Will 2024 Bring the Return of the Neocons?
The GOP nominee can forge a humbler path on foreign policy—or turn back to failed neoconservatism.
The 2024 Republican presidential primary has largely been framed as a referendum on former President Donald Trump. He's expected to face at least half a dozen serious rivals, with one possible contender, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, sometimes—but not always—outpolling him in head-to-head matchups.
But Trump's fate isn't the only big question this primary could settle for Republicans. Arguably more important is the future of the party's foreign policy. No consensus has emerged since Trump's surprise 2016 victory, the drawdown of America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the turn toward great power conflict, which was accelerated in 2022 by Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the pattern of reciprocal provocations around Taiwan by Beijing and Washington.
Two decades ago, the Republican perspective on military engagement abroad was unified and clear. Then-President George W. Bush had come to office promising a "humble" foreign policy, saying during the 2000 campaign that he was "not so sure the role of the United States is to go around the world and say, 'This is the way it's got to be.'" But in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, he swiftly dropped the humility talk to govern as if, in fact, that were exactly the United States' role.
Neoconservatism—or at least an interventionist mindset contiguous with longstanding right-wing assumptions about the American prerogative to serve as a virtuous hyperpower—became the prevailing stance. In his 2002 State of the Union address, Bush named Iran, Iraq, North Korea, "and their terrorist allies" as a new "axis of evil."
At that point U.S. boots were on the ground in Afghanistan already, and soon the U.S. would invade Iraq as well. The global war on terror was underway, understood to be a project unbounded by chronological or geographic limits. There was a real optimism about the United States' ability to militarily dominate distant societies and remake them in our democratic image. Iraq, recall, would be a "cakewalk," advocates of the invasion told us at the time.
With the added insight of 20-odd years, such optimism is hard to come by even in Republican circles. Then-Rep. Ron Paul's opposition to the post-9/11 wars failed to win over most GOP voters in 2008 and 2012, but in 2016 Trump found a receptive audience for his critique of those poorly aging occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Trump's more intellectual supporters praised "his ability to identify America's national interest clearly and pursue it without regard to outdated ideological investments," as Modern Age editor Daniel McCarthy put it in The American Conservative. This proved a generous way of describing a chaotic and contradictory approach to foreign affairs. Trump didn't end any wars—even the exit from Afghanistan his administration sought was left incomplete when he exited the Oval Office—and his diplomatic achievements were far more discussed than realized.
Thus, Republicans come to the 2024 race as a party without a dominant foreign policy. The pre-Trump GOP establishment, with its neoconservative lean, has diminished. Yet a coherent Trumpist approach never fully took root. The party remains at a crossroads on this issue, and the 2024 presidential nominee may become its new navigator for years or generations to come.
The Old Guard
Our first faction will be the most familiar. These are Republicans whose foreign policy is more consonant than not with the interventionist model of the Bush-era GOP. Circumstances are different, but the basic standpoint is about the same: The U.S. is the leader of the free world and has not just the right but the responsibility to guide the international order, including through military intervention.
Members of the old guard "support U.S. overseas bases, foreign-assistance programs, and a strong American military," as George Mason University political scientist Colin Dueck put it in an article for the American Enterprise Institute. "They back the idea that the U.S. stands at the head of an American-led order of partnerships overseas. They are open to working through international organizations and are generally unyielding toward American adversaries. They tend to favor open trading arrangements with U.S. allies."
In the Republican rift over U.S. aid to Ukraine, then, this is the faction eager to keep the guns and dollars flowing east. It is critical of Russia, in continuation of Cold War–era habits and in sharp contrast to Trump, who last year called Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine "pretty smart." China is seen as a rising problem with which America must actively contend to retain worldwide dominance. But Beijing isn't given quite the priority in the hierarchy of foreign threats it tends to receive from Trump and the Republicans attempting to systematize his impulses, nor is the threat from China so often linked to "globalization" and the culture war.
Crucially, the old guard does not join the majority of Americans in regretting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some may venture a few tactical criticisms, but more often their reflections on the post-9/11 years blame a lack of "resolve" or "credibility" or "commitment to victory." The U.S. failed in the Middle East, in this telling, not because our projects of regime change, nation building, and long-term asymmetric warfare were doomed from the beginning, but because we did not try hard enough to win, did not spend enough money, did not surge in enough troops.
Though rather sprightly by the standards of American gerontocracy, at 75, Sen. Mitt Romney (R–Utah) seems unlikely to reprise his 2012 campaign. But if he did, he'd land in this camp. So would former Sen. Ben Sasse (R–Neb.), who resigned from representing Nebraska to be a university president in Florida, and so would Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.), should he decide to seek the White House again. Sen. Tim Scott (R–S.C.), who has launched a presidential exploratory committee and traveled to early primary states, has a fairly thin foreign policy record. (His 2022 campaign website, for example, featured only domestic topics in its issues section.) Yet details such as his charge that the Biden administration has been too slow and stingy in its aid to Ukraine and his history of opposing U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan suggest he may be best located here, too.
