Ron DeSantis’ Mushy Foreign Policy

The would-be President is floundering as he tries to position himself.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, currently the highest-polling potential challenger to Donald Trump for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, is trying to work out a foreign policy platform in public. The NYT devotes two articles today—both with bylines by Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Swan—to his most recent effort.

DeSantis Calls Putin a ‘War Criminal,’ Clarifying Earlier Comment on Ukraine

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida this week clarified his description of the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a “territorial dispute” and said that Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president, was a “war criminal” who should be “held accountable.”

Mr. DeSantis, a Republican who is expected to announce a presidential campaign in the coming months, made his latest comments in an interview with the British broadcaster Piers Morgan, who shared them with The New York Post and Fox News, both owned by Rupert Murdoch.

Last week, Mr. DeSantis made one of the most significant statements of the 2024 presidential campaign to date, to the influential Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who has criticized the Biden administration’s approach to Ukraine. “While the U.S. has many vital national interests,” Mr. DeSantis said in his statement, “becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them.”

Mr. DeSantis did not mention Mr. Putin then and criticized President Biden’s policy as a “blank check” to Ukraine with no clear objectives, one that distracts from U.S. problems.

The line about a “territorial dispute” was heavily criticized by foreign policy hawks, as well as Republicans in Congress and, privately, some Republican donors. It also put Mr. DeSantis’s views more in line with those of former President Donald J. Trump.

But Mr. DeSantis used an apparently lengthy interview with Mr. Morgan early this week to clarify his statement to Mr. Carlson.

“I think he is a war criminal,” Mr. DeSantis said of Mr. Putin, for whom the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant related to war crimes. “I don’t know about that route,” he said of the arrest warrant, “but I do think that he should be held accountable.”

To Mr. Morgan, Mr. DeSantis insisted that his comment about a “territorial dispute” had been “mischaracterized,” but he acknowledged he could have been clearer.

“Obviously, Russia invaded” in 2022, Mr. DeSantis said. “That was wrong. They invaded Crimea and took that in 2014 — that was wrong.”

The change appeared not to have been lost on Mr. Carlson. Just hours after Mr. DeSantis’s new comments about Mr. Putin were made public, Mr. Carlson attacked what he said were people who give in to the news media, asserting that they are forced “to repeat whatever childish slogan they’ve come up with this week.” In a mocking voice, he said, “Vladimir Putin is a war criminal.”

While he was a congressman from Florida, Mr. DeSantis faulted President Obama’s administration for not doing more, as Russia annexed Crimea.

“What I’m referring to is where the fighting is going on now, which is that eastern border region, Donbas, and then Crimea,” Mr. DeSantis said. He added, “There’s a lot of ethnic Russians there. So, that’s some difficult fighting, and that’s what I was referring to, and so it wasn’t that I thought Russia had a right to that, and so if I should have made that more clear, I could have done it.”

But he added, “I think the larger point is, OK, Russia is not showing the ability to take over Ukraine, to topple the government or certainly to threaten NATO. That’s a good thing. I just don’t think that’s a sufficient interest for us to escalate more involvement. I would not want to see American troops involved there. But the idea that I think somehow Russia was justified” in invading is “nonsense.”

He added that he did not believe that the conflict would end with “Putin being victorious. I do not think the Ukrainian government is going to be toppled by him, and I think that’s a good thing.”

Mr. DeSantis’s stance on Russia has been of significant interest to Republicans looking for an alternative to Mr. Trump. A large swath of Republican voters have come to say that the U.S. is providing too much support for Ukraine.

Stipulating that DeSantis is an opportunist, even by the standards of politicians seeking to be President, I tend not to be overly harsh of contenders’ clumsy early attempts to formulate and articulate a foreign policy agenda. With the exception of those with long service in that sphere, most candidates either stumble along early in the journey or articulate an incredibly simplistic agenda. Interestingly, the other piece (by Jonathan Swan, Maggie Haberman and Kitty Bennett) argues that DeSantis is in the former camp:

The DeSantis Foreign Policy: Hard Power, but With a High Bar

When Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida made headlines recently by undercutting U.S. support for Ukraine, Republican hawks, many of whom cling to him as their only hope to defeat former President Donald J. Trump, wondered if they had misread him as an ideological ally.

