While Congress debated a $40 billion emergency military and humanitarian relief package for Ukraine, I had the opportunity to follow the debate from the perspective of two Eastern Bloc countries that have a profound and existential stake in its outcome.
In Warsaw, Poland, where I spoke on a panel about energy security at an event hosted by the Atlas Network, a Solidarity 2.0 movement that has established itself as a prophetic voice against Putin’s authoritarianism. Like the original Solidarity movement that condemned and undermined Soviet totalitarianism in the 1980’s, Solidarity 2.0 is cajoling and inspiring the world to recognize, and mobilize itself against, Putin’s aggression.
In Tbilisi, Georgia, where I offered a presentation on the “Free Economies are Clean Economies” report by C3 Solutions at the New Economic School, political and civil society leaders are racing to fortify a country that has already been attacked by Russia and could be next on Putin’s hit list (after Moldova) if he isn’t stopped in Ukraine.
The good news is the package passed the Senate by a margin of 86-11 and President Biden signed it into law this weekend. Had it been offset by spending cuts to lower priority areas of the budget, of which there are many, the “yes” votes may have topped 90. Yet, those who believe helping Ukraine is vital to America’s interest should not be complacent and assume this coalition will hold. The debate on the right about America’s role in the world is far from over. Its direction will have profound impacts on our security and the security of millions of people around the world who long for freedom and self-determination.
The Rise of Neoisolationism
Donald Trump Jr. and others insist the debate about American foreign policy is between the neoconservative camp, led by “warmongers” like Rep. Liz Chenery, and the more sensible America First movement. Yet, the reality in 2022 is that neoconservatism is a boogeyman and political foil in a very old debate. As Matthew Continetti explains in his terrific new book, “The Right”, we’re rehashing debates we had about foreign policy in the 1920s. America First, Continetti argues, represents a return of the old American right with its emphasis on immigration restrictions, protectionism and non-intervention abroad.
The actual debate on the right today is between realistic idealists in the mold of Ronald Reagan and a smaller but more vocal contingent who promote a rebooted version of Pat Buchanan’s paleoconservatism that favors restraint, non-interventionism and old-world nationalism. The latter crowd insists they’re offering something new and groundbreaking so their view shall thus be called neoisolationism.
The realistic idealists believe first in ideals that are deeply rooted in constitutional conservatism (or classical liberalism). In this worldview, human rights don’t come from monarchs, nation-states, or ethnic identities but from natural law or nature’s God. To realistic idealists, ideals are foundational and fundamental, but the practical application of those ideals must be tempered by real-world considerations. In other words, America must resist the temptation of being a crusader nation. If we try to correct every injustice, and overextend ourselves militarily and economically, we put our own security at risk. America obviously has a mixed record implementing this form of realistic idealism. It worked after World War II and after the Cold War, but it went off the rails after 9/11. Still, these distinctions explain why 86 Senators are comfortable arming Ukrainians to support the ideals of freedom and self-determination, as well as our own security, but almost unanimously oppose the creation of a no-fly zone that would put American forces in direct combat with Russian forces and risk an escalation with a nuclear-armed foe.
In Warsaw, at the Altas gathering, Nataliya Melnyk at the Free Market Center in Ukraine said, “We are ready to die for freedom because that’s how important freedom is to us.”
The realistic idealists in the Republican Party are comfortable with being honorary Ukrainians in this fight but only to a point. That points ends with arming and assisting Ukrainians but not with fighting with boots on the ground or pilots in the air. Proponents of neoisolationism, on the other hand, view the $40 billion package as going too far. Senate candidate JD Vance said, “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine.” Trump Jr. calls Ukraine’s fight for survival a “clown show.” Representative Madison Cawthorn (R-NC), who lost his primary election, describes Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zeleknsky as a “thug.” Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO), meanwhile, derided the package as “nation-building.”
On Fox News, Hawley explained, “I’m for putting the national security of the American people first. That’s nationalism. That’s the best tradition of the Republican Party. And it’s time we got back to it.”
Hawley’s assertion is rooted in his imagination rather than history. America’s founders created a post-nationalistic republic that rejected centuries of European history when rights depended on the whims of monarchs. In our founder’s vision of a future America, borders would of course need to be secure, but our greatness would come from our beliefs.
