Can the US help Ukraine while preparing to defend Taiwan? The answer, according to some likely Republican presidential aspirants, is no. If America fights an “endless proxy war in Ukraine,” says Senator Josh Hawley, it may fail “to deter China from invading Taiwan.” Giving Kyiv a “blank check,” argues Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, is no way to beat Beijing.
This argument sounds rigorously strategic, at first: Statecraft is about making hard choices. Yet statecraft also involves grasping complex truths. In this case, America is unlikely to succeed against China if it cuts Ukraine adrift — and supporting Kyiv in the current war may help the US get ready for the next one.
Begin with what should be obvious: Reducing support for Ukraine means increasing the odds of Russian victory. Ukraine can’t hold off Russian forces without arms and ammunition from the Western world; without the US, no combination of countries can provide the necessary support. That is indeed a sad commentary on the state of European defenses. It’s also a matter of realism.
If Russia imposes an unfavorable peace on Ukraine — one that leaves it controlling large chunks of Ukrainian territory — it will have the ability to renew aggression when it chooses. It will also create grave insecurity in Eastern Europe, which will, in turn, create more demands on US military power.
Yes, Washington could respond by leaving Europe to the Europeans. But that would negate 80 years of American grand strategy. It would turn the US into a regional power amid intensifying global competition. It surely wouldn’t elicit much cooperation, whether military, diplomatic or economic, from the world’s largest bloc of liberal democracies — Europe — in confronting the threat from Beijing.
The greatest challenge to American security is in Asia, but the US will struggle to prevail without a relatively secure, supportive Europe on its side.
To be clear, resources and attention are finite. A long war in Ukraine will impose costs, measured in munitions and in distraction, on the US. Yet the tradeoff between Ukraine and Taiwan doesn’t have to be zero-sum.
If Ukraine is distracting America, it is devouring Russia. Moscow’s losses, in men and materiel, are shredding its ground forces. The more those losses mount, the less threat President Vladimir Putin will pose to Eastern Europe — and the more focus Washington can responsibly shift to Asia.
Moreover, the war in Ukraine is serving as a proving ground for concepts and capabilities that can help win a war over Taiwan. This conflict is delivering an education in the demands of defending against drones and cruise missiles. It is showcasing long-range strikecapabilities that the US and its friends could use to turn the Western Pacific’s “first island chain” — the string of features running from the Korean Peninsula down to Indonesia — into a death trap for Chinese warships. It is yielding new insights, for the US, into how AI can improve intelligence collection and decision-making, and for Taiwan, on how decentralized command practices and whole-of-society resistance can make all the difference.
Finally, an extended war in Ukraine offers America a chance to truly get serious about defense. The present weakness of the so-called defense industrial base is appalling. It may take years to rebuild the stocks of Javelin missiles America has given Ukraine. In a war against China, the Pentagon would run out of some munitions in days, with no easy way to replace them — let alone the ships, planes and submarines that might be lost. By making the scale and severity of the problem clear, the Ukraine war may also help Washington find the urgency to fix it.
There is historical precedent. In 1940-41, Americans debated whether providing lend-lease aid to Britain would simply squander resources the US needed for itself. Yet it turned out that this wasn’t an either/or proposition. Spending on weapons destined for Britain helped stimulate America’s then-feeble arms industry, reducing the time it took the US to mobilize after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
“We are buying, not lending,” said Secretary of War Henry Stimson: America was putting industry on a war footing while the country was still at peace.
The question is whether the US will do something similar today. President Joe Biden’s administration is, as Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks explains, buying key munitions “to the limits of the industrial base.” The Pentagon can use multiyear procurement contracts that give firms incentive to invest; it is learning, from the Ukraine experience, how to knife through red tape. But no one can really claim America is moving with wartime urgency when Biden continues to propose defense budget “increases” that don’t even keep pace with inflation.
The “Asia First” contingent is right about one thing: If the US conducts business as usual, then aid to Ukraine may come at Taiwan’s expense. Yet if the US conducts business as usual, it wouldn’t be able to defend Taiwan even if it abandoned Ukraine tomorrow.
