by Ben Friedman
Friday, 3
June 2022
Response
10:22

Joe Biden is exaggerating the security stakes of Ukraine

Neither democracy or America's material interest are on the line
by Ben Friedman
Credit: Getty

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:

We will not be directly engaged in this conflict, either by sending American troops to fight in Ukraine or by attacking Russian forces. We are not encouraging or enabling Ukraine to strike beyond its borders. We do not want to prolong the war just to inflict pain on Russia.
- Joe Biden, NYT

A couple paragraphs later, however, the President tells us how essential the fight he won’t escalate is for U.S. interests:

Standing by Ukraine in its hour of need is not just the right thing to do. It is in our vital national interests to ensure a peaceful and stable Europe and to make it clear that might does not make right. If Russia does not pay a heavy price for its actions, it will send a message to other would-be aggressors that they too can seize territory and subjugate other countries. It will put the survival of other peaceful democracies at risk. And it could mark the end of the rules-based international order and open the door to aggression elsewhere, with catastrophic consequences the world over.
- Joe Biden, NYT

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

Join the discussion


To join the discussion, get the free daily email and read more articles like this, sign up.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
17 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
23 days ago

First, even if it had not, there is little reason to think the aggression bug will spread and democratic dominos will fall.”
Taiwan, Mr Friedman? That destroys the whole premise of your article.

Ishaan Rai
Ishaan Rai
22 days ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Did you even read the next sentence? He clearly notes that the circumstances around the Ukraine invasion are unique to Ukraine and that this is generally true for all other potential invasions. Thus, in his view, an invasion of Taiwan could happen completely independent of what’s happening in Ukraine (which makes sense considering China has been threatening Taiwan with bluffs for 70 years).

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
21 days ago
Reply to  Ishaan Rai

That is rather naive. Did the Nazi aggressions of the 1930s have absolutely nothing to do with the pusillanimous response to the Italian invasion of Abyssinia? The latter emboldened the former, or at least so most historians hold.

Lou Campbell
Lou Campbell
21 days ago
Reply to  Ishaan Rai

Of course the circumstances are different. But there are vast similarities in terms of an autocratic power seeing an independent democratic nation as “theirs”.
You are putting on blinkers if you don’t see this.

Sam Sky
Sam Sky
22 days ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

It also seems to ignore what Malmgreen in another article here shows (as if it were not patently obvious) what Putin’s longterm aims are. It is an argument designed to rationalise wish-fulfillment.

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
22 days ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Ben Friedman’s opinion is that China is not waiting to see what happens to Russia before deciding whether to invade Taiwan. I have to agree. Just like Russia did not invade Ukraine because of what happened in Afghanistan. And North Korea did not decide against giving up its nuclear weapons because of what happened in Libya.
Foreign relations are complex. We need to quit seeing them as simple.

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
23 days ago

“President Biden took to the New York Times oped pages to defend his Ukraine policy”. I don’t think Mr. Biden could sign his own name anymore, let alone write an op-ed. Fairer to say “Biden’s handlers wrote an op-ed”.

Mike cazaly
Mike cazaly
22 days ago

To allow German reunification NATO agrees not to expand Eastwards, then does so.
The West organised a coup in Ukraine to depose a democratically elected President
The USA sends arms and trainers to Ukraine.
The USA puts missiles in Poland.
The USA withdraws from the ABM Treaty.
Ukraine does not comply with the Minsk Agreements
The direction of travel is obvious
The only surprise is Russia didn’t act sooner or more violently.
Also it is unwise to want Putin overthrown. His successor is likely to be considerably less tolerant, resulting in parts of western Ukraine becoming a glass car park.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
21 days ago
Reply to  Mike cazaly

