Non-Interventionist Republicans: A Small, Vocal Minority
J.D. Vance won a Senate primary with an isolationist foreign policy, but similarly minded lawmakers in Congress remain isolated.
In late March, a small group of isolationist figures on the political right gathered in a dimly lit Marriott Marquis ballroom to brainstorm solutions to what the event’s invitation deemed “Washington’s decades-long, failed, bipartisan foreign policy consensus.”
The self-described emergency conference, “Up from Chaos,” featured a handful of emerging nationalist voices, including Hillbilly Elegy author and, as of Tuesday night, Ohio Senate GOP primary winner J.D. Vance. Though he wouldn’t score the decisive endorsement of former President Donald Trump until a couple of weeks later, Vance embraced recognizably “America First” talking points in his allotted time.
“At the end of the day, our foreign policy needs to be a little more sophisticated than ‘the guy in Russia is good’—sorry, ‘the guy in Russia is bad and the guy in Ukraine is good,’” Vance told the gathering of roughly 100 attendees. “That may very well be true, but it doesn’t lead to any foreign policy conclusions for the American people.”
If Vance parlays his Ohio primary win into a general election victory to replace retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman, the U.S. Senate stands to gain a vocal advocate for reducing the U.S. footprint overseas. And he’s not the only candidate running a non-interventionist playbook this midterm cycle. Amid one of the 21st century’s greatest geopolitical crises—the war in Ukraine—several high profile Republican contenders for U.S. Senate and House seats are loudly staking their claim to an inward-looking foreign policy agenda.
But if elected, they might be hard-pressed to find many allies in Congress.
“They’re not in our world,” Mike Rogers, ranking Republican on House Armed Services Committee (HASC), said in a brief interview last week when asked about isolationist-leaning Republican House and Senate candidates in this year’s midterm cycle. “We’re making policy, they’re trying to get elected—that’s the difference.”
He said he has no plans to add non-interventionist voices to HASC should House Republicans retake the majority in the fall.
Among the pressing concerns for sitting policymakers are issues like how to provide most efficiently financial and military support to the democratic government in Ukraine; how to reduce U.S. and European energy dependence on Russian crude oil; and how to bolster the security of NATO allies on the frontlines of the conflict.
The practicalities and price tags of such policies continue to be hotly debated—even among politicians of the same party—but most Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike broadly agree that the outcome of ongoing war in Eastern Europe will have far-reaching consequences for America’s role in the world. And according to a recent Ipsos poll, most Americans agree, with four in five adults saying that the war “poses a great deal or a fair amount of risk to the world as a whole.” Behind such national consensus, Congress has overwhelmingly passed a series of bills sanctioning Russia and providing billions of dollars in military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the New Right’s push for neo-isolationist policies emphasizes the need to address what they see as bigger external threats to the U.S., primarily strategic competition with China and security failures along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Nationalist-leaning candidates have cast their non-interventionist arguments on Ukraine as an updated version of foreign policy “realism.” In theory, the realist school of thought rejects the moral binary of “good guys” and “bad guys” in geopolitics, arguing instead that nations are guided by rational self-interest. In practice, it’s lent itself to soft defenses of autocratic leadership in the name of prioritizing American economic and national security interests.
Blake Masters, Republican candidate for Arizona’s Senate seat, is among the doctrine’s recent purveyors, although he faces steep competition ahead of the GOP primary in August from Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich and former businessman Jim Lamon. “Putin is a thug, obviously, this invasion is wrong. But it is also true that Russia is a real country, it is a nuclear power with its own distinct interests,” Masters said in a self-recorded video posted to Twitter in March. “And there is no reason to provoke them over NATO expansion and Bush-era regime change mania.”
If elected in November, Vance and Masters will likely find common ground with the likes of Republican Sen. Rand Paul, a longtime critic of extensive U.S. military involvement overseas who for weeks held up a bill to revoke normal U.S. trade relations with Russia that had already passed the House of Representatives. But aside from Paul, Senate Republicans have been mostly unified in viewing Russian aggression as a direct threat to U.S. national security.
“I think there’s room for all kinds of voices, but I wish they would understand that Ukraine is very important to our national security interests,” GOP Sen. Joni Ernst, vice chair of the Senate Republican conference and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a brief interview last week when asked about Masters and Vance.
House Republican leaders, meanwhile, have struggled to tamp down the isolationist voices in their ranks. In March, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said freshman GOP Rep. Madison Cawthorn was “wrong” to call Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a “thug,” and condemned GOP Reps. Paul Gosar and Marjorie Taylor Greene for speaking at AFPAC, a conference organized by white nationalist Nick Fuentes where attendees cheered for Putin.
Other leaders have tried to unify the House GOP conference behind closed doors. “A month ago, a lot of people asked me: ‘Why is Ukraine important?’” GOP Rep. Mike McCaul, the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, told The Dispatch at this year’s annual House GOP issues retreat in late March, roughly one month after Russia invaded Ukraine. “So I had to make the case, [it’s] important because, you know, freedom and democracy—I would hope that’d be enough.”
McCaul said he also talked to his colleagues about the considerations behind President Joe Biden’s decision to lift sanctions on the Nord Stream II pipeline in Russia and the Ukraine conflict’s broader implications for Taiwanese sovereignty, among other factors.
Still, a small but vocal flank of isolationist House Republicans continue to buck the party line on Russia-related legislation.
