Source: European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

Republican Tribes

Three main Republican foreign policy tribes are emerging and competing for the mind of the next Republican president. These are: the Restrainers, the Prioritizers, and the Primacists.

All three tribes begin from accepting the Trump-era inheritance on domestic policy and applying it in the international arena. This includes 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 globalization. Such stances suggest that any potential GOP president will: reverse the current administration’s efforts to combat climate change and expand investments in the fossil fuel sector; express the antipathy towards free trade inherited from the Trump era; and maintain the focus on the rivalry with China.

But, beyond this core, the tribes, and the potential leaders of the next US administration, 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.

  1. Restrainers: The ‘restrainers’ in the party advocate strength at home and restraint in deploying and using military force abroad. Hardcore restrainers support fewer commitments for the US abroad and disentanglement from US alliances, including NATO. They advocate reducing US assistance to Ukraine. Restrainers are currently a minority within the Republican party elite, but their positions reflect the views of the Republican base that it is not America’s job to defend wealthy European nations from Putin, and that US tax dollars would be better spent on building a wall to stanch the “spiraling tsunami” of immigrants at the United States’ southern border. The restrainer camp, whose foreign policy discourse is shaped by current and former allies of Trump often likes to consider Trump one of their own. However, during his presidential term, Trump demonstrated only a very fickle adherence to this tribe. At times, he declared he would withdraw US forces from Syria and 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. On Ukraine, he has insisted that Biden is leading the US into world war three and declared that, once back in the White House, he would end the conflict within 24 hours. Overall, Trump continues to espouse a more restrained foreign policy than any other post-cold war US president, but his inconsistencies allow each tribe to imagine he might be a member.
  2. Prioritizers: 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 ‘prioritizers’ see the strategic challenge that China presents to the US as profound and existential. Like the restrainers, they emphasize 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. They 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. Some 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.
  3. Primacists: The ‘primacist’ camp believes that Washington can and must maintain US leadership and military presence worldwide. It includes individuals and establishment figures who all joined the Trump bandwagon and served in his administration. The primacists were against the withdrawal from Afghanistan. They see Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a direct consequence of that withdrawal, 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.

Democratic Tribes

Three tribes are emerging on the Democratic side: Leaders, Realists, and Progressives will shape Biden’s foreign policy, should he be re-elected.

Foreign policy divisions among Democrats are less stark than those tearing apart the Republicans, in part because of the Democrats’ political imperative to support the president. When a group of 30 progressive lawmakers published a letter to Biden urging talks to end the war in Ukraine in October 2022, they retracted it just three days later. With Biden now officially running for re-election, the party has mostly united behind a strategy of trumpeting the successes of the president’s first two years. Democratic lawmakers have thus rallied behind the president to support Ukraine; they have backed his choices to retreat from Afghanistan; and they have endorsed the Biden administration’s “foreign policy for the middle class”, through large climate and industrial legislation.

Nonetheless, increasingly visible foreign policy divisions lurk beneath the surface of this Democratic unity. The following three tribes represent broad groupings of lawmakers and experts who rally around certain instincts and approaches.

  1. Leaders: A substantial portion of the Democratic party – inheritors of the cold war internationalism tradition – continues to believe in America’s role as a guarantor of world order. They believe that the US must assume a leadership position, stay focused on its alliances, and push back against revisionist powers – Russia and China foremost. Along with Biden, the members of this ‘leaders’ tribe express strong support for NATO and they back Finnish and Swedish NATO membership. They are also highly focused on building up Asian alliances: the Quad, AUKUS, US-Japan-ROK, and US-ASEAN are all now cornerstones of American strategy in Asia. On Ukraine, the leaders are focused on imposing a strategic defeat on Russia. In their words any weapon should get to Ukraine; there is no negotiating with Putin; he must be stopped or another NATO country is at risk. The same goes for China: the leadership tribe encourages the administration to do more in Ukraine in order to send a message to China. 
  2. Realists: As the war in Ukraine has reinforced the leadership tribe, a more ‘realist’ tribe has begun to emerge. This loose group is more prevalent in think-tanks than in Congress. Its members believe American power is limited, that the international system is moving inexorably towards multipolarity, and that the US should focus primarily on vital interests while leaving allies and partners to take up more of the slack. Realists are wary of military entanglements and viewed he Afghanistan withdrawal as a necessary, long-overdue decision. Senator Chris Murphy, a member of the US senate foreign relations committee, has spoken in favour of sunsetting future authorisations for use of military force after two years, in order to place a check on the interventionism of the executive branch. Realists pay close attention to military strategies that may drag the US into future conflicts and they denounce rhetoric that, in their view, increases the risk of US-China conflict over Taiwan. On Ukraine, realists are focused on finding an exit. They are ready0 to support negotiations when conditions are appropriate, even if Ukraine may have to make territorial concessions – ultimately, they believe that Russia will have learned its lesson by paying a price for these concessions. Realist think-tank experts have made the case for caution and diplomacy and warned of the risk of a long war. Realists advocate the use of sanctions, or even economic warfare, as elements of integrated deterrence, but also anti-corruption and anti-kleptocracy legislation as ways to undermine the strength of authoritarian powers. They believe in the rules-based order as a means to constrain actors and build global consensus. Similarly, climate-friendly policies are to be used to constrain revisionist power. 
  3. Progressives: ‘Progressives,’ by contrast, believe that American power is too militaristic, supports oppressive regimes, and has to be redirected. With deep roots in the Congressional Black Caucus and in trades union activism, progressives care about social and racial justice and advancing the working class. In domestic as in foreign policy, progressives are pro-poor, pro-minorities, pro-immigrant, pro-LGBTQ, and pro-worker. For many of them, the US should lead a climate-focused foreign policy that would tackle climate change as a source of poverty and migration in the global south. Others believe the US should seek to become once again a global manufacturing superpower. Progressives are committed to the defence of Ukraine, which they view as the victim of a war of aggression. They voted largely in favour of economic assistance, although several of them opposed increased military aid. In the long term, progressives worry about nuclear escalation and the use of offensive weapons. They lament the over-militarisation of foreign policy in general and believe that the US is pushing to a military build-up in Asia through AUKUS and other military agreements. A small group of members of Congress, called the Defense Spending Reduction Caucus, are pressing for a reduction in the military budget, and for some of this to be redirected towards social programmes at home. In early 2023, the caucus’s co-chairs, argued for $100 billion of the Pentagon’s budget to be slashed.

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