Most likely to represent the old guard on a debate stage in 2024 are former Vice President Mike Pence and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. Though both were members of the Trump administration, their foreign policy records aren't really in a Trumpian vein.
Pence is the more characteristically old guard of the two, as observers in venues from National Review to Slate have noted, despite his longer tenure in Trump's retinue. "Pence was a George W. Bush neoconservative in the mid-2000s," the Stimson Center's Emma Ashford recalled at Foreign Policy in 2020. "In fact, he was far more extreme; when he was a congressman, he sponsored a bill that would have prevented Bush from withdrawing any troops from Iraq," she added. "A Pence administration would continue Trump's harsh approach to China and Iran, but probably ramp up tensions again with North Korea and potentially commit more troops to the Middle East."
Pence's expansive vision of American military power was on full display in a commencement speech at West Point in 2019. "It is a virtual certainty that you will fight on a battlefield for America at some point in your life," he told the graduates, launching into a revealingly long list of possible theaters of war: the Middle East, the Korean Peninsula, the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Western Hemisphere. A Vice President Pence could envision near-term wars for the United States on nearly every continent. A President Pence, convinced it's Washington's job to restrain evil worldwide, might take those wars from vision to reality.
Haley's foreign policy record, meanwhile, comes largely from her two years as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, a role widely regarded as preparation for her now-launched presidential run. Her 2018 resignation allowed her to escape the Trump administration before its late-stage theatrics and to remain in apparently good stead with much of the old and new guard alike.
Indeed, pursuing a mostly conventional GOP foreign policy without overtly angering Trump became something of a specialty for Haley, who has compared herself to the neoconservative Reagan administration diplomat Jeane Kirkpatrick. "Whenever President Donald Trump says something that veers outside the Republican foreign policy mainstream, you can count on Nikki Haley, his ambassador to the United Nations, to soothe the terrified establishment," Politico foreign affairs correspondent Nahal Toosi wrote in 2017.
She "emerged as the security blanket that Republicans and even some Democrats—not to mention America's allies—can cling to when trying to grasp where the Trump administration stands on global affairs," Toosi continued. "Haley is not only pro-America, pro-Israel, and tough on terrorism—she's also wary of Russia and attuned to human rights concerns. It's pretty much traditional Republicanism, with a glint of neoconservatism."
Other old-guard candidacies may come from two Arkansas politicians, former Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Sen. Tom Cotton. Hutchinson, who has launched a campaign, has argued it is "naïve" to propose decreasing U.S. aid to Ukraine, and he wants to use U.S. "strength [abroad] in the cause of freedom." Formerly an undersecretary of homeland security in the George W. Bush administration, Hutchinson's approach to foreign affairs has been compared to that of Ronald Reagan and George W. himself: He wants the U.S. to "assert global leadership," work closely with allies, and reject what he dubs the "isolationist" posture of the post-Trump Republican Party.
But Hutchinson broke with many others in his party in welcoming refugees from Afghanistan to his state in 2021. And a decade prior, welcoming refugees the Constitution Project's task force on detainee treatment at Guantanamo Bay, which concluded "it is indisputable" that the U.S. engaged in torture at the facility and assigned responsibility for that torture to some of "the nation's highest officials."
Cotton, who favors Ukraine aid, has called the 2007 surge in Iraq Bush's "finest hour." He believes, as he told The Wall Street Journal in 2017, "there is always a military option. That is the case everywhere in the world."
A pal of the neoconservative commentator Bill Kristol, Cotton has argued the U.S. could win a war against Iran in "two strikes," and he regurgitates the Bush-era "kill them there before they kill us here" line verbatim. He is, however, more attentive to China than the average old guarder—in 2021, he issued an 82-page report entitled "Beat China" in which he called for a long-term strategy of "the 'breakup or the gradual mellowing' of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) power," directly inspired by Cold War antagonism with the Soviet Union and starting with "targeted decoupling" in the economic realm.
The New Guard
Eight years in, the reality of a philosophical Trumpism—not merely an aggregate of the man's own choices but a systematic policy perspective—remains debatable. But that failure of fulfillment is not for lack of trying, especially where military intervention is concerned.
Members of this Trumpist (or, if you prefer to gussy it further, Jacksonian) new guard "favor a robust U.S. military and strong presidential leadership together with aggressive counterterrorism," writes George Mason University's Dueck. "They have no difficulty believing that a dangerous international environment requires a punitive attitude against numerous threats. At the same time, they recoil from global governance projects, multilateral pieties, and extended nation-building missions overseas."
