Thu. Sep 21st, 2023

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The elephant in the room during Wednesday’s night Republican presidential debate will be the primary front-runner, who is expected to be absent. Polls show former president Donald Trump with a huge lead over the chasing pack, a gap that he claims justifies his decision to skip the debate in Milwaukee with eight other GOP challengers — even as he reckons with his mounting legal woes. Trump’s rivals will try to find their own moment in the spotlight, but may struggle to claw their way out of his shadow.

One potentially interesting point of contention may be the war in Ukraine, the most significant foreign policy issue to be discussed during the debate. Trump’s skepticism of the Biden administration’s support for Kyiv, and desire to curtail military aid, is well-known. He has insisted that it’s more the responsibility of Europe than the United States to help the Ukrainians repel the Russian invasion. He’s touted his special rapport with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a CNN town hall while urging Ukraine to sue for peace. Trump also recently called on Republican lawmakers to condition all future U.S. assistance to Ukraine on the Biden administration’s willingness to allow investigations into the business dealings of President Biden’s family.

The Biden administration has committed more than $60 billion in aid for Ukraine and coordinated an unprecedented NATO-led effort in bolstering Ukraine’s resistance to Russia. Trump’s apparent opposition to maintaining this flow of arms to Kyiv, while anathema to many lawmakers and diplomats in Washington, is hardly out of step with the American public, and certainly not Republicans. Among GOP voters, 71 percent think Congress should not authorize new funding, and 59 percent say the United States has done enough to help Ukraine, according to a recent CNN/SSRS poll.

For that reason, some other presidential contenders have argued for a ramp down in support for Ukraine and the pursuit of an immediate cease-fire. Others, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have framed the conflict as a distraction from the United States’s real strategic concerns in Asia. And another camp, which includes former vice president Mike Pence, openly reject Trump’s position on Ukraine and argue the Biden administration should be doing much more for Kyiv.

8 presidential candidates qualify for Wednesday’s first Republican debate

The war offers a rare snapshot of genuine ideological divergence within the Republican Party. Surveying the field, Majda Ruge, senior fellow at the European Center for Foreign Affairs, sketched the GOP hopefuls into three camps: “primacists, restrainers and prioritizers.”

The “restrainers” include Trump and maverick hard-right libertarian Vivek Ramaswamy, who recently said that the fight against Russia’s invasion is “really just a battle between two thugs on the other side of Eastern Europe” and believes Kyiv should make territorial concessions to Russia and be denied any possibility of joining NATO. That flies in the face of the transatlantic consensus, with U.S. and European officials keen on giving Ukraine a path into the Western alliance and adamant that Kyiv, and only Kyiv, will determine the terms of its negotiating position with Russia.

Proximate to the “restrainers,” in Ruge’s formula, are the “prioritizers.” They include DeSantis, who backtracked from earlier remarks casting the war as a mere “territorial dispute” but has called for an end to the conflict so that the United States can focus on the far thornier set of challenges posed by China. In an interview with CNN, DeSantis said the “Asia-Pacific needs to be to our generation what Europe has been to the post-World War II generation.” During a trip to Japan earlier this year, he told Nikkei Asia that “the Europeans really need to do more [on Ukraine]. I mean, this is their continent.”

That’s a view shared by a burgeoning clutch of influential American wonks, who argue that the United States’ mammoth contributions to Ukraine are undermining its ability to prepare Taiwan for a future Chinese invasion. “The administration should put Taiwan at the front of the line for foreign military sales … ahead of Ukraine but also ahead of partners in the Middle East and beyond,” argued Elbridge A. Colby and Alex Velez-Green in a May column for The Washington Post.

A look at the amount of U.S. spending powering Ukraine’s defense

Yet there is another camp of more traditional Republicans who believe the defense of Ukraine is a prerequisite for the defense of Taiwan. These “primacists,” as Ruge puts it, “echo the establishment consensus that the strategic defeat of Russia is an issue vital to U.S. national security” and that failure in Ukraine would mark a blow to U.S. interests elsewhere.

“If we in fact stop Russia and their Chinese sponsors in Ukraine, I think it will send a very clear message to China about Taiwan,” former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, perhaps the most outspoken Trump critic among the GOP hopefuls, told my colleague Josh Rogin. “If we cut and run, we are almost assuring that they will make a move on Taiwan.”

The “primacists” include former Trump administration bigwigs in Pence and Nikki Haley, who both criticize the Biden administration for not sending military aid and advanced weaponry fast enough to Ukraine. So far, Pence and Christie have made visits to Kyiv in displays of support for the Ukrainian war effort. Also in their camp is Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who has argued that “degrading the Russian military” by aiding and abetting Ukraine’s counteroffensives is in the U.S.’s interests.

“First, it prevents or reduces attacks on the homeland,” Scott said earlier this year. “Second, as part of NATO and land being contiguous to Ukraine, it will reduce the likelihood that Russia will have the weaponry or the will to attack on NATO territory, which would get us involved.”

The concern for onlookers across the pond is that no one in this latter camp appears to be in a strong position to become the Republican presidential nominee. “The bad news for Europe is that any candidate expected to win the Republican primary, if elected president, is likely to dramatically shift U.S. foreign policy away from European short-term interests,” Ruge wrote. “A change in leadership in Washington would almost certainly dramatically alter the U.S. commitment to Ukraine and European defense. Europeans need to take seriously the views of those who could win the presidency next year and prepare.”

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