Lodi News-Sentinel

Ukraine’s outsized reliance on the U.S. is a risk for the world


One year into Russia’s assault on Ukraine, a few things are clear. Ukraine remains highly motivated, punching well above its weight against a far bigger and more experience­d foe. The Russian military, meanwhile, has underperfo­rmed to nearly the same degree, though it continues to muster bodies and ammunition to throw at the front.

It is also clear that the U.S. role has been essential in giving Ukraine a fighting chance. Thanks to a successful American campaign to become the indispensa­ble nation, we are the only ones capable of leading that charge.

Absent massive financial, military and political support from the United States, this war would likely have ended soon after it began, and not with Ukrainian victory. Even the support from other countries (which trails far behind) owes much to U.S. pressure and persuasion.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s face revealed as much as he embraced President Joe Biden in his historic trip to Kyiv this week. No other nation’s leader has been met with such emotion.

I share this with a measure of pride. I’m grateful my country has stood up so meaningful­ly for what is right, helping a free people defend themselves against naked aggression.

But it also gives me pause, for the United States is hardly a bulwark of reliabilit­y these days. Have we really built a world in which the fate of the liberal internatio­nal order rests on a single nation’s fickle politics? Why must the United States bear such an outsized proportion of this burden?

It isn’t just American politics that makes reliance on America a risky bet either. That bet depends on Ukraine’s fate continuing to outweigh other U.S. national security interests. After all, the war in Ukraine threatens the American-led internatio­nal order and democracy in Europe, but it doesn’t threaten U.S. security directly.

We should remember that the administra­tion’s carefully calibrated response to the war has been driven by U.S. interests. America’s ultimate national security priorities in Europe are to ensure this war doesn’t spill over into a direct conflict with the United States or escalate to nuclear engagement.

Ukraine’s ultimate victory could benefit those goals, since there is merit in the deterrent effect of an aggressor being stopped in its tracks. But in direct conflict between core U.S. security interests and Ukraine, the latter will lose out.

Ukraine’s dependence on the United States isn’t unique. Rather, it is the inevitable outcome of America’s decadeslon­g effort to become the essential nation. We have only ourselves to blame.

The entire NATO alliance has hung its hat under America’s security umbrella. This is why Europe, which stands to lose much more if Ukraine is defeated, remains a secondary actor to the United States in its defense.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has allowed its NATO allies to slash defense spending for peace dividends that Americans didn’t enjoy, while we subsidized their security.

As a result, none of our allies today is prepared to bear the brunt of what should be, first and foremost, a European burden. The risk this poses to Europe today is now clear. NATO allies are trying to ramp up military aid to Kyiv but are running out of ammunition and supplies to share. At a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels earlier this month, several countries signed new defense industry cooperatio­n agreements, but it could be years before they deliver.

The United States has failed, too, to muster support from other partner nations, particular­ly in the southern hemisphere, which understand­ably trends skeptical anytime the United States leads a charge in defense of freedom and democracy.

Even with democratic champion Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva now in power, Brazil has stayed on the fence, laying some of the blame for Russia’s aggression on NATO expansion. Other important countries like India, South Africa and Indonesia have also played both sides, afraid to alienate important Western trade partners but not interested in provoking Russia or China either.

China’s role is about as consequent­ial as the United States’ in the war’s continuati­on, since its ongoing trade has enabled Russia to weather the storm of Western sanctions. Though China gains little from a bigger war, it also doesn’t want an ideologica­l win by the United States.

If China saw this as a truly global coalition against Russia’s clear violation of another state’s sovereignt­y — the most fundamenta­l violation of the internatio­nal order — rather than another U.S.-led democracy initiative, China might approach this conflict differentl­y, and that could be decisive.

This is why Ukraine, Europe and the rest of the world would be better off today if the United States had used its influence to build a world order where the burden of defending the internatio­nal system was more equally shared and distribute­d instead of one built on American primacy.

It’s not too late to seek that world order, but it will require changing attitudes about what role the United States really plays within it, not just in other countries around the world but at home, too.

Elizabeth Shackelfor­d is a senior fellow on U.S. foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She was previously a U.S. diplomat and is the author of “The Dissent Channel: American Diplomacy in a Dishonest Age.”

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