Mr. DeSantis ditched his previous backing for Ukraine to align himself with the increasingly nationalistic Republican base, which he will need to win the 2024 presidential primary if he runs. But he was never the committed internationalist that some old-guard Republicans had wanted or imagined him to be.

Until now, Mr. DeSantis served as a Rorschach test for Republicans. There was, conveniently, something in his record to please each of the party’s ideological factions, and he had every incentive to be all things to all Republicans for as long as he could get away with it.

Hawks had claimed Mr. DeSantis as their own for his fervent support of Israel and his denunciations of China, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela. And restraint-oriented Republicans had claimed Mr. DeSantis for his 2013 decision, as a congressman, to break with Republican hawks and oppose President Barack Obama’s requests to intervene militarily in Syria.

Yet, despite his policy shifts and inconsistencies — this week, he said he had failed to make himself clear on Ukraine and called President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia a “war criminal” — Mr. DeSantis’s worldview is not a mystery.

Unusually for a governor, Mr. DeSantis, whose spokeswoman declined interview requests, has a long paper trail on foreign policy. A close reading of more than 200 of his speeches, votes, writings and television commentaries over the past decade, as well as interviews with his peers, reveal the makings of a DeSantis Doctrine.

‘Just a Jacksonian’

Tucked between the campaign boilerplate in Mr. DeSantis’s new book, “The Courage to Be Free,” is a short chapter describing how his service in Iraq, as an officer in the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps, reinforced his doubts about former President George W. Bush’s “messianic impulse.”

“Bush sketched out a view for American foreign policy that constituted Wilsonianism on steroids,” Mr. DeSantis writes, referring to former President Woodrow Wilson’s idealistic liberal internationalism after World War I. He recalls his reaction to a line in Mr. Bush’s second inaugural address: “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.”

“I remember being stunned,” Mr. DeSantis writes. “Does the survival of American liberty depend on whether liberty succeeds in Djibouti?”

Mr. DeSantis’s analysis of Mr. Bush’s attempt to use the military to “socially engineer a foreign society” is the sort of thing one hears from conservative elites who call themselves Jacksonians, after President Andrew Jackson, the 19th-century populist. Though The New York Times could find no public record of the Florida governor describing himself as a Jacksonian, the word kept coming up in interviews with people who know Mr. DeSantis.

“I think he’s kind of dead-center where Republican voters are, which is to say that he’s neither an isolationist nor a neoconservative, he’s just a Jacksonian,” said David Reaboi, a conservative national security strategist whom Mr. DeSantis has hosted at the governor’s mansion.

Mr. Reaboi was referring to a 1999 essay by the academic Walter Russell Mead, “The Jacksonian Tradition and American Foreign Policy,” which is still in heavy circulation on the intellectual right. It defines a Jacksonian as having a narrow conception of the U.S. national interest: protection of its territory, its people, its hard assets and its commercial interests overseas.

A Jacksonian does not dream of implanting “American values” on foreign soil. He or she believes that if the U.S. military is to be deployed, it should use as much force as necessary to achieve a quick, clearly defined “victory,” with as few American casualties as possible. A Jacksonian cares little about lopsided casualty counts — so long as they’re in America’s favor — or about international law.

Unlike Mr. Trump, a fellow Jacksonian but one who operates on pure instinct and would never dream of suffering through a foreign policy treatise, Mr. DeSantis has read deeply and has formed a philosophy about America’s place in the world. But you will rarely hear Mr. DeSantis invoke abstract values to justify the use of force — as some of his potential 2024 rivals and current party leaders have done.

He has not framed the Ukraine war as a battle for “freedom,” as former Vice President Mike Pence has done, or as a mission to defend the post-World War II international security framework, as Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, has done. If Mr. DeSantis is elected president, there is unlikely to be any more Biden-esque talk of “autocracies versus democracies.” In Mr. DeSantis’s framing, these are the idealistic mutterings of a “Wilsonian.”

More than two decades ago, Walter Russell Mead argued that there are four impulses that have governed American foreign policy over the years, all of which compete for control. Two of them, Jacksonian and Wilsonian, are described above. The other two are Jeffersonian—essentially, the peacenik version of the Jacksonians, eschewing foreign entanglements because it will corrupt Americn democracy—and the Hamiltonians, who are the Realist counterpart to the Wilsonians, promoting an active foreign policy to further US economic power rather than spread American values.

