Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 6 January 2024


The US and Europe Risk Flunking Geopolitics 101

A failure to stand by their commitments to Ukraine will cost them dearly in decades to come.

Was it just a brief, shining moment?
Was it just a brief, shining moment? Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images North America

Twenty years ago, I published Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire. I had wanted to call it Blind Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire. In the still jingoistic atmosphere that had followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks, my publisher dissuaded me. By the time the paperback came out, I could at least insist on my preferred subtitle.

Despite the passage of two decades, the book’s core arguments still stand up. Indeed, the tragic spectacle unfolding in Ukraine reminds me why I wrote the book in the first place. Americans — and Europeans, whose wealthy yet geopolitically inconsequential Union I also criticized — truly have the blindfolds on if they think they can raise their glasses to a happy new year while missiles rain down on Kyiv.

Writing in 2003, I was not in principle against a pax americana in succession to the pax britannica of the 19th and early 20th centuries. I took (and still hold) the now heretical position that most history is the history of empires; that no empire is without its injustices and cruelties; but that the English-speaking empires were, in net terms, preferable for the world to the plausible alternatives, then and now.

However, I was skeptical about the neoconservative project to reorder the “Greater Middle East” under the cover of a “Global War on Terror” in retaliation for 9/11. I particularly doubted that the United States would be able to achieve its goals of transforming the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq into its allies — or at least satellites. Had Britain’s imperialists succeeded in taming the wild lands north of the Khyber Pass — much less ancient Mesopotamia?

The reasons for my skepticism were what I called the “three deficits” of America’s strange empire that dared not speak its own name. The first was the economic deficit — the federal government’s fiscally unsustainable path, which would make long-lasting military and administrative commitments abroad difficult to afford. More broadly, the United States was a net importer of capital and hence a massive global debtor, in marked contrast to Victorian Britain, which accumulated a vast stock of overseas investments. If you want to run the world, it helps to own much of it — rather than to owe it.

The second was the manpower deficit — unlike 19th-century Britons, most Americans have no great enthusiasm for spending large parts of their lives in far-flung hot, poor and dangerous countries. Consider the short tours of duty served by most military personnel who were deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention the way many US bases tended to be cut off from the local populations. Likewise bunkered in bomb-proof embassies, deficient in local-language proficiency, and wedded to first-world comforts, few American Foreign Service Officers have “gone native” in the past 20 years. They didn’t get the chance.

Finally, and most importantly, there was the attention deficit — the tendency of the American electorate (and therefore its elected representatives) to lose interest in any foreign enterprise that takes longer than a few years to complete. The prediction that the American appetite for reordering the Middle East would not outlast George W. Bush’s first presidential term proved to be correct. Barack Obama based his meteoric rise on not having supported the war and went on to tell the world that America was no longer “the world’s policeman.” (Syrians soon learned what that meant in practice.)

All that has happened since 2003 has confirmed that the three deficits remain a powerful constraint on the exercise of American power abroad. The fiscal deficit now far outstrips what it was 20 years ago. The total federal debt was 59% of GDP in 2003; last year it was double that (120%). The manpower deficit today manifests itself as the armed services’ growing difficulty in finding willing, able-bodied recruits: At 452,000 active-duty soldiers, the US Army is the smallest it has been since 1940.

The attention deficit disorder is now so severe that the public expresses impatience with wars it is merely being asked to support with money and material. No American has been obliged to fight to defend Ukraine against Russia’s criminal invasion. And yet, according to recent polling by Lord Ashcroft, nearly four in 10 Republicans think that “in terms of military support, America is already doing too much.”

The war in Ukraine long ago ceased to be front-page news in the US. Months before Oct. 7, when Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad launched their bloody rampage into Israel, Ukraine had slipped down the media’s priority list, well below the private life of Taylor Swift or the boardroom battles of Open AI. But Oct. 7 caused a near-total eclipse. Previously, the war in Ukraine amounted to about 8% of CNN’s television coverage. After Oct. 7, the share plunged below 1%. A Ukrainian friend told me that the rapid departure of CNN Kyiv’s bureau for Israel painfully symbolized the shift of American attention.

