How Ukraine question divides the American right

‘For a party many years into an illiberal drift, Republicans are oddly firm in defence of Ukraine’

You have to do a cartoon-like double-take to recognise the newly sleek Mike Pompeo. If what goes into his mouth has changed, the words that come out of it continue to describe a hostile and flammable world.

Donald Trump's last secretary of state worries that his successors in government lack "the resolve and the steel" to deter Russian menaces against Ukraine. A soft or even ambiguous US is a tantalising invitation not just to the Kremlin, he warns, but to aggressors from Tehran to Pyongyang.

This is not just a man with presidential designs making his presence felt as 2024 nears. His actions rhyme with those of Republicans with much less to gain. Many in the House of Representatives want to tighten sanctions against Russia before, not after, any attack.

The party's senators voted to sanction the Nord Stream 2 gas line from Russia to Germany. One as prominent as Marco Rubio would increase military aid to Ukraine and declare Russia a state sponsor of terrorism in the event of an invasion. Others visited Kyiv last week in a bipartisan show of solidarity.


It is futile, perhaps, to cast around for consolations as a European war looms, but here is one that stands out. For a party that is many years into an illiberal drift, the Republicans are oddly firm in defence of Ukraine. Russian grievances against Nato elicit sympathy on the wider American right but Washington's elected Republicans have been slower to follow. Such is their hawkishness, their scorn for Democratic "concessions" to Moscow, you wouldn't know that almost none voted for Trump's first impeachment over a threat to withhold military aid from Ukraine.

This isn't to mock or even tease. These are politicians under intense strain from Kyiv-sceptic colleagues on the US right. The broadcaster Tucker Carlson has a large audience for his view that Ukraine is "strategically irrelevant to us". Alt-right praise for Russian president Vladimir Putin is sometimes not even grudging. In the US, qualms about Nato bring together old-style isolationists and a younger genre of conservative for whom Russia is a stout fortress against a lax, post-Christian west. If the Republican party has been able to hold the line against all this, that is an event worth marking. It implies that, whatever their feats on social media, autocracies have only gone so far in subverting America's frontline political class.

It also suggests liberals should tone down their fear of collusion among the world's different strongman movements. The idea of a Nationalist International gained credence when the US, Russia, Turkey, Brazil and the Philippines had leaders who answered to that ideological label. Not since the worst of the cold war had liberalism felt more harried and encircled than it did around 2018.

Almost by definition, however, nationalists struggle to co-operate, at least on a lasting basis. As long as the planet is of finite size, practitioners of belligerent and unilateral foreign policy will tread on each other’s interests or egos. When they do, a shared philosophic distaste for “globalism” isn’t enough to hold them together.

This, more than anything, explains the Republicans' surprising vigilance against a Russian leader they are accused of privately admiring. Even if there is an underlying harmony of world view, a shared belief in power politics and spheres of influence, the Russian sphere brushes against the US one. Putin's aims ("to evict the United States from Europe", in the crisp words of former US official Fiona Hill) can't be reconciled with American hegemony. Which to sacrifice – populist comradeship with Putin or US grandeur? – is not even a question for some Republican politicians.

The point is captured in the singular person of Pompeo. No secretary of state since the postwar order began was less invested in its institutions and norms. But that nationalism makes him less likely to accommodate Russian sensitivities than a more conventional diplomat would be in his place. (The Republican grandee and stickler for realpolitik James Baker comes to mind.) The same may be true for the Trump generation of congressional Republicans.

None of which is to say they are right. There is something thoughtless about the hard Republican line. There are the same Iraq war-era incantations that "weakness is provocative" (always? everywhere?), the same under-researched allusions to 1930s appeasement. But a cliched hawkishness is better than the moral equivocation some liberals had feared. The mystery is whether it withstands a conservative movement that tends to wag the Republican dog in the end. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022