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How Kevin Roberts flipped the script at the hawkish Heritage Foundation

In a wide-ranging Q&A, this 'recovering neocon' says there's a way to support Ukraine — and confront China — without more war.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

Throughout the last four decades, the Heritage Foundation has pursued a steadfastly hawkish, if not neoconservative agenda. It has justified this as Reagan-era “peace through strength,” even as post-Cold War conflicts have become predominantly preemptive wars of choice, and invariably endless.

As recent wars have become less popular with conservatives — as evidenced by Donald Trump capturing the GOP nomination after calling the Iraq War “a failure” — there has been a discernible shift at Heritage. Kevin Roberts, who took over as president in 2021 has been decidedly more populist on the foreign policy front than previous foundation leaders, and has made headlines over the last year criticizing the lack of transparency in Ukraine aid and calling for its oversight. He is also questioning the efficacy of Washington's voluminous defense spending — for which Heritage has been a perennial big booster.

In September, he told the Washington Post he was a “recovering neocon” and that “Heritage is moving toward an explicit embrace of restraint, that’s true...But we’ve always talked about restraint.”

When Heritage hosted Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) this month, Roberts moderated, accusing the “uni-party” on Capitol Hill of stifling debate on Ukraine and declaring himself a supporter of a strong but “more restrained” approach to foreign policy.  

In a recent interview with Responsible Statecraft, we asked Roberts — who has a PhD in American history and served as the CEO of the Texas Policy Foundation before coming to Washington — if he would flesh out some of these ideas on Ukraine, as well as China, and restraint in general.

Vlahos:  The Heritage Foundation has pushed for defense budget increases for as long as I've been reporting, which is a very long time. It has typically not made fiscal conservatism part of its advocacy for strong national defense, but in your own words in the American conservative magazine recently, you said, "Republicans must defund unnecessary programs and unneeded bureaucrats while also ensuring our military is ready to confront the nation's threats. It will not be easy, but with enough political will, it can be done." What do you say to veteran lawmakers like Senator Lindsey Graham who are warning Kevin McCarthy against any cuts, saying there are too many threats out there, namely China. Graham said recently, "my goal is to get Kevin and everybody looking at the defense needs based on threats and the threat portfolio. The threat picture doesn't justify being on the low end of GDP." How do you respond to that reasoning, and has it been difficult to convince others at Heritage to take a different approach on this?

Roberts : Great question. In a lot of ways, for those of us who are Reagan conservatives and believe in peace through strength, which obviously everyone at Heritage still does, that's constant. And I appreciate Senator Graham's comments about the threats. I believe — and a growing number of conservatives at Heritage certainly believe — that because of those threats, and because of something that has changed substantively since the 1980s, and that is America's fiscal health, that we have to be that much more responsible about which defense programs we are prioritizing. And D.C., which is the city of false dichotomies, it's been apparent to me for months, that when someone like me says that, even though I'm very much a foreign policy and defense hawk, immediately that means that you must be for a weak Department of Defense. And you and I both know and any reasonable person knows that that's simply not the case. 

In fact, we're saying that we care so deeply about a strong America, we care so deeply about a strong Department of Defense, and most importantly, we care so deeply about the rank-and-file servicemen and servicewomen that we want to ensure that Congress is doing its job and providing the Pentagon direction on where money should be best spent. It's laughable on its face that there's any agency in the federal government that doesn't have wasteful spending, including the Pentagon. And so we're not singling out the Department of Defense for that problem. We're saying that we want the Department of Defense to be the most effective, the most efficient that it's ever been. 

We're still very supportive of a very strong military budget, but what Heritage is saying — nodding very much to to your observation, Kelley, about the importance of our fiscal conservative budget analysts — is that the United States of America is really flirting with fiscal disaster. And I don't want to sound too dramatic in saying this. We certainly don't intend to sound dramatic, and therefore we really believe it. Until and unless the United States government gets its fiscal house in order, we're actually undermining our very ability to confront the threats that Senator Graham so accurately depicts.

