The Poverty of the National Interest
Over the years, I have developed a strong aversion to the idea of using the national interest as the primary justification for engaging in a conflict. The argument I’ve grown to hate lately is the contemporary internecine American conservative discourse on if Ukraine is worth supporting for the United States.
This argument primarily revolves around two factions: Elbidge Colby's national conservative wing of the GOP and the more mainstream internationalist conservative establishment.
In essence, the debate centers on whether supporting Ukraine is beneficial for the United States. Elbridge and his supporters argue against any form of support, claiming that anything less than stationing the entire American military in the Taiwan Strait would lead to a PLA invasion of Taipei (it won’t). On the other hand, the mainstream internationalist GOP group argues that supporting Ukraine is a fantastic opportunity, as it severely weakens Russia for a fraction of the cost of the DoD budget.
It’s the second argument I’d like to take exception with for the moment. This framework is one of abject moral bankruptcy—reducing Ukrainians to mere resources to be exploited by the United States in its conflicts with geopolitical adversaries. It reduces the war in Ukraine to nothing more than an amoral proxy struggle, where we provide equipment to Ukrainian soldiers who will die on our behalf as if they were plastic pieces in a game of Risk.
This is not the 17th century, however, and the United States can do better than the foreign policy maxims of Cardinal Richelieu.
The Ukrainians are engaged in a war, with men and women sacrificing their lives on a daily basis to defend their country against an autocratic war of conquest. We owe them more than discussing their fight as if it were a business deal orchestrated by Goldman Sachs.
The United States was not founded on the proposition that we were any mere generic State absent of ideals. We are an ideological nation bound by a set of beliefs that define the fundamental dignity and rights of every human being irrespective of what piece of earth they happen to reside upon. Our recognition of the inherent rights of all men obliges our support, and it is our national duty to help the Ukrainian people.
If our primary motive for involvement is solely based on geopolitical gains, all our decisions regarding the conflict will be constrained by the logic of a day trader seeking to maximize profits. This sort of behavior is more fitting for a 19th-century imperial power seeking to expand its markets in Africa than for the leader of the free world. It is beneath who we are as Americans.
The only argument we should be making is that it is morally just to assist the Ukrainians in defending themselves—and then work towards achieving that goal. These men and women, with families and homes, are risking their lives for the ideals that we proclaim to hold. Our support for a people fighting for their freedom against tyranny should never be contingent upon the cost of a 155mm shell. If we need more—fucking produce more.
We have the resources at our disposal to be the arsenal of democracy once again, it’s only a matter of our will to commit to our ideological beliefs.
Aside from my ethical complaints with this argument, I am not even convinced that it’s effective rhetoric to persuade the American public and our allies to support this cause.
I have a particularly hard time seeing how this line of argument really inspires in the hearts of men a devotion to a cause. Eisenhower once spoke of a Great Crusade to free the peoples of Europe. We did not tell the men and women at home how WWII was the international relations equivalent of Amazon Prime Day—because nobody would rally around that cause.
It also serves as an extremely easy propaganda win for various movements opposed to American support for Ukraine. Every time someone with a column talks about how cheap it is to kill Russians every anti-war activist comes out of their hole to say see look how the Americans really are just fighting to the last Ukranian. In an environment where multiple GOP candidates have now openly said they’ll cease support for Ukraine, it’s only making the case worse.
As for our allies? What exactly does this tell them? That we’re friends but only as long as you’re useful for dying on our behalf? If I was in Taipei or Tallinn I’d hardly be comforted by hearing American commentators talking about how great a deal it is for Ukrainians to be dying for us.
Americans once marched into battle, singing with the belief that we would fill our vacant ranks with a million freemen more, proclaiming the battle cry of freedom. Ukrainians are doing the same today—and it is our duty to advocate on their behalf.