In the first Republican debate of many, only two foreign policy issues broke through – US relations with China, and the continuation of support for Ukraine. Marking the official start of the 2024 election season, Mike Pence, Nikki Haley and Chris Christie scored highest. Vivek Ramaswamy seized attention on the undercard. But most commentators agree Pence had the best night overall, with his poised foreign policy perspective playing a key role in his performance.
Donald Trump ducked the debate with the eight Republican aspirants in Milwaukee to appear with Tucker Carlson instead. All nine of the candidates are tough on China – one of the only consistent postures during the debate. It was linked by Christie to another of the key talking points – the fentanyl crisis. The discussion around China tended to intersect in this way with a variety of issues, rather than any one candidate setting out a defined policy.
These issues also included energy, technology competition and climate change. There were calls to bring home jobs from China by Tim Scott, and to push China to lower its emissions from Nikki Haley, but the key talking point linked to China was aid for Ukraine.
Christie, Haley and Pence all sat on the Reaganite side of the fence, arguing weakness in Ukraine would translate to an emboldened Beijing. The three were staunchest in their support for Ukraine, and called upon dichotomies of democracy and authoritarianism – the audience’s applause for these statements demonstrated appetite for the US to play into its global leadership role.
The ‘walk and chew gum’ argument was articulated best by both Mike Pence and Asa Hutchinson. Ramaswamy’s proposal to divert military equipment currently going to Ukraine to the southern border was a soundbite designed for a social media clip rather than the real world – reallocating anti-tank or air-defence missiles would be ludicrous in a border security context. The idea that US resources dedicated to Ukraine could be better spent rejuvenating US cities was also challenged – the audience were expected to forget that the majority of US resources, namely military kit taken out of deep storage, had any relevance to the desperate resource needs of many US cities.
Trump’s absence cast a long shadow over the debate, with his isolationist stance having two willing message carriers in Ramaswamy and DeSantis, as it has the wider GOP. But the real winner of the foreign policy aspects of the debate appeared to be those in traditionally conservative, hawkish postures. All candidates’ stances will certainly be under scrutiny in Moscow and Beijing and have the potential to impact on geopolitical decisions made by the US’s key rivals.
As summer begins to make way for autumn, it’s clear that it’s not Ukraine’s limited counteroffensive successes that are the greatest strategic threat to Ukraine, but rather a victory for those who want to surrender the US’ leadership role.