An image of President Ronald Reagan at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon Hill, Maryland, February 2019
An image of President Ronald Reagan at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon Hill, Maryland, February 2019
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

As Republicans ponder the outcome of the midterm elections, in which a GOP rout failed to materialize, the party seems torn over national security. Such divisions are not new. Every couple of decades, the Republican Party has cycled through an internal debate over foreign policy and the United States’ role in the world. The Democratic Party has been beset with its own divisions, of course, most recently evidenced by the publication and subsequent retraction of the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s letter urging President Joe Biden to pursue direct talks with Russia to end the war in Ukraine. Some of the most consequential foreign policy debates take place within each party rather than between the parties.

This has held true for almost a century. Before World War II, during and after the Cold War, and in the modern era, Republicans have fought over the extent to which the United States should lead in global affairs. Broadly speaking, for Republicans, these intraparty fights seem to be settled by world events, successful GOP presidencies, or a combination of both. As they build on their 2022 congressional victories and eye a return to the White House in 2024, Republicans would do well to look to President Ronald Reagan’s legacy as a lodestar.

Internal Affairs

There are certainly echoes from the past in the current GOP battle. In the 1930s, Republican Senator Robert Taft of Ohio led the America First movement that anathematized any U.S. involvement in countering Nazi aggression in Europe. Taft squared off against GOP internationalists such as Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican presidential nominee, who favored supporting the Allies. After the war, Taft led the opposition to initiatives such as the Marshall Plan, the creation of NATO, and higher defense spending. Leaders of the GOP internationalist wing ultimately prevailed, led by figures such as Arthur Vandenberg, the Republican senator from Michigan, and Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe who in 1952 successfully challenged Taft for the GOP presidential nomination. Indeed, Eisenhower staked his successful campaign almost wholly on his foreign policy credentials.

In the 1970s, Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford—along with Henry Kissinger, who during their tenures served as national security adviser and secretary of state—had to fend off a conservative insurgency led by then–California Governor Ronald Reagan. The former cohort advocated détente with the Soviet Union whereas Reagan and his enthusiasts called for a more confrontational posture toward the Kremlin, especially on human rights and arms control. The fight reached a peak at the 1976 GOP convention in Kansas City, when Reagan came within a few delegates of defeating the incumbent Ford for the presidential nomination. The 1990s witnessed a new rift between the internationalists, led by President George H. W. Bush and Senator Bob Dole, and the isolationist Pat Buchanan, who mounted presidential runs in 1992 and 1996, in which Buchanan made opposition to free trade, alliances, foreign aid, and the 1991 Gulf War cornerstones of his candidacy.

These GOP rifts were not so much healed as resolved by world events and successful presidencies. In 1941, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and Nazi Germany’s declaration of war on the United States squelched the anti-interventionists. In the 1950s, Eisenhower’s two-term presidency, coupled with the growth in Soviet power and aggression, solidified GOP internationalism. The Kremlin’s global advances through the 1970s, culminating in the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, discredited détente, and Reagan’s eight years in office and the peaceful U.S. Cold War victory that followed vindicated values-based global leadership, military power, and robust alliances. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush marshaled a GOP majority supportive of democracy and human rights promotion, humanitarian assistance, and muscular internationalism.

But that majority soon fell apart. By the end of Bush’s second term, he lamented the upsurge in “protectionism, isolationism, and nativism” in response to the GOP base’s repudiation of his policies. The post-9/11 GOP consensus proved ephemeral, as did each of the other apparent resolutions of GOP squabbles in earlier decades. As soon as one camp seemed to win the debate and secure its hold on the party, some combination of world events or foreign policy mistakes would raise new doubts and give dissenting voices an opening to contend for a different path.

Sucking Up All the Oxygen

In this century, the troubled wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the 2008 financial crisis, the failure of the engagement strategy with China, and other policy missteps have produced the fissures that now bedevil the GOP. Republicans today inhabit a murky menagerie of shifting coalitions and competing impulses rather than clearly demarcated tribes. This is especially true since the GOP does not hold the White House and thus lacks a president setting the foreign policy agenda for the party base. The fault lines that do exist follow the centurylong debate about the United States’ posture and purpose in the world. Republicans are still struggling between showing leadership abroad or focusing on domestic affairs.