Before the Christmas break, responding to their own voters’ clear preferences, Republicans in Congress declined to pass a $60 billion aid package that would have kept American resources flowing to Ukraine because Democrats would not accept their demands for tighter security on the US-Mexico border.

This was despite the support for additional aid to Ukraine from every congressional leader — Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA), and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY).

It has long been a talking point in Ukraine that, if Donald Trump is elected US president in November, their country will be in trouble. It turns out their country is already in trouble, 11 months before the American election.

Ukrainian forces are defending a 2,000-kilometer frontline, with a primary contact area of around 400 kilometers. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s Dec. 1 order to fortify the front line confirmed that Ukraine must now switch to the defensive, which commander-in-chief General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi has sought since his Economist article in November. Ukraine’s army chiefs have also reportedly asked Zelenskiy to mobilize 450,000-500,000 soldiers next year.

Digging in and defending is the only way Ukraine can survive for the next few months, with US support stalled much sooner than expected. American loss of interest has been followed almost immediately by Ukrainian shortages of material. Kyiv barely has sufficient long-range strike weaponry, artillery ammunition and air defense systems to cope with the brutal Russian air offensive now underway.

The Anglo-French Storm Shadow cruise missiles and US ATACMS have been used up, while Germany has yet to provide Taurus missiles to bridge the gap. A single additional Patriot battery from Germany is not a game-changer. The issue is interceptors, which Ukraine will soon run out of without additional Western deliveries.

True, Kyiv can still use drones for long-range attack missions, as it has done against targets in Crimea. True, Ukrainian attacks on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet have limited Russia’s bombardment options. But Ukraine’s inability to maintain pressure on enemy logistics will allow Russia to build up its military strength.

Western sanctions have imposed costs on Russia’s economy. Yet they have failed to prevent Russia’s war machine growing more powerful. Thanks to a concerted effort to increase arms production — with factories working multiple shifts and the labor market at full stretch — Russia now enjoys a five-to-one artillery advantage. Granted, the insistence of Russian commanders on frontal assaults (most recently, at Avdiyivka) reduces the impact of this ratio, but it still bodes ill for Ukraine.

Even if US aid remains in limbo, a Russian breakthrough along the front line in the next few months remains unlikely. Nevertheless, Russia will be able to grind down Ukrainian combat capability. By the second half of 2024, the situation may be dangerously precarious.

A typical Republican argument in focus groups is that Europeans, not Americans, should do the lion’s share of supporting Ukraine, as it is their neighbor. Fox News has done a poor job of explaining to its viewers that this is already the case. The latest Ukraine Support Tracker, published by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, shows that the European Union (institutions plus member states) has made nearly double the total US commitments to Ukraine since the Russian invasion began (€133.5 billion compared with €71.4 billion).

According to the International Monetary Fund, Ukraine faces a financing gap of $41.8 billion next year. Having mostly met its program targets, Ukraine can expect $5.4 billion in IMF funding. The $8.5 billion the US has promised now depends on congressional bargaining in an election year. That leaves the EU to provide at least $20 billion.

The catch is that nearly half of European commitments to Ukraine are long-term, not short-term. Earlier this month, EU leaders approved the opening of accession negotiations with Ukraine (as well as Moldova). Hungary, which had threatened to veto the decision, abstained from the vote. This was an historic step. Two years ago, most EU members — particularly France and Germany — rejected the idea. Yet this step is also more symbolic than practical. The earliest that Ukraine could achieve EU membership is 2030. Kyiv is still very far from fulfilling EU standards on corruption. In any case, Ukraine could join only after the war was over. That does nothing to help win the war.

On the same day the EU voted to open accession negotiations, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban vetoed a €50 billion EU fund to support Ukraine over the next four years. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron are drawing up plans for a Ukraine fund outside the EU structures to circumvent Hungary’s veto at the extraordinary meeting of EU leaders to be held in January. Yet (as I pointed out here in September) European voters are also showing signs of “Ukraine fatigue.” Neither Scholz nor Macron looks strong enough at home to check this tendency.

As I discovered in Italy’s Valle d’Aosta last week — at a conference held by Le Grand Continent, a Paris-based think tank led by Gilles Gressani — EU leaders recognize that Donald Trump could win the US presidential election next year, with dire implications for the transatlantic alliance generally and Ukraine specifically. But they seem to have no clue what to do about this.