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Neoisolationism is dangerous because its nationalistic foundation creates a moral equivalence with nationalists in Russia and China who are eager to debate foreign policy as a matter of mere competing spheres of influence. The “you can have your nationalism and we can have our nationalism” inherent in neoisolationism invites aggression and tyranny. Neoisolationism is unilateral moral disarmament in the face of determined evil. It demoralizes dissidents and encourages dictators.
Neoisolationism is also politically foolish. The left’s Achilles heel in the energy and climate debate is its fixation with its own misguided isolationism. The Green New Deal is a con-job based on the idea that if America unilaterally imposes a carbon lockdown on itself sea levels and temperatures will recede. Western Europe, particularly Germany, practiced climate isolationism and told its domestic Green activists it was embracing renewables while outsourcing its carbon emissions to Russia. Putin took notice of this weakness and felt emboldened.
“Dark MAGA” and the America First Order
Neoisolationism isn’t just nationalistic but authoritarian. Its proponents aren’t afraid to rely on bullying and intimidation when persuasion fails. In a seminal thought-piece published in the New York Times (so much for being canceled), leading neoisolationsts claim the “Hawks” are “standing in the way” of the new Republican Party. Hawley insists this debate is over and settled and dissenters need to fall in line (despite his view having the support of less than ten percent of the Senate when you subtract from the 11 no votes those who objected on fiscal conservative grounds). Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) is being lambasted for voting for the package by neoisolationists even though he carefully avoided using the F-word “Freedom” in his speech about enlightened self-interest. After magnanimously conceding his race, Cawthorn lashed out at “weak Republicans” and “globalists.” He declared, “It’s time for the rise of the new right, it’s time for Dark MAGA to truly take command.”
When RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel was asked about Dark MAGA this weekend she said, “I don’t know what Dark MAGA is. It sounds like something from ‘Star Wars,’ like the dark side of the force.”
McDaniel has a point. Dark MAGA sounds like an America First Order movement that can’t decide if it favors Darth Vader’s force chokes or Jar Jar Binks’ performative jackassery. In either case, it’s disconnected from constitutional conservatism. Authoritarianism should be given no quarter in American politics. The tendency of both parties to tolerate authoritarian policies and personalities explains why our debates are no longer about more government or less government but my government vs. your government. Policymakers who Balkanize our politics should spend more time in the Balkans and reimport democracy from places like Poland and Georgia.
One striking irony in this increasingly strange debate on the right is that Trump himself was no isolationist. The neoisolationists are grasping to build a doctrine around Trump’s moods. He was for whatever felt strong in the moment. Trump was all over the map on foreign policy. He made the nutty and dangerous comment that NATO is “obsolete” in 2016 and outlined a misguided Afghanistan withdrawal plan Biden implemented horribly, yet he armed Ukraine twice, negotiated the Abraham Accords (the first peace deal between Israel and an Arab country since the Clinton era) and wasn’t shy about using American military power to kill bad guys like Iranian General Qasem Soleimani.
After-Trumpers should be encouraged that in foreign policy, and every other area, Trump succeeded when he bent the knee to constitutional conservatism. On judges, he bent the knee to Leonard Leo and the Federalist Society and appointed three conservative Supreme Court justices. On taxes, he bent the knee to Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and a robust network of tax organizations in Washington and passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. On energy policy, he bent the knee to a similar network of energy and climate realists who prioritized deregulation and an “all of the above” energy strategy and improved energy security while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. On criminal justice reform, he bent the knee to a loose network of bipartisan and nonpartisan reformers that included Stand Together, the Kemp Forum, Bob Woodson and Van Jones and passed landmark criminal justice reform that improved the GOP’s standing with minority voters.
Trump failed, on the other hand, when he demanded that others bow to him. His narcissistic exhibitionism got in the way of his own successes. Joe Biden didn’t steal the election from Donald Trump. Donald Trump stole the election from his own supporters.
Neoisolationism and Dark MAGA may represent an overcorrection to the Bush interventionist years that has finally exhausted and murdered itself. Helping people in another nation build their own nation rather than facing genocide against an aggressor we may have to fight if left unchecked isn’t nation building: It’s enlightened self-interest. Hawley, Vance and other neoisolationists will continue to insist that they alone are equipped to divine the will of the base and understand “real” America, but it is they who are out of touch with history, America’s founding principles and their own constituents. The more American voters make that clear, the better off Ukraine, Poland, Georgia, America, and the world, will be.