The reason Ron DeSantis bangs his not very big drum on the big world stage

Even though American voters are supposed to be supremely disinterested in foreign policy
Image generated by DALL-E2 'Ron DeSantis on the world stage'

It says something that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis ended his four-nation ‘world tour’ in London (on Friday, April 28). It also says something that after stops in Japan, South Korea and Israel, where he got to meet each head of government, Mr DeSantis arrived in London SW1 knowing there was no chance he would shake UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s hand.

The word was that Britain was just sticking to protocol, which doesn’t allow for a UK head of government to meet a mere governor of a US state. But there was another subtext. The British government didn’t want to be seen as taking sides in the Republican presidential campaign, particularly when someone as ill-tempered and unfiltered as Donald Trump is in the race. And especially if Mr Trump were to trump Mr DeSantis and others and win the Republican nomination and, god help us, the US presidency.

So Mr DeSantis had to make do with UK foreign secretary James Cleverly and UK trade secretary Kemi Badenoch, as well as dozens of business leaders in London.

Yet he persisted. Why? Isn’t the US electorate notoriously immune to foreign affairs concerns when it comes to casting the ballot?

Like other presidential hopefuls who came before, Mr DeSantis made a huge effort to burnish his foreign policy credentials ahead of a potential 2024 presidential bid. Officially billed as a “trade tour”, an effort to drum up foreign direct investment in Florida, Mr De Santis’s visit to the UK was, his spokesperson said, “an opportunity to strengthen ties with the . . . US state, and support bilateral economic co-operation that is already worth more than £5bn a year,”.

But there was something else that was worth considering. The governor’s tour of Tokyo, Seoul, Jerusalem and London gave Mr DeSantis the opportunity to present himself as a statesman. As Dan Eberhart, a former Trump donor who is now backing Mr DeSantis, has said, the trip was “laying the foundation” for the governor to “discuss his foreign policy experience and ideas on the debate stage”.

The world tour is a sign that American politicians seeking the highest office of them all need to go beyond narrow home state battles and culture wars and establish internationalist credentials.

Why? Aren’t American voters supposed to be supremely disinterested in foreign policy? Ahead of the 2020 US presidential election, polls found that while a majority (57 per cent) of Americans said foreign policy was “very important” to them as they weighed up their choice, the electorate’s reckoning of what was really important was as follows: the economy and healthcare. At 79 per cent, the economy mattered most of all and healthcare (68 per cent) was a close second. Foreign policy was a bit ahead of immigration (52 per cent) and climate change (42 per cent), but that’s not saying much.

And yet, even politicians like Mr DeSantis, who speak to ‘America First’ policies, feel compelled to bang their drum on a big stage in hopes that  voters at home hear the pounding and beating from overseas.

As Elisabeth Braw, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Guardian newspaper: “It’s an irony that people like him who make the case that America should focus more on itself, also sees it as indispensable to go around and present themselves in a dog and pony show to the world”.

In a funny sort of way, it’s reassuring that even ‘America First’ demagogues like Mr DeSantis feels the need to pad their internationalist credentials.