What the Ukraine aid debate is really about

Over the weekend Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio went to the Munich Security Conference to play an unpopular part — a spokesperson, at a gathering of the Western foreign policy establishment, for the populist critique of American support for Ukraine’s war effort.

If you were to pluck a key phrase from his comments, it would be “world of scarcity,” which Vance used five times to describe the American strategic situation: stretched by our global commitments, unable to support Ukraine while simultaneously maintaining our position in the Middle East and preparing for a war in East Asia and therefore forced to husband our resources and expect our allies in Europe to counter Russia’s armaments and ambitions.


In my Saturday column I wrote about the tensions in the hawkish case for U.S. spending on Ukraine, the tendency for the argument to veer from boosterism (“We’ve got Putin on the ropes!”) to doomsaying (“Putin’s getting stronger every day!”) while describing the same strategic landscape.

The case Vance pressed in Munich is more consistent, and its premises — not isolationist but Asia-first, more concerned about the Taiwan Strait than the Donbas — have supplied the common ground for Republican critics of our Ukraine policy since early in the war. But consistency is not the same as correctness, and it’s worth looking for a moment at why this kind of argument makes Ukraine hawks so frustrated.

In part, there’s a suspicion that some of the people making an Asia-first case don’t fully believe it, that it’s just a more respectable way of sloughing off American obligations and that if the conservative base or Donald Trump decided it wasn’t worth fighting for Taiwan, many China-hawk Republicans would come up with some excuse to justify inaction.

But assuming good faith — and whatever the calculations of Republican politicians, many China hawks are entirely on the level — there’s also the problem that this argument privileges hypothetical aggression over real aggression, a potential war over a current one, “contingencies in East Asia” (to quote Vance, again) over an actuality in Eastern Europe. We can’t do everything to stop Vladimir Putin today because of something Beijing might conceivably do tomorrow is the fundamental claim, and you can see why people chafe at it.

Indeed, despite agreeing with the overall Asia-first assessment, I chafe at it myself — enough to think that the Biden administration made the right call backing Ukraine initially and that a sharp cutoff in aid would be a mistake even if we should be seeking an armistice.

But weighing contingencies against actuality is always part of what statesmen have to do. And the weighing that prioritizes Taiwan over Ukraine, danger in East Asia over actual war in Europe, depends on two presumptions that are worth making explicit and discussing.

The first is that China is serious not just about taking Taiwan but also about doing it soon. If you think China’s military buildup and bellicosity are signaling potential annexation in some distant future, then there’s no immediate trade-off between Europe and the Pacific. Instead, in that case it becomes reasonable to think that defeating Putin in the 2020s will give Beijing pause in the 2030s and that the long-term commitment to military production required to arm Ukraine for victory will also help deter China 10 years hence.

But suppose that the peril is much closer, that Beijing’s awareness of its long-term challenges makes it more likely to gamble while America is tied down by other crises, internally divided and potentially headed for four years of limited presidential capacity under either party’s nominee. In that case our potential strengths in 10 years are irrelevant, and the fact that we’re currently building anti-tank and antiaircraft missiles only to burn through them, adding more than $7 in new spending on Ukraine for every $1 dollar in spending related to our Asian and Australian allies and tethering military and diplomatic attention to a trench war in Eastern Europe, means that we’re basically inviting the Chinese to make their move, and soon.

Which in turn brings us to the second presumption: that Taiwan falling to its imperial neighbor would change the world for the worse on a greater scale than Ukraine ceding territory or even facing outright defeat.

If you see the two countries as essentially equivalent, both American clients but not formal NATO-style allies, both democracies vulnerable to authoritarian great-power neighbors, then there’s a stronger case for doing everything for Ukraine when it’s immediately threatened, regardless of the consequences for Taiwan.

But they are not equivalent. The American commitment to Taiwan goes back almost 70 years, and for all that we’ve cultivated ambiguity since the Nixon era, the island is still understood to be under the American umbrella in a way that’s never been true of Ukraine. Taiwan is also a mature democracy in a way that Ukraine is not, which means its conquest would represent a much more stark form of rollback for the liberal democratic world. And Taiwan’s semiconductor industry makes it a much greater economic prize than Ukraine, more likely to hurl the world into recession if the industry is destroyed in a war or grant Beijing newfound power if it’s simply absorbed into China’s industrial infrastructure.

Just as important, China is not equivalent to Russia. The latter is a menace but one that — as Vance argues — should theoretically be containable and deterrable, even without American involvement, by a Europe whose gross domestic product absolutely dwarfs Russia’s.

By contrast, China’s wealth and potential hard power dwarf all its Asian neighbors, and its conquest of Taiwan would enable a breakout for its naval strength, a much wider projection of authoritarian influence and a reshuffling of economic relationships in Asia and around the world.

For an in-depth argument about these kinds of consequences, I recommend “The Taiwan Catastrophe” by Andrew S. Erickson, Gabriel B. Collins and Matt Pottinger in Foreign Affairs. You don’t have to be convinced by every piece of their analysis to grasp the potential stakes. If a Russian victory in Ukraine would feed authoritarian ambitions, a Chinese victory would supercharge them. If Ukraine’s defeat would hurt American interests, Taiwan’s fall would devastate them.

Which makes the first presumption the dispositive one. If you’re seeking full victory in Ukraine, signing up for years of struggle in which Taiwan will be a secondary priority, your choice basically requires betting on China’s aggressive intentions being a problem for much later — tomorrow’s threat, not today’s.

Unlike the Ukraine hawks, I would not take that bet. Unlike the doves, I would not simply cut off the Ukrainians. There is a plausible path between those options, in which aid keeps flowing while the United States pursues a settlement and pivot. But a great deal hangs on whether that narrow way can be traversed: not just for Ukraine or for Taiwan but also for the American imperium as we have known it, the world-bestriding power that we’ve taken for granted for too long.

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