Polarised power: The three Republican ‘tribes’ that could define America’s relationship with the world
Three Republican ‘tribes’ are competing to write their next president’s US foreign policy. Whether ‘restrainers,’ ‘prioritisers,’ or ‘primacists’ emerge on top will have profound implications for Europe and the globe
Against expectations, the Democrats held the US Senate in the midterm elections even as they appear to have lost control of the House of Representatives. The razor-thin race shows just how split the United States remains, and implies the 2024 presidential contest will be extremely tight. Despite the GOP’s underperformance this November, the return of a Republican president in two years’ time is still a strong possibility. Donald Trump’s announcement of another run for the White House has just made that prospect more frightening for western Europeans. But, whatever his chances of winning the nomination may be, the fact remains that the eventual victor in the primaries will have to be a candidate in the MAGA mould. Regardless of what happens to Trump, Trumpism is not going away.
But what does this mean for Europeans? We know what a Republican presidency would mean on domestic matters such as abortion, guns, and immigration – but the party remains split on key foreign policy questions. As a result, a number of aspiring Republican leaders and political entrepreneurs are currently seeking to define such a foreign policy doctrine for their next president, be that Trump, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, or someone else.
Within this firmament, three main ‘tribes’ are emerging and competing to do this: the restrainers, the prioritisers, and the primacists. If a Republican president takes office in 2025, one of these tribes will likely revolutionise US foreign policy along one of these lines. Europeans need to prepare now for the various shades of this deep red view of America’s role in the world.
Defining the tribes
To understand what separates the tribes on foreign policy, it is first necessary to see what unites them in this area. All three tribes begin from accepting the MAGA inheritance on domestic policy and applying it in the international arena. These include the anti-wokeness agenda, the demand for a much more restrictive immigration policy, and a belief that the US has suffered economically and culturally from globalisation. Such stances suggest that any GOP foreign policy will translate into antipathy towards efforts to combat climate change and renewable energy, growing opposition to free trade, and a profound sense that the US needs a radically new economic relationship with China. A Republican party that once championed free trade and globalisation now stands united behind retaliatory tariffs, strategic industrial policy, and export controls. While these are mostly aimed at China, they will have significant implications for Europe as well.
But, beyond this core, the tribes differ over the nature of the United States’ role in the world, the attitude toward allies and alliances, and the commitment to European security and the war in Ukraine.
The restrainers in the party include those who hark back to the Jacksonian tradition of American foreign policy. They advocate strength at home and restraint in deploying and using military force abroad. Hardcore restrainers such as Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee support fewer commitments for the US abroad and disentanglement from US alliances, including NATO. Along with prominent Trump advisers such as Steve Bannon and Richard Grenell, they advocate reducing US support to Ukraine. Restrainers are currently a minority within the Republican party elite, but, in May, 11 Republican senators and 57 representatives voted against the Biden administration’s $40 billion aid package to Ukraine. The antipathy towards engagement in Ukraine, according to news outlet Axios, “is poised to rise considerably, especially if more skeptical Republican candidates are swept into Congress in a GOP wave.” Newly elected MAGA legislators such as the Ohio senator JD Vance and Texas representative Wesley Hunt have contrasted the aid given to Ukraine with the alleged lack of attention to the United States’ southern border and other domestic problems.
The restrainer camp often likes to consider Trump one of their own. During his term in office, however, Trump demonstrated only a very fickle adherence to this tribe. At times, he declared he would withdraw US forces from Syria, Afghanistan, and even end US membership of NATO – before failing to do any of these things, while at times threatening interventions in Iran and North Korea. In the end, Trump was more restrained than any other post-cold war US president, but his inconsistencies allow each tribe to imagine he might be a member. (Similarly, DeSantis is an unknown quantity on foreign policy and different camps will compete to define his agenda.)
