Not since the 1930s has isolationist sentiment gained such prominence in the U.S.

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In 1940, as Hitler’s troops rolled across Europe, a growing chorus of Republicans argued against sending American weapons to Britain.

The United States, they said, would be wasting resources sending help to London and instead Washington should put “America First.”

Now, former President Donald Trump and his allies in Congress use the same slogan to make similar arguments against sending military aid to another democratic country in Europe under assault by a powerful authoritarian regime.

“The American people deserve to know what their money has gone to. How is the counteroffensive going? Are the Ukrainians any closer to victory than they were 6 months ago?” more than two dozen Republican lawmakers wrote in a letter this month, declaring their opposition to additional U.S. military aid to Ukraine.

Not since the years before America entered World War II, when Ohio Sen. Robert Taft and others warned against giving a “blank check” to Britain, has isolationist sentiment gained so much traction in the U.S.

On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor ended the debate about U.S. neutrality. More than 80 years later, the outcome of the deadlock in Congress over an aid package to Ukraine and this November’s election could decide whether America continues to play a leadership role in the world, or pulls back from its alliances and pursues a go-it-alone agenda.

As Ukraine marks two years since Russia’s full-scale invasion, Trump’s supporters in Congress continue to block a proposal to send more help to Ukraine, despite repeated pleas from Kyiv that its soldiers are dying because of shortages of ammunition. Some Republicans that had favored sending more help to Kyiv have shifted their stance, including even Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, an outspoken champion of Ukraine’s cause.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, right, and Sen. Tommy Tuberville are seen in the U.S. Capitol on May 2, 2023.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

And Trump, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, is once again questioning the value of NATO and casting doubts about whether the U.S. would fulfill its commitments to allies if he returns to the White House. Trump said earlier this month he would encourage Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” if it attacked a NATO country that didn’t spend enough on defense. And he has also said he would consider letting Russia “take over” parts of Ukraine in a possible deal to end the war.

“I do see many similarities between the views and arguments of the Taft Republicans of the 1930s and the Trump Republicans today,” said Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank, who has written a series of books about the history of U.S. foreign policy.

“[In the 1930s], there was a fair amount of sympathy with Nazi Germany among American conservatives, who saw Hitler as a bulwark against communism just as Trump Republicans now look to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin as a great bulwark and leader against liberalism,” said Kagan, author of “The Ghost at the Feast: America and Collapse of World Order, 1900-1941.”

Similar to what some GOP lawmakers say about Ukraine’s prospects, Republicans in the 1930s argued that “Britain was certain to lose and that any weapons or money sent to Britain were wasted on a hopeless cause, with the money better spent at home,” Kagan said.

Trump’s relentless criticism of Ukraine, U.S. allies and international engagement generally — echoed by his supporters and right-leaning media outlets — appears to have had an effect on public opinion over the past three years, according to recent surveys and analysts.

In a new poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a stunning 53% of Republicans said it would be best for the future of the United States to stay out of world affairs rather than take an active role. It marked the first time in the 49-year history of the survey that a majority of Republicans adopted that view.

As for Ukraine, the share of Americans who say the U.S. is providing too much support to Kyiv has increased steadily since Russia’s full-scale invasion two years ago, particularly among Republicans, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in November and December.

Forty-eight percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say the U.S. is delivering too much aid to Ukraine, while just 16% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters view the current level of assistance as excessive, the Pew survey said.

Firefighters extinguish a fire after a Russian attack on a residential neighborhood in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 10.
Firefighters extinguish a fire after a Russian attack on a residential neighborhood in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 10.Yevhen Titov / AP

Not long ago, sending weapons to Ukraine to fight invading Russian forces would have been roundly embraced by the party of Ronald Reagan, said Matthew Kroenig, vice president at the Atlantic Council think tank.

“Reagan really defined modern Republican foreign policy for more than a quarter of a century. The Reagan Doctrine was all about arming freedom fighters against communists wherever they are around the world,” Kroenig said. “That’s not where the party is today.”

