Wars can dramatically realign politics. The War of 1812 finished off the British-sympathetic Federalist Party. The Mexican-American War seized new territory, forcing Congress to wrestle with the expansion of slavery and shattering the Whig Party en route to the Civil War.
The Great War left the two parties intact. Still, World War I transformed the Democrats from inward-looking agrarian populists to internationalists eager to establish global treaties and willing to send soldiers overseas. At the same time, Republicans moved away from Teddy Roosevelt’s unabashed imperialism toward an isolationism skeptical of grand global visions. World War II brought Republicans back to internationalism, with Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg working with the Truman administration to establish the United Nations and shape the policy of Soviet containment. The next Republican president was top World War II General Dwight Eisenhower, an internationalist who muscled out the isolationist Robert Taft for the party’s nomination in 1952.
We have been accustomed to the partisan foreign policy divide that followed the Vietnam War. From about 1972 to 2006, the foreign policy reputations of America’s two major parties could be summed up succinctly: Republicans were the hawks, Democrats were the doves. If America seemed under threat from abroad, voters turned to Republicans to keep them safe. When such threats waned, voters were more inclined to support Democrats.
But the alignment of the two parties has not been so simple since 2006. The Cold War, which had so long shaped American politics, was in the rearview mirror by the aughts. The disastrous invasion of Iraq, beginning in 2003 by the George W. Bush administration, stripped the Republican Party of its reputation for foreign policy competence. Since then, neither party has had a firm hold on the national security mantle.
Can one party seize the mantle now?
With Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration is facing the most challenging military crisis of the post–Cold War era, one that may determine how much trust voters will place in the Democrats to keep them safe. The party has united in support of helping Ukraine repel Russia. But in seeking an endgame, thorny questions remain. Will Democrats back the Ukrainian president’s pleas for a no-fly zone, which would almost surely involve shooting at Russian fighter planes? Do they aim for a settlement with Putin, potentially involving uncomfortable compromises, including loss of Ukrainian territory and commitments to limit further NATO expansion? Do they aim to encourage Putin’s ouster by strangling the Russian economy? Does that involve banning Russian energy imports, even if it leads to higher gas prices for Americans?
Republicans have big decisions to make, too. Do they work with Biden to present a united front? Do they dog Biden for not deterring Putin? Or do they follow the lead of their party’s most dominating figure—Donald Trump—by making excuses for Putin and promoting a quasi-isolationist “America First” foreign policy?
Both parties confront these questions after a decade in which each moved away from major military interventions, which followed a period in which each embarked on major military interventions.
In 1999, Bill Clinton and NATO bombed Kosovo to stop the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic’s occupation and genocidal campaign against Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian Muslims. It worked, and Milosevic ended up at the Hague. But Kosovo was out of sight and out of mind for many Americans. One effective military mission in a faraway land was not enough to remove the stigma of weakness from the Democratic Party, especially following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when Republicans pressed their natural advantage with perverse glee.
Republican attack ads in 2002 falsely suggested that Georgia’s Democratic U.S. Senator Max Cleland, a paraplegic Vietnam War veteran, opposed the creation of the Homeland Security Department and lacked the “courage” to stop 9/11 architect Osama bin Laden. In 2004, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry suffered a smear campaign falsely disparaging his record of service in Vietnam. Nominal Democratic Senator Zell Miller of Georgia gave a demagogic keynote at the Republican National Convention in 2004, baselessly accusing Kerry, who won a Silver Star, Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts for his Vietnam service, of wanting to arm the military with “spitballs.”
But Bush’s drawn-out war in Iraq gave Democrats a fresh opening, which Barack Obama used as president to reorient American military power.
In 2011, Obama set aside concerns about Pakistani sovereignty, and ordered bin Laden taken out. That took place in the midst of a coordinated, UN-blessed NATO operation stopping Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi from committing genocide against those protesting his government. (The military intervention indirectly led to the strongman’s death by rebel hands.) On the dovish side of the ledger, by the end of that year Obama fully pulled American combat troops out of Iraq, closing the book on his predecessor’s invasion.
By 2012, Democrats stood on fairly strong foreign policy ground, no longer viewed as allergic to military power, while Republicans couldn’t easily shake the perception that they were cavalier about getting the U.S. into wars.
The Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, tried to use foreign policy to reawaken concerns about Democratic weakness and thwart Obama’s reelection. In 2010, he published No Apology: The Case for American Greatness. The title derived from the conservative charge that Obama spent his time traveling the world apologizing for America. Romney wrote that Obama “won the praise of America’s enemies” and “turned his back on American allies.” He charged Obama with catering to Putin by shelving plans from the George W. Bush administration for a missile defense system based in Poland and the Czech Republic. (In fact, Obama implemented a different missile defense system, which the Russian government hated even more than Bush’s proposal.) In December 2011, Romney argued that Obama should have left upwards of 30,000 troops in Iraq. In March 2012, Romney famously called Russia “our number one geopolitical foe” while skewering Obama’s diplomatic outreach.
