Sep 28, 2023

What Republicans said on foreign policy at the second debate

Photo: Eric Thayer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Nikki Haley (left), Ron DeSantis (center) and Vivek Ramaswamy (right) during the second Republican primary debate. Photo: Eric Thayer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

There was a lot of foreign policy, and a lot of arguing.

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Wednesday night, seven candidates took the stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, for the second Republican primary debate.

To qualify for the debate, candidates needed at least 3% support in two national polls or 3% support in one national poll and two polls from four of the early vote states (New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada and South Carolina). Additionally, candidates needed at least 50,000 unique donors to qualify, with at least 200 donors coming from 20 states or territories. All seven candidates signed a pledge to support the party's eventual nominee. Seven of the eight candidates from the first debate qualified — only Asa Hutchinson, former governor of Arkansas, missed the cut.

The first Republican primary is now four months away. Former President Donald Trump, who is leading primary polls by a wide margin, once again skipped this debate. Instead, he was holding campaign events in Michigan, a battleground state.

Throughout the night, the candidates were particularly combative with one another and fought to get speaking time to present their case for why they would make a better candidate than their competitors. Two of the most discussed topics during the two-hour debate were border security and foreign policy. And, unlike with education, race, and government spending, there were some significant differences between the candidates on these issues. 

While each candidate was consistent in stating that the southern border was in crisis and that Mexican cartels bringing fentanyl into the United States is an issue requiring presidential action, they differed in how to address that issue, as well in how to stand up to China, deal with Russia, approach the war in Ukraine, and pursue energy independence.

Below, we’re going to highlight the positions staked out by each candidate — from least to most popular in polling positions — and briefly recap their statements on different foreign policy issues during the night.

Doug Burgum.

0.9% in the polls

Burgum, the 67-year-old governor of North Dakota, once again played a minor role in the debate, but attempted to assert his position on a number of issues early on, particularly the auto workers’ strike, energy policy, and childcare costs. He repeatedly turned to his record as governor and experience in the technology sector when asked how he would address various national issues.

On foreign policy:

  • On the UAW strike, Burgum linked the issue to foreign trade. “China controls 85% of rare earth minerals,” Burgum said, claiming that Biden is subsidizing electric car production in a way that helps China.
  • Burgum claimed that every school and tribe in North Dakota was being attacked “every day by China, Iran, and North Korea,” emphasizing the need for digital security. He also criticized Biden for pursuing appeasement in his prisoner swap with Iran, and insisted that the current administration is focusing on prioritizing climate change policy above energy security.
  • While Burgum appeared eager to interject on issues like energy policy, the moderators focused their questions on other candidates, leaving him out of multiple discussions.

Tim Scott.

2.7% in the polls

Scott, the 57-year-old South Carolina senator, presented mostly party-line positions on securing the southern border, promoting tax cuts, and reigning in federal spending. He also leaned into his sense of personal optimism. However, in a change of direction from the first debate, Scott was unafraid to spar with the other candidates, calling out Vivek Ramaswamy and Nikki Haley.

On foreign policy:

  • With the debate’s opening question about President Biden visiting the UAW strike, Scott pivoted to saying that Biden should have visited the border. “Every county is now a border county,” Scott said, linking the lack of security at the southern border to the fentanyl crisis. He said he’d finish the wall, and reinstate Title 42.
  • In response to Ramaswamy’s statement about ending birthright citizenship, Scott agreed that the 14th Amendment was meant to apply to slavery and not “illegal immigration,” but made no promises to say he would end birthright citizenship for children of illegal immigration. Scott went further, turning to Ramaswamy and criticizing him for being “in business with the Chinese Communist Party” in the debate’s first openly confrontational moment.
  • Scott emphasized that 90% of the money we are sending to Ukraine is in the form of a NATO-backed loan. “By degrading the Russian military, we actually keep our homeland safer, we keep our troops at home,” Scott said, arguing that engaging Russia in Ukraine keeps the fight out of NATO territory, which would necessitate bringing in American troops.
  • In response to a question on defense leadership, Scott touted his service on the Senate Armed Services committee and pointed to legislation he’s written to freeze Mexican cartel accounts and seize their assets.

Chris Christie.

