Veering toward isolationism | WORLD
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Exit stage right

American conservatives are urging Uncle Sam to bow out of world affairs

Ukrainian infantrymen work in a trench along the front line outside of Bakhmut, Ukraine. John Moore / Getty Images

Exit stage right
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The sun was barely peeking above the horizon as Oleg Magdych climbed out of a maze of trenches, roots exposed among the dirt walls. It looked like a peaceful fall morning in eastern Ukraine, but he pushed some tree branches away and pointed to a large field where Russian troops had dug in just 2 miles away. The leaves on the trees kept Magdych hidden, but soon they would fall to the ground, leaving his unit more exposed when the enemy’s drones circle overhead.

He pointed to the frost on the plants—signs the weather had turned colder and the nights would soon grow much longer. Then Magdych swiveled his phone around so the video captured his camouflage helmet and matching hazel eyes. This 46-year-old pastor and father of two looked more weary than he did when I talked to him on Feb. 24, 2022, the day Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine—an attempt to complete what it started in 2014.

“Everybody at the front lines is super, super tired. Some guys haven’t been back home in almost two years,” Magdych said. “Everybody is worn out and angry at the West. Sorry to say that.” He added a qualification: Ukrainians are very thankful for Western aid, but the delays in artillery rounds, tanks, and planes have been costly. Russian troops have had time to create extensive fortifications that include miles of trenches and land mines.

“If we got everything when we asked for it, we would be down in Crimea at the moment,” Magdych said, referring to the Ukrainian peninsula Russia illegally annexed in 2014 that was once a popular vacation destination.

But Magdych and the military units his evacuation team serves may soon have bigger problems than weapons delays. Congressional support for funding Ukraine’s war of self-defense is at an all-time low. In July, 70 House Republicans voted to stop security assistance to Ukraine. The measure failed in the Senate, but its popularity in the House points to increased isolationism among Republicans and their constituents.

Their concerns are numerous and weighty: The United States has stretched itself too thin fighting endless wars abroad. Our $34 trillion debt continues to rise, and we have a national security crisis on our southern border. Those in the isolationist camp believe it’s time to pull up the drawbridges, zero in on the battle against the progressive left, and look out for American interests instead of expending blood and treasure to protect borders abroad, especially in lands where ­corruption reigns and democratic values are waning.

Polls show an increasing number of Americans want to disengage from the world’s problems. A shrinking but no less avid group says doing so would be shortsighted and defies what we’ve learned from history. They pose the following challenges: Can a country in retreat truly become great again? And can we realistically expect the world’s problems to remain an ocean away?

Sailors stand among wrecked airplanes at Ford Island Naval Air Station as they watch the explosion of the USS Shaw in the background during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Sailors stand among wrecked airplanes at Ford Island Naval Air Station as they watch the explosion of the USS Shaw in the background during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. U.S. Navy/AP

Disengaged nationalism

More than 5,000 miles from the Ukrainian trenches of war, U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., had just returned to his home state for a pheasant hunting trip—a welcome break from international travel and the demands of leadership. “It is a very stressful time, and you feel the weight and the burden of the decisions that we make, and making sure that they’re the right ones,” he told me as he drove across South Dakota’s Interstate 90 in early November.

One challenge he faces: the growing number of conservative leaders calling for retreat. “For whatever reason, it’s really been energized of late, and it seems to be a growing view that the U.S. should just completely withdraw,” Thune said. “And I just think that it completely defies gravity.”

Thune is the Senate’s second-highest-ranking Republican, and he believes in strong alliances. He met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during his trip to Washington at the end of 2022, and in October, he visited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after Hamas brutally tortured and killed 1,200 people and kidnapped 240 others.

While he doesn’t think the United States should be the world’s policeman, he does embrace global engagement as a means to preserve peace. Thune gave two speeches on the Senate floor last year that addressed the dangers of isolationism and the importance of American leadership on the global stage.

Waves of isolationism in the United States are nothing new. Our favorable geography includes borders with two friendly countries and two expansive oceans, so many of the world’s problems ignite on distant shores. We managed to steer clear of the Second World War for two years while Nazi Germany invaded much of Europe and Imperial Japan spread terror in China.

It took the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the loss of 2,403 American lives to create a seismic shift in public opinion and bring the United States into the war.

Matthew Continetti is the director of domestic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and author of The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism. He said the United States often ignores overseas threats until Americans are killed at home, citing World War II and the 9/11 terrorist attacks as examples. “So the problem is that we always wait until it’s too late, and then only when Americans are dead do we actually resolve to ­confront the evildoer,” Continetti said.

