Blog Post

Helping Ukraine is a National Security No-brainer

| Jan. 28, 2024

Much is difficult to understand about what has happened to one of our two political parties.   Among other things, I don’t understand why some Republican congresspeople oppose an extension of US support for the government of Ukraine in its fight against the Russian invasion, and why others who may be in favor of continuing support give it so low priority as to allow their colleagues to block it, by holding it hostage to unrelated Mexican border concerns.

Weighing costs and benefits, backing Ukraine is one of the most sensible US foreign affairs policy priorities in a long time. As Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky said earlier this month, “Giving us money or giving us weapons, you support yourself.”

Let’s review some basic history, which is well-known, but of which some in Congress apparently need reminding.

  1. Two 20th-century cycles

President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 was re-elected on the platform, “He kept us out of war.”  This was consistent with the tradition, dating to the founding of the republic, of avoiding “entangling alliances” and refraining from going “abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”

Nevertheless, the US entered World War I the next year, 1917, in large part due to Germany’s resumption of submarine attacks on neutral shipping with an attendant loss of American lives.  US troops tipped the balance in Europe.  Armistice was declared November 11, 1918.  In the Versailles negotiations of 1919, Wilson got the European powers to agree to a new world order embodied in the idealistic League of Nations.  But back home in the US, there was a strong return to isolationism and the Senate rejected participation in the League of Nations.  Another manifestation of the interwar swing to isolationism was strong tariff protection, which subsequently made the Great Depression worse than it had to be.

In the presidential campaign of 1940, Franklin Roosevelt recognized that the domestic majority was opposed to intervention in World War II and again promised to keep the US out of foreign wars if re-elected.  In place of sending American troops to Europe, he responded to an appeal of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill by turning the US into “the arsenal of democracy,” and sending large-scale material aid to Great Britain, which at the time was standing almost alone against the Nazi war machine.  Speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Henry Stimson, Secretary of War, said of the Lend-Lease Act (March 11, 1941), “We are buying our own security.”   But a year after Roosevelt’s re-election, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the US entered the war.

By the end of World War II, Americans had acquired the view (roughly speaking), “We tried to keep to ourselves; but these Europeans just can’t be left to manage affairs on their own, requiring us to intervene militarily twice in 25 years.  This time, we will take an active role internationally, so as to make a third cataclysm unlikely.”  There followed the Marshall Plan, NATO, the Bretton Woods institutions, the WTO, and the rest of a US-led liberal international order.  This approach was spectacularly successful, helping to achieve something virtually unprecedented in global history: eight decades of relative peace and prosperity in most of the world.  It achieved a non-violent victory over the Soviet Union.  During this period, there were very few changes in national borders achieved by force.

  1. Erratic foreign policy

To be sure, post-war US foreign policy made a lot of mistakes. The US helped many unworthy governments that lacked the support of their own peoples, imagining tests of will against foreign adversaries that were unnecessary.  The American inclination to intervene was excessive, under the theory that fighting a small-scale war abroad would preclude a large-scale war later on.  Taking two examples, the theory was applied misguidedly to justify military interventions in Vietnam and Iraq.  These wars were ill-conceived from the beginning. In Vietnam, the US mistook an anti-colonial independence movement for a test of wills with the Soviet Union and/or China.  In Iraq, the US reacted to the September 11 terrorist attacks by lashing out at a country that had nothing to do with them. In neither case was much gained.  The local conditions for a stable, democratic government did not exist.  In both cases, the costs of intervention were high, in blood and treasure.

Periodically, as in the 1993 failure of intervention in Somalia and as today, the US pendulum has swung toward the non-interventionist pole.  But each time events have eventually forced a return.  Relatedly, the US has often sent muddy signals, not just by failing to carry out threats it has made and but also, when the pendulum swings back,  by carrying out interventions that it had neglected to threaten.

  1. The cost of supporting Ukraine

The main costs of helping Ukraine are budgetary.  American liberals sometimes compare, say, the cost of the National Endowment for the Humanities (a total of $211 million in the most recent federal fiscal year) to the cost of a bomber plane ($750 million per single plane, in the case of the B-21 Raider).  This is unpersuasive to those who put little value on the NEH.

But in the case of support for Ukraine, the tradeoff is between competing expenditures both in the name of national security.  The US has spent a bit over $75 billion helping Ukraine since January 2022. This is not peanuts, but it is less, as a share of GDP, than aid to Ukraine from many European countries, especially Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.  By comparison, US military spending in 2022 was $812 billion.  The total cost of the Iraq war has been estimated at $2.9 trillion or $3.0 trillion (not to mention the cost of some 500,000 lives).  Yet the endless combat operations there arguably contributed nothing to US national security.

Unlike in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, the Ukrainians support their (democratically elected) government; they are fighting for their country of their own volition.  At the same time, the principle that national borders should not be changed by force remains important to everyone’s security globally.   Even those who may be relatively skeptical of the efficacy of military force in general, understand the need to oppose such naked aggression as the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 or the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

There are good reasons for the US to avoid engaging Russia directly — not least, the danger of nuclear war.  But all the Ukrainians ask is the means to defend themselves. Is the US only willing to open the taps when it entails the loss of American soldiers or when the link to true national security is tenuous or worse?

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Frankel, Jeffrey.Helping Ukraine is a National Security No-brainer.” Views on the Economy and the World, January 28, 2024, https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/helping-ukraine-national-security-no-brainer.