Washington is in the midst of another spending fight, but this time it is not just Democrats facing off against Republicans. It is Republicans facing off against each other over the future of U.S. national security policy—and Ukraine is at the center of the debate.
The House Freedom Caucus has announced that it will oppose the Biden administration’s request for additional funds for Ukraine, and it is not alone. The Heritage Foundation has come out against the funding request. A growing number of House and Senate Republicans besides members of the House Freedom Caucus also oppose Ukraine aid.
Not everyone agrees. Prominent Republican outlets label critics of Ukraine aid as “isolationists.” Senator Mitch McConnell has made it a priority to combat what he calls “the isolationist sentiment in my own party.” And earlier this year Senator Lindsey Graham warned of an “element in Congress who echoes the sentiments of the isolationists of World War Two,” while complimenting Democrats’ support for Ukraine.
These allegations of isolationism are a red herring. The fact is that most critics of Ukraine aid do not want to retreat from the world. What they want is a strong national security policy that defends American security, freedom, and prosperity—above all, against China—while adopting a less costly posture in other theaters and demanding greater burden-sharing from U.S. allies and partners. Those who say otherwise should read and listen to what conservative leaders are saying rather than trotting out ill-suited and tired canards.
The more focused and realistic approach advocated by a new generation of conservative leaders is a welcome break from the interventionism that has defined Republican foreign policy since the 2000s. Decades of war have cost thousands of American lives, wounded tens of thousands more, and consumed billions if not trillions of U.S. tax dollars, all with precious little to show for it. Most dangerously, years of intervention hollowed out America’s military, sapping readiness, delaying modernization, and leaving us woefully unprepared for the more challenging landscape we find ourselves in now.
American military difficulties are most obvious in the Indo-Pacific, where China is intent on achieving regional domination. If it succeeds, it will have taken control of the world’s largest market zone, with dire implications for American interests. Just a few decades ago, Beijing’s ambitions would not have been too concerning, since the United States could easily prevent China from conquering Taiwan and using force to coerce other Asian nations. Now, it is not so clear.
America’s ability to defend allies and partners in other theaters is increasingly strained, as well. In Europe, for instance, the United States has reassured NATO allies of our will and ability to defend them. But the U.S. military is not equipped to prevail in two major wars at once. As a result, so long as China is our priority, the United States will be forced to withhold forces from Europe to deter or defeat Chinese aggression, even if Russia attacks NATO first. This will significantly limit our ability to help deter, deny, or repel a Russian assault because many of the capabilities required for a Taiwan contingency are also vital for Europe, including air and naval strike platforms; long-range missiles; air and missile defenses; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets; and logistics forces. Similar challenges apply in the Middle East and on the Korean Peninsula, as well, since many of the platforms, munitions, and other capabilities required for campaigns against Iran or North Korea are also needed to hold the line against China.
The easy, and for many years default, Republican answer has been for the United States to simply spend more on defense. But there is little to no evidence that most Americans want to spend more on defense, and rising fiscal burdens make such spending more difficult now than it was in 1980. Moreover, even if defense spending were to continue going up, most of those increases would probably be needed just to shore up deterrence against China given the scope, scale, and speed of its ongoing military buildup.
Nor is the China threat likely to go away on its own, as some suggest. Chinese economic growth is slowing, but short of outright collapse, Beijing will almost certainly still be able to invest large sums in its military. As a result, the United States will probably still need to focus the bulk of its military on China for the foreseeable future, even as it presses Taiwan and other Asian states to bolster their own defenses.
This sort of sober realism—which is slowly reemerging in the Republican Party—requires us to think seriously about how to deny China’s hegemonic ambitions while also protecting American interests in other theaters. Fortunately, the U.S. has allies and partners who can do more to defend against common threats. Washington can expect our NATO allies, for instance, to take primary responsibility for Europe’s conventional defense, including aid to Ukraine. In the Middle East, the U.S. can strongly support Israel’s defense, while also strengthening burden-sharing with—and enabling integration between—Israel and many Gulf partners. And on the Korean Peninsula, Washington should keep supporting Seoul’s efforts to strengthen its forces and ultimately take the lead in defending against the North.
In each of these cases, America can still play a vital role by providing allies with U.S. conventional forces that do not detract from our ability to deter China. We should also maintain—and indeed, modernize and strengthen—our extended nuclear deterrent for allies under our nuclear umbrella. Likewise, we can empower allies and partners to do more for their defense by overhauling our own defense industry and arms transfer processes. Under this approach, we can maintain a vigorous, forward defense against the greatest threat to our nation—China—while ensuring that we and our allies are able to effectively defend against other threats. And we can do so in a way that aligns strategic ends and means, with clear priorities and without imposing undue burdens on the American people or asking the U.S. military to do more than it can realistically accomplish with the resources available. We can, in other words, avoid the dangerous excesses of both isolationism and interventionism, thereby safeguarding America’s interests and leading the world toward a more peaceful and prosperous future.
This piece originally appeared in The American Conservative