Is Ron DeSantis a traditional or MAGA-style Republican on foreign policy? The answer, increasingly, is “yes.”
He’s dropped hints about how he sees the world in books, speeches, interviews and written statements. China is the main threat facing the United States. Prioritizing Ukraine’s defense against Russia distracts from domestic problems. And Washington elites are often disastrous on foreign policy, preaching a globalism that ignores the will of the voter.
But in stating these views, DeSantis uses language ripped from both Republican tradition and the Donald Trump hymnal. It has confused observers who wonder how the former lawmaker and current Florida governor would conduct U.S. foreign policy from the Oval Office.
DeSantis’ team didn’t return requests for comment about his worldview. But Christina Pushaw, a DeSantis ally, noted that as the leader of Florida, the world’s 13th largest economy, “he meets with world leaders and policy experts all the time. He consumes a lot of information and is very much hands-on in terms of policy.”
Those around DeSantis say the former Navy lawyer who deployed to Guantanamo Bay and Iraq is still soaking in information, reading as much as he can on national security issues. DeSantis doesn’t yet have a coterie of formal foreign policy advisers, but that’s expected to come after he officially declares his candidacy for president.
What can be gleaned so far is this: DeSantis promotes U.S. strength in the world, but with limits on when to engage and with a prioritization to fixing problems at home. The result is this: Go big and stay home.
In foreign-policy-speak, he’s not a “Wilsonian” seeking to remake the world in America’s image, but he’s not fully a populist “Jacksonian,” either. And by walking that middle line, he could gain the advantage in 2024 over other Republican candidates who fit more firmly into one category or the other.
As a House Foreign Affairs Committee member from 2017 to 2019, DeSantis took vintage Republican positions that made defense hawks and traditionalists rejoice. He supported sending lethal aid to Ukraine and labeled himself part of the “Reagan school that’s tough on Russia.” He voted to fast-track the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. He praised Trump’s diplomatic outreach to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He told then-Fox Business host Lou Dobbs that Barack Obama’s push for an Iran nuclear deal persuaded Sunni Arabs to join the Islamic State.
But in the House, he occasionally flicked at a belief that America should refrain from delving into global matters of war and peace until a clear plan was in place to secure U.S. interests. His thoughts are with service members, not the elites who want to send them into battle.
“I constantly hear people say Americans are war weary, and I disagree with that. I think Americans are willing to do what it takes to defend our people and our nation,” he said during a 2014 floor debate about how the U.S. could defeat the Islamic State. “They are weary of missions launched without a coherent strategy and are sick of seeing engagements that produce inconclusive results rather than clear-cut victory.”
DeSantis argued against arming Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar Assad for that reason. “They cannot be counted on to vindicate our interests,” he said in that address, adding “there are no shortcuts when it comes to our national defense.”
Plenty in the Republican old-guard argue DeSantis is playing politics. Whether he firmly holds these views or is angling for votes, his approach could be a winning one in 2024. The conventional wisdom in Washington is that Americans don’t vote on foreign policy, but with the war in Ukraine unlikely to end soon and the increasing threats from China, this could be one cycle where the electorate is thinking more about the world.
The average Republican voter wants a leader who focuses on the physical defense of the United States and extracts the nation from unnecessary or counterproductive foreign entanglements. They are less interested in solving others’ issues or values promotion. DeSantis’ statements and positions broaden his appeal within the party and segments of the trans-partisan anti-war movement.
DeSantis has often cited the work of Angelo Codevilla, a conservative, Jacksonian-minded scholar who argued that the U.S. government was dangerously run by an unelected liberal ruling class that spurned popular sentiment. These officials hampered America’s policies at home and abroad, Codevilla argued, and his disdain for bureaucrats remains alive and well with DeSantis.
“The United States has been increasingly captive to an arrogant, stale, and failed ruling class,” DeSantis wrote in his book, “The Courage to be Free.” The elites, he continued, helped China rise by giving the country “most favored nation” trade status; “supported military adventurism around the world without clear objectives or prospect for victory” and “weaponized the national security apparatus by manufacturing the Russian collusion conspiracy theory.”
