As the war in eastern and southern Ukraine rages on, President Biden has pursued practical, measured, and strategic policies in support of Ukraine against Russia’s war of aggression. Yet he has failed at an important task: conveying to the American people the rationale for their participation in this conflict, namely, their common national purpose with Ukraine.
What the Biden administration has failed to explain is that the ongoing war is not just a territorial dispute, as some would have it. Instead, it represents the first concerted attempt by great and rising powers to overturn the current world order since World War II. Allowing Moscow to annex Ukrainian lands with impunity, with Beijing and Tehran subsidizing Putin’s efforts to consolidate his gains, will set in motion a change of events that will wither away the current order that seeks to uphold human rights, civic freedoms, and laws and norms regarding the use of force.
This is certainly not the first war the U.S. has been involved since 1945 as a non-combatant. As part of a United Nations effort to repel North Korean and Chinese forces from South Korea, the Truman administration provided significant military assistance, supplies, and eventually troops as the U.S. sought to prevent the armed spread of communist ideals. As part of the Truman Doctrine, President Eisenhower sent some 700 military personnel as well as considerable military and economic aid to the government of South Vietnam to assist in the fight against communist guerilla forces. During the bloody eight-year long Iran-Iraq war, the Reagen administration provided Saddam Hussein with invaluable intelligence regarding the location of Iranian troops. More recently, the Obama administration provided varying degrees of support to anti-government rebels and Kurdish forces that valiantly fought the Assad regime and ISIS.
Although some of these armed conflicts led to eventual deployment of American troops, U.S. participation in them as a non-combatant was determined by short-term strategic thinking. In seeking to contain adversaries with considerable hard power capabilities, America’s involvement sought to assert itself as a military superpower, increase or strengthen its international legitimacy, and uphold the intrinsic liberal values of the world order.
America is once again facing such a challenge, and it’s this that justifies its support of Ukraine. Yet President Biden and his administration have failed to articulate this exact vision, even as their support has been constant. As of July 2023, the U.S. has supplied Ukraine with over $75 billion in humanitarian, financial, and military support, representing .33 percent of its GDP. This is no mean sum when American voters are facing down rising living costs, declining transportation infrastructure, and growing crime rates across the country. So it’s not surprising that a recent poll by CNN shows that most Americans oppose Congress authorizing additional funding to support Ukraine in its war with Russia; 55 percent said the U.S. Congress should not authorize additional funding, and 51 percent said Washington has already done enough to help Ukraine. These numbers represent a sharp decline since February of 2022, when 62 percent of Americans felt the U.S. should have been doing more.
This waning support is not for a lack of Ukrainian gains. Just this week, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry officially announced the total liberation of Robotyne. This breach of Russian defense lines is a tactical victory and presents a potential turning point of the war. Russian secondary lines are now being threatened.
The problem is one of messaging. The White House has not conveyed to the American people the impact that a loss in Ukraine would have on the current world order. Instead, the Biden administration has focused on highlighting the need to protect Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and contain Putin’s revisionist ambitions to expand and consolidate its historic sphere of influence. What the Biden administration has failed to convey to American audiences is that Ukraine is the first line of defense for the current world order.
This is why both Iran and China are increasingly investing in Russia’s ability to hold on to gains made since last year’s invasion. Since Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Chinese exports to Russia have grown by nearly 67 percent as Western states continue to uphold an extensive package of sanctions against Moscow; discounted oil prices have attracted illiberal and non-aligned regimes around the world as well, including China, India, Pakistan, Turkey. And Iran has provided subsidized military technology to Russia, including surface-to-surface missiles and drones, and probably sent personnel to Crimea to assist Russian forces in launching attacks on Ukraine.
These countries are keenly interested in whether aggression can successfully expand Russia’s borders, and if so, whether it can also do so for other illiberal regimes around the world with territorial grievances.
As we near the 2024 presidential election, the United States’ continued ability to lead the fight against Russian aggression in Ukraine will depend on its ability to convey the importance of its involvement to the American public. Arguing for preserving Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and containing Putin’s expansionist agenda is simply not enough.
The White House must stress the concerted effort across the globe to overturn a world order that seeks to uphold basic human rights, political freedoms, and existing international law. Ukraine is the first line of defense for all of us invested in liberal values.