This debate is complicated by the singular figure of former U.S. President Donald Trump, who still inspires fervent devotion among a large segment of the Republican base and fear among a large portion of Republican officeholders. His foreign policy is less a coherent worldview and more a collection of whims and impulses—sometimes internationalist, sometimes isolationist, always about him. He is neither a hawk nor a dove but rather a peacock, clamoring for attention. Though no longer in office, his plumage casts a shadow over the GOP, complicating the debate. This is why a majority of Republicans supported withdrawing from Afghanistan when Trump pushed for it and then opposed the withdrawal when executed (albeit badly) by Biden.

The most visible fault line in the GOP foreign policy divide is Ukraine.

Cultural concerns also shape the foreign policy views of a vocal minority in the GOP, who see international affairs through a domestic policy lens. The “national conservative” movement embodies this trend. One of its exemplars, the Fox News host Tucker Carlson, has repeatedly voiced skepticism about aiding Ukraine and has expressed sympathy for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Carlson has spoken warmly about how the Russian dictator pays rhetorical fealty to social conservatism and ridicules “wokeness.” For similar reasons, Carlson and many other national conservatives have embraced Hungarian President Viktor Orban, in whom they see a cultural pugilist; the popular conservative writer Rod Dreher has even decamped to Hungary in a form of self-imposed exile. National conservatives disinclined to relocate to Hungary still cheered Orban’s message when he gave one of the keynote addresses at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference. It was perhaps unsurprising when the CPAC then parroted Russian propaganda in a since-deleted tweet opposing aid to Ukraine.

The most visible fault line in the GOP foreign policy divide is Ukraine. A majority of Senate and House Republicans have supported the $66 billion in military and economic assistance that Washington has appropriated to support Kyiv, but a vote this summer saw 11 GOP senators and 57 House members oppose aid to Ukraine. Recent public opinion polling shows a further decline in Republican support for aiding Ukraine. Channeling these sentiments, the Heritage Foundation has become the most influential conservative organization to join the chorus of Ukraine skepticism. Heritage’s stance is notable in part because of its history: in the 1980s, it was the most consequential organization in shaping and supporting the Reagan Doctrine of providing aid to foreign forces fighting against aggression by the Kremlin and its proxies. Now the think tank has reversed course and fiercely opposes aid to foreign forces resisting Kremlin aggression.

Nonetheless, a majority of GOP representatives still support aiding Ukraine in its fight against the Russian invaders. This is notable given the absence of any prominent Republican aside from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican from Kentucky, making the case for Ukraine aid to the party’s base voters. Look for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to make impassioned appeals to the GOP for support. The responsibilities of governing will also hold weight, as few Republican members would welcome the shame of Ukraine losing the war because a GOP Congress cut off aid.

It Will be All Right

Neo-isolationism still seems to face a hard ceiling in the GOP. Consider the July 2022 U.S. Senate vote expressing support for Sweden and Finland joining NATO. For all of Trump’s imprecations against allies in general and NATO in particular, only one Republican senator, Joshua Hawley of Missouri, voted no. That shows the broad and deep Republican commitment to the alliance. And almost all the likely GOP candidates for president—aside from Trump—seem to sit comfortably in the conservative internationalist camp: current Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Tim Scott of South Carolina; Governors Ron DeSantis of Florida and Glenn Youngkin of Virginia; former Vice President Mike Pence; former Kansas Representative and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and former Governors Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Chris Christie of New Jersey. Of course, if Trump is the GOP nominee, the party’s foreign policy will take a different and unpredictable path.

More than any political figure, the factor most likely to keep Republican internationalism alive is China. Today’s threat from the Chinese Communist Party recalls how events such as World War II, the rise of the Soviet menace, and the 9/11 attacks resolved earlier GOP foreign policy debates. A recent poll indicates that 89 percent of Republicans view China unfavorably, and significant majorities see China as an “enemy” of the United States. There is nary a GOP congressional candidate running on a platform of accommodating China; even Hawley advocates a hard line toward Beijing. And hawkishness on China is hardly exclusive to the GOP. It is one of the very few areas of bipartisan agreement in U.S. politics, as strong majorities of voters favor a forceful policy toward China and more robust support for Taiwan.