In broad strokes, this group is ambiguous in its stance toward Russia and Ukraine and wary of international alliances that could constrain American options. It takes a dimmer view of the post-9/11 war on terror than the old guard, but not because of principled noninterventionism. On the contrary, the new guard tends to be militaristic and possessed of a patriotism that verges on chauvinism.
The new guard mostly supported bringing U.S. combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan to a close over the last few years. But that wasn't about being opposed to war; it was just tired of these wars and ready to move on to great power rivalry with Beijing. Countering a rising China—with protectionist economic policies and culture war posturing, but perhaps also with military force—is the new guard's overwhelming concern now.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson is the cable news spokesman for this camp, and Sen. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.), a congressional wunderkind frequently mentioned in the same breath as Cotton, is a prominent representative on the Hill. But the most prominent new guard figure is, naturally, Trump himself. If he wins the GOP nomination again, we can anticipate more of the signature combination of the instincts displayed in the 2019 episode in which Trump authorized a military strike against Iran in the wake of the downing of a U.S. drone but backed off at the last minute. Those instincts will be applied, however, to a new mix of challenges abroad.
In his first term, Trump was often a voice—if not an effective force—for scaling down the American military interventions of which he had wearied, overseeing drawdowns in Syria, Iraq, and Somalia. At the same time, Trump vetoed a drawdown of U.S. involvement in Yemen, while escalating intervention in Venezuela and Nicaragua and increasing drone strikes in Africa.
If he returns to office in 2025, quite possibly on the heels of three years of escalation in U.S.-China tensions over Taiwan, Trump is likely to be much less interested in restraint. A confrontation with China might produce another "endless war," but it could be one Trump would relish.
If Haley is on the new edge of the old guard, former CIA chief and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—who has signaled interest in campaigning or at least positioning himself as an option for vice president—is on the old edge of the new. As a member of the Trump administration, Pompeo more than many of his colleagues echoed his boss's bombastic rhetoric and defended him to the bitter end. He left office with tweeted boasts of "swagger," a juvenile but accurate summation of his indelicate mode of diplomacy.
Though he paid lip service to "realism, restraint, and respect" as guiding principles in foreign affairs, Pompeo's own foreign policy record shows little of the sort. He has advocated preventive war and forcible regime change in North Korea and is reliably hawkish on Iran, pushing the "maximum pressure" policy and nuclear deal abandonment that together brought U.S.-Iran relations to their present dismal state.
Pompeo is also known for "his support for Guantanamo Bay and the brutal interrogation of terror suspects," as Alex Ward wrote at Vox in 2017, and is more hostile to Moscow than Trump tends to be. He reserves special antagonism for China, and he gives his arguments a culture-war edge by speaking often of "the Chinese Communist Party" rather than "China" or "Beijing."
Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who entered the Republican race in February, has a short policy record across the board. What little he has said about foreign affairs, however, suggests a new guard lean. "The main thing should be the main thing: focus on China," he tweeted shortly after launching his campaign. "China wants the Ukraine war to last as long as possible to deplete Western military capacity before invading Taiwan. It's working: we think we *look* stronger by helping Ukraine, but we actually *become* weaker vs. China."
Ramaswamy has accused Beijing of "violating our sovereignty" with its spy balloons and repeatedly called for military intervention in Mexico, in the style of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to wage the drug war. He would "limit any further funding or support to Ukraine," he told Carlson, and would scale down the overall U.S. commitment to European security. As for the Mideast, he argued in 2021 that the Taliban's takeover in Afghanistan was a problem of American " wokeness" and that the U.S. only should have withdrawn with "a credible threat…to completely decimate the Taliban if the latter reneged on its prior agreements"—that is, with a plan to return.
Dueck's analysis of GOP foreign policy factions included a third category, but it's a category which may go unrepresented in the 2024 lineup: noninterventionists. The only remotely plausible candidate in this vein, so far, is Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.), who sometimes sounds like the new guard but remains far more skeptical of military intervention. Paul is also willing to break ranks on issues like Yemen and China, arguing against saber rattling at Beijing in 2022 while other Republicans couldn't rattle hard enough. "Abandoning that policy [strategic ambiguity about Taiwan] in favor of strategic clarity discards a successful strategy for a reckless one that makes war [with China] more likely, not less," Paul warned.
"Saudi Arabia's air and naval blockade of Yemen is an abomination," Paul wrote in 2021, introducing "legislation to cancel an American arms sale to Saudi Arabia that aids and abets the subjugation of the Yemeni people." He has also written against sacrificing U.S. troops "in every war on the planet, even when the call for war is sought by fellow aspirants for liberty," an argument made in the context of the war in Ukraine but clearly applicable to Taiwan as well.
