The Next U.S. President Will Need to Defeat Isolationism
As they look toward the 2024 election, Americans must ask which leader can win the peace.
The next president will almost certainly inherit some kind of peace in Ukraine. As the economist Herb Stein said, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” This war cannot go on forever, certainly not at its current intensity. It will stop or dwindle into a cease-fire, official or otherwise. The potential contenders for the 2024 U.S. presidential election talk about how to deal with the conflict, but by the time one of them gets the job, he or she will most likely face the question of how to deal with the aftermath.
So, in assessing the presumptive candidates for president, a crucial question to ponder is: Who would be the most successful peacemaker?
Ukraine will have to be rebuilt, a mission that will cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Some of that money can perhaps be squeezed from Russia—for example, by transferring frozen Russian assets to Ukraine. But the greater part will likely have to come from Ukraine’s Western allies.
This reconstruction will surely prove a solid investment, as did the outlay to rebuild the liberated former Warsaw Pact countries after the end of the Cold War. From 2004 to 2021, Poland alone received some $225 billion in European Union funds. Over that same period, the Polish economy has nearly doubled in size; the country has roughly tripled its imports from EU trading partners such as Germany, France, and Italy.
However, it takes vision and generosity to see economic potential amid the ruin left by war. Politicians who shake their heads and mutter about “blank checks” lack that vision and generosity. They follow in the inglorious tradition of Senator Robert Taft, who opposed the Marshall Plan in 1947, because it might cause inflation and raise taxes in the U.S., as well as the creation of NATO in 1949, because the Soviet Union might regard it as provocative.
Russia must somehow be reintegrated into the community of nations. Tough-minded diplomacy will be necessary to offer relief from Western sanctions in return for Russian commitments on peace, security, and economic reconstruction. Russia’s aggression and atrocities have inflamed emotions, especially among its immediate neighbors. Only those Western leaders with clear pro-Ukraine credentials will have the moral authority to persuade all of NATO’s members to accept possibly distasteful compromises and concessions for the sake of peace.
Successful peacemaking will demand creative new ideas about energy security. Russia tried to use gas exports as a weapon against Europe. The weapon did not work as Russia had hoped, but it inflicted cost, pain, and insecurity. After this war, Europe will want to pivot permanently away from Russia as an energy supplier. Organizing a secure transatlantic market in liquified natural gas, and then transitioning away from fossil fuels entirely, will be a huge undertaking that will require close cooperation among its participants. Politicians who distrust European allies as freeloaders—and who reject a transition away from oil and gas as an ultimate goal—are unlikely to succeed in this job.
The shock of the war in Ukraine has cost Europe dear. Although the EU forecasts no recession in 2023, the outlook is worrying. The energy transition will be expensive. European populations are aging, their workforces poised to shrink. Europe needs a new motor of growth. Trade liberalization is the most promising candidate. Reviving the dormant idea of a Transatlantic Free Trade Area spanning the EU, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the U.S. could help Europe afford its share of Ukraine’s reconstruction. Antitrade politicians will fail as peacemakers.
The peace the next president should pursue is not merely a regional compact. The conflict we all dread most is a war with China, sparked by Chinese aggression against Taiwan or another of China’s neighbors. To safeguard that peace will require new global institutions that have absorbed the lessons of the terrible war in Ukraine—starting with the need for defense cooperation among democratic allies. Politicians who use the word global as an insult will have no grasp of the problems of peacemaking, let alone the capacity to solve them. Both major American parties contain figures who are skeptical of collective security and international alliances. Both also have antitrade politicians. President Joe Biden himself has fallen away from the free-trade principles he held earlier in his career.
But Republicans are the ones who have turned most radically inward. Former President Donald Trump just this month reaffirmed that his idea of peacemaking is not integrating Ukraine into Europe, but conceding parts of Ukraine to Russia. In his response to a questionnaire from Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis explicitly rejected the idea that the peace and security of Europe was a “vital interest” for the U.S. Ominously, recent polling suggests that the Republicans most hostile to aiding Ukraine are also the most resistant to defending Taiwan.
These developments return Republicans to the days of Taft—only worse. At least in the Eisenhower era, Republicans were willing to go toe-to-toe against opponents inside their own party to fight such shortsighted and self-destructive isolationism. We need their like again now, maybe more than ever.