Ron DeSantis is due to spend Friday in Britain on the last leg of a world tour aimed at enhancing his foreign policy credentials before an expected run for the Republican nomination.
Formally, DeSantis will meet the foreign secretary, James Cleverly, and the business secretary, Kemi Badenoch, in his role as governor of Florida, the third most populous US state.
Nigel Farage’s new rightwing Reform UK party is also trying to secure a meeting with DeSantis, Politico reported on Thursday.
Despite being greeted by the prime ministers of Japan and South Korea on earlier legs of the trip, he won’t meet the British prime minster, Rishi Sunak – in part because it is not standard diplomatic protocol for a prime minister to meet a US governor, UK officials say.
There is additionally an issue of logistics, with Sunak in Scotland on a pre-planned trip to the Conservatives’ conference there.
DeSantis’s visit is not completely on a pretext. The UK regularly ranks as Florida’s top business partner, and there are more than 600 British businesses in the state, employing more than 50,000 Floridians. However, the timing of DeSantis’s tour, which has also included Japan, South Korea and Israel, has been dictated by the brewing primary contest with Donald Trump. It is a race in which he is trailing badly, though as he pointed out on the Japanese leg of the trip, the numbers could change when he formally declares his bid.
The fact he has not officially entered the race has not stopped attacks from the Trump camp, who view him as the only serious challenger. While Trump boasts of his personal rapport with some of the world’s leaders, suggesting it gives him a unique ability to resolve big conflicts around the world, DeSantis’s previous experience abroad is limited to his deployment as a legal adviser to a Navy Seal team in Iraq, and some limited travel as Florida governor. This trip, and the accompanying footage of handshaking with foreign officials, will provide a rebuttal to claims he is too inexperienced in the ways of the world to be president.
“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,” Elisabeth Braw, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said.
Trump is due to be in the UK next week for a visit to his golf course in Scotland.
Such tours are a rite of passage for presidential candidates. In 2008, Barack Obama, who also had a foreign policy experience deficit, visited Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Germany, France and the UK. On the last three stops, Obama met Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and Gordon Brown. But, unlike DeSantis, he had already secured the nomination at that point.
The inclusion of Tokyo and Seoul in DeSantis’s tour is telling, a reflection of how the centre of US foreign policy has shifted.
“I think it really does indicate a growing focus in US foreign policy generally, but even in the public consciousness, on the Indo-Pacific, on competition with China,” Emma Ashford, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center thinktank, said. “I think the fact that he chose to go there really does suggest that’s the direction foreign policy is moving.”
Israel has long been a must-do for US presidential hopefuls on tour, though now that is more true of Republicans, who are generally in lockstep with Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right government, than Democrats. It has been called the “new Iowa” for Republican hopefuls – a primary for the Jewish and evangelical vote.
In his speech at the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem on Thursday, DeSantis repeated a story about how he had used water from the Sea of Galilee to baptise his children. He talked about “Judeo-Christian values” binding the two countries. The only mention of the world “Palestinian” was in a line about terrorism.
DeSantis disowned the Biden administration’s criticism of Netanyahu’s efforts to curb the independence of the judiciary, saying: “It shouldn’t be for us to butt in to these important issues”, but there was nothing of substance separating his position from Trump’s.
The one area of policy difference with the Republican frontrunner is over Ukraine. DeSantis’s support for a ceasefire and for less US involvement sparked a backlash from the more hawkish end of the Republican party, and Cleverly can be expected to echo those misgivings. DeSantis has tried to hedge his position, potentially opening space between his stance and Trump’s pro-Moscow inclinations.
DeSantis’s world tour has come at an awkward time, as support among congressional Republicans has slid towards Trump in his absence, but the fact that he felt he had to leave the US at all, suggests that the maxim foreign policy does not matter in US presidential elections is not always true.
“Differences over foreign policy can matter in the team-building phase of the campaign,” Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at Tufts University, said. “This seems like a box-checking exercise and actually a horribly timed one from DeSantis’s perspective, because the last thing you want to do, when your campaign is faltering, is go overseas.”
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