn of the 1990s. This does not excuse Putin—it is merely to underscore the Western view is not always as unimpeachable as it seems. If the Biden administration insists on funding the war to the hilt, it must have a role in its dissolution. And to not think about a realistic endgame is to doom many more thousands to death. Outside the hothouse of the American media establishment, more sober foreign policy analysts are considering this. Even the RAND Corporation has suggested a negotiated settlement of some kind will be necessary to end hostilities.
To many, a negotiated settlement remains verboten because it means the Ukrainians will not get everything they want. Russia will not retreat from Crimea, which it has occupied since 2014. Putin may not cede all of the territory the Russian military has conquered since February 2022. Putin may block Ukraine from joining NATO. This is a price Ukrainian leadership and their allies in the West refuse to pay. They say they must receive more arms to keep fighting. They say they can repel Russia, with its a titanic reservoir of manpower and cash, completely. They say to wait, the counteroffensive is working. They’ll win by the spring, they’ll win by the summer, it’s all turning around in the fall. Since last year, proponents of the Ukrainian cause have invoked World War II and dismissed those who critiqued them as the sniveling descendants of Neville Chamberlain. How would you react if Hitler were on the march? Do you want to be on the wrong side of history? This fear of future judgment has locked many in a spiral of cognitive dissonance. Putin’s Russia is Hitler’s Germany, except the blitzkrieg swept through Europe in a matter of months and Russian troops can’t even seize Kiev. More weapons will bring a just peace sooner, except the war is now a year and a half old with no end in sight. The bloody stalemate has yet to break because Russia has found it easier to dig in against a counteroffensive than invade. The First World War is the parallel few still want to acknowledge. Blood is shed daily for gains that are negligible. Neither superpower is incentivized to negotiate. Both have pumped out enough pro-war propaganda to keep their civilians sufficiently supportive of the cause. Ramaswamy may not have the answer, but neither does Biden, it seems. The old Republicans are ready to fight forever. Pence is eager to send American troops to the front lines. These anti-Trumpers are not, perhaps, the real fascists in the liberal imagination. They are simply the politicians most comfortable with human death.