For those Republican foreign policy thinkers who want to maintain a forward presence in the world, the key split is over the priority to give to China. The prioritisers see the strategic challenge that China presents to the US as profound and existential. Like the restrainers, they emphasise that US resources are limited, but they feel that the Chinese threat requires a forward response on a par with the American effort against the Soviet Union. They worry that US attention and resources devoted to other, less critical theatres such as Europe and the Middle East will sap US strength for the coming battle with China. Republicans such as Missouri senator Josh Hawley and Elbridge Colby, former deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Defence, see the intensity of the US competition with China over Taiwan as producing two inevitabilities: a military confrontation with China over Taiwan and a US withdrawal from Europe and the Middle East. They insist that the scale of the China challenge means that the US does not have a two-war military capacity. Senator Hawley voted against NATO membership for Sweden and Finland as well as against continued military support to Ukraine, arguing that America is overstretched and unable to defend its more important ally Taiwan.
The primacist camp, by contrast, believes that Washington can and must maintain US leadership and military presence worldwide. It includes individuals such as Nikki Haley, Mike Pompeo, John Bolton, and Mike Pence, establishment figures who all joined the MAGA bandwagon and served in the Trump administration. The primacists were against the withdrawal from Afghanistan in spite of Trump’s promise to end the ‘forever wars.’ They see Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a direct consequence of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which they believe signalled American weakness. They thus argue that the US must stay engaged and maintain a strong deterrent posture not only in Asia but also in Europe and the Middle East. They do not accept the idea that the US lacks the resources to maintain global leadership, but they do acknowledge that doing so will require America’s allies, particularly in Europe and east Asia, to contribute more to global security challenges.
|US role in the world||Reserved||Leadership||Leadership|
|Allies||Freeloaders||Potential assets, need to step up||Assets, need to step up|
|International institutions||Uninterested||Limit US freedom||Instruments of hegemony|
|Military interventions||Restraint||Hawkish focus on Asia||Diffuse hawkishness|
|NATO||Sceptical, Anti-enlargement||Committed, Anti-enlargement||Committed, Pro-enlargement|
|View on European sovereignty||Go with God||Necessary to help with China||Heighten capabilities, but remain under US leadership|
|Russia and Ukraine||Not our fight||Distracts from China||Maximum support for Ukraine to counter Russia and China|
|Trade and strategic industrial policy||Economic nationalism, Reshoring||Economic nationalism, Reshoring||Economic nationalism, Reshoring|
|China – Economic policy||Decoupling, import restrictions, export controls||Decoupling, import restrictions, export controls||Decoupling, import restrictions, export controls|
|China – Security policy||Guarded||Hawkish||Hawkish|
|Middle East||Retrenchment||Rely on regional powers for stability||US regional hegemony with local allies|
|Iran||Against JCPOA||Against JCPOA “maximum pressure” campaign, short of using military force||Against JCPOA “maximum pressure” campaign, including the use of military force|
|Climate agenda||Strong opposition||Strong opposition||Strong opposition|
|Energy||Greater US energy independence, scaling up US fossil fuel production||Greater US energy independence, scaling up US fossil fuel production||Global fossil fuel and nuclear energy market under US leadership|
Implications for America’s allies in Europe
Any Republican administration will present difficult policy challenges for most European governments, but which foreign policy tribe takes control will matter enormously to US allies. If the restrainers or prioritisers are dominant, Europeans will need to prepare for a withdrawal of US security commitments in Europe. Under the restrainers, this withdrawal could be quite precipitous, leaving Europeans to pick up the pieces. The prioritisers would seek a more orderly withdrawal, but nonetheless insist that Europeans take the lead in dealing with Russia, supporting Ukraine, and generally promoting stability in Europe. The primacists will maintain US leadership in these areas but still demand a much greater European contribution to addressing US problems in Asia and the Middle East, perhaps to include support for using military force against Iran.
While these differences will be important to Europeans, the commonalities may prove as important. All of the tribes described are hostile to the European Union’s climate agenda and will pursue an aggressive economic decoupling from China, involving export controls on technology, reshoring, and scaling up economic protectionism. They will expect the EU to follow suit even as US industrial policy and reduced European exports to China affect European prosperity. As one Republican strategist noted to us, “Europeans will be asked[by any Republican president] to take sides on China. Anyone who thinks they can stay neutral in this fight is just nuts.” Of course, the outcome of the 2024 presidential election is far from clear. But, regardless, the back and forth of US politics means that Republicans – or, rather, the MAGA party – are coming eventually.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.