Conservative thinkers and leaders who believe in foreign policy restraint met Thursday for an “emergency conference” in response to the invasion of Ukraine. Many of the speakers conjectured that the media and political elite are escalating the U.S.’s role in the conflict in worrying ways. Sen. Rand Paul, Ohio Senate candidate J. D. Vance, Compact magazine founder Sohrab Ahmari, “Breaking Points” host Saagar Enjeti, and Federalist editor-in-chief Mollie Hemingway were among the speakers.
The isolationist strand of conservatism has grown in recent decades, as it was accelerated by distaste for the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan. The American Conservative, one of the co-sponsors of the conference, was founded in opposition to the Iraq War in 2002. Conservative isolationists found their ideas brought to the forefront in 2016 when then-candidate Donald Trump delivered a speech calling for “a new foreign policy direction for our country” that would replace “chaos with peace.”
“My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people and American security above all else,” said Trump. “It has to be first. Has to be.”
The conference seemed to echo the language from Trump’s speech in its title: “Up From Chaos: Conserving American Security.” American Moment, the other co-sponsor of the event, introduced its conference by blaming the invasion of Ukraine on Washington’s “failed, bipartisan foreign policy consensus.”
“Since the end of the Cold War,” American Moment’s event description says, “American elites squandered our peace dividend and chose instead to pursue endless and aimless engagement abroad.”
Many of the conference’s speakers postulated that America’s media and political class is egging on a further escalation against Russia. Joe Kent, a congressional candidate from Washington, told attendees that the elite is “dead set” on sending the U.S. into the conflict. Hemingway aimed her ire at the media, saying, “CNN is pushing for escalation.”
Others used the word “propaganda” to describe information coming out of Ukraine which they claimed is meant to encourage the U.S. to involve itself in the conflict.
Rachel Bovard, the senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute, said that the conflict in Ukraine is being filtered to the U.S. through “mass narrative control.” Bovard said that there is “an element of narrative shaping that plays into America’s moral fervor.” There’s a “hype that captures us,” she said.
Micah Meadowcroft, the managing editor of the American Conservative, drew attention to American shows of support for Ukraine and pointed out that the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., has been lit up in blue and yellow lights for “night after night.” He asked what would be different “propaganda-wise” if the U.S. were actually a belligerent in the war.
“Why,” asked Hemingway, “is the American public being targeted by a propaganda campaign?”
Vance argued that the conflict is being framed in explicitly moral terms in the United States. Taking a realist stance on foreign policy, he argued that one should always separate care and concern for people around the world from policymaking. “Let’s step back and separate ourselves from the moral dimensions,” he said in reference to what one should do when evaluating a conflict.
Vance concluded that Ukraine is not in the vital interest of the United States. Thus, according to his restrained foreign policy goals, he believes the U.S. should not involve itself. Further, Vance said he believes NATO is “not actually serving an especially useful function.” He asked, “In practice, what does [NATO] actually do for us?” and said, “Using American power to do the dirty work for NATO is a pretty bad idea.”
Vance has faced strong backlash — including, he said at the conference, from some of his own donors — for his remarks on Ukraine. “I gotta be honest with you,” Vance said in the leadup to the invasion, “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another.” He later said, “Spare me the performative affection for the Ukraine.” He has since fallen in the polls, receiving 11 percent support in the most recent one. The Ohio Senate primary will be held on May 3.
In his speech, Vance lauded University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer, calling him “one of the great realist thinkers in American foreign policy.” Mearsheimer blames the West for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in line with his theory that great powers seek to achieve regional hegemony in an international system which is anarchical. NATO’s expansion, he argues, therefore incited Russian President Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine in order to preserve that hegemony. Others have argued that Mearsheimer’s claim that Russia felt threatened by NATO expansion or by the possibility that Ukraine would join NATO is just buying into Russian propaganda, as Putin had no real reason to fear that NATO would attack him.
Vance was not alone in lauding Mearsheimer. Adam Korzeniewski, who was an official in the Treasury Department during the Trump administration, did so as well, while Dan Caldwell, the vice president of foreign policy at Stand Together, denounced the fierceness of the ongoing attacks on Mearsheimer.
Some of the speakers argued that the U.S. has already escalated its response to the Russian invasion to an inappropriate level.
Kent, for instance, said that the U.S. is “backing [Putin] into a corner.” He continued, saying, “This is going to lead to a World War III scenario or a prolonged campaign in Ukraine.”
He argued that the sanctions the U.S. has imposed on Russia are so excessive that they could lead to the “death of the U.S. dollar.” He said that the U.S. is setting itself up for a “financial Pearl Harbor.” What the U.S. is doing in Ukraine, he argued, is “wrong for the American people.” Kent urged for diplomacy to be used to put a stop to the conflict, saying at one point that it would be reasonable for Putin to demand parts of eastern Ukraine, which he noted are Russian-speaking.
Kent’s account of the damage he said the sanctions are creating back home showcased that some of the Right’s new isolationist thinkers are even more doctrinaire in their restraint than the isolationists of the past. In comparison to the isolationism of many of the other speakers, Paul seemed almost hawkish as he voiced his support for putting sanctions on Russia. He has long been seen as following in the isolationist direction of his father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul. Paul also noted that the invasion has been a disaster for Putin.
Some in recent weeks have denounced the isolationist Right’s rhetoric and occasional suspicion of Ukraine as being pro-Putin, which the speakers repeatedly mentioned and attempted to ward off with disclaimers that they do in fact denounce Putin’s invasion and feel for the people of Ukraine.
Vance argued against the perspective that the conflict in Ukraine is as simple as “good guys vs. bad guys.” He accidentally had a slip of the tongue and said, “The guy in Russia is good, sorry I mean bad,” in reference to Putin, thus quickly clarifying that he is not pro-Putin as he has been made out to be.
Meadowcroft took on a similar perspective that the war in Ukraine isn’t so black and white, and quoted Russian novelist and Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to illustrate this point. He read: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
While the speakers at this conference favor isolationism, most Republicans in the House and the Senate have been pushing President Joe Biden to stand up even more aggressively against Putin, setting up a heated debate in the conservative movement.