Analysis-DeSantis sharpens divide between Republican isolationists and hawks over Ukraine

Gram Slattery

Tue, March 14, 2023 at 8:05 PM EDT·4 min read

By Gram Slattery

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The 2024 Republican presidential race could become a contest between isolationists and foreign policy hawks after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis sent his strongest signal yet he does not believe support for Ukraine is in the U.S. national interest, analysts, strategists and campaign aides said on Tuesday.

The war in Ukraine provides a new battleground for declared and as yet undeclared Republican 2024 hopefuls that could shape how the party engages with the world for years to come, those people said.

On the one side are former President Donald Trump and DeSantis, who is testing the waters for a White House run.

Although the governor has not yet officially declared himself a candidate, he and Trump are the clear front runners in the Republican race. Both have dismissed U.S. support for Ukraine and other allies as a waste of resources and said that leaders should pay more attention to issues at home.

On the other side, a slew of declared and likely Republican challengers – including former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Trump’s former Vice President Mike Pence – have portrayed themselves as steadfast defenders of Ukraine, willing to stand up to U.S. foes including Russia and China.

Caught in the middle is the Republican electorate, which is split on whether the U.S. should support Ukraine and how the nation should engage with the world more generally, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling.

Once the party of foreign policy “hawks,” Republicans have increasingly cooled on foreign entanglements and military support for allies, particularly after Trump took office in 2016.

The ideological shift of the party – which led the U.S. to war in Iraq and Afghanistan two decades ago – was laid bare on Monday when conservative television host Tucker Carlson posted on Twitter responses from Republican candidates and possible hopefuls to questions on the war in Ukraine.

“While the U.S. has many vital national interests … becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them,” DeSantis said in his reply.

Some Republicans were quick to hit back.

In a statement on Tuesday, Haley reiterated her support for Ukraine. “America is far better off with a Ukrainian victory,” she wrote.

Republican senators Marco Rubio, who is from DeSantis’ home state, and Lindsey Graham, both former presidential candidates, criticized isolationists within their party.

“When it comes to Putin, you either pay now or pay later,” Graham wrote on Twitter, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“DeSantis’s comments very much recall the Republican pre-World War Two tradition of so-called isolationism, which was really an indifference to European security,” said Dan Fried, a former top State Department official under President George W. Bush who is now with the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.


Republican voters are divided on the issue.

In a Reuters/Ipsos poll in February, 55% of Republicans said the United States should support democratic countries when they are attacked by non-democratic nations. Asked whether the U.S. should continue sending weapons to Ukraine, self-identified Republicans were split 50-50.

“People care about foreign policy, but I think it’s kind of mixed on Ukraine funding,” said Trudy Caviness, a member of the Iowa Republican State Central Committee.

“What I’ve heard (from party members) is that we have to give them what we’ve promised so far and then move on.”

Pollsters, analysts and campaign aides interviewed by Reuters said that DeSantis’ embrace of a more isolationist approach could open the way for more hawkish candidates to appeal to the significant chunk of the Republican electorate that still prefers a more hands-on U.S. foreign policy.

Several prospective candidates, including Haley, Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have made their foreign policy experience a key part of their pitch to voters.

By embracing Trump’s hands-off brand of foreign policy, DeSantis risks turning off some of the white-collar Republicans that are most eager to move on from the former president.

While 46% of non-college educated Republicans said the United States should provide weapons to Ukraine, some 59% of those with a college degree said the U.S. should provide arms to Ukraine, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll in February.

However, many will be voting for personalities rather than policies, pollsters said. That will give the eventual winner of the Republican nomination significant power to shape the party’s foreign policy preferences going forward.

“I think leadership matters a great deal on issues where voters can be a little unsure what they think about them,” said Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist.

(Reporting by Gram Slattery; Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed; editing by Ross Colvin and Cynthia Osterman)


  1. Although Trump has been poking taunts and childish insults at DeSantis, it hasn’t helped. DeSantis has been brushing off the name-calling from Trump, and held to a very ambiguous attitude about running for President. Perhaps the difference of foreign relations vs political campaigning is too much for guessing at comparison, but it does mean that DeSantis is very good at keeping his cards to himself. So if russia believes that DeSantis may even only be preparing a massive military strike, it may be that a “President DeSantis” would aggressively push putin’s forces out of Ukraine.

    • “So if russia believes that DeSantis may even only be preparing a massive military strike, it may be that a “President DeSantis” would aggressively push putin’s forces out of Ukraine.”

      Sir Mac, perhaps you could elaborate this, since I am a bit confused about what you’re trying to say in light of the stance that DeSantis has about Ukraine and mafia land.

      • I think if DeSantis as president, pursues a foreign policy of ambiguity, as the United States has regarding china’s treatment of Taiwan, then maybe this will work. This war severely weakened russia, and proved how incompetent they are. So if DeSantis is a bit more aggressive (like his policies towards disney and other local Florida problems), maybe this will push putin out, if DeSantis applies a similar intensity of pressure against russia. I know that these speculations are still about the future, so no one should count on it yet, but it’s still too early to say that DeSantis would abandon Ukraine.

        If Trump would be effective, then that would be shown most by what he’s done, or hasn’t, and he didn’t take action on other problems in America. Granted, a russian war with Ukraine wasn’t his problem at the time, but I think he could have done more.

  2. “While 46% of non-college educated Republicans said the United States should provide weapons to Ukraine, some 59% of those with a college degree said the U.S. should provide arms to Ukraine, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll in February.”

    Unless I’ve missed something, the administration has done a deplorable job of explaining to the American people exactly what this is all about. I won’t mention what and how here, for we’ve already done so in numerous other articles, lest someone asks me. At any rate, making it clear for even backwoods moonshiners to comprehend why we should assure a defeat for mafia land would increase support for Ukraine manifold in the population. This would also take the steam out of hateful and harmful statements that ooze out of worms like Trump, Tucker, DeSantis, et al.

    • don’t you think it is the media that has this task?
      i think the lower educated people consume different newspapers and tv channels than the higher educated.

      I think the Biden administration gave many speeches about Ukraine and they were very clear.

      But I don’t see populist media ever sharing this, especially not the partisan media.

      i am not really blaming the administration as they don’t determine what the media presents.

      in the same way i had to tell my colleagues and friends about the war in donbas: the media wasn’t interested so it didn’t matter much what the prime minister said.

      • No, Bert, this job is the White House’s. It’s the Biden administration that has to explain what the goals are and why they are important to achieve them, and why it’s bad for us and the West if they’re not achieved. The media has the job to convey this message to the people. Of course, the media could do like we are and offer their opinions about these factors, but, in the end, they are only opinions of the media and not official statements from the capitol.

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