Trump Owes Americans Some Answers on Foreign Policy

The people of Ukraine await a thumbs up or down on their fate from Mr. Trump. So which will it be, Mr. Trump—let Ukraine defend itself, or let it go?
The people of Ukraine await a thumbs up or down on their fate from Mr. Trump. So which will it be, Mr. Trump—let Ukraine defend itself, or let it go?

Summary

If the former president intends an historic redefinition of U.S. leadership in a world of aggressors, he should tell the voters.

Two significant political events will intersect Saturday—the South Carolina Republican presidential primary and the second anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The coincidence goes beyond this weekend.

In the grand opera that congressional Republicans have become, no major legislation can pass until Donald Trump sings. The Trump-denounced border bill failed two weeks ago. Last week brought the unusual spectacle of South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who only last month called on Joe Biden to bomb Iran, voting against the bill to fund military aid to Ukraine and Israel. As did Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, heretofore a prominent supporter of Ukraine. Though the bill passed with 22 Republicans in favor, its future with Republicans in the House isn’t clear because Mr. Trump’s thinking on Ukraine’s future is unclear.

The people of Ukraine themselves must be starting to feel like the gladiators who fought in a walled colosseum to entertain the Romans. They await a thumbs up or down on their fate from Mr. Trump. So which will it be, Mr. Trump—let Ukraine defend itself, or let it go?

At the Munich Security Conference last weekend, Ohio Republican Sen. J.D. Vance, a Trump surrogate, suggested his camp’s thumb is turning downward on U.S. military support for Ukraine. “We simply do not have manufacturing capacity to support a ground war in Eastern Europe indefinitely," he said. “And I think it’s incumbent upon leaders to articulate this for their populations."

Some believe that if the U.S. pulled its support, that would compel Ukraine to raise the white flag and reach an accommodation with Mr. Putin. I think it’s more likely they would fight until the last Ukrainian man, woman and child are obliterated by the Russian army. They’d rather drown in Europe’s biggest bloodbath since World War II than submit.

We’re not there yet, but we’ve been at this decisional crossroads before. That would be the Munich Agreement of 1938. Historical parallels are never perfect, as Casey Michel described in these pages recently in an op-ed about the agreement. But Munich is worth thinking about. Mr. Putin’s actions and justifications evoke Hitler’s in the 1930s.

In 1936, Hitler’s military entered the German Rhineland on the French-Belgian border, an act forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles. France and England didn’t object. In 1938, Hitler annexed Austria, an independent state, declaring it an “Anschluss," or political unification. Mr. Putin’s 2014 invasion and annexation of the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine was the start of a Russian Anschluss.

Months later in the Munich Agreement, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, attempting to avert war, conceded that Hitler could occupy the German-speaking territories of Czechoslovakia in return for promising no further territorial expansions. Mr. Putin has justified his invasion of eastern Ukraine in part on the basis of Russian speakers there and has made similar threats against Latvia on behalf of Russian-speaking minorities. Last week the Russian police put Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas on its wanted list for the “desecration of historical [Russian] memory."

Mr. Trump has refused to debate GOP primary opponent Nikki Haley, arguing that he doesn’t need to put his lead at risk. It is not acceptable, though, for Mr. Trump to deny American voters a more concrete idea of his policies toward Ukraine or the world’s other concurrent troubles.

For starters, what did Mr. Trump mean when he said he could end the war between Russia and Ukraine in 24 hours? Does he in fact mean Mr. Putin should be allowed to annex eastern Ukraine? Would he withdraw the U.S. from the roughly 50-nation Ukraine Defense Contact Group? Would he cede Russian-speaking areas of the Baltics to Mr. Putin? I would ask Mr. Trump if he thought the Munich Agreement was a mistake in 1938, or just poorly negotiated.

His recent remark at a rally that he’d let the Russians do “whatever the hell they want" was considered a negotiating tactic to make Europe spend more on defense. But I would like to hear Mr. Trump’s thoughts on related issues about the U.S. world role.

In May 2019, as president, Mr. Trump announced the end of military exercises with South Korea. Would he consider moving toward a more formal posture of armed neutrality, whereby the U.S. would have no formal alliances, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or partnerships with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia?

Mr. Trump says he personally can negotiate agreements with Mr. Putin and China’s Xi Jinping. Does he think those pacts make the current push to increase spending on U.S. defense unnecessary? Mr. Putin denied this week that Russia intends to deploy nuclear weapons in space. Does Mr. Trump believe him?

Mr. Trump may yet instruct House and Senate Republicans to end support for Ukraine. That would be a historic redefinition of U.S. leadership in a world of aggressors. If so, Mr. Trump has an obligation to tell American voters why 2024 won’t be another 1938.

Write henninger@wsj.com.

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