2.9% in the polls

Christie, the 60-year-old former governor of New Jersey, continued to position himself as the candidate most willing to directly criticize Donald Trump. Christie’s speaking time again outpaced his poll numbers, and he continued to capitalize on openings to go after President Trump. Otherwise, Christie gave answers that reflected the traditional Republican party line on issues like the border and the war in Ukraine.

On foreign policy: 

  • With the debate’s first question explicitly on immigration, Christie also linked border security to the fentanyl crisis, criticizing Biden for “doing nothing.” Christie added that he would sign an executive order to mobilize the national guard to the border, and would deport anyone here illegally.
  • Christie only spoke briefly on foreign policy, instead taking most of his questions on law and order and the border before pivoting his speaking opportunities to attacks on Trump. “The Chinese are paying for the Russian war in Ukraine, the Iranians are supplying more sophisticated weapons, and so are the North Koreans now as well with the encouragement of the Chinese,” Christie said about Biden’s handling of the war in Ukraine. 
  • He also segued the above comments into an attack on Trump, saying that the former president had been “cuddling up” to Putin. Christie called Putin a dictator who murdered Russians and Ukrainian civilians, and claimed that Putin wants to restore the Soviet Union.

Mike Pence.

4.6% in the polls

Pence, the 64-year-old former vice president and governor of Indiana, had a more subdued night compared to his (relatively) fiery performance in the first debate, during which he spoke the most of any candidate. In the second debate, he described himself as the only person on the stage with the depth of experience across multiple branches of government to understand how to successfully lead the country and touted the record of the Trump administration on issues like energy and the economy.

On foreign policy:

  • In response to a question on whether he would find a solution for dreamers in the DACA program, which the Trump-Pence administration canceled in 2017, Pence further touted his record as Vice President. Pence said that he negotiated the remain in Mexico policy, that he and Trump built “hundreds of miles of border wall,” and that together they reduced illegal immigration by 90%. 
  • Pence did not receive or take too many opportunities to articulate his position on foreign policy, but did interrupt a response Vivek Ramaswamy was giving to get his viewpoint across. “If you let Putin have Ukraine, that’s a green light to China to take Taiwan. Peace comes through strength,” Pence said.
  • More generally, Pence said that every candidate on stage was passionate because Biden’s policies are weakening our country, and argued that he has more executive leadership than the other candidates on stage, which would allow him to be strong on national defense.

Nikki Haley.

6.3% in the polls

Haley, the 51-year-old former ambassador to the United Nations, was the most willingly confrontational of the candidates on stage, picking fights with Tim Scott, Ron DeSantis, and especially Vivek Ramaswamy. As a former U.N. ambassador, Haley appeared the most comfortable of all the candidates discussing foreign policy, and played a mix of offense and defense in articulating her positions. She railed against not only her fellow candidates but President Biden and former President Trump, as well.

On foreign policy:

  • On the border, Haley also linked border security to the fentanyl crisis. She blamed Joe Biden, saying he “waved the green flag” for migrants to come and bring fentanyl, which has killed more people than the Iraq, Vietnam, and Afghanistan wars combined. Haley said we need more border control and ICE agents, should reinstate the remain in Mexico policy, and ought to abandon “catch and release” in favor of “catch and deport.”
  • Haley said she is against foreign aid meant to address the root causes of immigration, saying aid only serves as an invitation to people from other countries to come here. That money “should be to secure the border,” she said.
  • Tying the issue to a question about supporting law enforcement, Haley said that we need to pursue trade independence from China. She claimed that the U.S. only gets amoxicillin from China, but that there’s a plant in Bristol, TN, which makes the drug. “We gotta buy American,” Haley said. She made a similar point on gas prices, saying that “energy security is national security” and went after DeSantis for banning fracking and offshore drilling in Florida.
  • Seemingly showing a genuine dislike for Ramaswamy, Haley went out of her way to confront him on doing business in China and using TikTok. “Every time I hear you, I feel a little dumber,” Haley told Ramaswamy in response to his answer about creating a TikTok account, adding “we can’t trust you.” Haley said that China can get the information of over 150 million people who use TikTok, implying that the social media application presents a national security threat.
  • Despite not receiving a direct question  about her stance on Ukraine, Haley made sure her view was known. “It’s not a territorial dispute,” she interjected to an answer DeSantis was giving on the topic, and “a win for Russia is a win for China” she said while  Ramaswamy was giving his own answer.
  • On China, Haley said that Trump was wrong to focus on trade, instead emphasizing that we should confront China on actions like buying U.S. farmland, killing Americans through fentanyl, stealing $6 billion in intellectual property, putting a base in Cuba, and manufacturing our surveillance drones. 