Vlahos: On Ukraine aid — you've said that "Leader Kevin McCarthy is right to oppose a blank check that lacks an accompanying strategy, robust congressional debate, and fiscal responsibility. Americans should applaud him for setting clear expectations." That was back in October. The U.S. has now allocated over $113 billion in aid, and lawmakers like Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) are now saying they want to turn the spigot off completely. Short of that, new senator J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) wants a complete accounting of the money already spent. Where do you stand on the issue of Ukraine and Washington's war policy on Ukraine, and specifically the Ukraine aid today?

Roberts:That whole package of aid to Ukraine has been as irresponsible as Heritage forecasted last spring when the first package came up, and we opposed it. And immediately thereafter  (in) the subsequent conversations in Congress about this, we issued a set of very clear criteria by which Heritage would support Ukraine military aid. First of those criteria, as you no doubt will remember, was that it actually be focused on the military, not Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) favorite social justice pet programs.

What has happened over the last year is that the United States has spent even more money than even we at Heritage would have predicted, and we have very low expectations about Congress being fiscally responsible. The second thing that's happened, which is making matters worse, even though we're grateful that the Ukrainians have fought the war to a stalemate, even though we're grateful that Russia's military ability has been significantly deteriorated by the Ukrainian heroism, there still is no American strategy for how this war ends. And that is not conservative.

And so it would be excellent if Speaker [Kevin] McCarthy (R-Calif.), who has remained consistent on this issue, is able to turn the spigot off until and unless there is an articulation that is an answer to the question: What is in the best interest of the everyday American as it relates to spending $113 billion on Ukraine, so much of which has not gone to direct military aid? Senator [Josh] Hawley (R-Mo.) gave an excellent speech at Heritage yesterday. He was supportive of at least one of the military packages to Ukraine, if my memory serves, and he, I thought, put it really well. We want the Ukrainians to win, we want Putin to lose, and we want to make sure that we're not wrecking our budget and paying attention to the much more present threat, which is Chinese aggression all around the world.

Vlahos: How much support do you think that position has among Republicans in both the House and the Senate today? Do you feel it building? Because this is not a natural fit for Republicans on national security and war policy, at least in the past. What is your sense of what it looks like today?

Roberts: Well, let's be argumentative. I see more natural fit and consistency than your question suggests, but again, not to be argumentative, I understand what you're saying, at least about the recent past. The heart of your question is about whether there's been an evolution, an increase in support, and we've definitely seen that. Just the sheer number of meetings that Republican offices, Republican members of the House and Senate have requested of our Heritage policy leads on this, especially Victoria Coates and Max Primorac, who's a real expert on the question of rebuilding, which we haven't even gotten to and it really concerns us deeply at Heritage. 

But the point is that, both in the House and in the Senate, there are more members who are supportive of this third way, and that's not a surprise. I know that that's at the very least the plurality position, if not the majority position, of conservatively-minded Americans. They want to support Ukraine with very strictly defined, highly accountable military aid. They want the Ukrainians to win, and yet they also understand something that seems to be missing in the minds of so many of our policymakers and even friends in D.C., which is that the United States fiscal position has deteriorated so greatly that it's actually very responsible, very natural for a conservative to be saying, "Guys, these are all competing goods: Ukrainians winning, harming Putin, but also making sure that our budget is responsible, also making sure we're answering these strategic questions about Americans interests." And that's really what Heritage is going to continue to drive. We're gratified that there are more and more Republican members, and of course a few Democrats, who are in agreement.

Vlahos: I have to ask you this because it is something that we've written about. Heritage does get support from defense contractors and private industry. Particularly on the issue of cutting the budget, is there any pressure for not going after certain weapons programs or pet projects? Do you feel any tension there in talking about cutting the budget among friends of Heritage who would like to see certain programs continue to be funded?

Roberts: Yeah, thanks for the question. We feel literally zero pressure on that because we abhor the typical practice in D.C. of pay-to-play. And the key thing there, Kelley, is that the most important part of our financial support is the several hundred thousand regular Americans who support us each year. It inoculates us from the typical D.C. game. We never speak about amount of support from particular industry, which I know you understand, but I can assure you that it's immaterial. And even if it were more material than immaterial, it simply wouldn't affect our research. It allows us to be objective, and I think the evidence of that is how strident we have been in saying that the status quo has to end. If that is unpopular in some circles that are used to saying, "we're gonna give you X amount of money for Y result," then we look forward to changing that, and in the rest of the city as well.