In their October 2012 foreign policy debate, an incredulous Obama said to Romney, “You said Russia” was our number geopolitical threat, “not al-Qaeda; you said Russia. And the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.” As this was before the Ukraine invasion, before Moscow’s meddling in our 2016 elections, and before the Russian takeover of Crimea, Obama got the better of this argument. In the 2012 exit poll, voters who prioritized foreign policy chose Obama over Romney 56 to 33 percent.
But Obama’s second-term foreign policy ended on sour notes. The Iraq withdrawal was followed by the rise of ISIS and its attempted caliphate. Obama was soured by the bloody civil war in Libya that followed the NATO operation and was more accepting of limits on American military power. A defining moment was when Obama pulled back from intervening in Syria’s civil war, even though he had previously said that the use of chemical weapons by the ruling regime would be a “red line.” And he responded to Putin’s Crimea grab with only mild economic sanctions. Afterward, Obama bluntly told The Atlantic, “The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.”
But the Democrats’ 2016 presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, had her own foreign policy reputation, which was more hawkish than Obama’s. (Her 2008 Democratic primary ad, aimed at the then first-term senator from Illinois, had raised questions about how an untested Obama would handle a 3 a.m. emergency call.) Clinton, the junior senator from New York with a seat on the Armed Services Committee, had walked Ground Zero after 9/11 and voted to authorize the Iraq War. As Obama’s secretary of state, the former first lady was a hawkish voice; Obama rejected her push for a militarily enforced no-fly zone in Syria’s civil war. In 2016, Clinton ran for president again, unabashedly withstanding attacks on her record from her dovish primary opponent Senator Bernie Sanders.
Meanwhile, Trump won the 2016 Republican nomination, in part, by trashing George W. Bush for launching the Iraq War. The New York Times’s Maureen Dowd famously characterized the parties’ role reversal as “Hillary the Hawk Against Donald the Quasi-Dove.”
Dowd’s glib column failed to capture Trump’s already evident infatuation with authoritarian leaders, and his disdain for a rules-based international order to constrain bloody behavior by such leaders. Yes, he didn’t want war with Putin, but that’s not quite the same as being a dove.
Clinton hammered Trump in their debates for being Putin’s preferred candidate, and her running mate, Senator Tim Kaine, said in his debate with then Indiana Governor Mike Pence that Trump “loves dictators. He’s got kind of a personal Mount Rushmore—Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, Muammar Gaddafi, and Saddam Hussein.” In the 2016 Election Day exit poll, voters who said foreign policy was their top issue preferred Clinton over Trump 60 to 33 percent. But those voters only amounted to 13 percent of the electorate. Democrats held a foreign policy advantage, but that’s of limited value when foreign policy is not top of mind.
As president, Trump yanked the Republican Party away from the interventionism that shaped the Reagan, Bush Sr., and Bush Jr. presidencies. Trump rejected American intelligence assessments and accepted Putin’s claim that Russia did not meddle in the 2016 election. In 2019, he threatened to withhold military aid to Putin’s prey, Ukraine, unless its president abetted Trump’s smear campaign against Biden. (The year prior, 2018, the Trump administration sent anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, but on the condition that they remain in the western part of the country, away from the conflict with Russia.) He cozied up to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, meeting with him three times, yet failed to dismantle Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. He cut a sweetheart deal with the Taliban, promising to withdraw American troops and release 5,000 Afghan prisoners in exchange for 1,000 American prisoners. He accepted the Taliban’s word that it would not harbor terrorists and invited its leadership to Camp David before withdrawing the offer after a bipartisan outcry. He privately entertained leaving the NATO alliance, but reluctantly stayed while falsely claiming that he had strong-armed other members into paying more for their defenses.
Trump summed up his crudely transactional “America First” foreign policy view in 2018, brushing off American intelligence fingering Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the mastermind who authorized the grisly murder of the dissident Jamal Khashoggi. “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump said of MBS’s likely involvement. But who cares? The Saudis “agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States,” “have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran,” and “have been very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels.”
“America First” doesn’t explain all of Trump’s behavior, and his threatening of Ukraine was more “Trump First” than “America First.” But Trump’s Saudi statement crystalized his preternatural disdain for international norms.
By contrast, Biden ran as a proud internationalist. In early 2020, he wrote a Foreign Affairs essay in which he said, “When the world’s democracies look to the United States to stand for the values that unite the country—to truly lead the free world—Trump seems to be on the other team, taking the word of autocrats while showing disdain for democrats.”
But in the same essay, Biden showed some overlap with Trump and tacitly pushed away from Hillary Clinton, with whom he had sparred: “It is past time to end the forever wars … We should bring the vast majority of our troops home from the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East and narrowly define our mission as defeating al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (or ISIS).” As president, Biden carried out Trump’s deal to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan. Republicans—whether or not they were previously on record in support of Trump’s agreement with the Taliban—savaged Biden for the chaotic departure. As The New York Times observed, Republican lawmakers had been quietly divided over the direction Trump was taking the party’s foreign policy, but “hitting Mr. Biden unites them all.”