Instead of Reagan’s ideas about free markets, U.S.-led alliances and America as a beacon of freedom, Trump Republicans are hostile toward multilateral arrangements, free trade, foreign policy “elites” and immigration.

Despite growing skepticism of Ukraine aid among GOP voters, many Republicans in Congress still support arming Ukraine, Kroenig said, but a minority in the House has been able to block a vote on a proposed package for Ukraine.

Republicans opposed to aiding Ukraine say it’s a useless endeavor and it’s time for Kyiv to admit defeat and negotiate a peace deal with Russia.

“I haven’t voted for any money to go to Ukraine because I know they can’t win,” said Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama. He was one of more than two dozen Republicans who voted against a proposed Ukraine aid package in the Senate. “Donald Trump’ll stop it when he first gets in. He knows there’s no winning for Ukraine. He can work a deal with Putin.”

The rise of a new isolationist, protectionist outlook on the right is not unique to Trump and America. Far-right parties in Europe, advocating what is sometimes called Christian nationalism or conservative nationalism, are also questioning the post-World War II order and are skeptical of arming Ukraine. Polls show them gaining ground.

Many Trump loyalists have heaped praise on Hungary, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has been accused of imposing autocratic rule on his country and has opposed Europe’s aid to Ukraine while keeping up friendly ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Even before Trump emerged as a political figure, the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq shook many Americans’ faith in Washington’s management of foreign policy, especially on the political left, and raised questions about what was to be gained by U.S. military interventions abroad.

But fatigue with the traditional U.S. “internationalist” approach has evolved into a set of grievances stoked by Trump, with the underlying argument claiming that America is threatened by migrants and is getting a raw deal from its partners and the “globalists” who shape U.S. foreign policy.

Filling the void

If the proposed aid for Ukraine fails to win approval in Congress, and if Trump returns to the White House ready to carry out his “America First” agenda, what would it mean for the United States and the world?

Current and former Western officials and analysts say if the U.S. steps back from alliances, the risk of regional or even world wars would increase, the global economy could enter a more volatile era, and authoritarian adversaries would try to step into the breach.

If Russia’s Putin wins in Ukraine, “he, but also other forces like China, are going to learn that it’s possible to just change borders and that NATO is not going to hold it against [them],” Ricarda Lang, a co-leader of Germany’s Green Party, part of the country’s ruling coalition, said at the recent Munich Security Conference.

That would lead to “a world with less security, and … a world with less freedom for the E.U. but also for the U.S.”

Under the U.S.-led “rules-based order” since World War II, GDP per capita in the world and in the U.S. has increased many times over since 1945. There were about a dozen democracies in the world in 1945, and now there are about 100, Kroenig said. The U.S. and its allies helped usher in a more peaceful, prosperous and relatively stable era over the past 80 years, but Americans now take it for granted, he said.

“I think it’s worked so well that people assume it’s the natural state of things, that if the United States withdraws that things will just keep humming along. And unfortunately, that’s not the case,” he said. “If the United States withdraws, bad actors are going to fill the void and we’re going to have conflict and economic chaos.”

Advocates of “America First” contend that conditions have changed dramatically since the Cold War, that the U.S. has become overextended, that American workers were shut out of the benefits of free trade and that the U.S. needs to focus on its needs at home, including a crackdown on migration across the southern border.

But in a speech at the Munich Security Conference a week ago, Vice President Kamala Harris tried to make the case for America’s “continued global leadership,” warning of the risks of abandoning allies.

“History has also shown us: If we only look inward, we cannot defeat threats from outside; isolation is not insulation. In fact, when America has isolated herself, threats have only grown,” she said.

At the end of World War I, the U.S. retreated into isolationism, only to be attacked on its home territory, said Mary Elise Sarotte, author of “Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate.”

“That approach failed, and since then the U.S. has been committed to starting its defense on the far sides of the oceans,” she said. “It would be a grave mistake to go backwards in time.”

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