Arming Ukraine is Not a Distraction

February 16, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: RealismRussia-Ukraine WarGreat Power Competition

Arming Ukraine is Not a Distraction

History suggests that reinforcing peripheral theaters can strengthen the central one, and a deteriorating periphery can have cascading effects at the center.


On Tuesday morning, the Senate passed a supplemental appropriations bill totaling $95.3 billion in military aid for Ukraine, Israel, and the Indo-Pacific. The bill’s fate is now in the hands of the House, facing stiff opposition from Republicans who exhibit a reflexive hostility to arming Kyiv.

Republican skepticism of the Ukraine assistance program can be linked to a broader intraparty struggle over national security policy. The argument against further aid is often couched in terms of foreign policy “realism,” implying that in the post-Cold War era, U.S. foreign policy sold out the national interest to export democracy abroad. A realist agenda would have prioritized American citizens over U.S. liberal hegemony and its “free-riding” allies.


Guided by this profoundly flawed narrative, self-described Republican “prioritizers” urge a return to what they think worked during the Second World War and late Cold War—when the United States presumably concentrated resources on the most vital geopolitical theater at the expense of others. By recognizing Ukraine as a distraction, these “realists” believe they are adopting a similar approach today by prioritizing military competition with China at the expense of secondary theaters. However, the realists are simply substituting one misguided historical narrative for another.

In World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt’s primary aim was victory in Europe, believing Nazi Germany to be the greater threat and that it would ultimately doom Japan in the Pacific theater. Nevertheless, the U.S. Navy’s victory at Midway Atoll in 1942 blunted Japan’s rampage across the central Pacific, assuring that Tokyo could not redirect its fleet to the Indian Ocean and link up with Germany in the Middle East. Midway preserved Britain’s imperial holdings on the Eurasian periphery and kept the Soviet Union fighting. Furthermore, it advanced a global offensive against the Axis powers, which enabled Roosevelt’s “Europe First” strategy.

During the late Cold War, the Reagan administration was determined to rebuild U.S. military power in Europe. Between 1980 and 1987, defense spending more than doubled in nominal dollars—much of which was devoted to offsetting Soviet numerical superiority in Central Europe. NATO’s Central Region, where the bulk of U.S. combat power would confront the Soviets, was lavished with significant resources.

However, the Reagan administration’s European defense program was strengthened through sizeable efforts in “secondary” theaters and a robust ideological initiative. The Navy’s Maritime Strategy, for example, was global in nature. By holding Soviet territory at risk in the northern Pacific, carrier battle groups could tie down Soviet military resources that could otherwise be swung to NATO’s Central Region. Such a forward-leaning strategy depended on shoring up relations with Japan—a partner then engaged in trade practices that disadvantaged American manufacturing. As a result, President Ronald Reagan had to do heavy political lifting to strengthen a mutually beneficial alliance.

Ideologically, neoconservatives in the Reagan administration—the bête noire of today’s realists—supported democratic breakthroughs in the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan. Democratic consolidation and Japanese amity strengthened America’s forward position, weakening the Soviets.

Indeed, the Reagan administration accomplished all this at a time when Americans were decidedly unhappy with the contributions of their NATO allies. When former West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt criticized American inconsistency at a 1984 conference, James Schlesinger, a former secretary of defense and committed Atlanticist, leveled a blistering critique of Bonn’s defense program, accusing Schmidt of ingratitude. Even in the 1980s, NATO was in perpetual crisis over burden-sharing. Frustration over “free-ridingallies is hardly a post-Cold War invention.

A global power with global interests unsurprisingly shares global commitments with troublesome allies. Prioritization, quite apart from a decision on which theaters to skirt responsibility, will require careful sequencing with partners who cannot shoulder the burden alone. Strategic sequencing will demand a greater concentration of U.S. resources in the Indo-Pacific and a more efficient division of labor in NATO. Germany and France, for instance, must contribute more to Europe’s defense. But the United States has always anchored what is, after all, a trans-Atlantic partnership. Limiting the U.S. contribution to only extending nuclear deterrence and other select capabilities will likely unnerve frontline partners and reopen historical rifts in Europe. This grave scenario would be fodder for the Eurasian axis of Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, who are now engaged in a coordinated campaign to weaken the West.

Fortunately, the combined power of U.S. alliances in Europe and East Asia dwarfs that of the Eurasian axis. Tighter coordination between the two regions would make any response to regional aggression global. As history suggests, reinforcing peripheral theaters can strengthen the central front against China. However, the inverse is undoubtedly true: a deteriorating periphery could have cascading effects at the center. If Russia absorbs Ukraine, the United States will be forced to station sizeable ground and air forces in Eastern Europe, effectively weakening deterrence in the Indo-Pacific. Arming Kyiv, therefore, is a strategic imperative for a global power that can hardly compartmentalize defense policy on a strictly regional basis.

Much like in the 1970s, when Vietnam generated calls for America to “come home,” U.S. leaders must combat unhelpful narratives and make a stronger case for conservative internationalism and democratic values. To accomplish this, the country requires political leadership to avert deep cuts to the defense budget, à la President Ford, while increasing its power-projection capabilities, à la President Reagan. Arming Ukraine has rallied the U.S. defense industrial base more than Kyiv’s American critics. It is well past time for Washington to expand on its progress by making a public case for what is at stake: the defense of American interests in a deeply interconnected world.

Kyle Balzer is a Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on nuclear strategy and policy.