Isolationism vs. Intervention: Should the U.S. Provide Aid to Ukraine?

Should the U.S. continue to support Ukraine? Kelley Vlahos (Quincy Institute) and Alexander Gray (American Foreign Policy Council) debate U.S. isolationism versus interventionism.
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Can We Protect U.S. Interests at Home While Avoiding Conflict Abroad?

By Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute, and Alexander B. Gray, Senior Fellow, American Foreign Policy Council

Should the U.S. continue to support Ukraine? Kelley Vlahos (Quincy Institute) and Alexander Gray (American Foreign Policy Council) debate U.S. isolationism versus interventionism.

Questioning Foreign Intervention Is Not Isolationist; It’s The American Thing To Do

By Kelley Beaucar Vlahos – Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

The term “isolationist” has been used pejoratively to lump together conservative-leaning Americans who do not support the interventionist policies of the current administration. Their point of view is dismissed as selfish and uninterested in the world’s crises.

Were there pure isolationists—with zero desire to engage, even commercially, outside American borders—throughout the 250-year history of the United States? Sure. But more often, there were right-of-center Americans throughout the last two centuries who have reflected on the cautions of George Washington, John Quincy Adams, Robert Taft, George Kennan, Dwight Eisenhower, and yes, Donald Trump, and urged military restraint in their respective moments.

George Washington warned against foreign entanglements drawing the United States into other countries’ wars. Adams stated that searching for “monsters to destroy” could corrupt our banners of liberty through imperialism. Taft and Kennan believed fighting communism through war would be counterproductive. Eisenhower warned about the “military-industrial complex” and Ronald Reagan chose to talk to Gorbachev rather than launch nuclear WWIII.

Military Imposition of Democratic Values Has Historically Failed

The populist Republicans you hear today opposing more aid or putting guardrails on it, as well as questioning the wisdom of a creeping proxy war with Russia over Ukraine, are taking their cues from Trump. He called the Iraq War a failure in 2016 and said the U.S. should no longer serve as the world’s policeman. He said he wanted to bring American troops home after two decades of endless war.

For the first time since WWII, a Republican president took on the Washington consensus that we must be a hegemonic force for good, using the military to spread or impose our democratic values and right the world’s wrongs at the point of the spear. So many wars—from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan—were fought under those banners with spectacularly failed results. If anything, those wars made matters worse and justified the continued occupation of U.S. forces in foreign lands to this day.

U.S. Support For Ukraine Risks Direct War With Russia 

Where does that leave support for the war in Ukraine? The growing shift in today’s GOP can reflect many things. There is the Trump wing of the party, bolstered by popular conservative messengers like Tucker Carlson. These populists no longer trust that Washington has their best interests in mind. They don’t consider Russia a threat to the homeland. Moreover, they are concerned that increasing aid over the $100 billion already allocated may escalate the situation towards a direct war with Moscow. They agree with Trump that driving both sides to talks is better than risking a nuclear confrontation.

For some, it is Constitutional. Will continued aid sleepwalk the U.S. into another foreign conflict? Will American men and women die for Ukraine? As our representatives, will Congress debate these questions on their merits before giving more aid? Right now, a small number of Republicans in Congress, who represent a large number of conservatives outside the Beltway, are the only ones questioning Washington’s policy on Ukraine. That’s not isolationism. Looking back at history, it’s just the American thing to do.

Should the U.S. continue to support Ukraine? Kelley Vlahos (Quincy Institute) and Alexander Gray (American Foreign Policy Council) debate U.S. isolationism versus interventionism.

America Needs a Robust Role on the World Stage

By Alexander B. Gray – Senior Fellow, American Foreign Policy Council

Far too often in recent U.S. history, a robust American global presence has been sold to the American public in terms that have provoked skepticism and caution across the political spectrum. The disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have fractured public trust in the United States’ foreign policy elites. The conflicts also exposed that many of those elites are disconnected from the concerns of average Americans, apathetic about the impact of their policy choices on those who must pay for them (physically and financially), and too eager to impugn the motives of those who question utopian foreign policies.

U.S. Interests Must be Maintained Through Economic, Diplomatic, and Military Strength

This state of affairs is deeply dangerous for the United States. Yet, the failure of our elites does not diminish the necessity of a robust American role on the world stage. Presidents as disparate as John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Donald Trump understood that the United States has immutable, vital interests beyond our shores, which must be maintained through economic, diplomatic, and military strength.

These interests are not, as presidents from Adams to Reagan to Trump understood, in spreading democracy or imposing a universalist ideology on others. Rather, the United States must prevent the rise of a competing Great Power with the capability and will to threaten our global trade links, deny U.S. access to key markets, and potentially project power into the Western Hemisphere to threaten our homeland. This broad conception of national interest has remained the same since John Quincy Adams occupied the White House. It calls not for “monsters to destroy” but rather for the careful tending of a robust economy, a vibrant defense industrial base, a military able to deter a Great Power war, and diplomacy to encourage allies to contribute to the common defense on equal terms.

Broader Implication of Russian Invasion in Ukraine

Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine should not be seen as an isolated incident. The ability of Great Powers to alter existing borders by force and consolidate their gains militarily impacts the fundamental interests of the United States. Moscow’s war on Ukraine is merely a testing ground for a far more significant geopolitical contest: China’s desire to become the hegemonic power in Eurasia. The response of the United States to Ukraine serves as a deterrent to Beijing’s malign intentions in East Asia and beyond.

A robust response to territorial aggression directly impacting core U.S. national interests is not an ideological, Iraq War-style boondoggle. Rather, it is a calculated assessment of the long-term competition the United States confronts the greatest threat it has ever faced: the People’s Republic of China. Failure to understand and respond to the linkages between these Great Power threats poses a tremendous danger to long-term American national security.