Vivek Ramaswamy.

6.3% in the polls

Ramaswamy, the 38-year-old entrepreneur, was attacked the most of any candidate by a significant margin, mirroring the dynamics of the first debate. He often found himself in the middle of heated exchanges with Haley, Scott, and Pence, in which multiple candidates were speaking over each other in an attempt to have the last word. While others leveled criticism at Trump or avoided talking about him, Ramaswamy continued to praise the former president and offered strong rhetoric on where he believes our national security policies are too weak.

On foreign policy:

  • On immigration, Ramasway said that he agreed with his fellow candidates, saying that we should militarize the southern border, stop funding sanctuary cities, and end foreign aid to Mexico and Central America. He was also the only candidate on the stage to state that he would favor “ending birthright citizenship for illegal immigrants,” claiming that the government is violating the 14th Amendment in allowing it.
  • In an apparent attempt to be conciliatory, Ramaswamy said he agrees with DeSantis on China. Ramaswamy added that he opened a subsidiary in China, but “got the hell out of there,” receiving immediate criticism from Haley and Scott for only doing so just before running for president.
  • Ramaswamy said that building a border wall is not enough to stop fentanyl from coming into the country, claiming that cartels are building tunnels under the border large enough to drive semi-trucks through. He added that a mental health epidemic is creating the demand for drugs, saying we need faith-based solutions and that, “if you’re 16 years old or under, you should not be using an addictive social media product, period.”
  • Throughout the night, Ramaswamy had difficulty articulating his full stance on Ukraine, and any time he began to speak on the subject he was shouted down by others on the stage. “The reality is that just because Putin is an evil dictator does not mean Ukraine is good,” he said before getting shouted down by Nikki Haley and Mike Pence, concluding that “the CCP is the real enemy.”

Ron DeSantis.

13.8% in the polls

After a slow start to the debate, DeSantis seized on a number of opportunities to drive the discussion around topics like China, economic policy, and education. The 45-year-old governor of Florida came under attack more than he had in the first debate, but mostly shrugged off any barbs that came his way, pivoting to his record as governor to back up his conservative credentials. He also criticized Trump by name multiple times and offered an aggressive position on Mexico and cautious position on Ukraine.

On foreign policy:

  • “Of course not,” DeSantis said when asked if he is comfortable with China investing $12 billion in Latin America, adding that elites have chosen “surrender over strength when it comes to the CCP.” He said that our policy towards China made some people rich, hollowed out our industrial base, and made China stronger — presumably referring to U.S. trade policy.
  • Also regarding China, DeSantis said we need a “stronger response in the Indo-Pacific region,” like Reagan pursued, and that we need to decouple our economy from China. He boasted that, as Florida governor, he banned China from buying land in the state.
  • Like the other candidates on the stage, DeSantis said that he would secure the southern border. He went further, saying that he would use the military to go after drug cartels. “We’ll do ‘remain in Mexico,’ but those Mexican drug cartels are gonna be treated like the foreign terrorism organizations they are,” Desantis said.
  • Asked if going after Meta and Google would give China an edge, DeSantis said no, and that going after monopolies isn’t the same as telling companies not to do business. He took the opportunity to repeat the need for us to decouple our economy from China, and to “reshore” jobs that went overseas.
  • Responding to a challenge from a question of whether it could be in our best interest to degrade Russia for less than 5% of our military budget, DeSantis doubled down on his position on Ukraine, saying that we’ve got to end the war. “We are not gonna have a blank check, we’re not gonna have US troops,” he said. “Make the Europeans do what they need to do.” 
  • More broadly, DeSantis argued that his experience serving overseas set him apart from the other candidates, pointing to the fact that no president had served in a war since George H. W. Bush took office in 1988.

For Tangle’s full coverage of the second Republican primary debate, including the conversations on domestic policy and editorial commentary, you can go here.  

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.