What Is America's Interest in the Ukraine War?

What Is America's Interest in the Ukraine War?

Amid the continuing war and ongoing calls for the United States to “do more,” the question remains: what, if any, are the United States’ strategic interests in Ukraine—and how might the United States best service them?


This is doubly true so far as possible aggression against NATO members is concerned. Distinct from efforts to aid Ukraine itself, the alliance has responded to Russian aggression by drawing together to a degree unmatched in the last twenty years; both declared policy and emerging military trends indicate that its members are increasingly committed to defending what Biden termed “every inch of NATO territory.” The conflict has thus made it abundantly clear that Russia risks an overwhelming (outside the nuclear realm) counterbalancing coalition should it attempt to move against NATO members. Combined, and entirely separate from anything on the ground in Ukraine, there are thus strong reasons borne of the strategic map to doubt whether any Russian policymaker will conclude further aggression in Europe will pay, or succeed in such a course if they do. Ukraine is not decisive in shaping or thwarting Russian ambitions.

A similar problem applies to claims that failing to act in Ukraine will cause other states, particularly China, to conclude that aggression pays. By this logic, the world is full of potential aggressors that are held in check by their fear of an American response; it further implies that aggression anywhere is a threat to U.S. national security. Arguing that the United States must act in Ukraine to forestall others’ aggression is thus tantamount to arguing that the United States must serve as a global police officer that dare not rest anywhere, even for a moment.


Holding aside that policymakers have long abjured the idea of the United States serving as the world’s policeman, there are several problems with this argument. First, as Stephen Walt notes, the historical record is replete with aggressors paying exorbitant costs for their behavior—think of Germany’s defeat, occupation, and division following World War II or the firebombing of Japan. Nevertheless, aggression remains a reality in international politics as, even when one aggressor is defeated, others do not readily seem to “learn” the lesson.

Second, allowing that potential aggressors may exist, an array of research indicates that state calculations are shaped not by general impressions of how a single great power may respond, but contextual judgments of whether counterbalancing and punishment are likely given the distribution of power and known state interests. Extending the point, the United States (1) can afford to ignore Ukraine without risking aggression in other theaters provided it has an interest in and the wherewithal for checking other potential threats, or (2) there are local actors able and interested in the same. This makes intuitive sense: Beijing, for instance, is likely to care far more about what the United States, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, India, Australia, etc. can and will do in Asia than it cares about what the United States does 4,000 miles away. Analysts that treat Ukraine as decisive to other states’ aggression overlook the geopolitical constraints that are likely to shape others’ interest in and opportunities for aggrandizement.

Third, one ought to treat the underlying idea that aggression anywhere constitutes a threat to the United States with skepticism. Even a cursory glance at the diplomatic record underlines that the United States is not truly threatened by aggression in and of itself. In recent years alone, the Russo-Georgian War, the Saudi campaign in Yemen, fighting between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and other episodes have had little impact on the United States’ well-being. This is the advantage of being a rich and insulated great power surrounded by ocean moats. Finally, and even if it were true that the United States had an interest in forestalling most aggression, it does not follow that further involvement in Ukraine constitutes the sole way of underscoring that America will penalize aggression more generally. After all, not only can—as the prior paragraph suggests—the United States take steps to reinforce its ability to thwart aggression by specific actors of interest irrespective of what happens in Ukraine, but so too can Washington signal its commitment by, e.g., encouraging a NATO build-up in Eastern Europe and maintaining so-called “crippling” sanctions on Moscow.

Threats to Order: Theory, Not Reality. Assertions that neglecting to act in Ukraine will undermine the liberal order are similarly suspect. First, while the United States has often sought to promote democracy abroad, it tempers this impulse with consideration of geopolitical imperatives regardless of how this affected democracy’s spread. To this end, the United States frequently overthrew elected governments in states such as Iran and Guatemala during the Cold War, has regularly made deals with autocrats (for instance, in Cold War-era Taiwan and South Korea and post-Cold War Saudi Arabia), and tolerates democratic backsliding among major allies today (as seen, for example, in Hungary, Poland, Pakistan, and Turkey). In short, Washington has never made the defense of foreign democracy per se an interest—as the record suggests, the question was instead whether policymakers perceived a given country as important to U.S. interests; so far as a liberal order emerged after World War II (and there are good questions whether one has), it was despite U.S. ambivalence over backstopping other democracies as an end unto themselves Asserting that the liberal order now requires the United States to defend Ukraine inverts the logic driving American policy. 

