Home » Foreign Policy and the 2024 Presidential Election: is America Ready to Embrace Military Restraint?

Foreign Policy and the 2024 Presidential Election: is America Ready to Embrace Military Restraint?

With the presidential primary season ramping up, a central foreign policy question for the contenders has emerged: will you be a hawk on Russia, or on China?

Republican candidates are split on the question. Many, like former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and former governor of New Jersey Chris Christie, remain adamant on continuing American support for Ukraine. Though establishment Republicans like Haley, Christie, and Mike Pence still espouse hawkish rhetoric on Ukraine, the candidates who are currently leading Republican primary polling—Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis—resist this, and instead emphasize policies that, for the most part, favor military restraint regarding Ukraine.

While in office, Trump’s brand of populism and nationalism resulted in some restraint-oriented foreign policies: he attempted to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, negotiated a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban, and was loudly critical of the U.S. overextending itself abroad. Despite how messily he may have executed these policies, Trump’s presidency posed a lasting challenge to the liberal internationalist orientation of U.S. foreign policy, making it easier for others in the Republican party to promote similar ideals, like DeSantis.

On Ukraine, DeSantis has rebranded himself as a non-interventionist, warning against further entanglement in the country and stating that it is not a vital U.S. interest. Still, he may not be the realist some think he is, given his foreign policy track record and hawkish attitudes on China. As experts predict, the way to get ahead in the 2024 Republican primaries is to make it clear to voters that you are more of a hawk on China than your opponents. To distinguish himself from Trump, DeSantis has been busy passing controversial laws in his home state of Florida, including a ban on the government use of China-based DJI drones and a law forbidding Chinese nationals from buying land in Florida.

Similarly, Trump’s inflammatory approach will at best worsen tensions with China and at worst escalate the threat of nuclear war; thus, neither candidate has earned the “restrainer” title when it comes to China.

Surprisingly, one of the loudest voices championing policies of military restraint is Democrat Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is promoting a realist vision of foreign policy with narrow U.S. interests. In his announcement speech in April, he outlined “the costs of war,” pointing to America’s ballooning defense budget while the government neglected the needs of its own citizens at home.

His views on censorship and foreign policy have captured the attention of an array of supporters, including influential tech leaders like Elon Musk, Jack Dorsey, and David Sacks. Sacks, a venture capitalist and libertarian who advocates for non-interventionist policies in his writing and on a popular podcast, hosted RFK Jr. on a Twitter Space in June. The Twitter conversation also included former Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a critic of the military-industrial complex and of U.S. policy in Ukraine. RFK Jr. is seen as appealing by some voters: he is currently polling at around 15% and has higher favorability numbers than Biden and Trump.

Though part of the appeal for Trump’s and DeSantis’ anti-establishment foreign policies can be explained as Americans’ disdain for Washington elitism or the status quo, it is telling that these policies are supported by nearly half of Republican voters: 44% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say that the U.S. provides “too much aid” to Ukraine.

It is still too early to comment on how the current candidates will fare in a year, but one trend is becoming clear: Americans, ranging from conservatives and libertarians, to Democratic voters, to Silicon Valley elites, are no longer able to ignore the unchecked militarism of the global war on terrorism years. Though “out-hawking” opponents in rhetoric on Russia and China may be the foreign policy question that dominates this election cycle, it is clear that a growing number of voters yearn for candidates who embrace a policy of military restraint.


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