Thune agrees: “Inevitably, what happens, as we saw in World War II, is it spills further out and pretty soon you’re going to be drawn in one way or the other.” He believes a Russian victory in Ukraine would embolden Moscow to move on to its next prize: Poland or one of the Baltic ­countries—all NATO allies. “We would have an Article 5 obligation to join that fight, and that means American ­servicemen and women,” Thune said.

Continetti said conservatives used to favor engaged nationalism: a belief in American exceptionalism that includes a skepticism of international institutions like the United Nations but a commitment to global engagement and American leadership, and the Reagan Doctrine of peace through strength.

More recently, Continetti has observed a shift among conservatives toward a disengaged nationalism that is “still very much proud of America, likes the flag, likes American strength, wants to be feared among nations, but is disengaged from alliances, partnerships, and the responsibilities of world leadership.” According to a 2017 Pew study, Republicans supporting less global involvement rose from 40 percent in 2004 to 54 percent in 2017. Conversely, the percentage of Democrats calling for global engagement increased from 37 percent to 56 percent during that time frame.

Continetti attributes some of this shift to the tendency in American politics for the Congress of one party to counter the initiatives of the opposing party in power. One example: House Republicans voted against former President Bill Clinton’s proposed intervention in Kosovo, while Clinton’s hawkish policies toward Iraq died down among Democrats during the subsequent Republican presidency.

Another reason Continetti lists for the pivot away from defending Ukraine is a tendency among some conservatives to defend Russian President Vladimir Putin and view him as a force for traditional values. But behind the partisan sparring and ideological divisions is a brewing storm that includes more specific concerns: waning American “greatness” and the dangers of prioritizing the border crises and funding shortfalls in other countries before our own. And these realities, isolationists claim, could leave us unprepared for an existential confrontation with China.

Inevitably, what happens, as we saw in World War II, is it spills further out and pretty soon you’re going to be drawn in one way or the other.

Atrophied defense

Among the six Republican candidates campaigning last November, three supported noninterventionist policies. Former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis both oppose additional funding for Ukraine, and Vivek Ramaswamy made global disengagement a centerpiece of his pitch to voters, promising to avoid World War III and accusing Ukraine of undemocratic policies. The party that used to be committed to national security and global leadership is now split on matters of foreign policy.

Congress ended 2023 without approving a new defense spending package that would include $61 billion for Ukraine in addition to funding for Israel, Taiwan, and border security. The United States has given $113 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since the war began. With a federal deficit reaching $1.69 trillion last year, many Americans wonder if we are stretched too thin and neglecting our priorities at home.

But AEI analyst Mackenzie Eaglen, an expert on military readiness and defense budgets, believes our military support for Ukraine is actually a good thing for our atrophied defense industrial base. Thune agrees: “Yes, we are helping Ukraine, and at the same time we are restocking, replenishing our military readiness by ensuring that we’ve got the necessary artillery.” Most of the weapons we send to Ukraine have been sitting on our shelves for a while, he added.

Our military assistance to Ukraine is boosting our readiness for a confrontation with China by greasing our assembly lines, identifying our gaps, and modernizing the military. It’s also funneling dollars back into our own economy as weapons factories increase production and hire specialized workers.

Ukraine aid also pays the salaries of U.S. troops deploying to Europe and federal government workers who focus on Ukraine-related efforts like war crimes investigations and sanctions enforcement. According to AEI, more than 90 ­percent of our assistance to Ukraine is spent in the United States. And many of our allies are buying from us to replenish the weapons they are sending to Kyiv.

Another red flag fueling isolationist trends is our failure to secure our southern border. In September alone, authorities apprehended 18 people on the terrorist watch list who were trying to enter the country.

But Continetti said we don’t have to choose between our borders and the commitment we made years ago to protect Ukraine’s borders. He is referring to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, an agreement between the United States, Britain, and Russia to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for Kyiv relinquishing its nuclear weapons.

Thune insists Washington’s spending problem creates a national security and readiness threat that keeps him up at night and needs to be addressed.

But our security assistance to Ukraine is not the primary source of our massive debt, according to analysts. Defense spending as a percentage of GDP is near a historic low, and some analysts say our national security is at risk if we don’t think more strategically about spending and increase our defense budget.

Thune said our readiness has eroded to a point where we might struggle to win a war against Russia or China, pointing to a 2018 report from the bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission. “There was a time when it was sort of understood that you ought to spend about 4 percent of your GDP or more on the military. And we’re now down in the 3 range, and if we stay on the current trajectory, we’ll be down under 3.”

Meanwhile, China is increasing its military might. Beijing already has the largest navy, army, and sub-strategic missile force on the planet and is the world’s fastest-growing military force.

During an Oct. 4 AEI podcast, Eaglen stated her belief that Beijing’s defense budget is close to a trillion dollars—far surpassing our own—when you account for Beijing’s merger of civilian and military endeavors. It’s hard to know for sure because China self-reports its defense budget.

