The US is guilty of “timidity and half-measures” in support of Ukraine, says Tom Cotton, who acquitted Donald Trump for withholding military aid to the same country in 2019. In fairness, the senator from Arkansas is no later to the cause of Ukrainian defence than his Republican colleagues. Most went along with the former president as he flattered Vladimir Putin and undermined Nato while in office. Most are now impeccable hawks on the issue.
The world should be thankful for this show of shamelessness. How a party arrives at the correct position matters less than the fact that it does. In fact, along with western unity and Germany’s commitment to militarise, the GOP’s hard line on Russia has been one of the revelations of the past month. Equivocators and Kremlin apologists in the wider conservative media do not speak for most frontline Republicans.
However pleasing, this moment will be worth little unless the party uses it as a cue for wider reform. It is important to be realistic here. The Ukraine crisis has not had a curative effect on the US right. Trump remains the clear favourite to win the Republican nomination for president in 2024. One of his longstanding conservative critics, Liz Cheney, is not just facing a primary challenger in her Congressional district. Lots of House Republicans, including minority leader Kevin McCarthy, are willing her to lose.
Trump endures, then. If nothing else, though, several features of Trumpism are weaker than they were a month ago. These include a might-is-right view of world affairs, an indifference to European allies and an indulgence of foreign autocrats as not just respectable but competent. Without citing him by name, even when pressed, Republicans have put distance between themselves and much of the Trump worldview. For a sense of the change in the atmosphere, see how the man himself is hardening his once-ambivalent line on Putin in rallies around the country. Always a taker not a maker of public opinion, he knows that Americans, including most registered Republicans, are with Ukraine.
If all that changes in US politics as a result of this war are some aspects of Republican foreign policy, that is of profound value to the world. The party’s other defects — the cult of Trump, the flirtation with domestic extremists — are beyond even the present European crisis to fix. It will take years of draining work by such brave Republican dissenters as Cheney and Senator Mitt Romney, an early Putin-sceptic who stands out as the most reputationally enhanced Republican of the past month.
In a sense, populism has turned out to be self-cancelling. One element of it, contempt for liberalism, brought the US right and Putin together over the past several years. But another, an egoist horror of ever taking a backward step in foreign policy, has also pushed them apart. Putin’s invasion was a challenge not just to a US-friendly country, but to the US-built world order. No self-respecting American nationalist, which is what much of the Republican party claims to be, could allow the act of impudence to pass.
With luck, the GOP that emerges from the present crisis will continue to see the defence of that order as a matter of national pride, not a “globalist” or “elite” fancy. As much as this change of mentality carries its own risks — Trump has gone from equivocal on Russia to ultra-bellicose — it is better than the relativism and America First of recent years. The spectacle of Republicans deriding President Joe Biden for his “half-measures” against Putin is difficult to stomach. It is also a welcome surprise.