There must be some kind of psychic connection between my good buddy Ace (so nicknamed because he’s actually flown in U.S. Air Force fighters), and Nancy Pelosi.
Just the other day, he made what I thought was the genuine genius point that the most important question surrounding U.S. policy toward Ukraine is one that’s never, ever, been asked: If Ukraine has indeed become a vital interest of the United States (a category into which, as I’ve repeatedly stated, e.g. here, it was never placed even during the depths of the Cold War), why wasn’t it admitted into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) long ago? Even stranger, why the continuing NATO cold feet of so many U.S. leaders who are so fond of claiming the vital importance of ensuring Ukraine’s success?
And hot on the heels of Ace’s questions, the House Speaker on Friday declined to endorse Ukraine’s request not just for inclusion in the decades-old Atlantic alliance, but for “accelerated accession” that would speed up a process that’s normally pretty complicated in normal times.
Yes, that’s the same Speaker Pelosi who had previously sounded pretty adamant about the need to stand with Ukraine “until the fight is done” because its fight for freedom ”is a fight for everyone.”
But as pointed out in the same news report that quoted Pelosi’s more temperate later remarks, even though these are anything but normal times in Europe, there’s no shortage of reasonable-sounding reasons for continuing caution. Specifically:
“The West fears that Ukraine’s immediate entry into NATO — which requires the unanimous approval of all 30 member-nations — would put the U.S. and Russia at war due to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine as well as its forced annexations announced Friday.”
I wrote “reasonable-sounding, ”however, very deliberately. Because if you give the matter even a little serious thought (as Ace has), it becomes clear that such rationales make no sense at all.
In the first place, even though Ukraine remains outside NATO, the Western aid that’s helped Kyiv’s forces resist Russia so effectively has created a powder keg situation in Ukraine’s neighborhood (by stationing large numbers of U.S. troops right next door) that could all too easily ignite war between the two aforementioned nuclear superpowers anyway.
It’s true that the decision of the United States and Ukraine’s other allies to combine these deployments with hemming and hawing on NATO membership has so far produced a favorable outcome: Moscow’s been frustrated without nuclear weapons being used, much less a world-wide conflagration resulting.
At the same time, this needle-threading act could fail at any minute – which surely explains President Biden’s oft-stated declarations from the get-go that U.S. troops will not be sent into combat in Ukraine. He’s obviously determined minimize that dreadful possibility.
But all this prudence becomes completely inexplicable – at least if you value coherent thought – upon remembering what the word “vital” means in this instance. It’s describing an objective so important (Ukraine’s survival in its current form) that failure to achieve it would (at least at some point down the line) end America’s very existence, either as a physical entity or as an independent country. Even those who aren’t literalists presumably fear that failure to protect a vital interest will leave the United States only the most nightmarish shell of its present self.
To their credit, U.S. leaders who spearheaded the creation of the nation’s major alliances and supported their maintenance have put the country’s money where its mouth is. They have not only promised to use nuclear weapons against nuclear-armed adversaries to protect alliance members whose security is seen as vital. As I’ve often explained (e.g., here), they’ve deployed U.S. forces in “tripwire” configurations aimed at practically forcing Washington to push the fatal buttons and risk America’s nuclear destruction if non-nuclear defenses crumble.
Those policies have aimed above all to deter aggression, and despite the apocalyptic dangers they’ve raised, have been eminently sensible because a thoroughly respectable case ca be made, based on specific, concrete considerations, for the paramount importance of these allies.
For example, it is wholly plausible that the subjugation by hostile powers of places like Germany and Japan and Taiwan could produce intolerable consequences for the United States. In particular, each of those countries possesses technological and industrial prowess and assets that a country like China or Russia could harness to exercise control over the main dimensions of American life.
The point is not whether you or I personally agree or not. Rather, it’s that such fears are anything but crazy.
By contrast, there’s nothing specific and concrete that Ukraine boasts that I can think of – or, more revealingly, that any of its supposed champions have brought up – that Russia could use to achieve anything like the above results.
And this observation leads directly to the second logically loony flaw in America’s Ukraine policy – the one identified by Ace: If in the minds of U.S. leaders Ukraine actually was so all-fired important to begin with, or became so at some point before the Russian invasion (which the President has just declared must be resisted “unwaveringly”), why wasn’t it admitted to NATO right then and there, complete with the nuclear defense guarantee?
Not that any such move would have guaranteed that Russia would have kept hands off. But given that dictator Vladimir Putin hasn’t yet attacked any NATO members in Ukraine’s immediate vicinity or anywhere else, and that Mr. Biden’s vow throughout the entire crisis that the alliance will defend “every inch” of its members’ territory, surely is one reason why, wouldn’t admitting Ukraine before Moscow moved been a no-brainer?
Instead, the United States and the West have danced around this question for more than thirty years – and counting – practically from the moment Ukraine declared its independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in August, 1991. What’s been the problem during this entire period?
I mean, the place is supposed to be vital! In other such instances, that’s why the United States has even contemplated using nuclear weapons at all. And yet so far, Mr. Biden’s clear bottom line, even during the invasion’s early days, when his own administration assumed Zelensky’s government to be doomed, has been that U.S. forces will stay out as long as the combat stays inside Ukraine. In other words, he’s wavered. And almost inevitably, this position has sent Putin the message that Washington and the West ultimately don’t view that country as worth accepting the risk of national suicide.
So thanks to Ace, it must by now be evident that the United States has long believed that it could secure a vital interest with half measures (never a good habit to fall into) or that America should expose itself to an existential threat on behalf of an interest that’s short of vital.
And the folks who believe in either position are supposed to be the post-Trump adults in the room? And will be in charge of Ukraine strategy and the rest of American foreign policy for at least two more years?