Continetti blames the Biden administration for this ­predicament: “It has refused to suggest that we need a much more fulsome, larger military budget. And the way to deal with all these challenges is not to play whack-a-mole, but it’s to actually really move to a wartime footing by massively increasing our defense industrial base.” He suggests one way to make room for more foreign aid: Cut back on green energy projects that are less strategically vital.

Sen. John Thune is surrounded by reporters at the U.S. Capitol.

Sen. John Thune is surrounded by reporters at the U.S. Capitol. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

American interests

As Oleg Magdych climbed back into the maze of trenches, he ducked into a makeshift cave and zoomed in on a small alcohol candle burning on the ground—an attempt to produce some warmth on the chilly fall morning. A blue-and-yellow panel covered the back of the bunker, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, and large logs ran the length of the ceiling.

Magdych said the logs might save them from an 82-­millimeter mortar attack but not a direct hit. He is part of a team that evacuates wounded soldiers from the front lines, so he spends most of his day in this cave. Just one week before we talked, his unit came under fire and two soldiers were wounded. “At the moment we are moving very slowly and paying a very high price for every hundred meters of our land,” he said.

It’s a price Americans have avoided thus far in the battle to rein in Putin’s imperial ambitions. “We don’t have any American men and women in that fight. It’s the Ukrainians who are carrying the fight, and I think it’s important to remember that,” Thune said.

But the battle for competing narratives could upend Western support for Ukraine, embolden the world’s authoritarian tyrants, and eventually draw the United States into a full-scale war, Thune added. Putin would like the world to believe the war in Ukraine is about contested territory and a Russian-speaking population under the thumb of Kyiv’s corrupt, Nazi regime—a narrative repeated by Republican presidential candidate Ramaswamy during the Nov. 8 televised debate.

Language has never been an accepted justification for war, and even if it were, the Russian and Ukrainian languages share more similarities than differences. Moscow used that false premise to justify its 2008 invasion of Georgia and last August raised alarms by threatening to annex two of its regions—20 percent of Georgia’s territory. Ukraine’s neighbors know Putin wouldn’t hesitate to move into other Russian-speaking regions and spin tales about a persecuted population in their countries.

But even for isolationists who view the Ukrainian cause as noble and Kyiv as trustworthy, some claim Russia’s war has little to do with American interests. As conservative support shifts away from Ukraine’s war to Israel’s, Continetti issues a word of caution: These two wars are connected, and Iran is one of the links.

We don’t have any American men and women in that fight. It’s the Ukrainians who are carrying the fight, and I think it’s important to remember that.

Iran is supplying weapons to Russia and Hamas that are being used to kill both Ukrainians and Israelis. “Putin’s ­alliance with Iran has led to him making comments that are, if not outright supportive of Hamas, then definitely along the lines of ‘somehow Israel had it coming’ on Oct. 7,” Continetti said. Many Republicans, he added, don’t want to acknowledge this connection.

The second link involves failed American deterrence. “If you have an American presence and American firepower nearby, it stops a lot of bad things from happening around the world,” Thune said. On the flip side, if the United States pivots away from supporting Ukraine, it sends the message that we lack the will to stay engaged for the long haul.

Thune believes the wars in Ukraine and Israel, coupled with China’s increased belligerence, are all signs that our “holiday from history is over,” a quote he borrowed from former Defense Secretary Bob Gates. If he’s right, that means there’s a long road ahead—one that requires courage, effort, and a new, strategic plan that prioritizes national security and a robust defense budget.

But the South Dakota senator also believes we have a sovereign God who rules in the affairs of mankind: “That’s not only very reassuring, but it gives you a sense of peace and calm in what sometimes are otherwise very tumultuous times.”

Big defense spenders

While the United States has sent a massive amount of aid to Ukraine—the most of any country in the world—others have sent more relative to their GDP. Norway and the Baltics are giving the most to Ukraine: more than 1 percent of their GDP. The United States ranks 17th on the list, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, a foreign policy think tank based in New York City.

The three Baltic countries agreed in 2022 to increase their defense spending to 3 percent of their GDP in the wake of increased Russian aggression on their doorstep. Historical amnesia isn’t an issue for countries that were under the yoke of Soviet oppression a little over three decades ago.

But the more recent pivot by historically neutral Finland and Sweden to join NATO and increase their own defense spending to meet NATO requirements reflects new realities on their borders and the growing threat of the Kremlin disrupting the rules-based democratic order in Europe.

And what affects Europe eventually makes its way across the pond.

Jill Nelson

Jill is a correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and the University of Texas at Austin. Jill lives in Orange County, Calif., with her husband, two sons, and three daughters.



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