Not so long ago, Republicans said they had sworn off nation-building. Following the failure of the neoconservative project in Iraq and Afghanistan, GOP leaders seemed to have learned their lesson. But apparently not. Now nation-building is back with force, with a massive aid package to Ukraine that makes that country a US client state. Up next: a debate over expanding NATO. Many Republicans in Congress have already lined up to support both, almost reflexively. Why? Perhaps because they have forgotten their foreign-policy heritage. They have traded the nationalism of Theodore Roosevelt for the globalism of Woodrow Wilson. That’s a mistake. What America needs is not nation-building, but nationalism.
Start with the $40 billion Ukraine package. The cost alone is startling. It is three times what all of Europe has contributed to date and roughly the size of Ukraine’s entire national budget. Speaking of which, the bill includes funds for Ukraine’s treasury to the tune of $8.8 billion. And Biden administration officials suggest they will soon ask for more. This goes far beyond targeted military assistance. This package treats Ukraine as a client state of America, a fraught relationship that will put us on the hook for financing the war and then the reconstruction.
If this isn’t a classic case of misplaced priorities, I don’t know what is. The administration won’t give our own troops a raise that keeps pace with inflation. It won’t secure our southern border. It is dragging its feet on the force-posture changes needed in Asia to counter a rising China. But $40 billion is enough to give every American service member a real raise. It’s enough to build a wall at the border—twice over. And it would address all of our posture needs vis-à-vis Beijing, and then some.
As for NATO, we should have a real debate. The key question is how expanding the European alliance will help Washington confront our most serious foreign-policy challenge—the rise of China—and build our strength at home.
So why the Republican support for all this? Ideology. For years now, leaders in both parties have enthusiastically advocated a Wilsonian globalism that seeks to remake the world. I say Wilsonian, because the first major figure in US history to advocate it was Woodrow Wilson, elected president in 1912. He disliked the order of independent nation-states, believing it led too often to war. He wanted to replace competition among sovereign nations with a global system of mutual cooperation and international law. He also strenuously favored promoting democracy abroad.
There is a left-wing and a right-wing version of Wilson’s globalism—or if you prefer, liberal hegemony. The left-wing version is multilateralism. It’s the position that America should subordinate itself to supra-national organizations like the United Nations and international courts and seek global approval for the use of American power. The Clinton and Obama administrations pursued it, and now the Biden administration is, too.
The right-wing version is nation-building. This approach seeks to project American power by remaking other nations in our image. Think regime change. The ultimate goal is a soft empire of influence and control around the globe. The neoconservatives are right-wing globalists. The George W. Bush years were their glory days.
But the globalist approach has been wrong from the start. And Republicans of all people should know better. They used to favor something very different, a foreign policy best represented by another presidential contender in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt.
Roosevelt advocated a robust, realistic American nationalism. He believed in the nation-state, and in the American nation above all. He didn’t seek to outsource US sovereignty (like the liberals) or make all the world a client of America (like the neocons). Instead, he worked to secure a balance of power among independent nations that kept America safe and prosperous. His aim was to prevent any one nation from becoming so strong that it might dominate the United States, threatening our liberty and prosperity.
To achieve those aims, he advocated American strength: strong industry at home, a strong military able to deter foreign domination, and prudent alliances with other independent nations that preserved America’s freedom of action.
That kind of robust nationalism is what America needs today. We can’t afford to be isolationists. That would mean letting other nations direct our trade, dictate our interests, and imperil the livelihoods of our people. But nor can we afford further adventures in globalism. Wilsonian foreign policy, left and right, has nearly bankrupted the country, while siphoning away our national sovereignty and decimating our industrial base. The time has come for a policy of national strength, at home and abroad. Republicans should lead the way.