One of the most significant unanswered questions of the Republican presidential nominating contest has been what posture Ron DeSantis would take on foreign policy in general, and the Russia-Ukraine war in particular. As a governor, DeSantis has had little reason to engage in foreign policy, but as a presidential candidate he will be presented with a choice between the party’s traditional hawkish-internationalist-neoconservative wing and its ascendant Trumpist America First wing. Both factions have eagerly anticipated DeSantis giving some signal of affinity.
On Sunday, the Florida governor made his allegiance clear. He has sided with the Trumpists.
The announcement came within the context of a publicity stop on Fox & Friends. During his remarks, DeSantis repeated the main themes used by conservative opponents of aiding Ukraine.
–He described the Biden administration’s policy as a “blank check,” implying that his administration would restrict or end aide to Kyiv. (“Just saying it’s an open-ended blank check, that is not acceptable.”)
–He dismissed the notion that Russia poses a threat to American allies, interests, or values. (“It’s important to point out the fear of Russia going into NATO countries and all of that, and steamrolling that is not even coming close to happening. I think they’ve shown themselves to be a third-rate military power.”)
–He blamed the invasion not on Vladimir Putin but on Joe Biden. (“I don’t think any of this would have happened, but for the weakness that the president showed during his first year in office, culminating, of course, in the disastrous withdrawal in Afghanistan.”)
–And he used the fallacious conflation of Ukraine’s national sovereignty with immigration policy in the United States, creating an imagined choice between stricter enforcement of the southern border and helping Ukraine:
“So I think while he’s over there, I think I, and many Americans, are thinking to ourselves, okay, ‘He’s very concerned about those borders halfway around the world. He’s not done anything to secure our own border here at home.’” We’ve had millions and millions of people pour in, tens of thousands of Americans dead because of fentanyl, and then, of course, we just suffered a national humiliation of having China fly a spy balloon clear across the continental United States. So, we have a lot of problems accumulating here in our own country that he is neglecting.”
This rhetoric places DeSantis squarely in the America First camp.
In theory, DeSantis’s statement might cost him some support among hawkish Republicans. In reality, the most likely effect is going to be to cut the hawks off at the legs. DeSantis is signaling that he sees the rise of America First conservatives as an irreversible trend that, like other changes to the party under Trump, he intends to consolidate rather than roll back.
The accommodations the party’s hawks will make to DeSantis are already being previewed in the conservative media. National Review’s Dan McLaughlin, a proud Reaganite, recently praised DeSantis for steering clear of the Trumpist line on Ukraine. “DeSantis has shrewdly remained ambiguous enough to inspire hope from all sides,” he wrote earlier this month, “Unlike Donald Trump or other figures on the populist right such as Tucker Carlson (on whose show the governor is a frequent guest), DeSantis has not showered foreign authoritarians with praise or pandered to resentment of Ukraine and its leader.”
Following DeSantis’s remarks Sunday, McLaughlin praised DeSantis for once again occupying the perfect stance. “DeSantis is, as usual, taking a position that is politically savvy and as close to the center of the party’s current mood as possible in beating up on Biden, being hawkish on China, deriding Putin, and questioning where the limits are while not actually calling for abandoning the Ukrainian cause,” he writes.
The most important audience for DeSantis’s remarks is not in the Republican primary, but in Moscow. Vladimir Putin has built his strategy on the assumption that he can keep throwing conscripts into the trenches of eastern Ukraine longer than the United States is willing to keep sending money and arms to Kyiv. Putin’s main hope has rested on Donald Trump returning to office in 2025. Now he has a second option should Trump falter in the primary. The odds that Putin will end the war just got longer.