Decades of Military Hubris Remain Entrenched in Today’s U.S. Foreign Policy

By Kelley Beaucar Vlahos – Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Mr. Gray paints an accurate, if idealistic, portrait of our former presidents’ foreign policy aspirations when he says they “understood that the United States has immutable, vital interests beyond our shores that must be maintained through economic, diplomatic, and military strength.”

Unfortunately, most Americans with knowledge of U.S. foreign policy in action as far back as 1965 know that Washington has manipulated and distorted the words “immutable, vital interests” so frequently so as to render them useless.

Afghanistan and Iraq were not aberrations as Mr. Gray would suggest. They were the apex of decades of Cold War hubris steeped in the idea that America could use its superior military power to control global geopolitical events. For 20 years, Washington–Republicans and Democrats alike—has used rhetoric like “spreading democracy,” “American security interests,” and “liberation” to proceed in failed nation-building and counterterrorism projects not only in those two countries but throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Even today, these projects still operate in dozens of countries.

While Washington would rather forget these “failures,” its spoiled fruits are everywhere. Somalia is a perpetually failed state beset with terrorism. There are coups all over the African Sahel. Syria is roiling with armed factionalism. The Taliban rules Afghanistan and Iraq can’t even afford to rebuild its cities, much less keep a functioning government for more than a year. The sad truth is that the U.S. military recently had or still has an active presence in all these countries.

Intervention in Ukraine is No Different

Now Mr. Gray says it is an “immutable, vital interest” for the U.S. to pour billions more weapons into Ukraine because Russia is using it as a “testing ground” for a much larger “geopolitical contest.” He suggests that China’s “territorial aggression” is the “greatest threat (the U.S.) has ever faced,” which is another justification for an aggressive U.S. military buildup in East Asia.

But with Russia mired in a war of attrition in Ukraine, who really believes it has the resources and desire to attack NATO countries? And when was that desire ever declared? Was it when Putin said “only an insane person” can imagine Russia “would suddenly attack NATO”? The idea that Russia wants to reestablish the Soviet Union or its empire is popular with hawks. Yet, there is no evidence that this war is a global one.

The same goes for China. It has not invaded another country since Vietnam in 1979. While it is a bully in its own backyard, its neighbors—including the Philippines, Indonesia, and even Japan—are wary of being forced to take sides in a Great Power conflict. As far as global markets go, there is a real concern about trade and competition with China. But that would require new economic strategies, not weapons. Why conflate the two?

Meanwhile, the U.S. is arming Taiwan, which is appropriate, but it risks starting a war because many in Washington say it’s in our national interest to defend Taipei. Are Americans willing to send their sons and daughters to war with China over Taiwan? Polls consistently say no. So why roll the dice?

Republicans who question the trajectory of U.S. foreign policy are not disregarding the wisdom of our former presidents. They are trying to correct the warping of their credos by 21st century arrogance.

A Focused Strategy Can Protect Core U.S. Interests While Respecting Americans’ Concerns

By Alexander B. Gray – Senior Fellow, American Foreign Policy Council

Ms. Vlahos echoes the criticisms, often valid, that many on both the left and right have directed toward U.S. foreign policy since 1945. While the United States certainly erred at times during the Cold War, its bipartisan, strategic framework was correct and ultimately successful. The Soviet Union posed an existential threat to the U.S. that required containment. Though the tactics may change in our current competition with China, the model of a bipartisan, coherent, and consistent grand strategy pursued across administrations would serve Washington well today.

Washington must view the Ukraine crisis through the lens of Beijing’s rabid ambitions in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. Ms. Vlahos focuses heavily on the supposed legacy of U.S. foreign policy errors without addressing the fundamental truth: How the West responds in Ukraine will directly determine China’s calculus in the Taiwan Strait. While far too much credence is given in Washington to an amorphous “liberal international order,” it is also true that the post-1945 norms against wars of territorial conquest are steadily eroded by unchecked Russian aggression. It would be naïve to conclude that China is unaware of the precedent being set in Eastern Europe and would not take it into account going forward.

Despite seeming disagreement on Ukraine, Republicans have a larger opportunity to unite behind several key principles in foreign affairs. First, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were strategic catastrophes that, in addition to the human and economic cost, directly contributed to China’s military and diplomatic rise globally. Second, a foreign policy focused on core interests—like the successful management of competition with China—requires restraint, humility, and an understanding of the costs, benefits, and limits of American power. Finally, Republicans should internalize that middle-class Americans will refuse to accept lopsided trade deals, endless and non-strategic wars, and a focus on democracy promotion rather than concentrate on the protection of core American interests. The next GOP president would find success through a firm adherence to these principles.

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Kelley Beaucar Vlahos
Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is Editorial Director of Responsible Statecraft and Senior Advisor at the Quincy Institute. Previously, she served as Executive Editor of the American Conservative magazine. From 2013 to 2017, Vlahos served as director of social media and online editor at WTOP News in Washington, D.C.. She also spent 15 years as an online political reporter for Fox News at the channel’s Washington D.C. bureau.

Alexander B. Gray
Senior Fellow, American Foreign Policy Council

Alexander Gray joined AFPC as a Senior Fellow in National Security Affairs in February 2021. His work focuses on U.S. security and defense strategy in the Indo-Pacific. Mr. Gray most recently served as Deputy Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff of the National Security Council (NSC) at the White House. Mr. Gray’s writings have appeared in Foreign Policy, The National Interest, National Review Online, and a host of other publications. He is a graduate of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

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