This is almost a pure pro-Putin apologia, which of course entirely ignores what the Poles or Ukrainians might want. Since Poland has been completely destroyed twice in its history by Russia (along with Germany, which is no longer any sort of threat) their position is rather understandable. The US is a (flawed) democracy, Russia now an out-and-out tyranny which gives not a damn about the welfare of the Ukrainian or indeed the Russian people. That is not some minor or irrelevant difference, despite those people absolutely determined to seeing America as the root of all evil. The Ukrainians would of course been rather better advised to hold on to their nuclear weapons as the so-called security guarantees were not worth the paper they were written on.
Regarding the Euro Maidan protests against Yanukovych’s corrupt government (which narrative do you want to go with by the way, Ukraine is corrupt so the Russian invasion is somehow justified?), it is worth recalling that more than 100 protestors were killed, and Yanukovych then fled to Russia, a far cry from what Zelensky did when he had much greater justification on grounds of his personal safety. Russia simply doesn’t want a democratic and liberal government in Ukraine, let alone one which might offer a better prospect for its citizens than Russia does.

Last edited 21 days ago by Andrew Fisher
Mike cazaly
Mike cazaly
20 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

None of which contradicts any of my points.

M. M.
M. M.
22 days ago

Ben Friedman wrote, “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.”

Beneath Ukraine are large quantities of hydrocarbons that could meet the energy needs of the European Union (EU). The EU, not the United States, has a significant stake in the outcome of the war in Ukraine.

Germany (as the leader of Europe), not the United States, should be intervening in Ukraine.

Furthermore, the United States is undergoing rapid demographic change (due to its “open borders”). By 2040, Western culture will decline to the status of a minority culture, and this country will cease being a Western nation. Hispanic culture will become the dominant culture. (In California, Western culture is already rejected by most residents, and Hispanic culture dominates.)

Germany must replace the United States as the leader of the West.

The current crisis in Ukraine is an opportunity for the German government to show leadership, but Berlin has not shown leadership on helping the Ukrainians. When will the Germans show leadership? Will they wait until the Kremlin decimates Ukraine?

Get info about another area in which Berlin can show leadership.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
22 days ago
Reply to  M. M.

Do you just copy and paste this response (and link) into every comment section?

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
22 days ago
Reply to  M. M.

I’ve lived in California with my family for 30 years now and Western culture is still alive and well. Hispanic culture doesn’t dominate the state.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
22 days ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

Maybe because, contrary to what liberals like to believe, Hispanics (just like immigrants from Nigeria, India, Vietnam, Philippines) WANT to be part of American culture, not a permanent isolated victim class.
I suspect a Hispanic majority California would still have a “Californian” culture.

Lord Rochester
Lord Rochester
22 days ago
Reply to  M. M.

Genuine question. This is the first time I have ever heard someone differentiate between the nebulously imagined ‘Western’ world and use the word Hispanic as an alternative or encroaching civilization. Is that a real thing?

You see, I live in Europe, and Spain is a part of Europe and differs not at all from my neighbouring country in any way but by language and frequency of patatas bravas, so it makes me wonder if this is a real North American perspective or just a big piñata full of racism?

Antony Altoft
Antony Altoft
22 days ago
Reply to  M. M.

As an Englishman who married a Mexican and has two children with her I’d be interested to know what “Hispanic culture” is supposed to be if it is not “Western culture”. I have traveled widely in Latin America and spend a lot of time in Mexico. Mexican culture strikes me as more like the “Western” culture I grew up with than does the woke culture in modern day UK and USA.

Last edited 22 days ago by Antony Altoft
M. M.
M. M.
21 days ago
Reply to  Antony Altoft

A commenter wrote, “I’d be interested to know what ‘Hispanic culture’ is supposed to be …”

Hispanic culture is quite different from Western culture.

For example, Hispanics expect, demand, and receive preferential treatment. Get more info about this issue.

Hispanics commit murder at 3 times and 6 times the rate at which Americans of European ancestry or Asian ancestry, respectively, commit murder. Get more info about this issue.

Last edited 21 days ago by Matthew M.