It sounds like Trump’s “deep state” complaint. But where Trump says that bureaucracy thwarts his designs — though he would often listen to them — DeSantis says this ruling class ignores what everyday Americans want. The Florida governor effectively vows not to listen to the professionals who have championed the Iraq war, opened trade with China and launched ill-fated democracy promotion projects.
When DeSantis’ skepticism of D.C. elites aligns with Trump, there’s an air of “We told you so.”
The governor told conservative host Glenn Beck last week about a trip he took to Tel Aviv as Trump considered moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. DeSantis said he asked State Department and CIA officials there what would happen if the then-president went through with it. “World War III, World War III, World War III,” he heard back.
Deadly violence did erupt after Trump moved the mission, but the apocalyptic predictions didn’t come true. DeSantis subsequently expressed deep skepticism at the experts running U.S. foreign policy. “They’re just entrenched and they have groupthink,” he told Beck.
DeSantis has made support for Israel central to his foreign policy, traveling there four times as a member of Congress and governor. He moved to stop companies from boycotting Israel and suggested working on a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians isn’t worth the effort.
DeSantis further criticized opponents of Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in that interview. Without ending U.S. involvement in the pact, he said, the Abraham Accords — the normalization agreements between Israel and Arab-majority states — would never have happened.
But the governor, by virtue of the state he leads, has sounded like a pre-Trump Republican on Latin American politics. He’s a critic of the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes, boosting dissidents’ calls for weakening their autocratic left-wing governments. Last July, he accused President Joe Biden of failing “to assist the Cuban people in their fight for freedom.”
DeSantis did, however, send Venezuelan asylum seekers from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard last year, an effort aligned with Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott to place the burdens of immigration on Democratic states that critics derided as a political stunt.
The foreign policy position that has received the most attention is how the governor thinks about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At first glance, it seems like he’s siding with Trump, but he comes at it differently, aligning himself with Kyiv’s plight while mindful of the toll U.S. commitment to the conflict could take at home and on global security.
DeSantis wrote in his statement to Fox News’ Tucker Carlson that “without question, peace should be the objective.” It was an argument that the danger was delving deeper into the “territorial dispute” between Ukraine and Russia. Sending F-16 fighter jets and long-range missiles, “would risk explicitly drawing the United States into the conflict and drawing us closer to a hot war between the world’s two largest nuclear powers. That risk is unacceptable.”
But DeSantis expanded on his answer in an interview a week later with Piers Morgan in which he struck more traditional Republican notes: Ukraine has “the right to that territory … If I could snap my fingers, I’d give it back to Ukraine 100 percent.” Putin, he continued, “is a war criminal” and “he should be held accountable.”
Just last year, DeSantis boasted about helping to get funding while in Congress for “a lot of weapons for Ukraine to be able to defend themselves.”
But DeSantis’ thinking has certainly been shifting in a more populist direction.
“It’s been a slow reorientation of foreign policy on the right,” said David Reaboi, a fellow at the Claremont Institute who has spoken informally with DeSantis about national security issues. “We ended up walking away from what should be our basic concern: the immediate security and needs of the American people.”
Likely future opponents are hammering the argument that it’s all for show. “President Trump is right when he says Governor DeSantis is copying him — first in his style, then on entitlement reform, and now on Ukraine,” Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador who has officially entered the presidential race, said following DeSantis’ Ukraine statement.
Allies note DeSantis is focused on the same issues as other leading Republicans: curbing China’s aggression in the military, economic and technological arenas, securing the U.S.-Mexico border and ending the scourge of fentanyl.
Where he distinguishes himself from some other 2024 hopefuls is he’d rather restrict the nation’s resources to tackling those challenges — because they most immediately reflect the needs of everyday Americans — instead of policing the world or opening the political space in other nations for small-d democrats to flourish.
As DeSantis put it in his book: “Does the survival of American liberty depend on whether liberty succeeds in Djibouti?”
Gary Fineout contributed to this report.