Some participants suggested that a “Trump shock” might help to create a modern European defense industry. Governments would be able to force defense companies to merge and give Europe true “strategic autonomy,” long a popular phrase in Paris. But a pan-European defense industry would take at least a decade to create. In the meantime, who would be arming Ukraine?

A French participant acknowledged that Paris and Berlin could not fully compensate for a termination of US aid to Ukraine. EU leaders should therefore persuade Kyiv to seek a diplomatic deal with Moscow. In his view, the West had already missed an opportunity to do this last year, when Ukraine still had the upper hand. But why would President Putin be more interested in negotiating next year, after his forces have withstood Ukraine’s over-hyped counter-offensive, than he was last year, when his invasion was in disarray?

You begin to see why more people are seriously considering the idea of seizing the frozen assets of Russia’s central bank for Ukraine’s use, which was proposed last summer by my Hoover Institution colleague Philip Zelikow, along with Larry Summers and Bob Zoellick. As things stand, the Biden administration is holding off, to ensure that confiscated Russian assets do not become a substitute for additional congressional funding. Poland and other eastern EU members love the idea. But Germany and France remain wary, arguing that such a move would undermine the euro as a reserve currency and the West’s claim to be upholding the “rules-based international order” — a squeamish argument that was largely ignored during the world wars, when even the private assets of enemy-country citizens were treated as fair game.

Future historians will marvel at these arcane debates. It will seem obvious by 2033, if not sooner, that the pax americana faced a well-coordinated challenge from China, Russia, Iran and North Korea in the early 2020s. The first move was the invasion of Ukraine. The second was the war of Iran’s proxies against Israel. The third will most likely be a Chinese challenge to American primacy in the Indo-Pacific, perhaps — if Xi Jinping is bold — a blockade of Taiwan.

The United States and its allies did too little to deter all these challenges. However, once they had begun, the Biden administration rightly acted to defend the democracies that were under attack. They sent resources worth $75 billion to help Ukraine fight for its independence. They sent two aircraft carrier strike groups to signal their support for Israel and to discourage Iran and its proxies from further aggression. And they have stepped up the arming of Taiwan.

The lesson of history is that when such commitments are made, it is extremely hazardous not to sustain them. If, in the course of 2024, Ukraine’s position becomes so vulnerable that its forces must withdraw from some contested territory, three immediate consequences will follow.

First, more refugees will flow from Ukraine to Europe. There are currently 4.5 million Ukrainian refugees, most of them in EU countries and the UK. Even though many have found jobs, each refugee costs the host countries on average roughly €1,075 per month. If another 4.5 million more Ukrainians flee as Russia advances, it would cost another €58 billion.

Second, private investors will be even less likely to risk their money on Ukraine. The country’s bonds are already down significantly since the failure of the summer counter-offensive.

Finally, if they are to arm themselves to deter an emboldened Russia that already shares borders with five EU members (plus Norway, which is in NATO but not the EU), European governments will have to get a lot more serious about their defense spending, with all the obvious political headaches that implies. Between 1949 and 1989 — during the First Cold War — NATO’s European members spent up to 5.8% of GDP on defense. That was the British figure. The French equivalent was 5.1%. The West German was 3.6%. In 2022 those shares were 2.1% (UK), 1.9% (France) and 1.4% (Germany). For these countries to return their defense budgets to their Cold War shares of GDP would require a colossal effort. It would mean around $124 billion more per year for the UK, $97 billion for France, and $96 billion for Germany. For NATO as a whole to hit 3.5% of GDP on defense spending would require $431 billion more per year — nearly twice the amount all countries have pledged to Ukraine since last year ($247 billion).

The pax americana seems to be ending. The fate of Ukraine — of Israel and Taiwan, too — hangs in the balance. I cannot say I am surprised. It was always very likely that the overreach of the Global War on Terror would be requited in this way: with a resurgence of isolationism. Today, fully 57% of Republican voters, and 51% of Independents, say that “US interests are better served by using our resources to improve life for ordinary Americans at home.” Just a third agree that “US interests are best served by supporting freedom and democracy around the world when they are under threat.”

I am with the minority on this question. Let’s hope we don’t get vindicated the hard way.

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