Putting such convictions into practice leads unavoidably to an assertive foreign policy. Abandoning Asian allies, sidelining human rights, and reducing defense budgets are not viable options in countering the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). China also poses a policy dilemma for the national conservative movement, since its avatars, such as Orban, have embraced Beijing, as has Putin. It is hard to credibly oppose China while supporting Orban and Putin.

The China challenge, in turn, points to the other factor that offers hope for Republican internationalism: the Reagan legacy. Reagan was, after all, the last U.S. president of either party to wage and win a competition against a nuclear-armed communist superpower on the Eurasian landmass, all while avoiding nuclear catastrophe, supporting the global enlargement of liberty and prosperity, and winning landslide reelection, as well as the election of his successor.

Virtually all Republicans herald Reagan as successful.

Though most Republican voters have not studied Reagan’s policies, and the younger generation was born after he left office, virtually all Republicans herald him as successful. And what voters value most are policies that succeed, more than any particular ideological commitments to internationalism or isolationism. To be sure, there are manifest differences between the 1980s and today, and China is not the Soviet Union. But it is fair to say his foreign policy record still has some meaning for the contemporary GOP (and to Democrats, too).

Reagan’s national security policies are often summed up in his catchphrase “peace through strength,” but he believed “strength” went beyond military power to include the United States’ values, ideas, alliances, diplomacy, and history. For Reagan, that history held the hard lessons of errant protectionism and isolationism in the 1930s. He confronted the isolationists of his own day in an iconic address at Pointe du Hoc, France, on the 40th anniversary of the Normandy invasion. “We in America have learned bitter lessons from two world wars,” he said. “It is better to be here ready to protect the peace than to take blind shelter across the sea, rushing to respond only after freedom is lost. We’ve learned that isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with an expansionist intent.”

Reagan ordered U.S. ground troops into combat only once in his eight years in office, to the small Caribbean island of Grenada. He was cautious about the use of force, and he wielded military power to deter aggression, to support foreign forces to do their own fighting (in accordance with the Reagan Doctrine), and to fortify diplomacy. The integration of force and diplomacy was a hallmark of Reagan’s statecraft. He built a formidable Department of Defense in part to empower his outreach to the Kremlin and his landmark negotiations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. One of the biggest proponents of the Reagan defense buildup was U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, who understood that a strong military made for effective diplomacy.

Reagan also viewed liberty as an asymmetric advantage for U.S. foreign policy. He supported human rights, religious freedom, and democracy in both communist regimes and military dictatorships, and he worked to expand economic freedom through an open trading order among the United States’ friends while also pressuring allies such as Japan to open their closed markets. He showed political courage: he promoted free trade despite fierce protectionist sentiment in Congress and defied resistance from his own party in his agreement with Gorbachev to eliminate all intermediate-range nuclear missiles. He was an incomparable communicator of his policies, seeking to persuade the voters who disagreed with him and equip and inspire those who agreed.

Today, American neo-isolationism offers a potent critique of occasional U.S. overreach, hubris, and foreign policy mistakes. For Republicans dispirited by their country’s failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, angered by economic losses to foreign predatory trade practices, frustrated by decades of allied free-riding, and fearful of a dangerous escalatory spiral with a nuclear-armed madman in Putin, the appeal of restraint is understandable. The cavalier use of military force can prove catastrophic; Vietnam and Iraq will ever loom as costly cautionary tales. Yet the mistaken deployments of American ground troops in unnecessary wars should not be distorted into calls for terminating aid to U.S. friends in their own fights, withdrawing any American forces stationed abroad, or ending U.S. alliances altogether. As a prescription for addressing the challenges the United States faces, isolationism’s record over the past century does not inspire confidence. From World War II to the Cold War to the abandonment of Afghanistan, opponents of U.S. international leadership and armed diplomacy have an unhappy record. Republicans looking for foreign policy guidance today would do better to ensure that the GOP remains the party of Reagan.

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