Vlahos: Thank you. So you seem to be speaking the restrainers’ language on Ukraine, and so have other conservatives….

Roberts: I'm speaking Heritage language.

Vlahos: Well, I'll say you're speaking our language — restrainers, people all over the spectrum — about Ukraine. So have other conservatives, like Josh Hawley and Elbridge Colby, for example. But I know that some of their arguments will go something like this: We can't get bogged down in Ukraine because we need to pour resources into countering the real threat, which is China. First, do you consider China a threat to U.S. national security interests? And second, should the U.S. go to war with China if Taiwan is attacked?

Roberts: Great questions, and I appreciate your framing. The first [answer] is absolutely. China is at war with us in every way except — thank goodness — open conflict. And I say thank goodness because our great experts at Heritage who produce the index of military strength, concluded for the first time in the long history of that product, as you no doubt know, that America's military is weak if not unprepared for even a single arena war. 

So by every measure, economically — specifically trade — socially, culturally. You think about what the Chinese are doing with Tik Tok. you think about what they apparently are doing with espionage, even if the balloon debacle had not happened. There's evidence around the country of Chinese espionage. The evidence of Confucius Institutes, which simply had been renamed in most places where they existed, all of that points to something that Americans need to realize — and thankfully they are — which is that we were all mistaken, myself included. I'm always really clear about that. I thought as recently as six or eight years ago that America could turn China into America through our economics, our persuasiveness, the appeal of our way of life, and actually the opposite has happened. And so I don't gratuitously criticize those who still aren't there yet because I understand the evolution that's happened. I've undergone that myself, all of us at Heritage have. 

But the second point is really important. If China were to invade Taiwan, should the United States declare war on China? The United States first needs to be sending, as Senator Hawley mentioned yesterday, more armaments to Taiwan so that we can prevent that from happening. I do think that the question of China invading Taiwan is a much more serious threat to American security than the Russians invading Ukraine. But I want to be really clear. That doesn't mean that I think it's acceptable that the Russians have invaded Ukraine — back to my comment earlier about a false dichotomy. I just think that, as Senator Hawley said, the most pressing security concern for the everyday American is what China has been doing to us.

Vlahos: How do you explain to the regular American that China is a threat to them here in the United States?

Roberts: Good question, because it's all around us. There were something like almost 100 major public universities and private universities with Confucius Institutes. There are excellent studies, a couple of them by Heritage over the last several years, that indicate not only the direct influence on the student body there, but [also] on the training of scientists and engineers who are in some of our national laboratories. The second thing is that you could be living near one of the military bases in the Dakotas or one of the oil fields in South Texas, where the Chinese have bought land. And when the Chinese send an espionage balloon that the feckless president of the United States allows to control to traverse our entire continent, you realize that, every day, the Chinese are gaining more intelligence about how we would react in a more open conflict and more open warfare. 

But I would say the even graver issue, which is twofold, is in society generally and in economics. In economics, the Chinese have been in a trade war with us for at least a decade and a half, and we've allowed that to happen. Conservatives have allowed that to happen, and that has degraded in part the ability of the average American family, the average American household, to keep up economically. [There are] a lot of factors there, but that's one of them. And then socially, I'm deeply concerned, and Heritage in particular is deeply concerned — our colleague Kara Frederick has been leading the way on this — about how the Chinese have used Tik Tok and other platforms not just potentially for invading our privacy, but also for affecting the way we think. That they don't allow so many of those videos on their own social media platforms in China tells you everything about their insidious aims.

Vlahos: What do you say to folks who would like to see more engagement diplomatically with China in order to resolve some of the issues that you raised and worry that the buildup of military assets in the region might be escalatory and actually lead to some conflict that we were trying to avoid in the first place?

Roberts: I would say — and my faith informs this, and Heritage's long-standing position of wanting to avoid war at all costs until you just have to defend our interests would suggest this too — that absolutely diplomacy is crucial. [We support] diplomacy until the last possible moment and even after that because we hate the thought of any human life being risked by not having real, serious diplomatic efforts. Having said that, those are not mutually exclusive either. You can do both diplomacy and that military buildup simultaneously, and that's what Heritage is calling for. We're saying that, perhaps preaching — to use your language — some restraint. We don't want to sound at Heritage like we're saber rattling towards the Chinese, but what we're trying to do is sound the alarm for Americans that unless we take these steps in this set of legislation that we'll be proposing in this upcoming major research project on what to do about China, we probably will find ourselves out of time for diplomacy and therefore looking at open military conflict. We abhor that idea. I'm cautiously optimistic that we can avoid it, but only if the percentage of Americans who recognize the grave threats posed by China to us increases.

