In an insightful essay published last week at Foreign Policy, Gabriel Scheinmann, the executive director of the Alexander Hamilton Society, argued that U.S. support for Ukraine yields multiple goods: including the defense of Taiwan. It’s an assertion bracing and, somehow, both timely and evergreen all at once. Ever since Putin launched his abhorrent invasion, there has been an ongoing debate about whether the United States can provide support for Ukraine while also meeting other essential responsibilities, including, chiefly, countering a revisionist China hellbent on shaking up the status quo.
Many see this as a zero-sum game, believing we can choose only one ambition or the other. Critics of military assistance to Ukraine insist that whatever treasure, attention, or resources we direct to Kiev to help them deal with Russia takes away from the attention, resources, and treasure we can spend against China. With Beijing the bigger and critical threat, the decision is simple. Allying ourselves with Ukraine against a bully might feel morally satisfying, but it will prove deadly to stopping China.
Scheinmann insists these critics are wrong. Measures taken to support Ukraine, he argues, “are helping modernize U.S. forces, revive dormant defense production, develop and accelerate processes for building and fielding weapons, and spur the largest defense buildup by the United States and its allies in 40 years.” The benefits extend far beyond Central Europe. While there is much more to do, Scheinmann canvasses a number of different ways in which American defense industries, spending, innovation, and processes are becoming more streamlined, efficient, and effective. “The United States is still not moving fast enough to deter a Chinese attack on Taiwan,” Scheinmann cautions, “but U.S. military aid to Ukraine is helping it get off the blocks.”
Christian realist observers should be heartened. Scheinmann’s critics are right that supporting Ukraine feels morally satisfying—but only because doing the right thing is morally satisfying. At the same time, it is indisputable that China is a threat that can be neither ignored nor underprepared for. The idea that we might realistically be able to deal with both Russia and China at the same time is a moral and strategic boon.
That’s a good thing, because, as the political theorist, Matthew Kroenig, Senior Director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center, insists: the U.S. really doesn’t have a choice. From even before the Russian invasion began, Kroenig has argued that the U.S. has to develop a strategy—and the capacity—to deter and, if necessary, defeat Russia and China at the same time. This is not merely coupling moral with strategic interests. Each interest is in play in both Europe and the Indo-Pacific. Advancing these dual interests is not simply about what we must do. It is about who we are.
From our inception, Providence has been guided by the simple belief that the routine work of foreign policy and the maintenance of the international system is analogous to the creation mandate to cultivate the Garden. In the space of international affairs, the mandate includes tending to the tasks that uphold public safety, execute justice, and promote human flourishing. This responsibility, scripture makes clear, is shared by all peoples. It is the God-given duty placed upon governing authorities—those over whom there is no one greater charged with the responsibility to protect the innocent, requite injustice, and punish evil with the aim of creating and preserving the conditions necessary for order, justice, and peace.
Given its power—held in substantial reserves of economic, military, and political might—the U.S. has a commensurately larger share of stewardship responsibilities. While the American government rightly prioritizes the safety and security of the American people, this special obligation is not our only obligation. We believe the United States should continue to lead the world, in collaboration with allies, partners, and friends. Our Classical and Hebraic moral and intellectual inheritance has given us a deep sense of the responsibility to use power well and generously so that it is sufferable to those beneath it. We are not perfect. But we are a good bit better than the other leading options.
Therefore, the U.S. cannot afford to choose—and the world cannot afford to have us choose—between Europe and the Indo-Pacific. Washington’s strategic objective must be to maintain peace and stability in both regions. The Goodnews, both Scheinmann and Kroenig insist, is that the resource-rich U.S. has the capacity—if we can maintain the will—to both walk and chew gum at the same time. In order to build the capacity to do so, Kroenig has several recommendations. I’ll enumerate some of them briefly here and take them up in greater detail in future posts.
First, the U.S. must commit to increased defense spending. China is a greater threat than the Soviet Union was during the Cold War, therefore a meaningful defense spending increase must follow recognition of this fact. We could double our present defense spending and still remain below our Cold War average as a percent of GDP. American economic power can sustain this. With a GDP that outguns both Russia and China combined, we can afford to outspend them. There is no need to make “bread or bombs” compromises.
Secondly, our increased defense spending will be next to meaningless if we do not spend it wisely on the fighting assets we need, if we do not innovate and leverage new technologies, and if we do not adapt acquisition and production models to build it all at the required scale and pace. Our support of the war effort against Russia has revealed weaknesses in the U.S. defense industrial ecosystem. We must fix them.
Third, whatever the strength of the U.S., Kroenig advises, even the walk-and-chew-gum camp know we can’t take on both Russia and China alone. Therefore, the U.S. must actively lead its allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific to leverage their strengths and increase their own capacities. Ukraine has demonstrated what the Central and Eastern nations are capable of if they are given the resources to fight. U.S. allies and partners need to do more. We can help them do it.
Lastly, whether we like it or not, we need to dust off the Cold War playbooks and modernize—both technologically as well as in theoretical scope—our nuclear weapons and strategy. Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling has reinforced that nuclear weapons can be used to abet conventional aggression. Beijing will certainly have grasped its meaning. We can expect China’s nuclear build up to proceed apace and for its nuclear assets to be deployed as a shield for its aggression against Taiwan and leveraged against U.S. intervention. The U.S. must accept that it must now counter two near-peer and nuclear armed adversaries. We need the numbers and kinds of nonstrategic nuclear weapons that can deter, at the very least, both Russia and China at the same time and that both adversaries would believe we would be willing to use in a last resort.
In the meanwhile, while the war in the Ukraine has clarified some of what lies ahead of us, these essential lessons are emerging from a battle that is not yet concluded. The Western alliance that supports Ukraine must decide to commit to a resolute conclusion. That conclusion should be a Ukrainian victory and a Russian defeat. Ukrainian victory will be characterized by the Ukrainian people securing and maintaining a democratic, independent, sovereign, unbroken, and flourishing nation marked by order, justice, and peace and with the ability to deter aggression and defend herself. This defeat will be characterized by Moscow’s failure to achieve its strategic goal of destroying the Ukrainian nation and national identity and advancing its interests across the wider European landscape. Because this is so, the U.S. must lead the way in giving the Ukrainians the weapons they need to win. The debates about what precisely these are will be hotly contested. The resolve to give them should not be.
With a clear strategy coupled to clear goals and backed by prudence and power and the clear willingness to employ that power if necessary, the U.S. just might prove able to walk and chew gum at the same time. And, if we do it right, we won’t have to step in it when we do.