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Foreign policy takes on growing importance as NH voters weigh primary choices

Voters listen to former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley at a campaign stop at a brewery in Meredith, Nov. 29, 2023.
Charles Krupa
Voters listen to former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley at a campaign stop at a brewery in Meredith, Nov. 29, 2023.

Russia and Ukraine have been waging war for nearly two years, and Israel and Hamas have been fighting since October with no end in sight. The conflicts are making foreign policy a topic of growing interest for Granite State voters in the final weeks of the New Hampshire presidential primary, and forcing Republican candidates to spell out differences they have — not only with President Biden, but also with GOP frontrunner Donald Trump.

Here’s an overview of how that debate is playing out on the campaign trail in New Hampshire.

Trump remains at the center of the GOP’s foreign policy conversation

Even out of office, Trump’s approach to foreign policy as president — nationalistic, transactional — and his vision for America’s role in the world still set the terms for the debate among Republicans.

Trump himself offered a good taste of the philosophy, when he spoke in front of a crowd at the University of New Hampshire Saturday. Among other things, Trump invoked — positively — Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian leader Victor Orban. And he noted that Orban — an autocrat who has curtailed civil rights in his country — had praised Trump’s approach to foreign affairs. He also quoted Orban as saying Russia never would have invaded Ukraine had Trump been in office.

“He said it would have been very different, and there was no way that Russia — and he’s right there — there is no way that Russia would have invaded Ukraine,” Trump said Saturday. “It would not be possible for Russians to do that if President Trump were president, it wouldn't have happened. And guess what? It didn't happen. And you know what else wouldn’t have happened? The attack on Israel wouldn’t have happened.”

There’s lots of presuming and conjecture in those claims, to be sure. But Trump’s point — that these wars didn’t occur on his watch — is something his supporters often cite. And Trump’s general approach — of talking big, praising authoritarian leaders, and rejecting conventional U.S. foreign policy principles — certainly remains intact from his time in the White House.

Haley is walking a line between Trumpism and traditional GOP approach

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley was part of Trump’s foreign policy team as United Nations ambassador for nearly two years. That credential is getting lots of attention from voters in New Hampshire, and shapes how she discusses international issues on the campaign trail.

But her pitch to voters is different from Trump’s — more interventionist and disciplined — but there is some overlap. Like Trump, Haley blames President Biden for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Hamas’ attack on Israel. She pins those things — and others — on how the U.S. pulled troops out of Afghanistan under Biden.

But unlike Trump, Haley tends to talk about foreign policy in moral terms and argues that the U.S must be involved overseas for the good of the world. She says the U.S. should send weapons — not cash — to Ukraine, should back Israel without qualification in Gaza, and must take a harder line against China.

“There is a reason the Taiwanese want the U.S. and the West to help Ukraine, because they know if Ukraine wins, China won't invade Taiwan,” Haley told voters in Manchester last week. “There is a reason the Ukrainians want the U.S. and the west to support Israel: Because they know if Iran wins, Russia wins. It’s all connected and we have to do our part.”

Similarly, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also stresses the need for the U.S. to be strong and engaged abroad, and his general orientation shares a good deal with Haley’s. He’s traveled to Ukraine and to Israel during his campaign and says, on his watch, the U.S. would lead on foreign policy.

Christie often criticizes Donald Trump’s foreign policy record as isolationist and "unserious," and often cites his time as U.S. attorney in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, to stress that leaders don’t get to pick the circumstances they face and have to be able to react and make judgements in real time.

For DeSantis, a heavy emphasis on checking China

More than any other major Republican candidate, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis may be trying hardest to straddle Trumpism and the GOP foreign policy that came before. DeSantis is quick, for instance, to argue that he doesn't see the war in Ukraine as being a vital US interest; he described it a “territorial dispute” before walking that comment back under criticism.

Broadly, DeSantis says U.S. policy needs to be oriented toward checking China by building up the military — particularly the Navy — and by countering China economically.

There is also plenty of criticism of Biden as weak on foreign affairs, which is an emphasis that comes through loud and clear from every Republican running — regardless of their philosophy on how the U.S. should engage with the world.

Foreign policy is an increasing concern for voters in NH campaign’s tail end

The latest polling from UNH now shows that more and more primary voters see foreign policy as a key issue in determining who they will vote for, trailing only the economy.

Bob Crook, who heard Haley at an event in Atkinson earlier this month, said — like it or not — he believes the U.S. has to stay engaged, particularly to make sure Ukraine isn't overrun by Russia and that China doesn't end up taking Taiwan.

“It’s a crazy time, and if any of that stuff goes down, it would be terrible for a lot of people for a lot of reasons,” Crook said. “We don’t want to isolate; we’ve done that in the past. You know, ‘stick and carrot,’ right?”

Foreign policy is one issue in particular where unexpected events can reshape the conversation overnight. That’s already happened over the course of this election several times, and it could happen again in the month between now and primary day.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.