Yet by finishing what Trump started, Biden blurred the distinction between the two parties’ foreign policy philosophy. Moreover, combined with Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq and refusal to intervene in Syria, European allies and foreign policy observers understandably raised the possibility that—on a bipartisan basis—America was choosing to abandon its long-standing dominant role in maintaining world order. CNN reported that the “humiliating end to the war in Afghanistan has fanned lingering concerns” among Europeans that “an ‘America First’ foreign policy … did not completely disappear with former President Donald Trump.”
The response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine suggests the opposite; both parties retain an appetite for intervention to uphold the rules-based international world order.
So far, the disagreements between Democrats and Republicans in Washington have been minimal. A consensus for imposing stiff sanctions on Russia and aiding Ukraine has what seems to be unanimous support. (A $12 billion aid package may pass by March 11, as part of an “omnibus” bill keeping the government open if disputes unrelated to Ukraine can be resolved.) And there is also an initial bipartisan agreement opposing the deployment of the American military, despite those Ukrainian demands for a no-fly zone, out of concern that it would lead to direct military conflict with a nuclear power. Those calling for ending American purchases of Russia’s energy supply include Republicans and Democrats, such as Senator Lindsey Graham and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Also notable is that the voices within each party most skeptical about interventions are not creating intraparty division. Among those in the Democratic caucus, Sanders was quick to state his support for “serious sanctions on Putin and his oligarchs.” Representative Rashida Tlaib, in her response to the State of the Union address, similarly said, “We must pursue targeted sanctions that put pressure on Russia’s billionaires, not [on] everyday Russians.” Their criticism was saved for Putin’s invasion, which Sanders called “an indefensible violation of international law, regardless of whatever false pretext he offers,” and Tlaib called “illegal and unjustifiable.”
Putin sympathizers are largely muzzled, just like America Firsters the day after Pearl Harbor. Even Trump himself has shifted tone. In the run-up to the invasion, Trump marveled at Putin’s “genius” and referred to him as a “peacekeeper.” Shortly after the invasion began, Trump called it “horrible” and worried that Moscow’s blitz “could lead to world war,” though he stopped short of saying anything directly critical about Putin. (Speaking to GOP donors on March 5, Trump reiterated praise for Kim Jong-un and disparaged NATO as a “paper tiger.”)
Fox News’s Tucker Carlson made an even more abrupt rhetorical shift. Just before the invasion, Carlson worried that American “hatred of Vladimir Putin could bring the United States into a conflict in Eastern Europe,” especially since there was no reason to hate Putin: “Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him?” He downplayed the crisis as a “border dispute” and sarcastically compared the imminent invasion to immigration into America: “invading America is called equity; invading Ukraine is a war crime.”
But once the invasion started, Carlson said, “Vladimir Putin started this war so whatever the context of the decision that he made, he did it. He fired the first shots. He is to blame for what we’re seeing tonight in Ukraine.” Still, Carlson then put his rhetorical energy not toward how to help Ukraine but toward limiting American involvement, suggesting that the U.S. should not leap to the defense of any NATO country impacted by a Russian cyberattack. That’s out of step with Republican energy on Capitol Hill.
Because Republicans are open to his aid requests, Biden isn’t attacking the GOP for abetting Trump’s bromance with Putin or acquitting his conduct at issue in the first impeachment trial, where he threatened to withhold aid from Kyiv unless it played ball on investigating Joe and Hunter Biden. As Politico reported, Biden’s conciliatory posture frustrates pugnacious Democrats. “‘We’re Zelenskyy Democrats. And they’re Putin Republicans’ would be my bumper sticker,” said Representative Sean Maloney, who heads the House Democratic campaign arm.
After 9/11, Bush Republicans certainly played such jingoistic hardball, even though Democratic votes were needed to establish the Department of Homeland Security and to win congressional authorization for the Iraq invasion. But Republicans owned a decisive national security advantage. The Democratic advantage is much more tenuous if—after the messy Afghanistan withdrawal—it currently exists at all.
After two massive wars and two American defeats, voters aren’t sold on either party regarding war and peace. What’s more, each party has its hawk/dove divisions.
Ukraine provides an opportunity for both Democrats and Republicans to unify their parties and put the national interest above political point scoring. Democrats, as the party in power, hold the extra burden of proving that they can execute policy competently. So far, both sides see cooperation as the way to go.
How much these shifts will produce long-term, far-reaching recalibrations within each party, and realigned loyalties among voters, depends on all sorts of unknowns. Will bipartisanship break down? If Biden escalates American involvement, will dovish Democratic voices raise hell? If Biden restrains involvement, will hawkish Democrats raise hell? Will Putin be offed in a coup? Or will he prevail and give Republicans a chance to run on “Who lost Ukraine?”
Senator Vandenberg famously said, “We must stop partisan politics at the water’s edge.” Of course, we rarely do, and often shouldn’t. But if Republicans and Democrats give Ukraine what it needs to survive, both parties might gain.
Or bipartisan policies could fail, emboldening isolationists in both parties.
Democrats and Republicans have been ideologically unsettled regarding foreign policy for some time. Putin’s bloody, needless war will settle things, one way or another.