America faces real challenges in two theaters simultaneously. Its best chance to succeed involves using the stimulus provided by one to prepare for the other.
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Because you’re online so much you probably saw the Wall Street Journal/NORC poll that came out this week. It found that the share of Americans who say patriotism is very important to them has dropped to 38 percent from 70 percent since 1998. The share who say religion is very important has dropped to 39 percent from 62 percent. The share who say community involvement is very important has dropped to 27 percent from 47 percent. The share who say having children is very important has dropped to 30 percent from 59 percent.
These trends are partly driven by you, young adults under 30. Only 23 percent of you said that patriotism is very important or that having children is very important.
You’re disillusioned and I get it. You’ve grown up in a crappy time — Iraq, the financial crisis, Trump, George Floyd, the pandemic, a widespread sense that you won’t be as well off as your parents.
But I grew up in a crappy time, too. I’m old enough to remember the assassinations of 1968. Over the next few years, Americans experienced defeat in Vietnam, crime rates beginning to surge and the hollowing out of cities, the energy crisis, wages beginning to decline, stagflation and Watergate.
But look at what happened next. Five years after the fall of Saigon, and the supposed death blow to American self-confidence that would cripple American power, the nation elected Ronald Reagan and felt a surge of optimism. Nine years after that, the Berlin Wall fell and the United States emerged as the world’s dominant superpower. Three years after that the nation elected Bill Clinton and entered the 1990s era of relative peace, prosperity and calm. Crime rates began to plummet.
The political scientist Samuel Huntington was right: The story of American history is the story of periodic convulsions of failure and breakdown followed by long periods of readjustment and renewal.
As I witnessed America’s recovery in the 1980s and 1990s I felt and saw around me a growing patriotism and faith in America. Sure, there was some of the resentful, rotten patriotism you now see at MAGA rallies, but there was also a more mature kind of patriotism, the love you have for your country when you know its flaws. It was a curious kind of patriotism, one that wanted to understand the full complexities of America, that wanted to read David McCullough, John Hope Franklin and Doris Kearns Goodwin, and watch those Ken Burns documentaries.
Personally, that kind of patriotism gave me a sense of identity and belonging. It ripped me from the prison of the present and placed me in a long procession of Americans — the dead, the living and the unborn. It broke through the walls that separate one person from another and gave me a sense of membership in a community so varied and so much to be treasured that I have never been able to hate Americans who differ from me politically.
That kind of love is a propelling force for people who served the nation in all the different ways — in government, the military and beyond. This love manifests as a wild and generous energy. “Giving is the highest expression of potency,” Erich Fromm wrote in “The Art of Loving.” “In the very act of giving, I experience my strength, my wealth, my power. This experience of heightened vitality and potency fills me with joy.”
The recovery of the ’80s and ’90s ended early this century, and as leaders failed one after the other, I’ve swung wildly between optimism and pessimism, sometimes by the hour.
But over the past two years, I’ve become convinced that the latest of America’s renewal periods has already begun. Working-class wages are rising, income inequality is declining and manufacturing jobs are more plentiful. America remains a vigorously innovative country on the planet. We lead the world in attracting the most foreign direct investment. America has a more diverse array of talented people than ever before. The Republican Party hasn’t, but voters overall rejected Trumpism in 2022. Joe Biden may not be your cup of tea, but he’s restored sanity, effectiveness and decency to the White House.
My greatest fear is that the latest renewal will be killed in its crib by the intractable forces of cynicism and withdrawal. My fear is that we’ve entered a distrust doom loop: People are so untrusting of their institutions and their neighbors that they are unwilling to reach out, to actively renew their communities and their country, and so the dysfunction will continue, and the distrust will increase, and so on and so on.
What really worried me about the Wall Street Journal poll is that people are still pulling inward on a variety of fronts; they are telling pollsters that patriotism, parenthood and community are not very important to them.
Only love and a leap of faith can break through distrust. That is why a credible form of patriotism is so important right now. We’ve hit that spot in the cycle of crisis and renewal at which people have to take the kind of common actions that send the vital message: we can trust each other.