Mike Johnson details conservative vision for U.S. foreign policy (2024)

House Speaker Mike Johnson on Monday laid out his vision for a conservative U.S. foreign policy, addressing the “interconnected web of threats” posed by China, Russia, Iran and others while seeking to contrast what he called a dangerous American “weakness” under Democratic leadership with a Republican Party that does not aspire to be “the world’s policeman” but is willing to “fight with the gloves off.”

The speech, hosted by the Hudson Institute, a conservative Washington think tank, marked the first time Johnson (R-La.) has publicly commented at length on his foreign policy views. Over roughly 45 minutes, he sought to project a sense of comity and like-mindedness among the fractious GOP as it aligns behind the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Donald Trump.

“The Republican Party,” Johnson said, “is not one of nation builders or careless interventionists. We don’t believe we should be the world’s policemen. Nor are we idealists who think we can placate tyrants. We are realists. We don’t seek out a fight. But we know we have to be prepared. We have to be prepared to fight, and if we must fight, we fight with the gloves off.”

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Johnson spoke Monday as European and other foreign leaders began to arrive in Washington for the annual summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), whose members this week are expected to discuss efforts to safeguard the alliance from an increasingly aggressive Russia and further help Ukraine repel Russia’s invasion. Earlier in the day, a barrage of Russian missiles struck a children’s hospital in Kyiv, killing dozens.

Johnson’s speech appeared geared, in part, toward reassuring U.S. allies — many of whom he intends to meet with this week — as well as traditionalist national security hawks in his own party, that he supports Ukraine’s fight against Russia and believes in NATO’s importance. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expansionist ambitions “don’t stop with Ukraine” and risk provoking a larger war with Europe, he said, echoing a popular talking point made by both the Biden administration and Republican centrists.

Johnson aligned himself with the “peace through strength” foreign policy doctrine espoused by President Ronald Reagan, a philosophy often characterized by Republican moderates as representative of traditional party policy. It is also often depicted in contrast with the movement toward isolationism among the party’s far right — sentiments animated by Trump, who has opposed Ukraine aid, suggested he could end the war in 24 hours if reelected, and contemplated U.S. withdrawal from NATO.

“If we don’t return the Reagan Doctrine, we’re going to be in serious trouble,” Johnson warned.

A relative unknown before assuming the House speakership in October, Johnson’s foreign policy views have been the subject of speculation as he has navigated a deeply divided Congress and the GOP’s bitter internal feuds. Initially, the four-term Republican joined the party’s hard-liners in opposing U.S. support to Ukraine, a stance he later reversed after delaying for months a House vote on billions of dollars in additional military support for the country, enraging many on the far right.

But Johnson’s speech Monday was anything but a repudiation of the party’s standard-bearer, with whom he has publicly allied himself. Rather, the “pundits” have been mistaken: Trump, is not, in fact, an isolationist, Johnson insisted.

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“If you look at the objective facts in the history, you know, President Trump established a solid security posture” during his time in office, he asserted, arguing that Trump had toughened America’s stance toward China and Iran.

Even as Johnson praised the Reagan doctrine, he sought to frame his — and Trump’s — vision as an “America first” policy that falls solidly outside the old school “foreign policy establishment.” And he embraced Trump’s criticisms of NATO, moments after paying tribute to the importance of the historic alliance.

“Everyone cannot ride along on the coattails of America,” Johnson said of NATO member states that spend less on defense proportionally than the United States does. “Donald Trump says this as bluntly as anyone: it’s just right and fair to demand that others do their part,” he said.

This week’s NATO summit also comes at a fraught moment in U.S. politics, as President Biden struggles to contain mounting concerns within the Democratic Party — and among foreign allies — about his physical and cognitive fitness to win a second term in November and lead the country for another four years.

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Johnson in his speech sought to capitalize on his political opponents’ turmoil, presenting Biden and the Democrats as weak and catering to America’s foes — a trend, he suggested, that Republican leadership would reverse.

“Joe Biden doesn’t treat China like an enemy. He’s stopped supporting Israel, and has cozied up to Iran to revive the failed nuclear deal … He’s opened our borders wide to spies and terrorists, while reducing sanctions on Latin dictators,” Johnson said, calling Democrats “naive” and “idealistic.”

The Biden administration has sought to maintain open lines of communication with Beijing as a means of avoiding conflict amid the two powers’ deepening economic competition, and has blamed Trump’s abandonment of the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal for Tehran’s progress toward obtaining a nuclear weapon. Democrats also have chastised Republicans for their unbridled support for Israel’s far-right government amid the Gaza conflict, which has so far killed tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians. And they have also cited Johnson’s rejection of a bipartisan border reform bill negotiated in the Senate last year as evidence of Republican hypocrisy.

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Johnson drew bipartisan criticism earlier this year for his unwillingness to hold a vote on Ukraine aid, even though a majority of House members appeared ready to support the measure. Democrats have attributed recent front-line gains by Moscow, as well as Ukraine’s dire weapons shortage — including its inability to repel attacks — to that delay.

Johnson, who had little formal foreign policy experience before entering a leadership position in Congress, illustrated his policy positions with vignettes from his experiences on congressional delegations abroad, including a trip to Israel funded by the pro-Israel lobbyist group AIPAC.

Johnson’s worldview as a devout Baptist, particularly his understanding of Middle East politics, also came through in a speech that contained about a dozen religious references, including the notion that the fundamental tenets of Christianity are “what defines us as a nation.”

“If we lose that,” he said, “we lose an essential ingredient about what it means to be an American.”

Mike Johnson details conservative vision for U.S. foreign policy (2024)

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