Today’s Republicans aren’t isolationists; they are hawks targeting Latin America and Asia.
Speaking to Sky News last month, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen expressed confidence that the United States could “certainly” afford to finance two ongoing military conflicts involving Ukraine and Israel. Yellen was speaking on behalf of the Biden administration, which has yet to see a foreign policy crisis that it doesn’t think can’t be solved with a transfusion of military hardware to allies. As Michael Hirsh noted in Foreign Policy, we are witnessing Joe Biden’s “ambitious—and somewhat scary—attempts to project military strength on three major international fronts: supplying, all at once, Ukraine’s stand against Russia, Israel’s war on Hamas, and Taiwan’s defense against China.”
Biden’s hawkishness is provoking a backlash across the political spectrum. On Israel/Palestine, he is faced with a rising chorus of voices within his own party appalled at the massive scale of civilian death in Gaza caused by Israel’s bombing campaign (which has been underwritten by the financial, military, and diplomatic support of the United States). Not just the familiar left voices like Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib but even more centrist figures such as Senators Tim Kaine and Dick Durbin are calling for more restraint, with Durbin advocating a cease-fire. In the coming days and weeks, as more and more horrific images from Gaza continue to circulate on the media, Democratic anger at Biden, already evident in massive protest rallies across the country, will increase.
But Biden is also facing intensifying opposition to his strong support for Ukraine from Republicans. Hirsh observes,
The Republican Party, which has been a font of isolationist sentiment for more than a century, is once again splintering over U.S. commitments abroad. Even before Hamas started another war on Oct. 7, the GOP was backing away from Ukraine. Now the new House speaker, Mike Johnson, has opened up a fresh fissure by insisting on sending aid only to Israel for the moment—and making it contingent on domestic budget cuts—while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell still wants to link that bill to Ukraine aid. But even McConnell now wants to tie this money to new funds for domestic border security.”
Hirsh isn’t the only observer fretting about so-called isolationism among Republicans. Washington Post columnist George Will is also anxious over the GOP’s growing skepticism about supporting Ukraine and worries that if Donald Trump becomes the Republican presidential nominee in 2024, “one of our two major parties will be more isolationist than either party was during the 1930s high tide of ‘America First’ isolationism.” Like Hirsh, Will recognizes that this is a return to an old pattern, citing the pivotal battle in the 1952 Republican primary when the internationalist Dwight Eisenhower vanquished Ohio Senator Robert Taft, the GOP’s leading critic of NATO and the Marshall Plan.
A recent Economist editorial told the same story of the GOP going from the isolationism of the 1930s and ’40s to a long internationalist phase that ran from Eisenhower to George W. Bush and now taking up the cry of “America First!” again. According to the British newsweekly, “In place of a foreign policy that saw America as a protector of freedom and democracy is a new doctrine of America First that shuns allies (barring Israel) and would give up on the Ukrainians fighting off a Russian invasion, even when no American soldiers are at risk.”
This narrative of isolationism as the return to the repressed is broadly accurate. Donald Trump’s wariness of NATO and entangling alliances certainly puts him closer in spirit to Charles Lindbergh and Robert Taft than to Republican presidents from Eisenhower to Bush Jr.
The problem with this narrative is that the phrase “isolationist” obscures the actual politics of America First, both past and present. The parenthetical “(barring Israel)” used by The Economist is an important clue. The proviso is inadequate. It’s true that very few Republicans are isolationist when it comes to Israel (although Kentucky Senator Rand Paul warned that the Israeli response risked creating “blowback” and “moral chaos”). Rather, Republicans are even more likely to back full-throttle support of Israeli m