Start Telling the Truth About Ukraine
State of the Union: Ahead of the NATO summit, the president remains trapped by his rhetoric.
There is nothing new to argue about NATO. Consider the two newest additions, by Justin Logan and Joshua Shifrinson in Foreign Affairs and by Peter Hitchens in Compact. The cynic in me is skeptical that such rational arguments will change minds in the other camp, even if they might persuade the fence-sitters; the supporters of Ukraine’s admission into NATO all argue from a position of faith.
The basic argument for Ukraine’s accession touches on the following points. First, Ukraine is a strong country and therefore will strengthen NATO. Second, Ukraine is a weak country, and therefore needs NATO to pledge nuclear war in extremis to defend Ukraine’s borders. Third, Ukraine is a strategically important real estate and vital to NATO security; therefore it must be in the Western sphere. Fourth, Ukraine is a bastion of democracy, is free to decide to join NATO, and is fighting for survival, so we must help it.
Laying it out thus simplifies the usually deliberately knotty and convoluted nonsense from the supporters of Ukraine, and shows just how ridiculous each statement is. If Ukraine is a strong country, then it shouldn’t need NATO and can do away with the pretense of weakness. The fact that Russia and Ukraine are currently involved in a costly stalemate demonstrates that neither is strong nor especially weak, and that Russia, whatever its wishes, has no capacity for continental hegemony.
Irrespective of Ukraine’s strength or weakness, Ukraine isn’t a strategic enough prize to warrant nuclear war. The mastery of Europe or the preponderance in the Atlantic balance of power isn’t dependent on who controls Bakhmut or Crimea, and no one sane should be willing to risk the total irradiation of Massachusetts for Mariupol. Ukraine was, after all, on the other side of the Cold War. We came out of it just fine.
Flawed strategic arguments aside, the supporters of Ukraine in NATO talk about the moral imperative to support the free choice of democracy. It defies logic. Ukraine is barely a functioning democracy. The free choice of Ukraine is irrelevant to the question. NATO is a defensive alliance, and the constituent members are also free to do a brutal cost-benefit analysis about pledging nuclear war on behalf of a new member, at war with a nuclear rival. Every democracy or aspiring democracy isn’t worth fighting a war. Geography is destiny.
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To his credit, the president appears to understand the conundrum. Joe Biden is an old Cold Warrior, and there is some residual realpolitik left in him. He stuck to his predecessor’s timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan, despite his own military brass trying to slow-roll the process and corner him with delay—so much so that the actual act became chaotic. He is also reportedly against his own activist State Department on any direct involvement in Ukraine. (Also to his credit, he was the lone sane voice arguing against Libyan intervention in 2011 when he was vice president.) All that is to say that it could have been a lot worse, with Kamala Harris as a president and Samantha Power and Evelyn Farkas advising her on Ukraine.
Yet Biden is trapped by his own grandiloquent rhetoric of democracy and human rights. The question of Ukraine is not primarily about either. It is a simple strategic trolley problem. The only American martial interest was the ravaging of Russian frontline troops. That has been achieved. The recovery and restoration of Ukraine isn’t an American concern, given Ukraine’s proximity to the rich countries of Europe; Europe should bear the economic burden of supporting Ukraine, if that is in those countries' interests.
Ukraine simply isn’t worth a probable nuclear war, given the strategic irrelevance for the security of the American homeland and the asymmetry of Russo-American interests. These are the cold hard truths. As long as Biden continues to dwell on the morality of the question, the American grand strategy in Europe will continue to be incoherent.