Neither democracy or America's material interest are on the line
Nearly 100 days after Russia’s invasion, President Biden took to the New York Times oped pages to defend his Ukraine policy. Not for the first time, he emphasised that the U.S. will not directly join the fight in Ukraine or push the war to harm Russia, while also explaining how vital the stakes are for democracy, international norms against aggression, and, by extension, U.S. security.
These two points are contradictory, and for most readers, confusing. If Ukraine were as vital as President Biden says, he would probably take even bigger risks to defend it. If Russia’s actions are such a threat to global order, why not use the war to batter it as much as possible? The limits of U.S. commitment to Ukraine reflect not only fear of provoking a potentially nuclear war, but the limited U.S. interests there.
The fact is, the President is wildly exaggerating the U.S. stakes in Ukraine. This is typical of Presidents, who are always overstating the virtues of their actions, but still dangerous. With one hand the president is encouraging the escalatory sentiment he seeks with the other to constrain, making it harder to steer a prudent course in Ukraine, or change it, should events warrant it.
To answer critics who say his administration lacks a goal in Ukraine or those who worry the U.S. policy is to use Ukraine to harm Russia, the President insisted that U.S. aims are limited to helping Ukraine and that U.S. commitments are proscribed:
A couple paragraphs later, however, the President tells us how essential the fight he won’t escalate is for U.S. interests:
This is vastly overwrought, to be generous. Russia has already paid a heavy price for its actions — on the battlefield, in sanctions, diplomatically — and other would-be aggressors will have noticed. First, even if it had not, there is little reason to think the aggression bug will spread and democratic dominos will fall. Ukraine’s circumstances, and Russia’s ill-intent toward it, seem unique, not a clear example to anyone else. States historically decide to attack others due to their power and relations with the state they attack, not distant precedents.
As for the “the rules-based” order, if it exists, it must be robust enough to survive some violations, including ours. Finally there is no good reason to see Russia’s attack on Ukraine as result of its (flawed) democracy per se, as opposed to its policies output, which Russia violently disliked.
The truth is that helping Ukraine has basically nothing to do with U.S. security or material interests. Indeed, on balance it probably harms U.S. them by heightening animus with Russia and battering trade. It is a moral mission, born of a reasonable desire to punish aggression and stand up for a friendly country under attack.
By making a moral case a security one, President Biden is engaged in what political scientist Theodore Lowi calls oversell: exaggerating the stakes and thus the benefits of his policies to overcome all the obstacles facing said policies. Presidents tend to oversell the stakes of wars they are promoting, and Biden is overselling the one he is staying out of. He is thus inviting all the pundits who want a more direct U.S. role in Ukraine to use his words against him, confusing the public about the stakes, and creating pressure on himself to take military risks in Ukraine he has sensibly avoided.
Biden is also foreclosing his diplomatic options. While he insists he’ll never pressure Ukraine to accept territorial concession as part of settlement, that might change. Due to its domestic politics that are understandably hostile to compromise, Ukraine might want to continue war in spite of considerable evidence it cannot eject Russia from Crimea or Donbas and improve peace terms. If the U.S. policy aim is what Biden says — primarily help Ukraine, not hurt Russia — pushing settlement would then be the right move, even a moral imperative. But having explained to everyone how vital it is that Ukraine win, it will be tough to make that pivot.
The President should stop letting speechwriters define his war aims, cut the rhetorical excess, and stick to the moral case for helping Ukraine. His laudable reluctance to escalate against Russia would then make more sense.
Benjamin H. Friedman is Policy Director at Defense Priorities