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The U.S. Is Not Close to Doing 'Enough' to Help Ukraine
The moral courage of the Ukrainian people has shown us what a real attachment to an abstraction like 'liberty' looks like
Wikipedia. Creative Commons. Vassia Atanassova—Spiritia
Republican Congressman Ralph Norman of South Carolina recently asked on National Public Radio “how much is enough” in terms of American material support for Ukraine? It’s a fair question, and one that bubbles ever closer to the surface of a turbulent political sea—some 40% of the Republican-leaning electorate currently thinks it’s already been too much at $75 billion in direct aid.* Norman acknowledged that while Ukraine is in our “vital national interest,” and that they are “fighting for their freedom,” against Putin who is a “thug,” he still wonders if we’ve done more than our fair share in the war there. When is enough enough, after all?
The answer, I’ll warrant, is a great deal more than we’ve done so far.
Since we recently marked the commemoration (of sorts) of the U.S. invasion-cum-liberation of Iraq, it’s worth a brief comparison: we spent $2 trillion in Iraq, making it “safe for democracy”—an expenditure that, most would agree, was basically wasted. My brother deployed there twice and he is not “convinced” that the investment of our blood (4,431 killed) and treasure (about $8,000 per capita) was well spent. The eye-watering waste in Iraq is now used by some as a proximate example for avoiding a “repeat” in Ukraine.
Many have rightly argued, for pragmatic geopolitical reasons, that the investment in Ukraine is justified on purely cost-benefit grounds. By helping arm a capable and freedom-dedicated ally, we have taken down, with the exception of China, a country that is arguably our primary geopolitical foe that is expressly antagonistic to our way of life as a free people. And we’ve done it for pennies on the dollar.
Pragmatism Doesn’t Mean Abandoning Morality
Monetary concerns are part of the puzzle, to be sure—but moral interests ultimately carry the day. Unlike in Iraq (and Afghanistan for that matter), where we tried and failed to import democracy by “encouraging free and open societies on every continent,” the notion of a flourishing free society in Ukraine is, in fact, a realistic prospect. There, people overwhelmingly mean it when they say they want to be free. Friends of mine in the Ukrainian city of Khmelnystky, Nico and Juliia Marchuk wrote to me:
“Freedom is a constant value of every true Ukrainian. To be under the coercion of Putin would mean the loss of our freedom, which literally means death for us. But Ukrainian people are super strong ... I’m sure we will definitely stand up [for] our right to stay free and independent. And in the end of the day, good always triumphs over evil.”
It is difficult to simply ignore people who express the same attachment to freedom as we do. The Ukrainian people already embrace liberal democratic norms and are eager to voluntarily integrate into the global family of liberal democracies. A commonly seen slogan in Ukraine echoes Patrick Henry: “Volya abo Smert,” Liberty or Death. They mean it and see themselves as a bulwark against totalitarianism. Much is said about aid to Ukraine’s fighters, but we are beneficiaries as well: their moral courage has revived an otherwise moribund attachment to abstractions on “liberty.”
The war in Ukraine represents an unfinished existential battle between worldviews that was the dominant theme in World War II. We talk much about an impending World War III, but the tensions in Ukraine are really the same that instigated the Second: a fundamental struggle between statist collectivism and liberal individualism. This war pits an openly collectivist dictatorship against believers in individual liberty and spontaneous civic organization. As Putin noted in 2013:
Individualism lies at the core of the American identity, while Russia has been a country of collectivism. One student of Pushkin’s legacy has formulated this difference very aptly. Take Scarlett O’Hara from ‘Gone with the Wind’ for instance. She says, ‘I’ll never be hungry again.’ This is the most important thing for her. Russians have a different, far loftier ambition, more of a spiritual kind, it's more about your relationship with God. We have different visions of life.
Putin overlooks Russia’s seven decades of godless communism, of course. But whatever the failings of the Free World, its cultural infatuations with populist “leaders” who flit from palace to palace extolling the virtues of “loftier ambitions” have been fleeting temptations rather than unshakeable norms, at least until now. Standing up to a strongman abroad might well remind us of the need to do so at home as well.
Truman and the Cold War’s Unfinished Business
Since so much of the current conflict between Russia and the West is redolent of an earlier era, it’s worth a quick reminder of the moods and mores of the post-war period. The Truman Doctrine (1947) is a case in point. In it, President Harry Truman made the American position clear:
One of the primary objectives of the foreign policy of the United States is the creation of conditions in which we and other nations will be able to work out a way of life free from coercion. Our victory was won over countries which sought to impose their will and their way of life upon other nations.