It may well be that DeSantis—who, despite his many flaws is an educated man who has had plenty of occasion to think about US foreign policy—is instinctively Jacksonian. A tendency toward isolationism and non-interventionism if let alone combined with responding with righteous fury when crossed is not uncommon among Southerners who have served in the military. It is not, however, a foreign policy agenda.

None of the four themes in Mead’s model are, by the way. Like it or not, the United States is a global superpower and has been for more than a century. It has competing interests all over the world that require complicated trade-offs.

I couldn’t place President Biden into one of the four camps. Indeed, like most Presidents, I think he sees foreign policy as a distraction from his domestic agenda. His general foreign policy instinct—going back to at least the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait—has been a cautious reluctance to intervene. We’ve seen that in his slow ratcheting up of support for Ukraine pursuant to last year’s invasion by Russia. While I have quibbles with his decisions on that score, his overall handling of that crisis has been masterful—serving Wilsonian “world order” goals, Hamiltonian economic ones, and Wilsonian “smiting the enemy” goals nicely. Only the Jeffersonians, who kvetch that this plays into the hands of the military-industrial complex and takes money that could be distributed to the poor, are upset.

There is certainly a Jeffersonian strain among the Republican nominating electorate, just as there is among the Democratic nominating electorate. Indeed, the latter is historically larger. Part of what we’re seeing here is simply the increasing tendency of both parties—but especially the GOP—to reflexively oppose the policy of the other party’s President.

FILED UNDER: 2024 Election, US Politics, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. drj says:

    DeSantis is being blatantly opportunistic (because he doesn’t want to estrange either the MAGAs or the traditional hawks) and the NYT whitewashes this as him having a “doctrine.”

    Another example of the NYT carrying water for a Republican daddy.

    I mean, look at this:

    “I think he’s kind of dead-center where Republican voters are, which is to say that he’s neither an isolationist nor a neoconservative, he’s just a Jacksonian,” said David Reaboi, a conservative national security strategist whom Mr. DeSantis has hosted at the governor’s mansion.

    Yeah, let’s have the mouthpiece have his say and pretend it’s analysis.

  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    For a guy as short as DeSantis, fence straddling has to be painful. Having gone all in on a political philosophy that is “owning the libs,” Desantis will always struggle with foreign policy questions because they don’t fit neatly into domestic political paradigms.

  3. Thomm says:

    So…when is he planning on stepping down from his position as governor since it is a direct contravention of Florida state law for him to run for president while holding the office? Notice how he hasn’t announced he is running, yet doing everything that someone starting a primary campaign would do.

  4. Chip Daniels says:

    Lets add a third category, “Trumpian”.

    Trumpian foreign policy places the executive at the center of a personalized set of relationships, where the purpose of policy is to enhance and aggrandize the ego, wealth and well-being of the executive.

    Trumpian foreign policy is grounded in apathy and indifference on the part of the public, who have no particular interest in any one outcome or another, but very much identify with the executive and desire his aggrandizement.

    This is new to us, but is actually the historical norm, where the ruler would be given tribute by his vassal lords, and reward each accordingly.

  5. Sleeping Dog says:


    I believe that the FLA legislature has already repealed that law. At least there was talk of doing so, the current move is to make the Gov travel on state biz plans a secret.

  6. Thomm says:

    @Sleeping Dog: could be. Last I heard it hadn’t passed, but I could very well be wrong. Still makes his non announcement a bit odd.

  7. MarkedMan says:

    Wait, you meant the guy who participated in the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay has a morally bankrupt foreign policy? Who coulda knowd?

  8. JohnSF says:

    @Chip Daniels:
    L’etat? C’est moi!

  9. HelloWorld! says:

    Ron Desantis’ mushy domestic policy.

  10. Jim S says:

    I always thought most, if not all, Republicans who admire Jackson mostly admired the Indian Removal policies that caused the Trail of Tears.

  11. drj says:


    Notably, DeSantis was a Navy lawyer. He seemed to have held the position that if the law could be made to say something it was then automatically morally unproblematic. He seems to have no sense that, ultimately, law is meant to serve people, not the other way around.

    “Anything goes if we can plausibly claim it’s legal.”

    Genuinely very scary stuff.

    I’m not saying it’s on the same level, but it reminds me a lot of how Nazi lawyers (of whom there were a lot) used the law to create and justify an extremely oppressive society. (It wasn’t until late 1941/early 1942 that Nazi Germany became an increasingly lawless place.)

