Beyond the Water’s Edge
Why President Biden should look to foreign policy to sharpen political distinctions with his America First opponents
Contrary to the decades-old adage, America’s domestic politics have never truly stopped at the water’s edge.
Arguments over intervention in both world wars spawned some of the most vitriolic national political debates in the country’s history. The conduct of the Korean War became fodder for partisan politics in the early 1950s, while the Democratic Party tore itself apart over the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Broader questions surrounding Cold War strategy resulted in fierce domestic political debates from the late 1940s to the late 1980s. More recently, terrorism and the Iraq war have been used as political cudgels – most notably by President George W. Bush’s Republicans in the 2002 and 2004 elections.
But rarely have the foreign policy differences between American political factions been as stark as they are today, and nowhere have these differences been more evident than on the war in Ukraine.
The Great Divide
On the one hand, former President Trump and his America First acolytes have put forward a conservative isolationist program that would see the United States break faith with long-standing allies and retreat from the world. In this endeavor, they’re aided and abetted by the so-called restraint camp – many of whose leading lights have cast doubt America’s alliances and proposed the United States pull back from the world. Though it’s a motley political and ideological bunch, the restraint camp does find significant support from the self-proclaimed anti-imperialist left.
On the other hand, President Biden and his overall foreign policy thrust represent mainstream internationalism. It’s an approach that’s backed in broad strokes and to various degrees by conservative internationalists like Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and especially Never Trump conservatives, many of whom worked in foreign policy and defense positions in pre-Trump Republican presidential administrations. Though intellectually and ideologically diverse, this group nonetheless agrees that American interests and security are best served by engagement in the world generally and alliances in both Europe and Asia specifically. There may be differences of opinion – sometimes quite severe – over the wisdom of specific policy moves (such as the Iran nuclear deal), but these disagreements do not extend to the fundamentals of America’s alliances or the basic necessity of active American involvement in the world.
The ongoing war in Ukraine has given the most recent and clearest demonstration of this foreign policy divide. With strong bipartisan backing from Congress, President Biden has strongly supported Ukraine and its military against the Russian onslaught. Congress has approved more than $40 billion in security assistance to Kyiv, $15 billion of which has already reached Ukraine in the form of Javelin anti-tank missiles, howitzers, and HIMARS rocket artillery – help that’s proven vital to the success of the Ukrainian military’s recent counteroffensive. Biden’s foreign policy team also orchestrated unprecedented international economic sanctions against Russia with the European Union, while a near-unanimous Senate vote helped clear the way for Finland and Sweden to join NATO.
Against this robust response, Trump and the America First crowd have made it quite clear that they would have served Ukraine and Europe to the Kremlin on a silver platter had they been in power. Despite a split second of hesitation after the initial Russian invasion, Trump quickly returned to praising Putin as “fierce” and “smart.” When in office, he made his disdain for NATO clear and would probably have pulled the United States out of the trans-Atlantic alliance had he won a second term. The quest to emulate the former president led Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) to cast the lone vote against Finnish and Swedish accession to NATO, claiming that these two highly capable countries would add little to the alliance.
Beyond repeatedly echoing Putin’s propaganda on his prime-time show, moreover, Fox News personality Tucker Carlson proclaimed that he doesn’t “really care one way or the other” about Ukraine while constantly asserting that Russia’s victory remains inevitable – even as the success of Ukraine’s recent Kharkiv counter offensive became apparent to all. Ohio Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance used almost identical language to express his indifference to Ukraine’s fate, and has called for an end to U.S. support for the Ukrainian war effort. It’s a sentiment shared by the restraint camp’s most prominent organ, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, whose advocacy director recently questioned “whether there are any limits to pouring money into an endless war.”
Beyond the Water’s Edge
So far, however, Biden has not drawn these political battle lines clearly or sharply enough – even though the American public is largely with him, both on Ukraine in particular and foreign policy more generally. Right now, Biden’s got an enormous opportunity to call attention to just how far the America First foreign policy worldview is from the American political mainstream. He just needs to meet the moment and take it.
How can he do that? There are three main ways:
First, lay out a stark and straightforward contrast between the Biden administration’s policy on Ukraine and the isolationist alternative. If the America First clique had its way, he can rightly argue, the United States would be out of NATO and Putin would be in Kyiv. America would be weaker and less secure, facing a Kremlin that’s stronger and more aggressive in the world. We needn’t play out the potential second-order effects – would successful Russian aggression in Ukraine make China more likely to invade Taiwan? – to see how this scenario would do grievous damage to the essential American interest in European security. Contrary to the claims of the America First and restraint camps, America remains stronger and more secure when it’s actively involved in the world - and Biden should say so explicitly.
Next, connect Biden’s foreign policy – in particular his largely unrecognized first-year moves on economic statecraft – with his domestic investment agenda. Instead of picking trade fights with its friends and allies as Trump did, for instance, the United States should work with them to build a concert of economic power that can take on China and any other comers. Biden can also make the case that his industrial policy will make America itself stronger at home and therefore stronger in the world. He can also point to the investments foreign companies like TSMC and Toyota have made in semiconductor and battery manufacturing in the United States, some thanks to provisions in the spate of legislation that’s been passed since he took office. As we’ve noted, the basic pieces of this narrative puzzle already exist; Biden and his team just need to put them together.
Finally, carefully distinguish America First and conservative internationalist camps within the Republican coalition. Biden and other Democrats can go out of his way to applaud the way McConnell and other Congressional Republicans have supported his Ukraine policy despite their deep differences on other issues. It’s not a matter of bipartisanship for its own sake, but an effort to make relevant distinctions on foreign policy as clear as possible.
In short, Biden should make his foreign policy a political issue in the widest sense of the term – not as a way to create or drive partisan wedges, but as a way to expose and delineate real and stark differences between mainstream American internationalism and Trump’s America First crowd.
None of this will affect this November’s mid-term elections in the slightest. But it can help Biden set the terms of the national political debate heading into the 2024 presidential election – a contest that will likely see Biden face off against Trump or some other candidate espousing some variety of conservative isolationism. But he can only define himself against America First types if he articulates his own internationalist foreign policy with greater clarity and repudiates a restraint camp that amounts to nothing but noise and vaporware.
Biden can reasonably claim broad-based support for his foreign policy from a majority of the American public. To turn that into a political advantage against Trump and his ilk, though, he’s got work to do - and there’s no time like the present to get started on it.