Why Republicans are skeptical of Ukraine funding

Much of the American body politic is adamant that China is a far more serious threat than Russia

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When US policymakers supported NATO expansion in the 1990s, it was widely believed that America, as the sole remaining superpower, could impose its will and leadership across the globe. “An American century,” “indispensable nation,” “the unipolar moment,” “benign hegemony” — these became the new buzzwords of Washington’s political class.

The rhetoric turned bellicose after 9/11, when outrage over the terrorist attacks, together with the mental habits of global supremacy and American exceptionalism, gave US leaders a clear, overriding sense of mission and purpose. Hillary Clinton reflected this notion of the country’s omnipotence as secretary of state…

When US policymakers supported NATO expansion in the 1990s, it was widely believed that America, as the sole remaining superpower, could impose its will and leadership across the globe. “An American century,” “indispensable nation,” “the unipolar moment,” “benign hegemony” — these became the new buzzwords of Washington’s political class.

The rhetoric turned bellicose after 9/11, when outrage over the terrorist attacks, together with the mental habits of global supremacy and American exceptionalism, gave US leaders a clear, overriding sense of mission and purpose. Hillary Clinton reflected this notion of the country’s omnipotence as secretary of state in 2010 when she declared that “it is in our DNA” to believe “there are no limits on what is possible or what can be achieved.”

To reorder US priorities away from Europe towards Asia is hardly ‘isolationist’

However, the lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan — not to mention Libya, Syria and now Ukraine — is that, as powerful as the US is, international politics imposes very real limits on its power and influence, and that aspirations should match resources. All the more so at a time when the US spends only around 3 percent of its GDP on defense — it spent 6 percent during the Reagan years — and interest payments on the national debt will soon surpass defense spending.

Call it the Walter Lippmann rule after the distinguished twentieth-century intellectual, who emphasized the need to make sure that ends and means are in balance: a point often lost on Washington bureaucrats and thinktankers. By wilfully ignoring this principle, US foreign-policy establishment types have opened a huge gap between America’s global pretensions and its ability to finance them.

The Lippmann rule probably did not inspire Donald Trump’s “America First” mantra, but it is (of all people) the former president, supported by many congressional Republicans, who instinctively recognizes the limits to power. Especially as the US no longer commands the unrivaled power and prestige that accompanied the Pax Americana of the 1990s and 2000s.

For Trump and the so-called GOP isolationists, America should play a negligible role in Europe where no peer-competitor threatens to dominate the region. Vladimir Putin’s regime, far from having the economic and military clout to conquer Ukraine, much less countries in the former Warsaw Pact, is bogged down in the Donbas. Given this — and Europe’s proven inability to deal with the Ukraine crisis — it’s no wonder Middle America questions squandering billions of tax dollars on a fight to the last Ukrainian that could become a World War Three or even turn nuclear.

America’s changed mindset is overdue. Hard as it is to believe today, in the early 1990s many Europeans anticipated a post-Maastricht United Europe that would supplant the US as the dominant economic and political force in the world. With the outbreak of the Yugoslavia Civil War, it was the European Commission president Jacques Delors who declared: “We do not interfere in American affairs. We hope they will have enough respect not to interfere in ours.”

And yet, more than three decades later, NATO allies still yearn for US protection. But why should American taxpayers continue to bail them out if the result is pushing Moscow into the arms of Beijing — and an increased difficulty in fully pivoting to Asia to deal with China, the real threat to US interests?

Today’s Republicans may not be the party of George W. Bush and neocon hawks, but it consists of China hawks, and they place great strategic emphasis on Asia, where China, a peer-competitor, threatens the regional status quo. Their position is eminently sensible. Whereas Ukraine has exposed the limits of a cornered, wounded Russia desperate to protect its “near abroad,” China is bent on challenging and eventually replacing US military power in the Asia Pacific.

To reorder US priorities away from Europe towards Asia is hardly “isolationist.” It is a prudent recognition of the limits to power in a multipolar world that does not accommodate the US dominating the globe as it did during unipolarity. It is also consistent with Barack Obama’s much-touted “pivot” to Asia more than a decade ago, which was designed to counter the China threat.

The critics say that if the US fails to support the Ukrainians against Russia, it will embolden Xi Jinping. But much of the American body politic is adamant that China is a far more serious threat than Russia, which is why the US is committed to defending Taiwan if China attacks it. Joe Biden has said so on four separate occasions. Beijing surely has little doubt that the US will defend Taiwan, as it is of great strategic importance to America. Ukraine is not.

The US also has a limited amount of bandwidth. There is only so much time a president and his advisors can spend dealing with foreign policy, and the problem is even more acute when there are multiple foreign policy problems.

The fact that the Biden administration has been so focused on Ukraine for the past two years means it has had less attention to pay to Asia and on coordinating its allies on how to deal with the more important Chinese threat. Being overly focused on Ukraine does not help the US deter China. As Trump recognizes, it is time for Americans to bring commitments and power into balance and to make Asia, rather than Europe, its primary strategic concern.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the World edition here.