  12. Kathy says:

    Doesn’t DeSatanis know real Republiqans are not supposed to be interested in policy?

  13. gVOR08 says:

    Trump somehow got a B.A in Real Estate from Wharton.
    DeSantis got a B.A. in history magna cum laude from Yale and graduated cum laude from Harvard Law. It’s harder for DeUseless to convincingly play the rube. But he did learn to be very ambitious,

    DeUseless’ foreign policy is the same as his domestic policy, whatever he thinks will win him MAGA primary votes. But he’s flailing on Ukraine, unsure what the MAGA want to hear. And while he’s flailing, what @drj: said. Aren’t we fortunate to have Ms. Haberman to translate his flailing into a coherent Jacksonian policy for us.

    Spreading democracy was a PR gloss W. et al lipsticked onto a policy of lifting his daddy’s embargo on Iraqi oil. Can Haberman possibly believe W. was really a Wilsonian?

  14. Thomm says:

    @Jim S: don’t forget “balancing the budget and paying off all debt”, which promptly crashed the economy.

  15. CSK says:


    Fred Trump paid a substantial bribe for Donald’s admission. At the time, it wasn’t that hard to get into anyway.

  16. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan: @drj: Honestly, I see this critique is unfair to DeSantis. While I think his domestic policies as governor make him unfit to be President, he was by all accounts was a star performer as a Navy JAG. His role was to advise commanders as to what the law permitted and what the consequences were. Given that prisoners were on a hunger strike, commanders had no good options. Yes, force-feeding is widely condemned by human rights scholars. But it’s a widespread practice in American prisons and the practice continued throughout the Obama administration vis-a-vis Gitmo.

  17. DK says:

    @James Joyner:

    Honestly, I see this critique is unfair to DeSantis.

    Boo hoo, I’m crying Lock Her Up tears haha.

    In our effed up electoral system, what matters now is not “Is this fair?” but rather “Is it an effective line of attack to peel potential voters away?”

  18. daryl and his brother darryl says:

    This guy is clearly not ready for prime-time.
    Did you did you see about the Principal that was forced out because she allowed a lesson on Michelangelo’s David?
    The school is called Tallahassee Classical. Michelangelo’s classical masterpiece was called pornographic.
    So, foreign policy or domestic, DeSantis is a destructive force who is too radical for this nation.
    One bright spot…Disney is going to hold the worlds largest LGBTQ Conference…right in DeSantis’ face.

  19. Kurtz says:

    @James Joyner:

    Hunger strikes? Why would they do that? Could it be because of poor treatment?

    Justifying something because the practice exists in the US prison system is not really a justification.

    For some more context:

    In his memoir, Don’t Forget Us Here, Lost and Found at Guantánamo, Mr Adayfi describes one incident of force-feeding in detail.

    “Guards pushed me into the chair. They tightened the chest harness so that I couldn’t move, then strapped my wrists and legs to the chair. Every point of my body was tightly restrained – I couldn’t move at all. One of the male nurses stood in front of me holding a long, thick rubber tube with a metal tip. Another nurse grabbed my head and held it tightly while the male nurse forces that huge tube into my nose. No numbing spray. No lubricant. Raw rubber and metal sliced the inside of my nose and throat. Pain shot through my sinuses and I thought my head would explode. I screamed and tried to fight but I couldn’t move. My nose bled and bled, but the nurse wouldn’t stop.

    When they were done feeding me, the nurse pulled hard on the tube and ripped it out of my body. It felt like a knife coming through my nose and it bled badly. Blood ran everywhere. I couldn’t breathe and my stomach was so full I thought I would explode.”

    Throughout lengthy questioning from The Independent about the finer details of his interactions, Mr Adayfi was insistent that the man he knew as a lawyer at Guantanamo was Mr DeSantis. Mr Adayfi’s description of his initial interaction with Mr DeSantis, for example, where he claims the young lawyer explained his role at the camp, matches the description given by Mr DeSantis’s superior of his job. The dates of key events in the camp during 2006 – such as the deaths of three prisoners – match publicly available information regarding the timeline of Mr DeSantis’s posting.

