Bang for the Buck

The passage of a new military aid package for Ukraine shows that American hegemony can be protected & defended on the cheap.

American hegemony is under its greatest threat since the fall of the Soviet Union over 30 years ago. We are faced with an enormous civilizational challenge from China, led by the genocidal, totalitarian Chinese Communist Party. We are dealing with belligerent states like Iran & North Korea which have clear designs on wiping out their neighbors with nuclear weapons. And we are trying to contain the largest invasion of European territory since 1945, where Russia is attempting to reconstitute a Tsarist imperium on the bones of Ukrainian civilians. All of these threats, although facially oriented against other nations, are in reality aimed squarely at the heart of American power: the global system which promotes our prosperity and seeks the freedom of nations & peoples everywhere. The US, along with our allies across the globe, can handle these challenges and win the fight for the 21st century. But we have to get serious about the danger we face and how we choose to handle it. Fortunately, there are some signs that we might be on the right track, at least when it comes to responding to the most pressing current crisis: the war in Ukraine.

Congress has just passed, and the President has just signed, a supplemental aid package to support Ukraine’s brave – and incredibly impressive – fight against Russian invaders. The bill itself is fairly short, numbering only 14 pages, and is pretty straightforward despite its use of boilerplate legislative lingo. I strongly suggest you read it for yourself and form your own opinion as to whether it is reasonable.

In my opinion, this aid package is a significant positive step in addressing the foreign challenges of the 21st century, and is a key example of protecting our global hegemony on the cheap. It is separated into a few major sections, and focuses mainly on the process of sending military aid to Ukraine. That aid has mostly been given directly from our own stockpiles, so much of the spending in the bill is specifically for replenishing those American materiel reserves. There is spending for salaries of officials from the military and State Department to liaise with their Ukrainian counterparts, money for maintenance of our own military assets, and funding of Ukrainian purchases of American-made military hardware and ammunition. Non-military spending comprises less of the total, but is still useful and important. There is funding for enforcement of sanctions, for resettling & aiding refugees, for economic & food assistance, for long-term civil investment, and for rebuilding projects. This bill does not commit American troops to Ukraine or unduly escalate the conflict, but it does provide Ukraine with the armaments it needs to continue inflicting serious losses on the Russian military. In short, it is very much in line with an approach that supports Ukraine materially without involving us directly in the action.

Still, there have been vocal criticisms of this package from both sides of the political spectrum – even though it sailed through Congress. One major criticism is that it spends too much money that otherwise could be spent at home. I am a serious critic of the inflationary policies pursued by the last two administrations, but this package is not going to be a driver of inflation – especially in comparison to the massive domestic spending which has characterized the past few years. For $40 billion – a number that seems large, but is a mere drop in the bucket of the federal budget – we are dramatically weakening one our our primary adversaries without endangering American lives. Most of that money will be used directly to destroy Russian materiel, drive back Russian advances, and bring Ukraine back to a sustainable level of economic activity. This aid package provides incredible bang for the buck, both literally and figuratively. We spent trillions of dollars on our mission in Afghanistan – a mission I supported; $40 billion to drastically undermine one of our prime geopolitical adversaries is an absolute steal for the price.

Ukrainian servicemen unpack Javelin anti-tank missiles, delivered as part of the United States of America’s security assistance to Ukraine. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Some, like left-wing journalist Glenn Greenwald, criticize the bill as merely enriching military contractors; I’d be curious as to how a bill which purchases military hardware for use in war would not end up paying military industries. When war is in the offing – and it is, through no fault or choice of ours or Ukraine’s – armaments are necessary. To deny that reality is the height of useless naivete (or useful idiocy) and often acts as a fig leaf to cover genuine sympathy with the invader over the invaded. In a similar vein are the criticisms of this aid package on oversight or “corruption” grounds. Besides the fact that much of the spending is about replenishing American military stockpiles – somewhere we have direct oversight – a good deal of the bill relates to supervising the aid distribution and ensuring it reaches the intended recipients. Regular reports to Congress are mandated, and special positions are funded to monitor and oversee the spending. The funds meant for refugee resettlement are targeted at those who have passed background checks. There is not much more in terms of oversight that this bill could do. Of course, it is up to Congress to ensure that the letter of the law is carried out, but Congress is the proper place for that duty to reside.

The criticism for which I am most sympathetic comes from my fellow China hawks, including the excellent writer and commentator Elbridge Colby. To these critics, spending on Ukraine is an unnecessary and dangerous distraction from the real problem – the rise of China and the threat to Taiwan. I also believe that the biggest challenge that the US will face in the 21st century is a totalitarian China, but that threat is not cabined to Asia nor found solely in China itself. The China challenge is a global one, and it implicates our foes in Iran, North Korea, and, yes, Russia. I cannot foresee a situation in which the US gets into a significant conflict with China – over Taiwan or elsewhere – that Russia is not also involved in. That does not necessarily mean that Russian and Chinese forces would be fighting alongside one another (although they do carry out joint exercises quite often), but could mean that Russia takes the opportunity of Chinese aggression to distract and make moves in its own near-abroad. Those actions would likely be counter to American interests and would force us to either allow Russian attacks to stand or to de-prioritize Chinese actions. Ukraine’s brave defense of their country has severely weakened Russia militarily, making Moscow far less valuable as a geopolitical ally in the case of China’s further expansionism. The US can continue this process without sending more troops to Europe, instead funding the Ukrainian war effort and working with our European allies to contain Russian power. Bolstering the Europeans against Russia might also help us reorient our focus mainly towards Asia, as it would confirm to Europe that we are still interested in its security while passing the key responsibilities to those reliable partners who live in the region (especially Poland, the Baltics, Romania, and the UK). Similarly, convincing Congress to take the Russian threat seriously and rectify the mistakes of not properly arming the Ukrainians before this renewed invasion began can bolster the case for supporting Taiwan. Most people rightly see China as the bigger threat; if they can be convinced to support Ukraine, they should be able to be convinced to support Taiwan. As these threats are linked, federal spending isn’t a zero-sum game; what goes to Ukraine is not automatically taken from what could go to Taiwan. Congress should pass a larger bill for Taiwan as soon as the ink is dry on this aid package, and the President should sign it. We have the opportunity to deter an invasion of Taiwan before it happens; the lesson we should take from Ukraine is that we must act sooner rather than later.

We cannot afford to myopically focus on Ukraine to the detriment of Taiwan; we cannot wholly ignore it either. The aid package passed by Congress is a great way to extract as much value as possible for our money, support Ukraine and thus diminish Russia, and lay out the contours of a strong American foreign policy. We are the world’s hegemonic superpower. We must be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. With the Ukraine package, we are hurting an enemy, while defending our geopolitical position on the cheap; that’s bang for the buck.

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