Much has been said and written about the National Conservative (NatCon) movement on the political Right that supposedly stands in opposition to the pro-Big Business and globalist orientation of the Republican Party establishment. More specifically, this movement has positioned itself against the twin intellectual forces that have dominated the political conservative movement in recent decades: a neoconservative and interventionist foreign policy and a libertarian-leaning pro-free market approach to economic affairs.
Most of the focus on this insurgent group of intellectuals has been on their traditional conservative positions on social and cultural issues, the rejection of the so-called “globalist elites” and their allies in Silicon Valley, their hardline stance on immigration, their support for industrial policy and growing government intervention in the economy, and of course—and more significantly—their seeming association with former President Donald Trump. Hence why the terms “National Conservatism” and “Trumpism” have been used interchangeably.
Less attention has been paid to the movement’s foreign policy platform—although occasionally it has been argued and lamented in the mainstream media that NatCons or Trumpists have embraced an anti-interventionist or “isolationist” agenda that echoes the Republican Party’s mid-twentieth century Old Right, led by the legendary Senator Robert Taft, that resisted American entry to World War II and later to the Cold War.
In fact, there has never been a clear statement of a national conservative foreign policy by any of its nominal spokespeople, ranging from the militant Zionist and pro-Likud Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony to Fox News’s enfant terrible Tucker Carlson. There is a simple reason for this: NatCons don’t agree on major global affairs. Consider the aforementioned individuals: Hazony hopes that the United States will bomb Iran to the Stone Age and expresses sympathy to Ukraine, whereas Carlson supports a nuclear deal with Tehran but lambasts American aid to Kyiv. That Trump opposed the nuclear deal with Iran while bromance-ing with Russia’s Vladimir Putin—although it should be noted that, as president, he approved selling arms to Ukraine—and revoked his predecessor’s nuclear deal with Iran only highlights the difficulties in defining the NatCon foreign policy agenda.
More recently, the notion that the GOP has come under the influence of the Trumpist and supposedly “isolationist” wing of the party has been highlighted by the media as impacting party policy—see how Kevin McCarthy, the new Speaker of the House, insisted that his party won’t give the Biden administration a “blank check” when it comes to U.S. aid to Ukraine.
McCarthy’s comments seemed to reflect the supposedly growing opposition among Republicans to continuing U.S. assistance to Ukraine, as demonstrated by the ten Republican House members who co-sponsored a resolution calling for an end to such. This position was supported by some Republicans in the Senate, including Senator Josh Hawley, a self-proclaimed NatCon, and Senator Rand Paul, a long-time conservative libertarian.
Hawley has stated that U.S. support for Ukraine “has to stop”, but to describe his foreign policy approach as isolationist or just anti-interventionist is frankly ridiculous.
Like other NatCons and Trumpists, as well as many neoconservatives and traditional Republicans, Hawley has effectively called for launching a new Cold War against China, starting with the decoupling of the American and Chinese economies and strengthening the U.S. defense budget to the stratosphere to prepare for a possible military confrontation with Beijing over the future of Taiwan and other key issues.
In fact, the main reason that Hawley supports reducing aid to Ukraine is because he believes that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, unlike China’s militarist policies in the Pacific, doesn’t threaten America’s core national interests, and that the preoccupation with Ukraine only diverts U.S. attention and resources from the coming war with China. “We have a lot of military power on our side,” Hawley said in a recent address. “But it isn’t deployed where it should be, and the world is about to face the consequences.”
Yet though clear on China, Hawley and other Trumpists have never provided a coherent explanation of what the role of the United States should play in Europe; notwithstanding all his America First bravado, former President Trump did not take steps to military disengage from the Atlantic and called on other NATO members to increase their contribution to the alliance. That President Joe Biden has proven to be more aggressive than his predecessor in his approach to China challenges the notion the political Right has to energize the American people to confront Beijing.
At times it seems that some NatCons fantasize about some sort of an alliance between the United States and Russia—as well as with their favorite European authoritarian leader, Hungary’s Viktor Orban—as part of devising a common Western strategy against China. But such an idea doesn’t make a lot of sense given that Russia is trying to strengthen its military ties with China and Hungary is bending the knee to Beijing. Hosting China’s foreign policy chief, Wang Yi, in Budapest, Hungarian Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Szijjarto lauded China and offered his support for China’s Ukraine-Russia peace proposal.
Another and more serious contradiction in the NatCon foreign policy agenda is that many NatCons, despite nominally being anti-interventionist, reject the nuclear deal with Iran and regard political Islam—and in some cases Muslims in general—as a threat to America and the West. Many of these individuals, like former Trump aide Steve Bannon, are also allied with the most militant political forces in Israel that, like Hazony and others, reject any deal with Palestinians and would like to see the United States and Israel prepare for a military confrontation with Iran—something that would inevitably lead to more U.S. interventions in the Middle East that NatCons so often decry.
It’s true that NatCons have broadly opposed neoconservative plans to remake and democratize the Middle East and, more broadly, much of the world. This is, perhaps, a reflection of what foreign policy thinker Walter Russel Mead referred to as the “Jacksonian” impulse in American foreign policy, with its emphasis on the need to use American military power to protect U.S. interests. But at this point in time, the foreign policy agenda embraced by Republican Party leaders, including Senate Republicans, is Hamiltonian and certainly not Jeffersonian.
But much of what the NatCons support on China or other issues doesn’t necessarily reflect consideration of core U.S. national interests—unless such are defined by the need to have a strong national government whose role is to protect American businesses and workers from foreign intervention, and assumes that a rising and prosperous China is by definition a threat to such.
Certainly, the “populist” NatCons have yet to ask the American people whether they are willing to pay the high costs—military, economic, social—of a new Cold War, and whether they are willing to fight a potential hot war to support the independence of Taiwan.
Without clear support from the American people for such an ambitious and costly foreign policy agenda, the NatCons may end up looking very much like the reviled neoconservatives: a bunch of intellectuals seeking to drive the American people to new military adventures in Asia and the Middle East in the name of advancing their own fantasies.
Dr. Leon Hadar, a contributing editor at The National Interest, has taught international relations at American University and was a research fellow with the Cato Institute. A former UN correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, he currently covers Washington for the Business Times of Singapore and is a columnist/blogger with Israel’s Haaretz.
Image: National Conservatism Conference.