Sen. Josh Hawley has sent a letter to Secretary of State Blinken asking that the Biden administration “clarify” its “support for Ukraine’s prospective admission in NATO.” Hawley’s letter is well argued, thoughtful, and far from unreasonable. However, I disagree with what he advocates.
I take Hawley’s main point to be that Ukraine’s admission would entail a military commitment to defend Ukraine, and that this would detract from our ability to thwart China’s ambitions. Hawley says “we must do less in. . .secondary theaters in order to prioritize denying China’s hegemonic ambitions in the Indo-Pacific.”
It’s important to emphasize that Hawley is not saying we should refuse to support Ukraine against Russian aggression. The Senator states:
The United States has an interest in maintaining Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. And we should urgently deliver to Ukraine assistance it needs to defend itself against Russia’s military buildup and other threats.
Our interest is not so strong as to justify committing the United States to go to war with Russia over Ukraine’s fate. Rather, we must aid Ukraine in a manner that aligns with the American interests at stake and preserves our ability to deny Chinese hegemony in the Indo-Pacific.
I don’t think there’s a great amount of distance between Hawley’s position on Ukraine and that of the Biden administration — or mine. It’s agreed that we should aid Ukraine against Russia, but not by sending U.S. troops to fight in Ukraine. I’ve seen no indication that Biden is contemplating that.
Nor is Ukraine poised to be admitted to NATO. Blinken has testified that “we support Ukraine membership in NATO.” However, this doesn’t mean that we’re pushing for it now, or that Ukraine will be admitted soon.
The dispute, then, is limited to the question of whether the U.S. should backtrack from its support for Ukrainian admission, down the road, to NATO in response to Putin’s demand and his amassing of troops on Ukraine’s border.
I think doing so would be a mistake. It’s not for Putin to dictate who will be members of an alliance one of the main purposes of which is to counter his aggressive designs — and not just on Ukraine.
Restating U.S. policy in response to Putin’s demands and the threat of aggression would embolden Russia to make more demands and threaten further aggression. We need to understand that, as Rich Lowry says, Putin’s goal is to reverse the outcome of the Cold War — which he has said was a tragedy — by intimidating NATO into pulling out of the Eastern European countries that have joined the alliance since 1997. The U.S. should stand firm against any policy demand that furthers this goal.
I agree with Hawley that thwarting Chinese ambitions is even more important than thwarting Russian ones. It seems to me, however, that meeting Putin’s demand regarding Ukraine would tend to undermine our efforts against China.
What would China conclude if the Biden administration were to yield to Putin in response to his threatening moves on the Russia/Ukraine border? It could not help concluding, correctly, that the U.S. can be intimidated by threats of force.
Joe Biden has already shown enough weakness, particularly in Afghanistan. I disagree with Hawley’s call for Biden to demonstrate more.