  20. Gustopher says:

    Somehow, his clarifications have made it less clear what he supports. It’s just one of the most important foreign policy issues at present — global warming being the other (I would add Central American refugees, but we seem to be unable to care about them before they approach our border)

    Anyway, I hope he chokes to death on pudding or something.

  21. Jay L Gischer says:


    In our effed up electoral system, what matters now is not “Is this fair?” but rather “Is it an effective line of attack to peel potential voters away?”

    You know, at one level this is fairly accurate, and advocating for something else can seem like a call for unilateral disarmament.

    I do wonder though: What votes will change based on this line of attack? Are there, in fact, Dems on the fence about him? Readers of this blog? Probably not, they already can’t stand him for the gay baiting and trans bashing, among other things. And the Rs aren’t paying attention to anything we say, it seems to me.

    Meanwhile, I think a sober estimation of someone’s abilities is very valuable.

  22. Jay L Gischer says:

    I will note that Donald Trump loves to demean men who are short. He refers to Michael Bloomberg as “that little man”, for instance. I would encourage posters here to not dive into that swamp with Trump. For instance, as it pertains to Rick DeSantis. There’s lots to dislike about DeSantis even if you decide to take that off the table.

    I’m not super short, but shorter than average. I notice these things. It’s personal.

  23. daryl and his brother darryl says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    I will note that Donald Trump loves to demean men who are short.

    I can’t wait to see the Trump mugshot, with his actual height shown.
    Republicans hate a drag show, but a guy with heavily coiffed and bleached blonde hair, shitty make-up, and high heels can be President. Some one please make sense of this for me…

  24. CSK says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    Trump is supposedly mulling using “Tiny D” as a nickname for DeSantis. DeSantis isn’t even tiny, maybe 5’8″ or 5’9.”

  25. just nutha says:

    @Jay L Gischer: Sure. And it is personal. Then again, if it weren’t, Trump and others who use the tactic wouldn’t be able to use it. It works because the victim consents to taking the slur personally and being affected by it.

  26. DK says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    I do wonder though: What votes will change based on this line of attack?…Meanwhile, I think a sober estimation of someone’s abilities is very valuable.

    No one knows what line of attack will change people’s votes. If you or I could definitively predict that, we’d both be among the richest people in the world.

    We do know wide swaths of American voters are not sober when it comes to hiring a commander-in-chief, hence how a patholgical lying, perverted birther bigot with narcissistic personality disorder became president. Hence why, when it comes to lines of attack, nowadays you throw the kitchen sink: it’s not about one, specific line of attack, it’s about piling up enough general negativity to make a candidate unattractive. It’s a sad commentary on our system, but it is what it is. There will be voters swayed by seeing Drama Queen Donnie tower over “short” Ron DeFascist. There will be voters turned over by Tiny D’s alleged “support” of torture. There will be voters moved by a combination of all things negative about the Florida governor — hence how Trump has already padded his lead by attacking DeSantis from every angle, unanswered.

    Modern politics. It ain’t pretty.

  27. Michael Reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:
    If you stand around with your thumb up your ass while people are being tortured, you’re a piece of shit. Full stop. If you lack the manhood to object, at least salvage something of your honor by demanding an immediate transfer. Ron didn’t do that. It might have been a problem for him career-wise.

    He’s a careerist prick without a core.

  28. anjin-san says:

    The leading Republican candidates for President are not about anything except self-aggrandizement. This ain’t news…

  29. Kurtz says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Did you click the link? Just curious.

    DeSantis was hardly a passive observer. According to multiple prisoners, he introduced himself on arrival and explained that he was there to make sure they were treated properly.

    Multiple people previously detained there recognized his picture.

    He also came back to the US and argued that the prison should stay open. The former prisoner who described the forced feeding in his autobiography eventually relented, under extreme duress, that he indeed was a member of Al-Qaeda. The US kept him there based on that statement. Years later, the government released him, admitting that he was likely never a member and was at most a low level fighter.

    He also stated that he holds no ill will toward DeSantis. Pretty incredible.

    Even more so because DeSantis seems to have no will but to power.

    Oh, and ill. Lots of ill.

  30. Chris says:

    DeSantis is short on stature and positive character traits. Once a torturer to enemy captives, he is now serving a bombastic minority and becoming a torturer of truth, justice, religious differences, and the light of freedom for all. He is Trump without the longing need to be admired… he is fine governing as a fearsome troll (so long as you don’t overtly notice his lack of height).