Skepticism of US support for Ukraine against Russia’s invasion is growing on the far ends of our political spectrum. The loud faction of right-wing politicians, such as representatives Marjorie Taylor Green (R, Ga.) and Matt Gaetz (R, Fla.), tend to get more attention. But there is also a contingent on the left wing of the Democratic Party, including the “Squad,” which voiced skepticism of continued support for Ukraine in a letter, which its members revoked for political expedience.
Members of both groups smear, from the right and from the left, the inventors, engineers, and manufacturers who arm and equip military-service members as the “military-industrial complex,” intimating that America’s international posture is motivated and sustained, not to protect the security, freedom, and prosperity of Americans, but to profit its defense-contractor beneficiaries.
Their dark imaginings aside, however, the most sophisticated of this group have claimed the mantle of foreign-policy realism, echo the arguments found in the essays of the controversial Quincy Institute, and believe that restraint is what realism demands. For example, Senator Rand Paul (R, Ky.), long a skeptic of military spending and sanctions on US adversaries, argued in March 2022 that in the name of realism Ukraine should accept neutrality, “with one foot in the East and one foot in the West,” to appease Russia and end the conflict. Senator J. D. Vance (R, Ohio) who evinced apathy (at best) about Ukraine’s fate during his 2022 Senate campaign, recently endorsed Donald Trump’s 2024 reelection bid on the grounds that Trump rejected the “broken,” “bipartisan” foreign-policy consensus that has, for example, drawn the US “so deeply and dangerously into a conflict like the one in Ukraine.”
And yet, the commanding voices among Republican national-security leaders argue for supporting Ukraine and are criticizing the Biden White House for its weakness toward Russia and lack of strategic clarity to empower Ukraine to prevail. Their ranks include the most senior members on the House and Senate Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees, as well as national-security leaders who recognize our number one threat is the Chinese Communist Party, such as Representative Mike Gallagher (R, Wis.) and Senator Tom Cotton (R, Ark.). They, too, are making arguments grounded in realism.
So who is the real “realist”? To find out, it helps to differentiate the idealist from the realist. The idealist believes it is necessary to strive toward permanent global solutions that make contests between nations a thing of the past. Often that means idealists enshrine multinational global institutions as the arbiter among nations. In this vision, nations willingly set aside national preferences or immediate interests for the sake of a greater good and global well-being. But just because global peace has not yet happened doesn’t mean the idealist thinks that it is forever out of reach.
For the idealist, there are existential crises facing Planet Earth, from climate change to nuclear war, and the rational thing is to submit one’s preferences to a global governing authority that will serve the wellbeing of the human family and replace the need for nations to fear others and defend themselves. The impending climate catastrophe, nuclear holocaust, virulent viral plagues, etc., all demand, in this view, that we progress toward global solutions, radical crusades for theoretical causes, solved by the few who are smart enough to know what to do. Idealism typically appeals to the most progressive wing of the Democratic Party and can at least partially explain the more dovish agenda of the Left.
Realists, surveying a historical record that has seen idealism routed repeatedly by reality, are not so sanguine about transformational global solutions. The League of Nations, established at the close of World War I, is the quintessential example of the idealist vision. It did not prevent the Second World War. The United Nations is the League’s ineffective offspring. It is supposed to be the peaceful place where international relations are conducted, but, among other things, its roster of antisemites and misogynists on the Human Rights Council expose it as a farce.
The brilliant but wrong (his concerns about what people might do at history’s end notwithstanding) Francis Fukuyama famously wrote at the end of the Cold War that we are at “the end of history” because of the triumph of liberal democracy. President Obama’s 2016 speech at the United Nations warned that the world risked regressing “into a world sharply divided, and ultimately in conflict, along age-old lines of nation and tribe and race and religion.” But the realist knows that the world never progressed. It was just that America’s military and economic preeminence guarded our interests, maintained global commons, and upheld the principles of human liberty, national sovereignty, and self-determination that enabled other nations to thrive. What went wrong is that both political parties failed to guard US preeminence, let the American military-industrial base shrink, and enriched the Chinese communists, who never lost their ideology and invested in a military to erode our relative military edge. They would have contested the United States and the free world sooner had they been able to.
The realist knows that a final utopian-like global existence is a mirage. The nation-states are the perennial primary global actors, and they are distrustful of other nations. Each nation-state exercises power as it deems desirable based on history, culture, risk assessment, national aims, and ability to execute. Alliances, institutions, and treaties can be useful tools to carry out policies that individual governments may decide are in their respective interests, but such agreements should dissolve when they no longer are. Realists see people as capable of great good but also of great evil. They believe human nature is set, not evolving, and that motives rooted in ideology may make them act in ways outsiders might view as contrary to their interests. Realists believe that people prefer their own countrymen and culture, and that they value any number of things above theoretical notions of global wellbeing that come at their immediate expense. The realist sees history as not so much moving toward a perfected end, but going through cycles of violence, peace, safety, and danger.
But within the realist framework, there are different schools, and people disagree about the motives or aims of adversaries and about what makes sense for a US response. What one realist recommends, another realist finds rash, immoral, politically untenable, and/or unlikely to succeed. No realist thinks he is unrealistic. Thus, realism should not be conflated with any one policy view. Realism is a heuristic tool to equip the policy-maker to make prudent choices.
In the US, the most realistic realist argument considers interests and morality. It aims to maximally protect American security, freedom, and prosperity, in accordance with moral precepts supported by the American people. In the case of Ukraine’s war: Russia is a top-tier strategic adversary of the United States and is increasingly collaborating with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to weaken, threaten, and coerce America and our allies. The US failed to dissuade Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine, and now Russia is committing gross atrocities as it carries out its national plan to subjugate Ukraine (whose people and resources he believes belong to Russia), fracture NATO, and outmaneuver and weaken the United States globally. The realists’ aim should be to empower Ukraine to expel Russia and militarily strengthen NATO’s eastern front.
Ukraine’s successes have significantly diminished Russian conventional forces and galvanized support from Europe’s east and north, stirred the UK to a bold stance to support Ukrainian victory, and prompted Finland and Sweden to seek NATO membership. The US remains a coalescing force in Europe. Because a Europe at peace is in our vital economic and strategic interests, the U.S. should lead the alliance there and delegate as prudence instructs.
If Ukraine can be empowered to expel Russia, NATO is left stronger, and Russia will be badly diminished so that it will be unable to threaten a conventional war in Europe for some time. Moreover, if leading congressional Republican national-security figures have their way, and the next president is supportive, we can strengthen the military and revive a military-industrial capacity able to produce modern weapons at the scale we need for the next decade of maximum danger facing the United States. By sticking with the allies who have done as the United States has demanded, investing in their defenses and eschewing reliance on shared adversaries, we encourage other nations to act similarly. They themselves are then better-equipped to deter further aggression and to collaborate with the US as we compete with and confront the PRC.
None of the options are risk-free. All require significant leadership and diplomatic skill. But I’m unpersuaded by the calls, in the name of realism, for ending support for Ukraine by those who also believe we should be disengaging from world affairs more generally and looking for dramatic top-line cuts to the military just as the new Cold War begins. Those arguing for this neutered approach to foreign policy, one that surrenders American power and influence, are as naïve about the dangers facing this country as the committed idealist—and the results are likely to be just as calamitous.