Yet Paul, who reportedly guided Trump in a less bellicose direction on Iraq and Syria and may wish to remain in that sort of advisory role, seems unlikely to run for president again in 2024.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of former National Security Advisor John Bolton.
Bolton is a hawk's hawk, maybe the one declared presidential contender of whom Trump could say, honestly and without qualification, "I'm the one that tempers him." He's known for admitting to plotting covert coups (including an unsuccessful effort in Venezuela), for arguing for a preemptive attack on a nuclear North Korea, for wanting to bomb just about everything.
He is, as The New Yorker put it in the most neutral description imaginable, "the Republican Party's most militant foreign-policy thinker—an advocate of aggressive force who ridicules anyone who disagrees." Or more vividly, as Seth Harp wrote in Rolling Stone, "a war criminal, a man better described as a black-pilled, death-worshipping ghoul drenched in the blood of Muslim children than compared to an elegant specimen of the family Accipitridae." And he said in early January that he just might want to be president.
A Bolton candidacy is a long shot on grounds of the mustache alone—America hasn't elected a president with facial hair in more than a century—but his all-purpose aggression is also out of line with much of the Republican base. Recent polling suggests the average GOP voter is far from anti-war but closer to the new guard than the old, let alone to someone like Bolton.
Republican voters increasingly want to focus on domestic problems instead of pursuing an activist foreign policy. Their top three foreign policy priorities, per Morning Consult numbers from January 2023, are immigration, terrorism, and drug trafficking—all about as domestic as foreign affairs can get. The same data set reports that seven in 10 Republicans want U.S. global engagement, including military intervention, to stay at current levels (28 percent) or decrease (45 percent). Only 15 percent want it to rise.
No single policy issue will decide the GOP's 2024 primary, of course—not even one as important and central to presidential power as foreign affairs. Still, if current voter trends hold, the candidate best positioned to herd the Republican Party to a new foreign policy may well be one who can lead the new guard without alienating the old. And though it's too early to make any confident predictions, at this stage that sounds an awful lot like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Though best known for helming the state government in Tallahassee, DeSantis spent nearly six years in the U.S. House of Representatives, building the foreign policy record many governors lack. He also served as a legal officer at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in 2006 and in Iraq in 2007. That history, plus his more recent culture war battles and commentary on Russia and China, would allow him to straddle old and new.
On the old guard side of the balance sheet: DeSantis has been doggedly anti-Iran, outdoing Trump in his haste to demolish the nuclear deal and insisting, over and over during his congressional tenure, that Tehran is a major threat to the U.S., an "enemy of our country" and "terror state" with whom "we do not share any interests." (Not even peace?)
DeSantis has recently followed Paul and new guarders in pushing for boundaries and accountability for U.S. aid to Ukraine, opposing a "blank check" to Kyiv and a great power "proxy war" over the Crimean Peninsula. In a March statement to Carlson, he said "becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not" a "vital national interest" and opposed any U.S. aid to Kyiv "that could require the deployment of American troops or enable Ukraine to engage in offensive operations beyond its borders."
Despite the moral equivocation in his "territorial dispute" phrasing (which he later walked back), DeSantis is also markedly more negative toward Russia than Trump is, criticizing the invasion of Ukraine and accusing Moscow of attempting "nefarious…espionage or influence operations" in Florida. He has dismissed Putin, whose strength Trump openly admires, as an "authoritarian gas station attendant."
DeSantis hasn't repudiated the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—in fact, he has barely commented on these wars at all. What little he has said of the post-9/11 conflicts could place him in either camp: Americans aren't "war weary," he claimed in 2014, only "weary of missions launched without a coherent strategy and are sick of seeing engagements that produce inconclusive results rather than clear-cut victory."
On China, however, DeSantis has a noticeably newer feel. He speaks of U.S.-China relations in ideological terms, describing the "Communist Party of China…worming its way" into America and linking Chinese communism to "woke corporations."
"I don't see how anyone could've lived through the last year and a half and not come to the conclusion that there's something fundamentally wrong with how [Beijing] is influencing so many institutions and industries around the world," DeSantis said in summer 2021. "There is no single entity that exercises a more pervasive nefarious influence across a wide range of American industries and institutions than the Communist Party of China."
A DeSantis administration, without doubt, would make opposition to China the centerpiece of its international engagement. And that prospect, coupled with a foreign policy record that would fit as comfortably within GOP norms in 2004 as in 2024, may be precisely what Republican voters want. After a scrambled decade—and despite real shifts on matters including nation building, alliances, and regional focus—the new consensus might look a lot like the old one.