What might a DeSantis foreign policy look like?
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has become one of the main challengers to Donald Trump for leadership of the Republican Party in the wake of his landslide reelection victory last week over Democratic candidate Charlie Crist.
While DeSantis is best known nationally for controversies over Covid and culture war battles, he has a foreign policy record from his years in Congress and even during his tenure as governor that also merits closer scrutiny. If he seeks the Republican nomination for president, as many now expect he will, voters should be aware of the foreign policy worldview that he brings with him.
Before he left the House for Tallahassee, DeSantis established himself as a vocal critic of the Obama administration’s foreign policy with an emphasis on attacking U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran and Cuba. His three terms in the House overlapped with Obama’s major initiatives of negotiating the nuclear deal with Iran and restoring normal relations with Cuba, and like the rest of his party DeSantis was hostile to both policies.
The hardline positions that DeSantis has taken on issues relating to Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela are not surprising given Florida politics, and they have aligned him closely with Florida’s hawkish Sen. Marco Rubio and fellow Iraq war veteran Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas.
During the original debate over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), DeSantis was an early and vocal opponent of an agreement with Iran. He co-authored a July 2015 op-ed in Time with Tom Cotton outlining the usual hawkish objections to the deal. Like most critics of the agreement, they misrepresented what it would do and exaggerated the benefits Iran would receive from sanctions relief. The op-ed was long on outrage and short on offering any serious alternative to diplomacy to resolve the nuclear issue.
DeSantis and Cotton also indulged in rather hysterical threat inflation about Iran, saying, “They will stop at nothing to end our way of life.”
In addition to the op-ed, DeSantis released statements and spoke on the House floor many times denouncing any agreement with Iran that would allow them to retain any part of their nuclear program. He continued to rail against it after the agreement was implemented. Under Trump, DeSantis was enthusiastic in his support for undermining and leaving the JCPOA and imposing additional sanctions on Iran. On the decision to renege on the nuclear deal, he said that Trump “did the right thing.”
Going beyond the Trump administration’s stated goals for reimposing sanctions, DeSantis has imagined that the Iranian government could be brought down through more outside pressure. In a Fox News segment, he sketched out his idea of how regime change might happen: “So, I think the more we can connect people and expand social networks there, I do think that this regime’s days are numbered, and the more success we have in choking off the money and opening up the networks means their demise will be met quicker.”
Judging from his record, it is reasonable to assume that if DeSantis were elected president he would have no interest in negotiating with Iran about anything and would instead be looking for ways to destabilize and topple the government there.
DeSantis had already left the House by the time that Congress made its war powers challenge to U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led coalition war on Yemen, but while he was there he was a reliable vote against any restrictions on U.S. weapons going to Saudi Arabia. For example, he voted against a 2016 amendment that would have prevented the transfer of cluster munitions to the Saudis. The vote on that amendment was not strictly along party lines. There were 40 Republicans that voted for limiting the kinds of weapons being transferred to Saudi Arabia after the war had been going on for a year, but DeSantis stuck with most of his party on this question.
On other issues, DeSantis was a cheerleader for Trump’s early hawkish decisions. He touted Trump’s decision to provide military assistance to Ukraine and to order attacks on Syrian government targets. When John Bolton was named National Security Advisor, DeSantis praised the choice: “John Bolton, it’s a very strong voice, very clear thinker.” We don’t know yet who will be advising DeSantis on foreign policy, but his positive view of Bolton gives us some idea of the kind of people he would probably have around him.
When it came to Trump’s attempted negotiations with North Korea, DeSantis expressed support for what Trump was doing but presented it as proof that “pressure” on North Korea was succeeding. Like many other elected Republicans at the time, he wanted to paint the negotiations as a vindication of hardline pressure tactics. In June 2018, DeSantis likened Trump’s handling of North Korea to Reagan’s dealing with the Soviets, and he stressed that it was “a full spectrum pressure campaign.” He made clear that if there were an agreement with North Korea it would have to be very different from the nuclear deal with Iran, and he said “it will need to be up-front verification of denuclearization.”
In short, DeSantis was on board with Trump’s willingness to talk with North Korea only because he thought it would lead to sweeping concessions from North Korea before the U.S. provided any relief. It is worth noting that it was exactly this maximalist approach that went nowhere and later collapsed the talks.
The Venezuelan government has been another one of DeSantis’ favorite targets. As governor, he has had fewer occasions to take positions on foreign policy issues, but he was nonetheless a big booster of the Trump administration’s Venezuela policy from the beginning. He spoke at a joint appearance with the then-president in 2019 just a few weeks after Trump had recognized Juan Guaidó as interim president of Venezuela and embraced the administration’s regime change policy.
The governor also applauded the imposition of “tough sanctions” on Venezuela in a Facebook post in which he claimed to stand with the people of Venezuela that have suffered greater hardship on account of those same sanctions. He was quick to reject any hint of easing sanctions on Venezuela when the Biden administration took tentative steps to explore that possibility.
When Gustavo Petro was elected as the first leftist president of Colombia earlier this year, DeSantis couldn’t resist the opportunity to attack him and falsely called him a “narco-terrorist.” The governor cast the election result as evidence of a problem in the hemisphere with “Marxism and totalitarianism spreading.” This ideological approach to relations with Latin America is something of a throwback to the Cold War era. While it may play well with the electorate in Florida, it is unlikely to be well-received in the wider region.
Despite the prominence of the war in Ukraine, DeSantis has not had much to say about it or U.S. policy in the conflict, but he has tried to fault Biden for supposed “weakness” in the months leading up to the war. Shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he criticized the president over the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which the governor suggested had encouraged Russia’s aggression.
“When Biden fumbled in Afghanistan, when you had 13 service members killed, when you left all that equipment behind, when you left a bunch of other Americans behind, the humiliation of that experience is something Russia was watching,” Desantis said during a March 3 press conference.
DeSantis’ record doesn’t offer much evidence that he has questioned any of the Republican Party’s hawkish positions, and it is difficult to find examples where he and Trump disagree sharply on any major policies. As president, Trump usually governed in a way that made it easy for a conventional hawk like DeSantis to support him, and in return DeSantis has been a reliable supporter of Trump’s agenda when he was in Congress and since he became governor.
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