The USA, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) There was a fascinating exchange between Vivek Ramaswamy and Nikki Haley during Wednesday night’s Republican debate that occurred when the two candidates argued with each other over foreign policy. Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, served as Ambassador to the United Nations during the Trump administration where she earned a reputation as being one of the more rational and functional members of Trump’s cabinet, a very low bar to be sure.
Haley expressed a conventional conservative view of American foreign policy. “When you look at the situation with Russia and Ukraine, here you have a pro-American country that was invaded by a thug…But what’s really important is go back to when China and Russia held hands, shook hands before the Olympics, and named themselves unlimited partners. A win for Russia is a win for China…Ukraine is the first line of defense for us. And the problem that Vivek doesn’t understand is, he wants to hand Ukraine to Russia. He wants to let China eat Taiwan. He wants to go and stop funding Israel.”
Mike Pence took a similar position couching his strong support for Ukraine in the Reagan era slogan “Peace through Strength.”
Ramaswamy, who is part of the isolationist, America First, wing of the Republican Party, doesn’t support any of this. When asked if he would support increased support for Ukraine, Ramaswamy responded “I would not. And I think that this is disastrous, that we are protecting against an invasion across somebody else’s border when we should use those same military resources to prevent across the invasion of our own southern border here in the United States of America.” A minute or so later he added, “Ukraine is not a priority for the United States of America. And I think that the same people that took us into Iraq War, the same people who took us into the Vietnam War, you cannot end — you not start another no-win war.”
From the 1960s through the about 2015, the views of Haley and Pence would have been the consensus within the GOP, and among the American foreign policy establishment more broadly. However, even back then many Americans would have not fully embraced those ideas. Ramaswamy, like Trump, seems to understand that, and believes that supporting an isolationist foreign policy, even if it means a weak United States and allowing dictators like Russia’s, Vladimir Putin to gain more power, is not going to hurt him electorally.
Pence and Haley both attacked Ramaswamy for having very little foreign policy experience or knowledge. Ramaswamy demonstrated this by, for example, arguing that US support for Ukraine would lead to a close alliance between Russia and China. That alliance existed before the war started. He also rebuted Pence’s anti-Russian views by saying “I have a newsflash. The USSR does not exist anymore. It fell back in 1990.” It was a good soundbite, except the USSR collapsed in 1991, not 1990.
In some respects, Ramaswamy thought to make up for this lack of knowledge and experience by simply speaking over everybody, but he also made some points that resonate with Republican voters and the electorate more broadly. His allusion to Vietnam and Iraq, and the possibility of another endless war, strikes a chord with many Americans who are indeed both wary of US intervention around the globe and, for good reason, distrustful of the foreign policy establishment.
During the foreign policy argument with Haley, rather than make a point based on substance or facts Ramaswamy told the former governor and ambassador, “I wish you well on your future career on the boards of Lockheed and Raytheon.” It was a nasty ad hominin attack, but it also had more than a vague ring of truth to it. Haley is not going to be president and has cut her ties with the leading GOP candidate, Donald Trump. She might find a place in a hypothetical DeSantis administration, but the Florida Governor’s chances of getting nominated seem quite slim. Given that, Haley will probably spend the next few years sitting on corporate boards, giving speeches and otherwise enriching herself as a political insider, just as Ramaswamy’s comment implied.
The contretemps between Ramaswamy and Haley was also about the future of the Republican Party. Ramaswamy has emerged as the leading non-Trump voice in the Republican field for the nationalist fascist movement that has defined so much of the GOP over the last eight years or so. Ramaswamy not only shares Trump’s foreign policy perspective, but spent much of the debate making his support for Trump clear. Haley seems to want to balance a more conventional pre-Trump Republican Party with not pushing back too aggressively against the new fascism that now defines her party.
Haley is a former governor and cabinet member with a resume that would have made her a strong candidate in the pre-Trump GOP. Ramaswamy is a rich businessman with no experience in government, but ample bluster, the ability to brazenly lie and, for many Republicans, charisma. That is pretty much exactly what Trump was in 2015.
Throughout the debate Ramaswamy showed not only why he might lead the post-Trump MAGA movement, but why he is a potentially more dangerous figure. Trumps efforts to destroy American democracy were always hamstrung by his incompetence and his mental instability. His lack of self-control, inability to plan and execute anything, personal laziness, slovenly habits and avarice always made it more difficult for him to pursue a political agenda. Ramaswamy seems much more disciplined and much smarter while sharing the core beliefs of the MAGA movement.
Ramaswamy will not be the nominee in 2024 because unless Donald Trump has a major health, he will be the nominee. However, even if Trump wins in 2024, given his age, health and the 22nd Amendment, after this election Trump’s personal dominance of the GOP will wind down. When that happens, from what we have seen so far in this primary, and in last night’s debate, Ramaswamy is very well-positioned to take up the mantle of leadership of the MAGA fascist movement Trump has forged.