Ukraine flip: Why Ron DeSantis can’t do a Trump on foreign policy

Florida’s governor has embraced rhetoric against US internationalism. But unlike Trump, he needs the GOP mainstream.

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a campaign event at Port Neal Welding, Wednesday, May 31, 2023, in Salix, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Republican presidential candidate and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during a campaign event at Port Neal Welding, Wednesday, May 31, 2023, in Salix, Iowa [Charlie Neibergall/AP]

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has finally announced his intent to seek the United States presidency, albeit in a perplexing manner. Much of the Republican Party commentariat and professional class seem to be rallying around him – or at least against former President Donald Trump.

While DeSantis’s prospects are unclear, he appears to be the only real Republican challenger to Trump’s bid for a rematch of the 2020 presidential election against President Joe Biden. So it’s worth considering what kind of foreign policy a President DeSantis would adopt.

DeSantis has served in the US military, even visiting Guantanamo Bay, where he apparently watched, laughing, as inmates were tortured. Before becoming governor of Florida, he served multiple terms in the US House of Representatives where his approach to foreign policy appears to have been guided by a rather orthodox Republican hawkishness. He opposed the Iran nuclear deal, supported controversial trade deals Trump would eventually derail and forcefully pushed back against the notion that Americans are war-fatigued.

But that has changed since he began positioning himself for the Republican presidential primaries.

On the rare occasions when discussing foreign policy, DeSantis strikes a surprising tone for a candidate billed as more aligned with GOP leadership. In his recent book, The Courage to be Free, DeSantis recounts George W. Bush-era neoconservative rhetoric about the importance of spreading democracy with an apoplectic tone, even castigating it as a “messianic impulse”.

DeSantis has also been praising the work of scholars who charge the American ruling class with making choices about war and peace that betray the interests of the American people in support of an internationalist ideology.

These pronouncements have earned DeSantis the moniker of a populist on foreign policy issues from observers, with some even describing him as “Jacksonian”. This is a reference to Walter Russell Mead’s 2001 treatise on the US foreign policy tradition, in which he divides them into distinct camps – with Jacksonianism, named after President Andrew Jackson – being the most nationalistic and populist of them.

Jacksonianism is a disposition towards a foreign policy that is militant in its outlook and obsessed with prestige but also suspicious of US entanglements with the world on issues ranging from foreign conflicts to trade and cooperation with allies. The Jacksonian believes in a “fortress America” approach but also responds belligerently to any encroachment on the nation or even perceived insults. In short, Jacksonians are quasi-isolationist but militant and unilateralist.

This is also the framing many have used to describe Trump’s peculiar foreign policy approach – including Meade himself. Trump has also praised the legacy of Andrew Jackson and described him as his favourite president.

So, why is a more establishment candidate like DeSantis framing himself as Trumpian on foreign policy? The answer lies in understanding the role of foreign policy discourse in US politics today.

Decades of academic research have shown foreign policy issues are almost never vote-determinative for Americans, who instead prioritise issues such as the national economy. Aside from rare exceptions like in 2002 – the election following 9/11 – and in 2006 when anger about the Iraq War reached its pinnacle, US political campaigns do not involve much discourse about foreign policy. Early signs indicate this election will be no different, despite the war in Ukraine and the risks of confrontation with China on the horizon.

According to recent polling, foreign policy and the Ukraine war receive negligible interest from the public even when compared with other non-economic issues.

But the 2016 election provided an example of how foreign policy can be used for electoral gain. Trump managed to deftly use a denunciation of interventionist practices his party had championed to attract greater support. The fact that he so decisively won the Republican primary in the veteran-heavy state of South Carolina after forcefully criticising the Iraq War shocked political observers in Washington, DC.

Trump’s use of foreign policy issues was not meant to convey a worldview or strategic plan for the US’s role in the world. Rather, it sought to further establish him as the adversary of governing elites in Washington, DC, which are so distrusted by many common voters. His foreign policy utterances were designed to buttress this reputation.

However, when in office, Trump’s foreign policy was hardly revolutionary. From the massive expansion of sanctions use to his abandonment of international agreements, his administration’s policies largely reflected a somewhat more aggressive version of what the mainstream of the Republican foreign policy community had previously pursued.

But Trump did meaningfully diverge from common American foreign policy practices on some issues, including his forceful rejection of trade deals and his more hostile posture towards US allies.

DeSantis may wish to emulate Trump’s anti-elite style during the campaign but that will be much harder for him to pull off than it has been for the former president.

The key difference between Trump and DeSantis is that Trump is an almost entirely autonomous political presence with a high level of GOP voter loyalty and the capacity to build his own campaign infrastructure. In contrast, DeSantis is more reliant on the institutions and the elites of the conservative movement. That leaves him more bound to a Republican foreign policy establishment and hawkish Washington commentariat.

Russia’s war in Ukraine is the most obvious example of how DeSantis is awkwardly seesawing between the more traditional Republican instincts seen during his Congressional tenure, his new populist campaign posture and his desire to placate a Republican Party elite.

When in Congress, he aggressively pushed for sending arms to Ukraine in response to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. He even declared himself to be of the “Reagan school that’s tough on Russia”.

But recently, while answering a questionnaire from influential right-wing pundit Tucker Carlson, he warned against the US “becoming further entangled in a “territorial dispute” between Ukraine and Russia”.

However, after a few news cycles of being criticised by conservatives and the mainstream media, he “clarified” those remarks and claimed his statement was mischaracterised.

How candidate DeSantis juggles the expectations of different audiences during the campaign remains to be seen. But if elected, his ties to the Republican establishment will likely make it hard for him to break too conclusively with the traditional foreign policy thinking within his party.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.