The DeSantis Foreign Policy: Hard Power, but With a High Bar
When Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida made headlines recently by undercutting U.S. support for Ukraine, Republican hawks, many of whom cling to him as their only hope to defeat former President Donald J. Trump, wondered if they had misread him as an ideological ally.
Mr. DeSantis ditched his previous backing for Ukraine to align himself with the increasingly nationalistic Republican base, which he will need to win the 2024 presidential primary if he runs. But he was never the committed internationalist that some old-guard Republicans had wanted or imagined him to be.
Until now, Mr. DeSantis served as a Rorschach test for Republicans. There was, conveniently, something in his record to please each of the party’s ideological factions, and he had every incentive to be all things to all Republicans for as long as he could get away with it.
Hawks had claimed Mr. DeSantis as their own for his fervent support of Israel and his denunciations of China, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela. And restraint-oriented Republicans had claimed Mr. DeSantis for his 2013 decision, as a congressman, to break with Republican hawks and oppose President Barack Obama’s requests to intervene militarily in Syria.
Yet, despite his policy shifts and inconsistencies — this week, he said he had failed to make himself clear on Ukraine and called President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia a “war criminal” — Mr. DeSantis’s worldview is not a mystery.
For a governor, Mr. DeSantis, whose spokeswoman declined interview requests, has an unusually long paper trail on foreign policy. A close reading of more than 200 of his speeches, votes, writings and television commentaries over the past decade, as well as interviews with his peers, reveal the makings of a DeSantis Doctrine.
‘Just a Jacksonian’
Tucked between the campaign boilerplate in Mr. DeSantis’s new book, “The Courage to Be Free,” is a short chapter describing how his service in Iraq, as an officer in the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps, reinforced his doubts about former President George W. Bush’s “messianic impulse.”
“Bush sketched out a view for American foreign policy that constituted Wilsonianism on steroids,” Mr. DeSantis writes, referring to former President Woodrow Wilson’s idealistic liberal internationalism after World War I. He recalls his reaction to a line in Mr. Bush’s second inaugural address: “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.”
“I remember being stunned,” Mr. DeSantis writes. “Does the survival of American liberty depend on whether liberty succeeds in Djibouti?”
Mr. DeSantis’s analysis of Mr. Bush’s attempt to use the military to “socially engineer a foreign society” is the sort of thing one hears from conservative elites who call themselves Jacksonians, after President Andrew Jackson, the 19th-century populist. Though The New York Times could find no public record of the Florida governor describing himself as a Jacksonian, the word kept coming up in interviews with people who know Mr. DeSantis.
“I think he’s kind of dead-center where Republican voters are, which is to say that he’s neither an isolationist nor a neoconservative, he’s just a Jacksonian,” said David Reaboi, a conservative national security strategist whom Mr. DeSantis has hosted at the governor’s mansion.
Mr. Reaboi was referring to a 1999 essay by the academic Walter Russell Mead, “The Jacksonian Tradition and American Foreign Policy,” which is still in heavy circulation on the intellectual right. It defines a Jacksonian as having a narrow conception of the U.S. national interest: protection of its territory, its people, its hard assets and its commercial interests overseas.
A Jacksonian does not dream of implanting “American values” on foreign soil. He or she believes that if the U.S. military is to be deployed, it should use as much force as necessary to achieve a quick, clearly defined “victory,” with as few American casualties as possible. A Jacksonian cares little about lopsided casualty counts — so long as they’re in America’s favor — or about international law.
Unlike Mr. Trump, a fellow Jacksonian but one who operates on pure instinct and would never dream of suffering through a foreign policy treatise, Mr. DeSantis has read deeply and has formed a philosophy about America’s place in the world. But you will rarely hear Mr. DeSantis invoke abstract values to justify the use of force — as some of his potential 2024 rivals and current party leaders have done.
He has not framed the Ukraine war as a battle for “freedom,” as former Vice President Mike Pence has done, or as a mission to defend the post-World War II international security framework, as Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, has done. If Mr. DeSantis is elected president, there is unlikely to be any more Biden-esque talk of “autocracies versus democracies.” In Mr. DeSantis’s framing, these are the idealistic mutterings of a “Wilsonian.”
Mr. DeSantis’s former House colleagues could not recall him ever worrying about whether girls got an education in Afghanistan or whether democracy could be spread throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Instead, they recall him expressing a hard-nosed and narrow view of the American national interest.
“After law school, Governor DeSantis didn’t take a Wall Street job or join a human rights N.G.O.,” said Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who served with Mr. DeSantis in the House and remains close to him. “He joined the military, which both reflected his worldview and probably further shaped it, as did his choice to serve six years on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.”
Mr. DeSantis favors a robust U.S. military. A President DeSantis would most likely increase military spending; as a House member, he spoke approvingly of Mr. Trump’s increase of the Pentagon’s budget.
In Iraq, one of Mr. DeSantis’s jobs was to provide counsel to commanders on the rules governing the battlefield. He saw his role as being a “facilitator, not an inhibitor,” he writes in his new book. He chafed at what he viewed as overly restrictive rules of engagement.
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“It is unacceptable to send someone wearing our nation’s uniform to a combat zone with one hand tied behind his back,” Mr. DeSantis writes. “War is hell, and it puts the lives of our military personnel at risk if operations get mired in bureaucracy and red tape.”
Mr. DeSantis’s Jacksonianism predates the presidency of Mr. Trump.
