Why the US and its partners can’t afford to abandon Ukraine

In recent weeks, US President Joe Biden has boldly referred to the United States as the world’s ‘indispensable nation’.

But when the term was first coined—by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in the 1990s—the world was a markedly different place. The Cold War had just ended, with America victorious. It faced no peer competitors, or even the prospect of one on the horizon. The events of 9/11 were yet to occur.

In short, American leadership of the global order seemed not only assured, but also likely to endure for the foreseeable future.

Today, though, claims about both the necessity and the capacity of the US to provide global leadership are increasingly being put to the test. Wars in Ukraine and the Middle East—in addition to ongoing competition with China—are jostling for US attention and resources.

At a time when Republican Party infighting has brought the government itself close to paralysis, there’s a looming sense that the US will struggle to provide the type of blanket world leadership—and the assurance that comes with it—in the way it has done before.

It’s therefore not surprising that another round of commentary has emerged about the need for the US to pressure Ukraine to accept a peace deal.

This seems counterintuitive for a couple of reasons. For one thing, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has no incentive to negotiate a peace deal—and nor does Russian President Vladimir Putin, for that matter.

In addition, the Biden administration has consistently reaffirmed its commitment to supply Ukraine with military, economic and humanitarian aid—even though Kyiv continues to chafe at Washington’s reticence to provide it with weapons that might prove more decisive on the battlefield.

However, Ukraine is seen as potentially low-hanging fruit for those seeking to unburden the US from the many demands on its time and money. This mainly consists of conservative Republicans in Congress and right-wing national-security think tanks.

There are several arguments put forth by this camp. Crucially, Ukraine’s anticipated counteroffensive against Russian forces has thus far failed to yield a decisive breakthrough. Zelensky himself grudgingly admitted this some months ago.

Moreover, the US isn’t obliged to defend Ukraine from Russian aggression because it isn’t a NATO member. And a number of prominent conservative American strategists, especially those with ties to former president Donald Trump’s administration, have loudly called Ukraine a distraction from the US’s main strategic contest with China.

Indeed, holding military aid for Ukraine hostage to Republican Party politics was the explicit goal of a small number of maverick Congress members who united to oust former Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy in October.

The evangelical conservative Mike Johnson, McCarthy’s eventual successor as speaker, oversaw the passage of a US$14.5 billion aid package for Israel earlier this month. However, he would only countenance further assistance for Kyiv if the Biden administration capitulated to Republican demands for more funding to secure US borders.

Kyiv has become so concerned about the hold-ups in war funding from the US that it dispatched Andriy Yermak, head of the presidential office, to Washington last week to rally support.

Perhaps recognising Washington’s international and domestic woes, the German government has pledged to double its military aid for Ukraine from €4 billion to €8 billion in 2024. Additional European funding is also available for Ukrainian security assistance via the European Union Peace Facility, which had its financial ceiling increased to over €12 billion this year.

Yet, there’s also a fly in the ointment. The right-wing Hungarian government led by Viktor Orban has insisted that it will hold up releasing these funds until Hungarian banks (which continue to deal with Russia) are guaranteed not to be blacklisted by the EU as ‘sponsors of war’.

Letting Ukraine drop off the West’s radar would be an error of historic significance. For one thing, fractures within Ukraine’s Western democratic supporters are precisely what Putin is counting on.

The Kremlin calculation here is simple: Russia’s advantages over Ukraine in size and cannon fodder mean it should be able to continue its war for years. And Moscow believes that the West (as Ukraine’s main arms and aid backers) will at some point lose interest and push Kyiv to sue for peace.

More worryingly, if the US elections in 2024 produce a Trump administration 2.0, it will be springtime for dictators like Putin.

It’s already clear, for instance, that the far right in the US is drawing up plans for Trump loyalists to be installed in all branches of the security agencies should he win the election.

A second Trump presidency is therefore likely to be less constrained by US institutional checks and balances than the first, especially given there’s now a GOP-compliant Supreme Court. It will also have an appetite for weeding out domestic enemies of the regime (whom Trump recently called ‘vermin’). As a result, we can assume it will be apathetic about any expectations for US global leadership.

But even without a Trump victory in 2024, going soft on Ukraine sends the message that the West’s much-vaunted values and respect for rules are little more than rhetoric. It would also legitimise conquest as an option that not only goes unpunished, but is tacitly rewarded if those who engage in it aren’t held to account.

More broadly, a US capitulation on Ukraine would set a chilling precedent that would badly tarnish Washington’s credibility in Japan, Australia, Taiwan and other US partners in the Asia–Pacific. What good is there, they would justifiably ask, in an ‘indispensable nation’ if it can’t be counted on during times of crisis?

Perhaps instead of indulging in self-congratulatory labels, it might be wise for US leaders to remember that being indispensable—like beauty—is in the eye of the beholder.The Conversation