Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

No, Ukraine Hawks Aren’t Strengthening America

Even if we escape nuclear war, the U.S. is impoverishing her allies and depleting her stockpiles.

(Photo by Kenny Holston / Pool / AFP / Getty Images)

As NATO leaders gather in Vilnius this week, even Joe Biden appears wary of the hawks’ latest brainstorm: formally admitting Ukraine into the Western Alliance. In an interview with CNN ahead of the Vilnius summit, the president doubted whether “there is unanimity in NATO about whether or not to bring Ukraine into the NATO family now,” adding: “If the war is going on [while Ukraine accedes to NATO], then we’re all in war.”

Thank God for Biden’s modicum of sanity. Then again, don’t be surprised by an about-face six months from now. It wouldn’t be the first, or second, or third time his administration has ruled out, or even condemned, some proposed measure, only to give in under subsequent pressure. Biden seems to hesitate before each rung on the escalatory ladder, but he climbs it eventually.


Still, if the gradual escalation doesn’t trigger all-out war with Russia, it follows that the hawkish approach to the Ukraine crisis has been a resounding success for America, right? Wrong.

Various versions of this argument have been making the rounds on both of sides of the Atlantic. Not just the hawks themselves, but even some critics of Ukraine hawkism have floated it in recent months.

Here’s a summary of the argument: Vladimir Putin is a neo-Hitlerian figure hankering for Europe’s land and America’s downfall (yes, so-called serious people like former U.S. envoy to Moscow Michael McFaul say such things). By goading the Kremlin to invade Ukraine, and then pumping Kiev with weapons and training, Washington has bloodied a dangerous enemy’s nose, humiliated its leadership, and ground down its forces and materiel.

But that isn’t the only benefit associated with escalation. The disastrous post-9/11 wars had led to a certain coolness between Washington and its core European allies. Americans of both parties believed that Europeans didn’t take their own security seriously enough, while Europeans (especially the French and Germans) found Washington overbearing, with Paris renewing vague Gaullist talk of “European strategic autonomy.” But now, Europe is once more eating out of Washington’s hand.

Many nations on the Continent have boosted military spending to levels urged by America, and the European arms buildup is entirely premised on near-absolute U.S. hegemony in the Atlantic area for the foreseeable future. Sanctions and the—ahem—“Western” destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines have severed German-Russian energy-industrial synergy, long viewed with suspicion by American strategists. The creeping de-industrialization of Europe that has followed might be bad for Europeans, resounding-success proponents concede, but it’s pretty good for America: It means that instead of two industrial rivals, China and Europe, Washington now only faces one. And all this was achieved, the resound-success theorists point out, by shelling out less than 1 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, a relative pittance.


But there are numerous holes in the theory, and any one of them would sink the whole gimcrack edifice into oblivion.

Start with the very premise that U.S.-Russian enmity is necessitated by Putin’s monstrous ambitions for conquest, which span Warsaw and perhaps even Berlin. If that’s in fact the case, then if anything, today’s escalatory policy is insufficient to meet the threat from Moscow. A Hitler or Stalin 2.0 calls on the United States and its allies to prepare for total war, not to rest content with grinding trench warfare over places like Bakhmut.

If Russia’s ambitions, much less its conventional capabilities, are more limited, however, then the American response to Ukraine is entirely out of proportion for a country long acknowledged not to implicate core U.S. interests. It’s also potentially catastrophic: Gradually escalating is all fun and games until a nose-bloodied and humiliated Putin lobs the first tactical nuke in Ukraine or launches a massive conventional strike on, say, Poland, and then the world as we know it comes to an end.

Even short of all that, the belief that it’s “worth it” to grind down Russia discounts the enormous costs of the policy to Ukraine, which is on the fast-track to rapid depopulation and which could soon turn into a Syria-like vortex, spewing misery and instability into the very Europe that American escalationists claim as Washington’s rightful domain.

Something similar might be said for the renewed U.S. economic mastery brought about by the current escalatory policy. Yes, German-Russian energy-industrial synergy has been severed (though the Germans are still enriching the Kremlin by purchasing rebranded Russian gas at a markup from the Chinese). But is it really wise for Washington to drive Europe, America’s largest foreign market and trading partner, into deindustrialization and penury? If high-wage manufacturing jobs disappear from the Continent, Europeans won’t be able to afford American exports: Talk about cutting your nose to spite your face. The rest of the world, moreover, is registering alarm at the sanctions by hedging against the dollar, threatening its status as a global reserve currency—one of the pillars of postwar American power.

Recall, too, that until well into the Obama administration, the smart money was that America’s strategic future lies in Asia, not Europe. The response to Ukraine, however, suggests a return to Europe (and its burning Middle-Eastern and North-African peripheries) as America’s main area of strategic concern. The resounding-success types insist that Washington can handle both: a pivot to Asia and a military-industrial wrestling match with China and, simultaneously, a confrontation with Russia. “We can walk and chew gum at the same time,” in the glib phrase of the hawks.

Yet evidently we can’t do both. As the Biden administration conceded recently, one reason Washington is turning to gruesome cluster munitions to bolster Kiev is that America’s military-industrial base isn’t keeping up with the war’s demands—itself a symptom of a generational, bipartisan abandonment of U.S. manufacturing. If the “pittance” of a war in Ukraine is stretching the Pentagon’s conventional stockpiles, imagine the industrial incapacity that a confrontation with China over Taiwan might reveal.

No, Ukraine hawkism isn’t strengthening the homeland. But one can understand the theory’s appeal. Hell, I’ve been drawn to it in the past. It is tempting, after all, to detect strokes of genius amid the messy interplay of democratic emotion, self-righteous propaganda, and haphazard decision-making that actually shape American strategy today.