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For Heritage president, restraint is holding fire — for China

Kevin Roberts talks to Responsible Statecraft on Ukraine aid at this week's National Conservative conference.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

MIAMI — Like the splintering of the Left over foreign policy, conservatives are not without their own disagreements — whether it be Afghanistan, Ukraine, China, or beyond.

This is not new. What is relatively novel is that traditionally Cold War warrior/hawkish Republican conservative organizations are dipping a toe into restraint. Case in point: the Heritage Foundation, the seat of Reagan Era “peace through strength” foreign policy. For decades Heritage has been the engine powering GOP politics and policy and has been consistently supportive of bigger defense budgets, American power projection, and U.S. interventions abroad, across the board.

Today, when Heritage president Kevin Roberts talks about current approaches to foreign policy, he is more circumspect. He talks about intervention much in the way that Donald Trump did — and like the national-populist conservative movement in the ex-president's wake does now. Are forever wars serving the American people? He says not.

After the foundation came out against the $40 billion aid package in May, the New York Times was interested in what seemed to be a transformation. 

Mr. Roberts, who referred to himself in an interview as a “recovering neocon,” said Heritage’s stance on the aid package reflected “a real skepticism among the conservative grass-roots about the entrenched conservative foreign policy leadership.”

The nation’s financial situation, he said, was forcing “us as a movement to determine that there are a lot of heroic people around the world who will have to rely on the resources from other countries. That doesn’t mean that America shouldn’t be involved, but we need to be less involved.”

The article quoted head-scratching hawks on the Right and suggested that the entirety of the organization may not be on board with Roberts’ turn. Since Roberts did not focus on his foreign policy in his Monday remarks to the National Conservatism conference, I sought him out this afternoon and asked him how he was feeling about these issues.

In short, he hasn’t changed his mind, and despite the critics on the Right, he feels that there is a “new conservative foreign policy consensus,” one that asks the “first and most important question when it comes to foreign aid and military intervention: ‘is this action, is this spending right for the everyday American?’”

Bottom line: Is it in the national interest? 

On Ukraine, he believes defending Kyiv's sovereignty is in the national interest, but the Biden approach to doing it is not. “Do we want Russia to lose? Yes,” he told me, but the lack of oversight and strategy leaves too many questions about whether the billions in U.S. aid are getting to where they are supposed to go. He pointed to criteria Heritage wants to see addressed before supporting such taxpayer-funded assistance, including a clear strategy, offsets for the spending, increased commitments from allies, and more Congressional debate.

What about Biden’s new aid proposal of $13.7 billion, which Congress will have to approve? He’s waiting for details but is not confident. “We’ll see,” he said. 

“It would be great if they listened to us and we got close to those criteria,” he said. 

Roberts has gone farther than even these remarks in earlier interviews, suggesting that foreign intervention itself needed to be re-examined. 

But not with China. When I asked, Roberts was quite emphatic about Ukraine “distracting” the U.S. when the real threat was Beijing. “China is the existential threat,” he said. “We need to be focused on China."

“Eliminating the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) root and branch is the 1st, 2nd and 3rd priorities” of the Heritage foundation, he added.

Not surprisingly, the only two panels that come close to foreign policy at NatCon 3 are on China. As I wrote yesterday, there seems to be a general consensus that China is “a threat,” but not whether it is purely economic, military, or both — or what to do about it. For many conservatives, restraint, at least when it comes to the Asia-Pacific, is in the eye of the beholder.

Kevin Roberts at the National Conservatism Conference in Miami, Sept. 12, 2022. (Vlahos)
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