Don’t Abandon the Conservative Case for American Global Leadership

August 21, 2023

America never asked to be a superpower. The nations of the world bestowed that authority on the United States in the wake of World War II, when the great empires lay in ruins and the world turned to America to defeat the emerging threat of global communism.

We were asked to lead, so we did — and the world is better off because of it. Within 50 years, the Soviet menace collapsed under the weight of its own sins, and America stood proudly as freedom’s indispensable nation.

Today, there’s a certain kind of conservative, typified by Tucker Carlson and the guests who frequented his Fox program before it was canceled, who argues that America should abruptly vacate her position on the world stage. America, this argument goes, can simply no longer afford to lead the world, and should instead turn inward to focus solely on domestic concerns.

It is true that we face pressing problems at home under the disastrous presidency of Joe Biden. But it is wrong to think that we need to focus on those problems to the exclusion of mounting pressures overseas. The truth is, we can and must do both.

Those who argue for a more isolationist foreign policy act like the United States of America is a wounded animal that needs to hide away from the world to nurse its injuries. The misery that the Biden administration has inflicted on the country is indeed severe, but it is comparable in size and scope to that caused by the ineptitude of the Carter administration. And how did we deal with the domestic problems that typified Carter’s presidency? We elected Ronald Reagan, who simultaneously launched the greatest economic expansion on record and crushed an Evil Empire overseas.

The new, isolationist-minded conservatives frequently point to polls that show waning support for aiding Ukraine, while remaining noticeably quiet when other surveys show the opposite (as many inevitably do, because public opinion on the matter tends to be highly contingent, rising and falling based on how Ukraine is faring). They also tend to argue that the aid American taxpayers have already given Ukraine has been a waste, which even from a purely self-interested standpoint just isn’t true: In reality, we have received an incredible return on the money we’ve provided the Ukrainians. Ukraine still stands against an invading country with four times the population and ten times the GDP, which is a testament to our support. Vladimir Putin recently raised the maximum age for conscription from 27 to 30 — a clear sign that he is desperate for new troops to replace the many thousands he has already lost in the war. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia succeeded earlier this month in gathering more than 40 countries, including China, India, the United States, and Ukraine, to build consensus on Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s ten-point peace plan for his country.

Despite all these reasons for optimism, the burgeoning isolationist movement is hopelessly pessimistic at its core. It begins with a premise that has never, ever been true about the United States: We can’t. Its members believe we can’t possibly check the growing power of the Chinese Communist Party while also bringing down inflation at home, or help Ukraine defend its borders from Putin’s bloodthirsty invasion while also securing our own border.

These are arguments that once would’ve been more likely to emanate from an isolationist Left, and they betray a lack of confidence in America, a dim view of our purpose, and a fundamental disconnect with the principles of our founding. In a predictable irony, the Left has largely rallied to Biden’s side when it comes to Ukraine. Parts of the right, understandably skeptical of anything Biden touches and of international elites, have unfortunately let that skepticism color their view of the war. But other conservatives, such as Tom Cotton and Mike Gallagher, have rightly recognized that the problem isn’t that the Biden administration has aided Ukraine, but that it has done so haltingly and erratically. For far too long, Biden has dragged his feet on providing tanks, fighter jets, and other weapons, preventing Ukraine from making further progress in its counter-offensive. To this day, Biden refuses to provide long-range missiles like the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), which would empower Ukraine to take out key command posts deep behind Russian lines. The United States must equip Ukraine to win, and not just live to fight another day.

The Left has long believed that America is a sinful nation whose only role in international affairs should be writing large checks to other countries as a form of penitence. But responding to the outsized influence progressives have on international institutions by giving up on such institutions completely, as isolationist-minded conservatives would have us do, is not the answer. It will accomplish nothing save for ensuring that the Left captures such institutions permanently.

Beijing is salivating as it watches the war in Ukraine unfold, constantly assessing how much aggression the West will tolerate as it maps out its own invasion plans for Taiwan. Taiwan is also watching Ukraine closely and supporting its defense of its sovereign territory, confounding some on the right who wrongly hold that support for one cause necessarily precludes support for the other. The Taiwanese and the Chinese both know that if American isolationists are successful in pulling the nation away from its support for Ukraine, they will give China the green light it needs to throw the entire Indo-Pacific into chaos.

And such regional chaos would just be the beginning. Power abhors a vacuum — and if America abdicated her responsibility to lead the world, it would leave a very large vacuum indeed. Were the United States to step back from her role, it would send an open invitation for someone else to lead in her stead — and China and Russia are more than willing to take up that mantle.

However America’s foreign engagements may rate in particular polls, we can be sure that the American people would deeply detest a world in which American leadership were diminished or even disappeared outright. Conservatives shouldn’t welcome the prospect of such a world. Instead, we should take the more difficult but principled path blazed by our forebears, accepting the responsibilities of global leadership in order to secure our freedom and prosperity here at home, and to ensure stability around the world. There is nothing stopping us from simultaneously securing our border, ending inflation, balancing our budget, lowering taxes, and fixing all the other messes that Biden and the Democrats have created — save for our will to rise to these challenges in the ways our forebears did.

Tim Chapman is a senior adviser at Advancing American Freedom.