Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 31 March 2023


Hal Brands

Defeating Russia Is the Best Way for the West to Defend Taiwan

Republican presidential contenders are wrong: Protecting Ukraine isn’t a distraction from the rivalry with China. 

A toast to defeat?

A toast to defeat?

Photographer: Pavel Byrkin/AFP/Getty Images

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 strike capabilities 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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