Primary concern: Trump, Ukraine, and the Republicans’ foreign policy divisions

The candidates for the Republican primaries hold diverging views on the future of US foreign policy. In the event of a Republican victory, Europeans must prepare for an end to American support to Ukraine

Presidential election 2024 in United States of America
Image by picture alliance / Zoonar | Grzegorz Knec

The first Republican 2025 presidential nomination debate is imminent. While domestic argument is dominated by former president Donald Trump’s criminal indictments and culture wars, Europeans are eager to see what the debate reveals about the foreign policy profiles of GOP presidential contenders.

The most pressing question for Europeans is how the candidates position themselves on Ukraine. Since Russia’s illegal invasion in February 2022, the United States has led the defence effort of Ukraine, and American military assistance has surpassed that of all EU member states combined. A change to the presidency could isolate Europe in its support for Ukraine and play into Vladimir Putin’s hands.

The Republican presidential candidates’ foreign policy positions fall into three tribes – primacists, restrainers, and prioritisers – each holding different views on the United States’ role as a global leader and the threats posed by China. These diverging positions define their respective views on US support for Ukraine.

European hope: The Haley-Pence-Christie primacist tribe

Primacists favour continued US global leadership, including in Europe and Ukraine. The leaders of the primacists, Nikki Haley and Mike Pence, echo the establishment consensus that the strategic defeat of Russia is an issue vital to US national security, as is maintaining strong military support to help Ukraine win. Haley’s mantra is that “a win for Ukraine is a win for all of us”, while Pence has declared that “the war in Ukraine is not our war, but freedom is our fight”. These stand in stark contrast to Trump’s suggestion to not “think of this war in terms of winning and losing” but rather “in terms of ending the war to stop the killings”. Chris Christie, who recently met President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv and visited mass graves in Bucha, is also a primacist.

In contrast to restrainers (who call for an end to aid for Ukraine), Haley, Christie, and Pence have advocated a sharp increase in weapons deliveries. And in contrast to prioritisers (who think that US involvement in Ukraine undermines the country’s ability to deter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan), Haley, Pence, and Christie insist that deterring China in Taiwan requires winning in Ukraine.

Asian focus: DeSantis and the prioritiser tribe

Prioritisers regard the threat posed by China as the United States’ main national security threat and see an urgent need to shift resources from Ukraine to Taiwan. Ron DeSantis, Trump’s main challenger, echoes this view. He opposes the primacist belief that Ukraine is crucial to US national security interests. Instead, DeSantis insists that Russian aggression is a secondary or tertiary threat to the US, while deterring Chinese aggression in Taiwan is a top priority. This would require a reprioritisation of US resources away from Ukraine, where, in DeSantis’s view, Europeans should take the lead. As such, Europe should no longer be America’s focus. According to DeSantis, the “Asia-Pacific needs to be to our generation what Europe has been to the post World War two generation”.

DeSantis views a protracted conflict in Ukraine as playing into China’s hands, maintaining that the depletion of US weapons stocks weakens America’s ability to deter an invasion of Taiwan. For DeSantis, failing to bring the Ukraine war to conclusion leaves the US less capable of defending Taiwan.

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy has also echoed the prioritiser sense of urgency regarding China. But like Trump, who he consistently mimics, he is more compatible with the restrainer camp.

Domestic strength first: Trump’s restrainer tribe

Restrainers’ motto is that US should care more about its own border than foreign borders. In their world, Ukraine and the strategic defeat of Russia are not vital to the US national interest – but ending the war and terminating weapons deliveries is. Ideas advocated by Trump and Ramaswamy to end the war suggest complete indifference to the fate of Ukrainian territorial integrity, as long as the US can put Ukraine on the backburner. Both candidates share the conviction that that US should not be the moral police of the world, and pledge to end directing more resources to support Ukraine. Ramaswamy promised to swiftly negotiate a peace treaty which would freeze the lines of conflict where they are. Trump claimed that he would end the war within 24 hours. The former president also bemoaned the depletion of US weapons stocks caused by the Biden administration’s prioritisation of Ukraine. As worryingly, Ukraine has become part of Trump’s domestic political antagonism: he has accused President Biden of leading the US to the global war for his personal financial benefits.

DeSantis – while prioritising China – also speaks the restrainer language. He sees Russia a lesser threat compared to the threat coming from the cartels smuggling fentanyl on the southern border, securing which he proposes to achieve by using drones and lethal force against the smugglers.

Why does this matter?

The candidates who have most animated the party’s base firmly reject the establishment consensus that a Ukrainian victory is vital to US national security.

Understanding the individual foreign policy profiles in the GOP primary debate reveals the foreign policy trends in the party and where they may lead. As shown in their response to the Russian invasion, the candidates who have most animated the party’s base firmly reject the establishment consensus and primacist view.

Prioritisers and restrainers are not only leading in the primary polls, they are more in touch with Republican voters who think that Russia’s war on Ukraine is not a major threat to the US, that the US is doing too much on Ukraine, and that the US should urge Ukraine to settle the war as soon as possible and ease the costs for American households – even if it means Ukraine losing territory.

And to win the primaries, Republican presidential frontrunners have adjusted their positions to those of the base, seeking to outbid each other in efforts to put America first and show that they are focused on problems closer to home, such as immigration. DeSantis’s shift from a primacist to prioritiser reflects this adjustment.

Those who remain committed to Ukraine’s defence, such as Haley and Pence – who are viewed as part of the Republican establishment against whom Trump has mobilised the base – unsurprisingly, consistently poll in the single digits. Their views are aligned not with the base, but with the Republican congressional elite, which joined the Democrats last month to veto the restrainers’ initiative in the House of Representatives to strip Ukraine of $300m in assistance.

This Republican division contains both good and bad news for Ukraine and Europeans. The good news is that Congress looks set to allow continued US support for Ukraine until 2025. Biden recently asked for an additional $24 billion for Ukraine assistance, which the Senate and House Republicans are likely to pass after attaching additional military support for Taiwan.  

The bad news for Europe is that any candidate expected to win the Republican primary, if elected president, is likely to dramatically shift US foreign policy away from European short-term interests. A change in leadership in Washington would almost certainly dramatically alter the US commitment to Ukraine and European defence. Europeans need to take seriously the views of those who could win the presidency next year and prepare.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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