Weeks after eight House Republicans voted in March against a bill to suspend normal trade relations with Russia and Ukraine, 10 House Republicans voted against a bill to allow the U.S. to enter more easily into lend-lease agreements with Ukraine. And just last week, four House Republicans joined four members of the “Squad”—Democratic Reps. Cori Bush, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, and Ilhan Omar—in voting against a bill to seize the assets of Russian oligarchs and use that money to provide additional aid to Ukraine.
The House Republican conference has witnessed even more disunity on the topic of NATO, with nearly one-third of GOP representatives voting against reaffirming the U.S.’s “unequivocal support” for the alliance and underscoring its commitment to “shared democratic values.”
During his keynote address at last month’s “Up From Chaos” event, GOP Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, a no-vote on all of the above bills and longtime NATO critic, went further than merely suggesting the U.S. should stay out of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. “I believe that NATO is obsolete, NATO became obsolete when—when the Soviet empire fell,” Massie told the crowd. “If I could, we would dissolve it tomorrow—at least get the United States out of it.”
House Republicans like Massie have piqued the interest of GOP congressional hopefuls like Joe Kent, a Trump-endorsed former combat veteran. He’s running in Washington’s 3rd District against six-term GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, who voted to impeach former President Donald Trump in the aftermath of the January 6 Capitol attack. (Kent is the second-highest fundraiser behind Herrera-Beutler ahead of the district’s jungle primary in August, having raised roughly $1.9 million in total as of mid-April.)
He said during an interview with The Dispatch in late March that he “would tend to agree” with Massie’s antipathy toward NATO, and has also suggested that the U.S. is partially to blame for prolonging the war. “The only thing that’s keeping Zelensky and this fighting going—all the killing of the Ukrainians going on right now—I mean, that’s a lot of that is the fact that there’s Western aid being given to the Ukrainians,” said Kent, whose wife was killed by a suicide bomber in Syria in 2019.
It’s the kind of rhetoric that’s regularly wielded by Fox News host Tucker Carlson, whose skepticism of U.S. support for Ukraine in its fight against Russia borders on pro-Putin propaganda and is frequently used by Russian state television in defense of Russian aggression. “The war in Ukraine is designed to cause regime change in Moscow. [Democrats] want to topple the Russian government,” he said Monday night, seeming to imply that the conflict was American-engineered in retaliation for domestic political grievances. “That would be payback for the 2016 election.”
Carlson has also made a conscious effort to draw attention to Vance, Masters, and Kent—all of whom appeared on his show since announcing their candidacies, hoping to make a big splash with voters. “The Republican Party is getting better, much better,” Carlson said on air in July. “We know that because of two new Republican Senate candidates,” he said of Vance and Masters.
Days after Vance said he didn’t “really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another” on February 19, he released a statement saying “Russia’s assault on Ukraine is unquestionably a tragedy.” But that walk-back didn’t last long.
In mid-March, Vance doubled down on his opposition to increased military aid to Ukraine, telling former Trump adviser Steve Bannon in an interview: “I don’t care enough about what’s going on over there that I’m going to step in it, get a bunch of our citizens killed and pour more and more money into the war sinkhole while we’ve got our own problems here at home.” Vance has repeatedly criticized the “financial incentives” for U.S. commitments abroad, going so far as to blame the war in Ukraine on “idiotic energy policy and the defense contractors.”
Despite his foreign policy pronouncements, Vance’s biggest donor throughout the Ohio primary has been tech billionaire Peter Thiel, the co-founder of a data analytics company that partners with U.S. intelligence and military agencies. The firm, Palantir Technologies, secured a deal with the U.S. Army worth an estimated $823 million in October of last year. On February 22, just two days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in earnest, Palantir received a $34 million order for the delivery of software stipulated in the contract.
In total, Thiel has reportedly poured $13.5 million into Vance’s Senate bid via the Super PAC “Protect Ohio Values.” (Vance also previously worked for Thiel’s Mithril Capital Management.)
Thiel has also thrown his financial weight—at least $10 million in funding—behind Masters, a former executive of Thiel Foundation and Thiel Capital. Like Vance, Masters has pushed a distinctly isolationist foreign policy agenda. As the U.S. military withdrew from Afghanistan, Masters denounced the 20-year war as a “sham, created by military defense contractors so they could get rich.” Following Russia’s initial assault on Ukraine, Masters blamed the mounting crisis on “decades of smug and deranged” American foreign policy.
Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, a beneficiary of Thiel’s monetary backing during his own campaign in 2018, has endorsed the two candidates. Asked by The Dispatch about their trend toward non-interventionism, Hawley described himself as a foreign policy nationalist.
“I think that we need a foreign policy that’s geared around protecting America’s national interests in a realist-based way,” Hawley said in a brief interview in the U.S. Capitol. “Russia is an acute threat. There’s no doubt about that. But what I’m opposed to is American troops fighting in Russia and fighting in the Ukraine, because we can’t do that simultaneously and do what we need to do in the Indo-Pacific with China,” he added, though most lawmakers and national security officials have stopped short of advocating for direct U.S. military involvement in the conflict.
Vance’s GOP primary win on Tuesday signifies that there’s some appetite for a limited approach to the Ukraine conflict among Republican voters, at least in Ohio. But whether Vance—or the other non-interventionists running in the midterms—can attract enough voters to get to Congress won’t be answered until November.