The battle between Donald Trump and Nikki Haley has emerged as a contest of competing foreign policy visions, with voters in New Hampshire set to deliver a verdict on America’s role in the world, including on whether to keep funding Ukraine.
The vote in the New England state on Tuesday could represent an early watershed moment in the 2024 race for the White House. If Trump wins a sufficiently convincing victory over Haley — now his only opponent after Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s withdrawal — he could cruise to the party’s nomination.
But it is also a test of Republican sentiment on US national security policy. Trump, the former president, has long championed the more isolationist streak that has been gaining traction on the right of American politics.
It rejects foreign military interventions, is sceptical of traditional US alliances including Nato and expresses a willingness to make deals with authoritarian leaders including Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
At a rally in Laconia, New Hampshire, on Monday night, Trump said the Republican party would never return to the days of spending “trillions and trillions of dollars on endless wars all over the place in countries you’ve never even heard of and countries that don’t even want us”.
He also warned that the US was “getting involved in the Middle East again” in the wake of Israel’s war in Gaza. “Here we go again,” he said, adding that the US had received nothing but “death” and “blood” from its spending on previous military commitments there.
At a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, two days earlier, Trump praised Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s far-right prime minister, calling him a “great man” and a “great leader”.
“It’s nice to have a strongman running your country,” he said.
Haley, the former US ambassador to the UN, is a more traditionally hawkish Republican politician of the kind that was previously dominant within the party. On the campaign trail she has made the case for delivering more aid to Ukraine so it can defeat Russia’s invasion — as well as unwavering support for Israel in its war against Hamas.
Haley’s main message is that the US cannot afford to disengage from the world as it would allow its biggest rivals, including China and Russia, to run rampant. She argues that if the US does not help Ukraine, Russia will invade Poland and the Baltic states next, obliging the US to intervene given its obligations as a Nato country. But she has also increasingly attacked Trump for his cosiness with America’s adversaries.
“You can’t have someone who’s trying to buddy up with dictators that want to kill us. Instead, you have to let them know what we expect of them,” Haley told CBS News on Sunday.
Haley said that while she was at the UN she had to “sit [Trump] down and tell him to stop his bromance with Putin”. She also criticised Trump for congratulating Xi Jinping for his handling of the Covid-19 crisis.
In the final stretch of the New Hampshire race, she is releasing an ad featuring the mother of Otto Warmbier, an American who was detained in North Korea and died after being in a vegetative state soon after his release during the Trump administration. “[Trump] talked about love letters going back and forth to Kim Jong Un and Cindy [Warmbier] would contact me. She was so upset,” Haley told CBS.
“Among primary voters, I think Donald Trump’s isolationist, angry rhetoric is more compelling,” said Danielle Pletka, a senior fellow in foreign and defence policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank in Washington.
“General election voters are probably less fringe-y on foreign policy, and would, should she get that far, prefer Haley’s compelling argument that it takes American leadership to prevent war. But they are not showing up to the primaries.”
If Haley’s message were to resonate anywhere it would be in New Hampshire, where more moderate independent voters are eligible to vote in Republican primaries and where almost 8 per cent of the adult population has served in the US military.
Haley has also made an explicit pitch to military veterans and their families, vowing to improve public healthcare for veterans and talking at length about her experiences as a military spouse. Haley’s husband, Michael, is a commissioned officer in the Army National Guard and is currently overseas on a deployment with a brigade that the National Guard says is providing support in the Horn of Africa.
Meanwhile, Trump and his allies have fought back, arguing that he successfully deterred conflicts around the world during his time in office and that Haley would plunge the US back into a series of open-ended and expensive military commitments.
“This is where Nikki Haley shines. She will send everyone and their children to go die in every war because she’s got to satisfy the people at Boeing and Lockheed Martin — that’s their business,” Donald Trump Jr, the former president’s son, said at an event at a vineyard in Hollis, New Hampshire, on Monday. “She’s probably the biggest warmonger out there and the Democrats are just as bad.”
“What do polls say when Democrats run ads saying that Nikki Haley wants to slash your social security so that she can send more money to foreign countries?” JD Vance, the Ohio Republican senator, told Fox News on Sunday.
At a rally in Franklin, New Hampshire, on Monday, Haley retorted: “[Trump] says that I love war. Quite the contrary. You don’t have a husband that’s in the military and love war, you are obsessed with preventing war.”
The outcome of the Republican primary contest could have ripple effects in Washington, where Congress is negotiating a deal to provide more aid to Ukraine in conjunction with stricter immigration curbs at the southern border with Mexico.
Trump has expressed his opposition to such an agreement and has been consulting with Mike Johnson, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, making its path on Capitol Hill even harder.
In New Hampshire, Fred, an 83-year-old independent from the town of Rochester who declined to give his surname, said he was tilting towards Haley.
“[She’s] the only candidate that I’ve heard that has the full sweep of what the country is facing and has those facts in her head without a script,” he said. “Whether it’s domestic or foreign policy, she has a handle on both.”
But with Trump clearly holding the upper hand in the nomination battle, Washington foreign policy experts are already starting to weigh the consequences of his possible victory in November.
“No one knows what a Trump presidency would mean for foreign policy because Donald Trump has no actual vision, no guiding principles. It would depend on the deal, on the moment, on who insulted him last and on the staff,” said Pletka.
“Certainly, the ‘establishment’ is out. Whom does that leave? No one has a clue.”