Vlahos:  Okay, thank you. Two quick ones. When you were brought on to Heritage in 2021 as president, you mentioned your disappointment with elite Republicans who, you said, did not force Biden's hand on "his ridiculous, tragic, embarrassing withdrawal from Afghanistan." I'm sure you're pleased that the new House majority has pledged to hold hearings on the withdrawal. But would you also like to see lawmakers pressure civilian and military leaders about the failed policies for years that might have led to the chaotic withdrawal? In other words, how much accountability for Washington's war in Afghanistan would you like to see?

Roberts:  We would like the same amount of accountability for that long, seemingly endless war as we would for the last phase, which was the withdrawal that I mentioned. And the reason for that, Kelley is — well, [there are] many. First, we believe in Heritage, now as we always have, that no serviceman or servicewoman wearing an American uniform should ever go into conflict without Congress first declaring war. It's not just a constitutional issue. It's not just a legal issue. It's a social and cultural issue. And we believe that having hearings about the execution of that war over two decades will get us back to regular constitutional order, which ultimately is good for America. 

The second thing is [that] it's really important in these episodes in American history — in this case, I'm referring to the larger conflict, not just the withdrawal — that we learn our lessons, and I think that's what Americans are anticipating. A majority of Americans albeit slim at the time, supported the invasion of Afghanistan. I was one of them. As you know, I refer to myself as a recovering neocon. And I think the value of having that conversation in respect to people who still are neoconservatives is learning the lessons from the past so we don't repeat them in the future. If there's a common thread in in our conversation this afternoon, it's that what Heritage is saying is [that] it's not 1983 anymore. It's not 2003 anymore. America in 2023 is a lot weaker, in large part because of the fiscal irresponsibility by both Republicans and Democrats for decades and because we have not updated our own thinking about lessons from the end of the Cold War. We're not fighting the Cold War anymore. We're hopefully never going to have to fight another war again. It's unlikely it seems, but if that must happen, then let's be sure we're prepared for that one, rather than for the last one.

Vlahos: Exactly. One last question: The new right conservatives — I call them national populist conservatives — are largely in line with the efforts to realign foreign policy based on U.S. interests, limit endless wars, and take a tough look at how we're spending our money defense-wise in Washington, all the things that you've just talked about. Are you hopeful that a candidate espousing those views will be the next GOP nominee for president? And are you supporting anyone yet in particular?

Roberts: You're so good at what you do. I'm chuckling at the last part of your question because I can't answer that as the head of a 501(c)(3) because it would be tantamount to an endorsement. No, just for the record, both for public and private, we tell the government we're not going to endorse anybody. We don't play fast and loose with that. But I'm very happy to answer the first part of the question. And that is, yeah, at Heritage we're very serious about what we call the third way in foreign policy. We call ourselves conservatives, no adjective. No disrespect to our friends who call themselves national conservatives, or fiscal conservatives, or Reagan conservatives. We're conservatives, period. 

But when it comes to foreign policy and defense spending, we're hopeful that whoever takes the oath of office next as president of the United States — whoever he or she may be — that they will reflect that. And I actually have more than cautious optimism. I have great optimism that in fact that will happen. And the follow-up question, that is "why Kevin, how in the world do you know that?" Because I spend so much time outside Washington, D.C., with hundreds if not thousands of everyday conservatives, each of whom has their own preference when it comes to presidential candidates, but the one thing that really unites us as a movement is that we are recognizing America is in a much different — that is, weaker — place than it was 20 or 40 years ago, and that if we want America to be able to return to a position of influence and strength internationally, that we're going to have to confront the reality that the old way of doing things, the status quo, simply is broken. And I think that, in order to be elected both for the conservative banner but then also in the general election, a conservative presidential candidate who wins will have to reflect that.

Vlahos: Wonderful, thank you.

Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts (Gage Skidmore/Flickr/Creative Commons)
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