Only the US Can End the Ukraine War and Protect Europe
By Max Hastings
Thank you, America.
I write these words, in the wake of the midterm elections, as a European expressing gratitude for Washington’s $45 billion-plus support for Ukraine. This sentiment deserves to keep being cried from the rooftops of our own continent, because even after a poor week for former President Donald Trump, the spirit of “America First” isolationism still suffuses the Republican Party, and with it the danger of a US pivot away from Europe.
Everybody who knows anything about the Ukraine war recognizes a harsh truth: But for the US, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s nation would be toast. Russian President Vladimir Putin would long since have presided over a victory parade in Kyiv. The crisis that began in February with the Russian invasion has emphasized the largest fact in geopolitics since 1945: Western security is absolutely dependent upon US leadership.
President Bill Clinton said in his second presidential inauguration speech, in 1997: “At the dawn of the 21st century … America stands alone as the world’s indispensable nation.” This remains true. Without Washington, almost nothing big can get done. To be sure, there have been disasters — the Vietnam War and 2003 Iraq invasion foremost among them. But the historic outcome of America’s global activism has been benign for almost everyone save the enemies of freedom.
America’s allies have been foolish, even reckless, to take this sword and shield for granted. The midterms may have been less disastrous for President Joe Biden’s Democrats than was feared, but they show how precarious the international leadership of the indispensable nation has become. Many Republicans threaten to slash support for Ukraine and may prove able to do so, even without control of the White House.
Thus far, the Biden administration has managed its role in the war with an exemplary mingling of resolution and restraint. It has provided backing for Zelenskiy’s war effort but held back from measures such as enforcing a no-fly zone. It recognizes — as some bellicose voices in Washington, London and Kyiv refuse to acknowledge — the menace of escalation.
The White House and Pentagon appear to have concluded, probably rightly, that neither side on the battlefield is capable of achieving absolute military victory. The shooting will stop, probably many months and perhaps years from now, only when both Ukraine and Russia acknowledge the necessity of a conversation, maybe after a change of leadership in the Kremlin.
The US must sustain at least private dialogues with Russia and China, less because these offer a promise of good ends than because they may help to prevent very bad ones. America cannot realistically aspire to change the loathsome nature of the Moscow and Beijing regimes; that can be achieved only by the Russians and Chinese. Henry Kissinger seems right to have argued for decades that China and Russia must be treated as realities — not nice realities, but inescapable ones.
It is especially important to remind ourselves of all this amid the likely Republican recapture of the House. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Ian Buruma wrote in 2016, after Trump’s election and the UK’s vote to quit the European Union: “Brexit Britain and Trump’s America are linked in their desire to pull down the pillars of Pax Americana and European unification. In a perverse way, this may herald a revival of a ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the US, a case of history repeating itself not exactly as farce but as tragi-farce.”
Six years on, it is apparent that both events have weakened the Western front against the autocracies.
In a September 2021 essay, foreign policy analyst Robert Kagan observed that the very future of the US now hangs in the balance, amid the threat of a second presidency under someone who shares Trump’s nationalistic vision — this includes Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is shaping up to be the former president’s strongest competitor.
Europeans cannot assume that US support will remain a constant. We need to think hard and urgently, both about what this has meant to us since World War II, and about how best we can manage our relationship when so many Americans question the value of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, of Ukraine, of spending billions in defense of allies who do relatively little to defend ourselves.
By World Bank estimates, US GDP is only a quarter larger than that of the combined EU nations. Yet the latter’s commitments to Ukraine have thus far totaled less than half the US contribution. (This week, the European Commission announced a proposed package of some $18 billion to help the Ukrainian government meet its short-term funding needs in 2023.) And much of the pledged European money and equipment is reaching Zelenskiy’s people only after long delays.
The UK has provided $4 billion worth of military, humanitarian and economic support — roughly the same percentage of GDP as the Americans (0.24%). Yet the absolute amount of British military kit shipped is modest by comparison, and we have little more left in our cupboard.
It was the same in the 1950-53 Korean War; through all those Cold War decades of confronting the Warsaw Pact in Germany; and in turning back Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991. The US provided the overwhelming bulk of forces and high-tech weapons. Although in those days, allies including Germany and Britain still possessed credible armies, nobody doubted that other NATO nations prospered on the back of American might.
Today’s Republicans sometimes talk as if sustaining the peace had been selfless and thankless. Historians and policy analysts rightly disagree. Even during World War II, from the stage of US neutrality into that of belligerence, the nation reaped handsome profits from arms sales to France and the UK. The US leveraged the Lend-Lease program of 1941-45 so that it emerged from World War II as the only combatant to have become richer. Through the subsequent Cold War, US leadership of the West enabled Washington to exercise its enormous clout for economic and political advantage. Self-interest, although often enlightened, has always been at work.
Yet today, America’s European allies appear to be sleepwalking while our principal protector is prey to political forces likely to give progressively less to Ukraine, and indeed to Europe’s defense as a whole. Last month, the Pentagon announced a $275 million military aid package, which is significantly smaller than previous tranches.
Republicans refuse to endorse Democratic proposals to dispatch billions of dollars in seized Russian assets to bolster Ukraine, which would provide some small compensation for the estimated $500 billion of devastation Putin’s forces have inflicted on the country.
