Zelensky’s Hasty Visit Shows How MAGA Republicans Have Captured US Foreign Policy

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For almost a century, Washington has ruled the globe with two major tools: carrots and sticks. It has gone largely unnoticed domestically beyond the Beltway, but the United States appears to be in the midst of a carrot famine. The rest of the world has noticed, however, as Washington can’t seem to muster its most favored carrot—aid packages—for Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan. 

The shortage is so bad that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is in Washington today to plead for carrots to stand-up his country's next wave of defense against Russia. His chief obstacle is the Republican Party's hard-line base, which follows the lead of former President Donald Trump, who has made abiding skepticism of Ukraine a new plank of the GOP platform. Lost on no one is the fact that Trump’s attempts to bully Ukraine into a political hit job against Joe Biden and his family launched Trump’s first impeachment inquiry. 

At the same time, some hawkish Republicans see aid for Ukraine as part of a zero-sum foreign policy regime. Money for Ukraine, they argue, should be diverted to Taiwan, the largely self-governed island in the shadow of China. To ward off a belligerent Beijing, these lawmakers want to funnel money meant for Kyiv to Taiwan. Such a direct move, though, would be not just novel, but also potentially inflammatory to Biden’s fragile relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Meanwhile, Israel remains a potent beneficiary of U.S. foreign policy norms. Lawmakers on the Hill—especially those from responsible corners of the machinery that helps keep Washington on speed dial in foreign capitals—have linked help for Israel with help for Ukraine. (Ironically, Israel’s top export partner for real-life carrots was, of all countries, Russia, at least until it invaded Ukraine and found itself isolated from many of its trading partners.) The surprise Oct. 7 strike from Hamas drew an immediate rallying to send Israel whatever it requested. But after that package became inconveniently tied to the broader aid bundle, hawkish-on-Israel lawmakers found themselves boxed-in when asked about Ukraine. If U.S. dollars should stand-up an Israeli defense from a foreign aggressor, why shouldn’t they help Ukrainians’ resistance, too? And if Xi sees the U.S. walk away from Ukraine, will he take that as a tacit admission that Americans are also willing to abandon their security agreement with Taiwan?

It’s been a complicated logic puzzle, and one that GOP hardliners haven’t yet solved. Which is why Zelensky is in town today for a closed-door session with Senators as he chases $60 billion as part of the roughly $110 billion aid package being bandied about. It’s unlikely that Zelensky will be equipped to do much to address the complaints of Senate Republicans, who are already eyeing the door for the holiday break and are demanding any aid to Ukraine be coupled with stepped-up security on the U.S.-Mexican border. The parameters of that part of this sprawling package are, at best, nebulous given Senate Democrats have already shunned major parts of it.

Zelensky is also set to meet with House Speaker Mike Johnson and Biden. The White House has been reluctant to dispatch Biden into direct talks on this, but that may soon have to change as the administration’s pressure campaign hasn’t made much of a dent on the Hill thus far. Zelensky's speech Monday at National Defense University barely registered in Washington, even with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin delivering a glowing introduction.

Ukrainian officials have been trying to convey the urgency of their situation to their detractors in Congress, who don’t seem too worried about leaving this issue until they return from break on Jan. 8. Zelensky is saying his country can’t coast that long on fumes, and that delay or deferral could cost Ukraine its gains as the war there heads toward its third year.

The fact that Washington is blinking—if not balking—at these three strategic partners’ requests for weaponry speaks to a broader shift in U.S. foreign policy thinking. Since World War II, leaders in Washington usually defaulted to siding with anyone who appeared to be standing in opposition to a threat to American might. The Cold War was fought largely along a bifurcated map that demanded a choosing between Moscow and Washington. A new rivalry with China emerged and has since shaped many a conference room that were still trying to expel the ghosts of Cold War rivalries. And, largely unquestioned by those with real power in D.C., Israel has enjoyed an unshakeable support from U.S. officials—at least in public.

And yet… 

The wobbly allyship for Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan speaks to the trouble facing the United States right now. Heading into an election year that is bound to be acrimonious and partisan unlike anything in recent memory, neither Hill Republicans nor the Democrats in the White House want to be seen as weak. The twist here, however, is that real military weakness is being taken as a sign of strength on Capitol Hill, while a hawkish wing of the Democratic Party seems to be getting throttled back by the GOP. Even if Washington is short on carrots and corresponding sticks for export, the players in Washington still have plenty for domestic use and abuse. It just leaves U.S. interests abroad humbled if not hobbled.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com