Being Right: The U.S. Should Learn From Past Foreign Policy Blunders and Exercise Restraint in Ukraine

Patrick Taylor, Contributing Writer

When it comes to foreign policy, I tend to find myself at odds with the standard “Republican” response to events abroad. While I am undoubtedly a conservative, my foreign policy philosophy has always been that our nation ought to “proceed with caution,” and not rush into disputes that do not directly involve us. This view is one of many that distinguish “rightish” non-interventionists, paleoconservatives and libertarians (a ragtag crew including former President Donald Trump, Senator Rand Paul and his father, former Rep. Ron Paul) from neoconservatives (former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and the Bush and Cheney families, for instance). Since the ascent of President Trump, it has been encouraging to see the Republican Party increasingly err toward non-interventionism abroad, with many Republicans touting the former president’s avoidance of new wars during his tenure. Much to the chagrin of the party’s more hawkish elite, the Trump movement forged the beginnings of an alliance between the American right and non-interventionists. While the influence of neoconservatives had not been shed completely – even within the Trump administration itself – it was clearly waning.

Unfortunately, recent events in Ukraine threaten to put a stop to this realignment. Many well-meaning conservatives have fallen into the trap of conflating restraint with weakness; in their opposition to President Joe Biden, they attack the president’s perfectly rational decision not to send troops to Ukraine. This is counterproductive, and regresses the conservative movement to the days of Bush-Cheney and endless foreign wars. Those days should be behind us.

While I am not a cheerleader for the Biden administration’s efforts (I’m convinced that Trump, due to his unpredictability, may have stymied any Kremlin plan to push into Ukrainian territory were he the Commander-in-Chief), I am grateful that Biden has, thus far, resisted the push by members of his own party to engage militarily. The rhetoric that Ukraine’s struggle against Russia ought to be considered the “last stand for democracy” sounds eerily similar to the logic used to justify continual war in the Middle East. The difference, this time, is that the shoe is on the other foot: according to an Associated Press-NORC poll released on Wednesday, 32% of Democrats support a major American role in Ukraine, compared to 22% of Republicans.

Biden’s reaction to the invasion does warrant some skepticism, however. One particularly damning criticism has been the performative nature of Biden’s opposition to Russia; while Biden has imposed some sanctions on Russia, he has nonetheless pursued energy policies that generate American dependence on Russian oil. The Trump-era policies promoting energy independence may have provided a much needed cushion for the American consumer from the effects of any volatility in the Russian oil market and lent greater legitimacy to the United States’ response.

I wish to emphasize that foreign policy restraint does not necessitate support for the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian underling, Alexander Lukashenko, or a lack of sympathy for Ukraine’s struggle. As trying as this invasion has been, it has been heartening to see the outcry of unbridled patriotism emanating from Ukraine, as well as the brave behavior of their armed forces. I join the chorus of voices from across the political spectrum in hoping that as many lives as possible can be spared, and that a peaceful resolution can be reached.