Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy—Two Contrasting Visions

February 17, 2024 Topic: Politics Region: Americas Tags: Nikki HaleyU.S. Foreign PolicyDonald Trump

Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy—Two Contrasting Visions

Interventionism, as espoused by Nikki Haley, is increasingly unpopular, and its dominance of foreign policy is increasingly anti-democratic.

In his final rally before winning the New Hampshire primary, Donald Trump brought on stage recently withdrawn candidate Vivek Ramaswamy while going after active candidate Nikki Haley. This seemed highly appropriate given the two Indian-American contenders engaged in one of the most bitter rivalries of the Republican primary. It was also one of the most revealing. Part of the venom between the two spurted from Trump and Ramaswamy’s challenge to the interventionist foreign policy orthodoxy. More than any other, Haley’s candidacy represents this orthodoxy at its most anti-democratic. Long after she is defeated, her establishment backers will try to push Trump toward interventionist adventures, as seen in his first term. Ramaswamy, as a VP, is a potential bulwark against this. 

Nikki and Democracy

Ramaswamy’s statement, “Nikki, I don’t have a woman problem. You have a corruption problem,” went viral. This was because it voiced a rage among significant sections of the public at being plied with identity tokenism while the fundamental questions of governance, including foreign policy, remain determined only by the donor class. A 2014 Princeton study assessing public opinion and government policy over twenty years found that while “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact,” the opinions of “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts.” No one embodies this more than Nikki Haley, the last standing Republican opponent to Trump.

For most of the primary, Haley trailed DeSantis by a small margin and Trump by a large margin. And yet Haley has been consistently hoisted up by the donor class and foisted upon the public by the mainstream media.

On the question of Ukraine, Haley has been the most vocal supporter of continued U.S. support of Ukraine among the major Republican candidates, seeking to outdo Biden and the mainstream media. This is despite Pew polling revealing that the number of GOP voters who felt the United States was not doing enough for Ukraine had fallen to just 14 percent in June 2023. The number of people who thought the United States was doing too much for Ukraine had grown from 9 percent in March 2022 to 41 percent in November 2023. 62 percent of Republican voters now feel that current levels of aid are excessive. Among the general public, a plurality now believes the United States is providing too much assistance to Ukraine. The strategic justifications for funding (that it strengthens America’s security) and moral justifications (that Ukraine is a democracy fighting for democracy) have been increasingly challenged in the public debate. 

Regarding the reheated Israel-Palestine conflict, polling has seen support for Israel drop since October 7. 68 percent of respondents in a Reuters/Ipsos poll believed Israel should call a ceasefire and try to negotiate. When directly asked whether they would be more inclined to vote for politicians who support a ceasefire, people answered in the affirmative by a margin of two to one.

Yet, Nikki Haley stands out, even among the chorus of pro-Israel virtue signaling across the U.S. establishment. Her particularly bloodthirsty soundbite, “finish them,” set the tone. Not only did she stand alongside Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) in calling for an attack on Iran after the recent deaths of U.S. soldiers in the region, but she had even called for it four months ago after the October 7 attacks on Israel. Haley even implied that the attacks had been coordinated with Russia since October 7 is Vladimir Putin’s birth date, reminiscent of the tactics to associate Saddam Hussein with 9/11. But despite driving in the opposite direction of voter opinion, Haley continues to collect megadonors. She was endorsed by the CEO of J.P. Morgan and a former Goldman Sachs President and met with BlackRock CEO Larry Fink. She also received support from Democratic Party donor Reid Hoffman, underlining the unity across the donor class.

Astonishingly, Haley’s increasingly unpopular, defunct, and debunked positions in relation to the policy questions of our time have not prevented but rather assisted her anointment by the establishment as the preferred challenger to Trump. 

Mainstream media as well. She has been praised for her foreign policy credentials by MSNBC pundits. Politico’s hit piece on Ramaswamy accused him of cynicism, alleging “if neo-conservatism were still in the fashion he’d eagerly out-Cheney Liz Cheney,” without mentioning that Haley, one of the two people it stated were “serious contenders,” is actually trying to out-Cheney Cheney, not caring that neoconservatism is out of fashion because it is not out of fashion with donors. Thus, her candidacy exemplifies the undue influence increasingly threatening electoral democracy over the last half-century.