The putative next House speaker, Kevin McCarthy, has signaled his opposition to increased aid with a clarity that must delight the Kremlin: “I think people are going to be sitting in a recession,” he said last month, “and they’re not going to write a blank check to Ukraine.”
Europeans with a memory for history cannot fail to see echoes of 1939-41 Republican isolationist sentiment. It required every ounce of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s authority — incomparably greater than Biden’s — to circumvent congressional opposition and provide aid to Britain.
A recent Pew Research Center poll shows that the percentage of Americans who are “extremely” or “very” concerned about a Ukrainian defeat dropped from 55% in May to 38% in September. Among Republicans and Republican-leaning voters, 32% say the US is providing too much support for Kyiv, against only 9% in March.
The 30 liberal House Democrats who last month urgedBiden to start negotiating with Russia, and to offer some form of sanctions relief as an inducement, were pressured into recanting. But such sentiment is out there on the left as well as the right, and strengthening. Many Americans who do not know or care much about Ukraine notice how relatively little Western Europeans are doing, and spending, to support the cause.
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote recently of “a confluence of old and new threats that have begun to intersect at a moment the US is ill-positioned to contend with them … American democracy and political cohesion are at risk to a degree not seen since the middle of the nineteenth century” — the Civil War era.
Some analysts argue that a new kind of federalism is weakening American power and authority abroad, as individual states increasingly pursue policies at odds with those of the national government. Jenna Bednar and Mariano-Florentino Cuellar wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine last month that other nations must now view the US as “a vast entity with presumed national interests but also as an archipelago of powerful, competing jurisdictions.”
Non-Americans can do little to influence US politics. But every European nation with an instinct for self-preservation should acknowledge an imperative to rearm, to be seen to possess the will to do much more to defend.
Moreover, French and German attempts to make friends with China win Europe no friends in Washington. Arguably, the best hope for sustaining US support in a Republican-dominated era is for the EU to be seen to make a common front with the US on China. But this is today conspicuously absent: Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, just symbolically bowed the knee in Beijing to President Xi Jinping.
Some Europeans argue that Russia’s wretched military performance against Ukraine shows that it represents a negligible menace to the West. This seems rashly sanguine. Violent Russian adventurism is unlikely to end either with Putin or Ukraine; it will only be made more menacing because of the ailing state’s fundamental weakness.
We Europeans need to show foes, notably the Kremlin, that we are less enfeebled than Putin supposes us to be. Just as important and urgent, we need to demonstrate to Americans that Trump was wrong — that Europeans are willing to accept a fair share of the defense burden.
Yet this is not happening. After a flurry of rhetoric from EU capitals in the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion, pathetically little action has followed. During Liz Truss’s 44-day UK premiership, she proposed to increase defense spending to 3% GDP by 2030. However, there is little sign that her successor, Rishi Sunak, will do anything like that, facing an economic crisis.
Germany’s performance is worse: Having announced a $100 billion rearmament program earlier this year, progress to implement it has stalled amid popular resistance to military spending. France’s material support for Ukraine has been almost invisible. Other Western European nations, reeling from soaring energy costs, are dragging their feet about fulfilling earlier defense-spending pledges.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, the US national security adviser under President Jimmy Carter, wrote with contempt of the EU in a strategic study in 2012: “It acts as if its central political goal is to become the world’s most comfortable retirement home.” Today, there is less European naivete than was evident a decade ago about coexisting amicably with the Russians. But a deep-rooted continental antimilitarism persists, even as Ukraine bleeds.
American largesse, the massive shipments to Kyiv, have bought a breathing space. But responsible European policymaking ought to be based on a recognition of the tightening Republican grip on power; on awareness that in 2025, a very different sort of president may occupy the White House. In little more than two years, if not sooner, our continent could be obliged to defend itself from Russian aggression with vastly less US aid.
There is a further point. Sooner or later, perhaps after the fall of Vladimir Putin, there will need to be a conversation with Russia about stopping the shooting in Ukraine. It is not credible that this should merely be a bilateral negotiation between Moscow and Kyiv, or that the EU and Britain should take the diplomatic strain. Only the US can parley with Russia backed by the power to enforce security guarantees for Ukraine.
This contradicts the current Western position: that Zelenskiy must decide the parameters and duration of his nation’s war. A growing number of smart people argue that this posture is no longer credible. Sooner or later, the US, as Ukraine’s mentor, oxygen-provider and giant protector, must do the talking to Moscow. As Haass writes: “At the end of the day, the United States cannot sub-contract out its foreign policy to Ukraine or anybody else. We never do that.”
All the above goes far to explain why Europeans, and many other people around the world, should give thanks to the US far more often and publicly than we do. Whatever the failures of Washington’s governance, and indeed of the tragically crippled US Constitution, hundreds of millions around the world yearn to emulate Americans, and almost none feel a matching envy of the Russian or Chinese people.
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It would be naive to suggest that gratitude will suffice to prevent Republicans from turning their backs on us, but it would constitute a start. For Europeans, and indeed for friends of freedom around the world, the US remains the only superpower we’ve got. Even allowing the numerous disasters since 1945, it has served us all pretty well. We shall need to strive harder if we are to sustain the privilege of shelter beneath its might.