Of course, a critic might counter that the United States ought to make the defense of democracies a core interest lest democratic losses multiply in the years ahead. Here, a different problem emerges: Ukraine is a poor fit for demonstrating an American commitment to this objective. Polite company may not comment on it, but Ukraine’s current democratic bona fides are questionable. Independent assessments by Freedom House, the Polity project, or the Varieties of Democracy Project consistently judge Ukraine as less than a full-fledged democracy—listed as an “anocracy” by Polity, for instance, and a “hybrid regime” with a 39 percent “democracy percentage” by Freedom House. Corruption, constrained press freedoms, questions over judicial integrity, and “the lack of rule of law” are all problems. Nor have these assessments improved over time. The V-Dem project, for example, shows Ukraine’s democracy scores moving within middle ranges since independence, while Freedom House metrics indicate little change in Ukraine’s democratic performance since the mid-2010s. The intra-elite infighting and crackdowns on political opponents witnessed over much of the last decade illustrate a similar trend. In short, even if one argues that the fate of the liberal order rests on active U.S. support for liberal democracies, Ukraine today is a poor proving ground of that commitment.

Finally, arguments that failure to oppose Russia in Ukraine will undermine the norms and operating principles of the “liberal order” are problematic. As scholars such as Patrick Porter and Paul Staniland document, the liberal order was never violence-free. If anything, the order itself has both survived and often relied upon a large degree of state-led violence and challenges to sovereignty in support of dubious objectives throughout its postwar history. It is thus hard to see how Russia’s deplorable behavior in Ukraine is somehow more injurious to a liberal order than the Vietnam or Iraq wars, Israeli use of force in its near abroad, or the Saudi campaign in Yemen, among others.

By the same token, the “liberal order” has shown a remarkable capacity for tolerating a wide range of inter- and intra-state violence and sovereignty violations. Even a cursory glance at history reveals the trend, with the “liberal order” no more torn asunder by the American and allied reluctance to act in Bosnia until much of the bloodletting was over than it was by the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. Seen in this light, the Russian invasion is not so much a threat to the order as a particularly thuggish manifestation of the sort of violence and violations that have long existed within “the order,” by a state many actors do not especially like. Again, we can and should lament the horrors visited upon Ukraine. However, claims that Russian aggression somehow overturns the principles upon which the order rests fall flat. 

PROPONENTS OF U.S. “do-more-ism” might fall back to argue that core tenets of U.S. grand strategy writ large and policy toward Europe in particular mandate American involvement in Ukraine. Here, the case might go, the long-standing U.S. interest in preventing the emergence of a Eurasian regional hegemon and/or in building what then-President Bill Clinton termed a Europe “whole, free, and at peace” require thwarting Russia by deepening support for Ukraine. Yet not only is neither issue at stake in Ukraine, but both the current thrust of U.S. policy and potential further U.S. involvement contradict these goals in key ways.

The United States has long looked to prevent a regional hegemon from emerging in Eurasia. Russia today, however, is not poised to be a regional hegemon. It has an impressive nuclear arsenal, potent military-industrial complex, and gains some degree of political influence from exporting key commodities and energy products. Still, its economy is smaller than Italy’s, it occupies an unfavorable piece of real estate, suffers from a history of antagonizing its neighbors, and is beset with demographic problems. Moreover, it faces—as its battlefield performance demonstrates—limits in turning its latent capability into usable power, just as its ability to translate material and energy exports into geopolitical leverage is constrained by the availability (particularly over the medium and long term) of alternate suppliers. Other regional actors, meanwhile, have more than enough raw capacity to resist it either alone or in combination; given the quick and hard balancing against Russia’s invasion, they also seem to have the political will to resist Russian designs. And where the Soviet Union (the last potential Eurasian hegemon in modern history) benefitted from forward-deployed armies across a pliant Eastern Europe that seemed poised to reach the Atlantic coast in weeks, Russian forces today are more than 1,000 miles further east than their Soviet counterparts; even if the capability were available, there is significantly more territory for Russia to cross and time to mount a response than when Europe last faced a potential hegemonic bid.