Ramaswamy himself articulated this undue influence when speaking with Tucker Carlson. The businessman mentioned one of the most striking things he had learned entering politics was that—despite his skeptical Ukraine stance being popular with the Republican base—it was vehemently opposed by every single donor he had met. 

Vivek the Challenger

This issue demonstrates how, within current Republican boundaries, the two Indian-Americans are almost polar opposites. Ramaswamy, independently wealthy like Trump, has used his freedom from donors to hammer former weapons industry employee and current weapons industry shareholder Haley, who went from a low net worth to multimillionaire during her political career. In the Miami debate, Ramaswamy rumbled two of the establishment’s most sacred cows and two of the most beneficial to the military-industrial complex. He called out the media for Russiagate and questioned Ukrainian democracy under Zelensky. Even on Israel-Gaza, though far less courageous than his Ukraine stance, by speaking out against U.S. military involvement, he is the least neocon of his cohort (including Trump, who has often been America First except when it comes to Israel). 

The candidates’ approaches to foreign policy partly reflect their two distinct identities as Indian Americans, defined by the degrees of obsequiousness to power. Nimarata ‘Nikki’ Haley, who goes by her Anglo-sounding middle name, seems to epitomize a “go-along to get along” mindset. She has played the game to the best of her ability, knowing that a career in politics means scrambling for donors—among them, defense contractors. Appealing to voters is secondary, as evidenced by her unpreparedness for even the most basic scrutiny during an interview with Tucker. Carlson raised the question of the Nord Stream pipeline, and all she could manage was a cringeworthy attempt at humor to deflect from the complete mainstream media blackout at the time.

Vivek Ramaswamy, a Hindu Brahmin, while far from advertising his heritage, does not jettison it either. Rather, he seeks to find overlap with the values of the typical GOP voter—namely in respect for tradition and religious belief. When pressed on his “opinion of Jesus Christ,” he highlighted Hinduism’s pluralistic acceptance of multiple paths to the divine, hoping this would be enough for Christian conservatives. He also attempts to play the game, as seen in his early focus on culture-war diversions, riding the anti-woke wave. But his foreign policy positions evince a certain degree of authenticity, about the same amount that helped Trump win the nomination and election last time.  

Both Ramaswamy and Trump’s anti-interventionist, nationalist instincts chime with significant elements of the Indian diaspora. Despite traditionally voting Democrat, Biden’s Ukraine stance seems to have elicited noteworthy dissatisfaction from the diaspora. Social media was flooded with videos of Indian External Affairs Minister Jaishankar and Indian media pundits eviscerating Western commentators over hypocrisy regarding the condemnation of Russia and India for continuing trade with Russia.  

Times They Are A-Changin’

Thus, the two reflect a broader political and generational shift in America and the West. Neoconservative interventionism is increasingly unpopular, and its dominance as the orthodoxy within foreign policy is increasingly anti-democratic. Furthermore, as the world moves toward multipolarity, it is becoming increasingly dangerous and impractical. The extent of Haley’s darlinghood with the donor class and their media mouthpieces, despite the fact that she has a slim-to-nil chance of beating Trump, is indicative of the current system of donor-dominated democracy. She repeats pro-war talking points not because she thinks it will win her votes but because she knows it’s what donors want her to say. They want her to say it because it makes ordinary people think that interventionism is the normal and correct way of thinking about America’s role in the world, and any divergent views they hold are fringe. This is a system well past its sell-by-date. 

Trump has the potential to roll this back, but only if he fills his cabinet with more Trumpers and fewer swampers. The anti-interventionist vision alluded to by Ramaswamy—of an America that minds its own business and looks after its own—is something that increasingly unites not only MAGA voters but also most Americans and the vast majority of the world’s people.

Kadira Pethiyagoda is a foreign policy expert, a former political advisor, and a former fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of Indian Foreign Policy and Cultural Values (Palgrave 2020). Find him on X at @KPethiyagoda.