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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

An Outlet for the Unsaid

The General Melchett school of foreign policy finds a following in Washington’s halls of power, with President Biden as its chief tutor.

2023 State of the Union
(Photo by Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In a State of the Union address occasionally marred by British Parliament-style back-and-forth and random Brick Tamland-esque yelling, President Joe Biden doubled down on American support for Ukraine.

“Would we stand for the defense of democracy?” Biden furiously asked. “Yes, we would. And yes, we did …We led. We united NATO and built a global coalition. We stood against Putin’s aggression. We stood with the Ukrainian people. Tonight, we are once again joined by Ukraine’s Ambassador to the United States. She represents not just her nation, but the courage of her people. Ambassador, America is united in our support for your country. We will stand with you as long as it takes.”

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Ignore the “royal we” and the structural flaws. Americans, especially Republicans, do not share the optimism and sense of commitment to a steady bleed in Europe’s backwater, as poll after poll repeatedly shows. “Stand with Ukraine” does not make any strategic sense either, as there is, thus far, no combined “theory of victory.”

Stand with Ukraine till what and when? Preventing annual waves of attack from Russia? Aiding Kiev to reoccupy Crimea even at the risk of a nuclear war? Being a co-belligerent in all but name? Regime change?

A president’s duty is to clarify, not prevaricate about, the risks of policy to his own countrymen. Instead, President Biden chose to throw red meat to the most internationalist factions within his own party. This is the same party that wanted to mask the entire population from a disease with a modest fatality rate. It is the party that is simultaneously cavalier about trotting up the nuclear escalation ladder over a country their members cannot place on a map.

It is absurd to claim that this is the greatest nuclear challenge since the Cuban Missile Crisis and then in the same breath argue for maximal escalation with no off-ramp towards any compromise. This is the General Melchett school of foreign policy. We are standing behind Ukraine—about four thousand miles behind.

The condemnation was swift. Congressman Dan Bishop tweeted, “No more blank checks to Ukraine.” Senator J.D. Vance said in a statement, “Before President Biden spends another taxpayer dollar in Ukraine, he must lay out a clear plan for ending the conflict in a way that advances our national security interests." One realist voice who has been consistently on the right about Ukraine is Congresswoman Anna Paulina Luna, who repeatedly tweeted that the U.S. shouldn’t be sending tanks to Ukraine, or continue to unconditionally fund Zelensky.

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In a response to my query about whether anything was being done to stop the slippery slope, Rep. Luna said that the exact reverse is happening, as the dominating forces on both sides of the political establishment push us further down the slope. “At what point does supplying the weaponry, manpower, and funding for a war in fact become a declaration of war?” she asked.

Luna also said that Republicans aren’t doing nearly enough, and that the grassroots discomfort with escalation is not reflected in the Republican elite.

I see a lot of war hawks and no peace talks. The ruling political class, both right and left, has essentially teamed up with the military industrial complex in happily barreling towards WWIII without stopping to think through the consequences of what that really means. What this really shows is a ruling elite that is completely disconnected from the lives of those it rules and the real-world effects of advancing a proxy war instead of actively de-escalating it.

This voice of sanity is speaking strategically sound words. In a new paper from RAND Corp., Miranda Priebe and Samuel Charap argued for the same, stating that U.S. interests “often align with but are not synonymous with Ukrainian interests.” Arguing that pushing Russia would mean further escalation from Moscow, they argue that any retaliation to even a non-strategic nuclear use by Russia would almost certainly lead to a full exchange in a “tit-for-tat spiral that produces a NATO–Russia war.”

Given that we do not get to control Russian threat perceptions, the only thing we can do is assuage their fears. The report continues:

Russian use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine would have large and unpredictable effects on allied policies toward the war, potentially leading to a breakdown in transatlantic unity. Death and destruction in Ukraine, a tragedy in itself, could also have a major impact on U.S. and allied publics. In short, the Biden administration has ample reason to make the prevention of Russian use of nuclear weapons a paramount priority for the United States.

British military analyst Jack Watling has argued that there is little the West can actually do. “The Russians are massing airborne troops in Luhansk and armoured units to the South, while Wagner continues to assault Bakhmut,” he wrote, adding that “the Russians are hoping that if they bleed out Ukraine’s better units now they will hold onto the territory they have seized.” Regardless of the moral value of sending tanks to Ukraine, it will not dramatically alter the balance of power on the ground. The Russians are training more, producing more, throwing more bodies onto the pile, and shelling at a rate that is unthinkable for Western artillery. Small number of tanks distributed over a long term won’t change that ratio.

No great power is entitled to a sphere of influence, but spheres organically develop due to geography and asymmetry of interest. We are going to learn the hard way why spheres of influence are the natural state of affairs in an emerging multipolar world. Crimea or the Donbas isn’t worth nuclear exchange for the U.S., Cuba, Britain, Australia, or Canada. Geography and kinship are natural, and to go against nature has costs. It is the harsh truth, irrespective of one’s personal moral preference.

A central European diplomat recently told me, on condition of anonymity but with a loaded wink, that Ukrainians are “fighting for us.” That sentence, diplomatic as it is, can be twisted in two different ways. The superficial reading is that Ukrainians are fighting for democracy and liberty. The other meaning is that the Ukrainians are our cannon fodder.

There is no direct strategic interest for the United States in Ukraine. The liberal support for Ukraine—including the occasional bouts of support for symbolic measures like banning Russian people from fleeing the war zone, expelling Russian students from the country, or giving Dostoevsky, Pushkin, and Tchaikovsky the decolonization treatment—demonstrates something deeper than pragmatism.

Waving the flag for Ukraine provides an outlet for the unsaid and unsayable to those who, due to social pressures and hyper-liberal norms, are increasingly hesitant about waving their own national flags, defending their own borders, and chest-thumping to the beat of their natural jingoism and xenophobia. These are dark but very human instincts that are often buried under layers and layers of human civility and propriety. That is why I see lines of blue and yellow in front of most houses on Monument Avenue, Richmond, but not an American flag. It is far easier to take a moral side in a faraway war with no direct blood cost, and wave another team’s colors, talking about defending their border and their sovereignty being under invasion.

There are, however, pesky limits to consider, like declining general public support for another “forever war.” It is easy for President Biden to talk about standing behind Ukraine as he preaches to the converted. But when there are no common war aims, things are bound to get more complicated. If every cause becomes one’s cause to support, every pain will eventually be one’s pain to endure.