In 2013 and 2014, Mr. DeSantis broke with Republican hawks who were encouraging Mr. Obama to intervene militarily in Syria. Mr. DeSantis rejected the idea of missile strikes to respond to President Bashar al-Assad’s use of gas. And he voted against an amendment that would have authorized Mr. Obama to train and equip vetted Syrian rebels, because “mujahedeen fighters in Syria are not moderates nor are they pro-American.”
Contempt for the State Department and the United Nations
Mr. DeSantis has often cited the writings of the late conservative intellectual Angelo Codevilla — and in particular his 2010 book, “The Ruling Class: How They Corrupted America and What We Can Do About It.”
Mr. Codevilla, whose book came out at the height of the Tea Party movement, describes a permanent “ruling class” in Washington that looks down on the rest of the country and “makes decisions about war and peace at least as much forcibly to tinker with the innards of foreign bodies politic as to protect America.”
This ruling class — a phrase Mr. DeSantis has co-opted — includes both the Republican and Democratic Party establishments. In his telling, these elites have pursued an unpatriotic agenda: They have assigned the U.S. military unwinnable and therefore demoralizing missions, and have been too generous to foreigners.
This mental model defines how Mr. DeSantis thinks about the State Department and international institutions like the United Nations.
In a floor speech on Jan. 5, 2017, Mr. DeSantis called for defunding the U.N. until the Security Council revoked a resolution condemning Israeli settlements as violations of international law.
Mr. DeSantis derides the foreign policy professionals at the State Department to such an extent that it’s difficult to imagine him meeting with them, let alone listening to their advice. Mr. DeSantis has complained that the State Department is “Arabist in outlook” and “all in” with the Muslim Brotherhood.
To the right of Trump on Israel
In the early days of the Trump administration, the most pro-Israel president in living memory wasn’t pro-Israel enough for Mr. DeSantis, who was still a congressman. On Jun. 1, 2017, Mr. DeSantis issued a statement condemning Mr. Trump for delaying a decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.
Public records show that Mr. DeSantis took only three foreign trips as a House member and has taken one foreign trip as governor. All were to Israel.
In March 2017, Mr. DeSantis flew to Israel and scouted potential sites for the U.S. Embassy to heap public pressure on Mr. Trump to keep his campaign promise. Mr. DeSantis later pushed Mr. Trump to recognize the Golan Heights as Israeli territory — another controversial move.
Mr. DeSantis has promised to be the “most pro-Israel governor in America” — a stance that helps him with both Jewish and evangelical constituents in Florida.
He has used his powers as governor to pressure American companies to drop their boycotts of Israel. He took on Unilever over the decision by one of its companies, Ben & Jerry’s, not to sell ice cream in the occupied territories. Mr. DeSantis added Unilever to Florida’s “scrutinized companies” list, and Unilever reversed its decision. He used the same tactic against Airbnb — successfully pressuring the company to reverse itself over eliminating listings in Israeli settlements.
As president, Mr. DeSantis would not be expected to dissuade Israel from annexing further land. He has referred to the West Bank as “Judea and Samaria,” using the biblical names for the territory used by right-wing Israelis.
During his first year in office, Mr. Trump briefly gestured at considering the Palestinian point of view. He even hosted the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, at the White House. It is hard to imagine Mr. DeSantis doing the same.
In early 2018, when Mr. Trump was still aiming for what he called “the ultimate deal” between the Israelis and the Palestinians, Mr. DeSantis told the Heritage Foundation that a peace deal was not “worth spending capital on.”
As governor, Mr. DeSantis has sought to restrict Chinese investments in Florida. His actions against the Chinese Communist Party suggest that as president, his China policy would be more comprehensively aggressive than Mr. Trump’s. But he seems to care less about trade issues than Mr. Trump did, and more about security concerns.
Mr. DeSantis appears less likely to chase a Chinese trade deal, as Mr. Trump did for most of his presidency, and more likely to accelerate efforts to block Chinese investments in the U.S., especially in the high-tech and security sectors. (President Biden has kept Mr. Trump’s China tariffs.)
In February, the DeSantis office announced a proposal to ban TikTok and “other social media platforms with ties to China” from state government devices.
Mr. DeSantis has promised legislation to stop people or companies with China ties from buying “agricultural land and lands surrounding military bases,” and he plans to ban gifts to Florida universities from people or companies connected to the Chinese Communist Party.
Political calculation and inconsistencies
Mr. DeSantis’s recent statement that defending Ukraine was not a vital U.S. interest came after CNN unearthed comments he made in 2015 — which were circulated by people in Mr. Trump’s orbit — urging Mr. Obama to do more to defend Ukraine against Russia. As soon as Mr. DeSantis pivoted, the Trump campaign attacked him as a flip-flopping fake.
If it was a politically calculated shift by Mr. DeSantis, it would not have been the first.
On Sept. 9, 2013, Mr. DeSantis told Fox News that he accepted the Obama administration’s evidence that the Syrian government had gassed its people. But this, Mr. DeSantis argued, did not justify missile strikes against Syria, which he said risked escalating the conflict.
Mr. DeSantis sounded different when the president firing missiles in response to Syrian gas was Mr. Trump. In a Fox News appearance on April 15, 2018, Mr. DeSantis said, “The strikes did what they were intended to do.”
Nor has Mr. DeSantis been entirely consistent in his Jacksonianism. Speaking on a foreign policy issue that is politically potent in Florida, he can sound positively Wilsonian. He told the Venezuelan people in 2017, “We hear your cries of freedom.”
Mr. DeSantis encouraged Mr. Trump — who ended up pushing unsuccessfully for regime change in Venezuela — “to apply additional pressure on the Maduro regime.”