“There’s been this desire in the last 50 or 60 years…to define America’s interests so broadly that you could fit any moral crusade…I see that a lot with Ukraine arguments.”

The drive from Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, to the Dirksen Senate Office Building is about five and a half hours. J.D. Vance has come a lot further than that. But at least one part of the freshman senator from Ohio’s road to Capitol Hill began in Cherry Point. As the base’s media relations officer for the final nine months of his Marine Corps service (2003–2007), Vance, as he wrote in his bestselling memoir, learned that “I could work twenty-hour days when I had to. I could speak clearly and confidently with TV cameras shoved in my face. I could stand in a room with majors, colonels, and generals and hold my own.”

On the campaign trail, Vance broke hard with a Washington establishment preoccupied with Ukraine, questioning how involvement in the conflict could be in America’s interest. Last February, before Russia’s invasion, he sparked controversy when, pointing out bipartisan complacency about America’s southern border, he told Steve Bannon, “I think it’s ridiculous that we’re focused on this border in Ukraine. I gotta be honest with you, I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or the other.” And at The American Conservative and American Moment’s “Up From Chaos” conference in April, he described how campaign donors acted as if his craziest idea was that the U.S. should avoid nuclear war with Russia. “We don’t have that many non-insane people in Washington,” he told attendees. As a senator—though lately he and his staff have been busy studying railroad safety, and making sure the people of East Palestine, Ohio, are not forgotten—he has pushed for a full accounting of American funding in Ukraine and has repeatedly called for U.S. officials to support negotiations for peace.

“I have never been one of these guys who says nice things about Putin, despite the implication from the left,” Vance told me in an interview. “I don’t think that the invasion was somehow justified. But I also try to think about this rationally. And there are a lot of people that I don’t like, and there are a lot of bad guys, and that doesn’t mean we should try to fight them.” The Russia hawks of both parties are not thinking about this rationally. “A big part of the Russia hawkishness from the left is blood lust over 2016. They still blame Vladimir Putin for Donald Trump. And the fact that so many Republicans don’t see that obvious obsession from the left is bizarre to me, because if the left wasn’t so obsessed with Vladimir Putin, I don’t think that they would be seeing the Russia-Ukraine conflict the way that they do.”

In an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal at the end of January, Vance endorsed Donald Trump for reelection, citing the president’s record of starting no wars, “despite enormous pressure from his own party and even members of his own administration. Not starting wars is perhaps a low bar, but that’s a reflection of the hawkishness of Mr. Trump’s predecessors and the foreign-policy establishment they slavishly followed.” He also offered the first distillation of how he thinks about international statecraft, though China received only one mention in the short piece: “I prefer a different kind of statesmanship: one that stands athwart the crowd, reminding leaders in both parties that the U.S. national interest must be pursued ruthlessly but also carefully, with strong words but great restraint.”

Of course, these days there are a lot of liberal idealists claiming an America First, realist mantle. “There’s been this desire in the last fifty or sixty years—and it really accelerated as I started to pay attention to this stuff—to define America’s interests so broadly that you could fit any moral crusade, any foreign nation’s economic interest,” Vance said, comparing the exercise to the square peg and the round hole. “I see that a lot with Ukraine arguments,” he continued. “A number of my colleagues who disagree with me on this issue, they’ll say, ‘This is morally the right thing to do. But it’s also purely in American self-interest, the right thing to do.’ It’s like, well, if it was clearly in America’s self-interest the right thing to do, you wouldn’t need the caveats.”

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