The Dangers of Conflating and Inflating Interests
Former ambassador William Taylor wrote an op-ed on Ukraine in an attempt to answer Pompeo’s question about whether Americans care about Ukraine. It is not very persuasive. For one thing, he starts off by exaggerating the importance of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine to make it seem as if the U.S. has a major stake in the outcome:
Here’s why the answer should be yes: Ukraine is defending itself and the West against Russian attack. If Ukraine succeeds, we succeed. The relationship between the United States and Ukraine is key to our national security, and Americans should care about Ukraine.
Taylor exaggerates what the conflict is about by saying that Ukraine is defending “the West.” That’s not true. Ukraine is defending itself. The U.S. does not have a vital interest in this conflict, but Taylor talks about it as if we do. He says that the relationship with Ukraine is “key” to our national security, but that is simply false. To say that it is key to our national security means that we are supposed to believe that it is crucially important to our national security. That suggests that U.S. national security would seriously compromised if that relationship weakened, but that doesn’t make any sense. We usually don’t even talk about our major treaty allies this way, so what justification is there for describing a relationship with a weak partner government like this?
The op-ed reads like a textbook case of clientitis, in which a former U.S. envoy ends up making the Ukrainian government’s argument for them. The danger of exaggerating U.S. interests and conflating them with Ukraine’s is that we fool ourselves into thinking that we are acting out of necessity and in our own defense when we are really choosing to take sides in a conflict that does not affect our security. This is the kind of thinking that encourages people to spout nonsense about “fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them here.” If we view Ukraine as “the front line” of a larger struggle, that will also make it more difficult to resolve the conflict. When a local conflict is turned into a proxy fight between great powers, the local people will be the ones made to suffer to serve the ambitions of the patrons. Once the U.S. insists that its own security is bound up with the outcome of this conflict, there is an incentive to be considered the “winner,” but the reality is that Ukraine will always matter less to the U.S. than it does to Russia.
If this relationship were so important to U.S. security, how is it that the U.S. managed to get along just fine for decades after the end of the Cold War when that relationship was not particularly strong? As recently as the Obama administration, our government did not consider Ukraine to be important enough to supply with weapons. Ukraine was viewed correctly as being of peripheral interest to the U.S., and nothing has changed in the years since then to make it more important.
Taylor keeps repeating that “Ukraine is the front line” in a larger conflict between Russia and the West, but that becomes true only if Western governments choose to treat it as one. He concludes his op-ed with a series of ideological assertions:
To support Ukraine is to support a rules-based international order that enabled major powers in Europe to avoid war for seven decades. It is to support democracy over autocracy. It is to support freedom over unfreedom. Most Americans do.
These make for catchy slogans, but they are lousy policy arguments. This rhetoric veers awfully close to saying that you aren’t on the side of freedom if you don’t support a particular policy option. In my experience, advocates for more aggressive measures use rhetoric like this because the rest of their argument isn’t very strong. It is possible to reject illegal military interventions of all governments without wanting to throw weapons at the problem.
Taylor has set up the policy argument in such a way that there seems to be no choice, but the U.S. doesn’t have to support Ukraine’s war effort. He oversells Ukraine’s importance to the U.S. to justify U.S. support, because an accurate assessment would make the current policy of arming their government much harder to defend. Ukraine isn’t really that important to U.S. security and our security doesn’t require us to provide military assistance to them. Of course, our government has chosen to do it anyway, but this is just one more optional entanglement that the U.S. could have avoided without jeopardizing American or allied security.