The foreign policy fissure within the Republican Party was on full display last weekend. While Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell visited Kyiv with several other top-ranking Republicans, Sen. Rand Paul was busy delaying the new $40 billion package aid package for Ukraine that had just passed the House of Representatives with broad bipartisan support.
According to Paul, who frequently echoes America’s libertarian-leaning isolationists, the spending bill “threaten[s] our own national security, and it’s frankly a slap in the face to millions of taxpayers who are struggling to buy gas, groceries, and find baby formula.” Paul kept the bill from passing by unanimous consent, but the Senate voted 81-11 to end debate on Monday, clearing the way for the bill to pass.
Worryingly, the proposal to double down on aid to Ukraine at a critical time attracted flak not only from usual suspects but also from the Heritage Foundation, the once-venerable bastion of Reaganite thought. Last week, a press release from Heritage’s advocacy twin, Heritage Action, lambasted the proposal for “recklessly [sending] our taxpayer dollars to a foreign nation without any accountability.” It is “fiscally irresponsible and the epitome of everything that is wrong with how Washington works today,” writes James Jay Carafano, Heritage’s vice president of foreign and defense studies.
To their credit, critics at Heritage do not repeat the canards about the aid’s “escalatory” nature. Besides complaining about $9 billion in “foreign bureaucrats’ retirement bills” (read: financial aid to support Ukraine’s public finances in a time of war), the bulk of the argument against the bill is that it adds to the federal deficit because it does not come accompanied with an equivalent cut to spending elsewhere.
Although long-term sustainability of America’s public finances is a serious subject, there are reasons to suspect that the pre-occupation with deficits is more than a bit disingenuous. Not only is the bill trivial in size relative to the challenge represented by expected growth in entitlement spending—which is the real driver of concerns about deficit sustainability, not foreign aid or defense spending—its introduction in the Senate coincides with the news of a dramatic decline in the federal deficit, to the tune of $1.6 trillion, following strong growth in tax revenue alongside with the phasing out of pandemic assistance.
The bill’s more thoughtful critics preface their reservations by expressing sympathy for the plight of the Ukrainians and by acknowledging, as Carafano does, that it is in our interest that Ukraine does prevail in its fight against Russia. Indeed, a debilitating defeat for the Kremlin sets back Russian imperial ambitions by a decade—likely beyond Vladimir Putin’s lifespan in office. If Ukraine, backed by the West, can successfully repel Russian invaders, it seems fanciful for Putin to test NATO’s resolve to defend its own territory in Poland, Romania, or the Baltic states.
Yet, the notion that the current price tag for weakening Russia is too high is preposterous. Throughout the decades of the Cold War, U.S. defense spending—geared overwhelmingly toward deterring the Soviets—hovered in the neighborhood of 10 percent of GDP. Today, defense spending is close to 4 percent of GDP—and the House-approved spending bill amounts to perhaps 5 percent of the Pentagon’s overall budget.
By any metric, that is extraordinary value for the money. At the cost of roughly one year of military operations in Afghanistan, it gives the United States and its allies an opportunity to put Russia in its place for the foreseeable future without any risk to a single American or NATO soldier. To pass on this moment and to push Ukraine into an unsatisfying ceasefire, or simply fail to cater to its military needs on deficit reduction grounds, would be the epitome of being penny-wise and pound-foolish.
Could European allies do more to help, as “realist” critics of the U.S.’s global role suggest? Perhaps, though there are things that only the United States, with its formidable military industrial complex, is capable of doing, such as upgrading Ukraine’s defenses to Western standards in real time.
A number of our allies, furthermore, are already doing a lot. Estonia’s military aid to Ukraine is worth a third of the country’s entire defense budget. Poland, a country of 40 million, is hosting more than 3 million Ukrainian refugees; in comparison, U.S. refugee admissions in 2021 were a little above 11,000. Whatever disagreements one may have with Berlin and Paris, it is clear that even Western European governments are stepping up, breaking with decades of policy practice, boosting their own defense spending and bearing the costs of weaning themselves off Russian energy.
If the United States wants to sustain those changes and accelerate them further, it can do so only by putting on a strong performance, not by going missing halfway through the second act. It is not the authors of the most recent Ukraine spending bill who are “putting Americans last,” as the critics allege. Rather, one has to wonder whether those who suggest that there is an easy, inexpensive alternative to America’s global leadership are being completely honest with Americans, or whether they are simply peddling yet another form of 21st-century cakeism.
Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @DaliborRohac.