The jab at Soviet expansionism was clear then and is not fundamentally different today. George Kennan’s famous “Long Telegram” argued that “it is clear that the main element of any United States policy...must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” We imagined our patience had been rewarded in 1989, but it turns out celebrations were a third of a century premature. I have personally seen Soviet flags flying proudly from Russian BMPs and T-80s, ominous indications of a general disposition to violently impose a model of authoritarian autocracy on those who cannot resist. That way of life, in other words, presents a formidable threat to our own. It is not realistic to imagine Russian tanks rolling through Utrecht, but it is realistic to envision Russian advances (as in Chechnya) in Eastern European countries and Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, and even outer Manchuria. Leviathans must continuously eat to stay alive. Regimes that demand total loyalty and total submission feed on antagonism. They feel threatened, not by the possibility of aggression, but by the mere existence of democracies elsewhere. As Wladimir Klitschko, the Ukrainian boxer (and brother of the mayor of Kyiv), put it:
To describe our resistance as warmongering and as a provocation for Putin is complete nonsense. For the Russian imperialist regime, our very existence is a provocation because we are a democracy.
From a historical perspective, then, are we facing the same moral dichotomy of the Cold War? There are, of course, differences, but Truman’s depiction of that world sounds eerily familiar in light of the circumstances (and one does not have to accept Truman’s vision of an America robustly and pre-emptively containing Russia to see that):
At the present moment in world history, nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life ... One way of life is based upon the will of the majority and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression. The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio; fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms. I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.
Are we then to simply re-hash the post-war geopolitics of the 1950s? Morally speaking, it is a persuasive prospect. But purely moral considerations, of course, cannot be the sum of pragmatic decision-making. After all, not all of our attempts to “support free peoples” since 1947 have been overwhelmingly positive. Yet some, notably in Europe and in parts of Asia, have been. Moral commitment to our values, when coupled with prudent self-interest, is indeed a powerful justification and a sustainable motive for engagement. What we need now is a consciously updated policy of standing up to authoritarian aggression that takes lessons from the Cold War but simultaneously avoids the pitfalls we’ve only recently extricated ourselves from.
Guidelines for Making Ukraine Putin’s Quagmire
With this in mind, it seems fair to read the tea leaves in Ukraine pointing toward a Korean scenario—a long and bloody proxy-fed stalemate, grinding (ironically enough) to a halt somewhere along the 38th meridian near Bakhmut. History, they say, never repeats itself, but it rhymes.
If this is so, and in answer to Norman’s question of what is “enough,” I propose a few working guidelines:
1) If the point comes when maintaining the freedom of all Ukrainians becomes too costly in their blood and our treasure then we may all have to live with Russia maintaining Crimea and gobbling up Luhansk and Donetsk. But it is not a prospect that freedom lovers should at all savor.
2) However, we should make any long-term Russian occupation of these “annexed territories” as costly a drain as possible so that it will be a lesson to autocrats everywhere. Russia chose this war of aggression, it should pay for its choices.
3) Russia should know that any breakouts on additional Ukrainian territory would trigger more U.S. aid and armaments to Ukraine.
4) If Ukraine's resistance manages to contain Russian aggression, risks to NATO territory short of action around Kaliningrad Oblast, will be negligible. Preventing the triggering of Article 5 is, from a cost standpoint alone, enormously beneficial. Thanks to Ukrainian resolve, it is now an opportune moment for the Free World to bristle with full defense funding of treaty obligation levels—even more.
President Biden’s remark that the U.S. will be engaged “for as long as it takes” in Ukraine is not especially helpful here: it is not clear what “it” is, for instance, and “long” (as we saw in Afghanistan) can be awfully long. Sure, as an expression of solidarity with “free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation” it offers an effective warning to would-be tyrants. After all, if nothing else, Iraq and Afghanistan have proved that we are capable of engaging in massively expensive overseas military operations for decades, even when it’s not clear that they are even remotely in our interest. Imagine, then, how much more effective we will be when those interests are clarified, starting with Ukraine. It is up to us, as citizens, to persistently engage in the difficult work of continuously assessing threats to our values. In Ukraine’s case, the “enough” line, i.e. the gray zone in which our moral obligations and strategic interests begin to uncouple (as in Iraq) is a very long way off. The invasion of Ukraine has been a moment for clarity: totalitarianism is alive and well, and evil stalks the globe.
Ukraine’s stalwart resolve has reminded us that freedom is not foregone and that the trajectory of human liberty is not manifest. Liberty has the power to move the human heart. Statist collectivists had claimed that those who live in free societies are too effete and too tolerant and too worried about pronouns and inclusion to stand up for themselves when confronted by violent force. We now know for certain that open and prosperous societies, in fact, are perfectly capable of doing so against the thuggery of authoritarianism. Ukraine reminds us, free peoples make better porcupines than wolves. We are at our collective best when we are able to effectively mobilize our resources against the onslaught of tyranny—and in Ukraine we have that opportunity.
“Enough” has not yet been done.
*This sentence has been amended for accuracy.
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