Prominent conservatives such as Fox News host Tucker Carlson have been making the case that Americans shouldn’t care about what happens in Ukraine. We’ll see if they change their tune now that Russia has attacked Ukraine, but the larger point remains open for discussion: Should conservatives care about Russia’s invasion and the future of Ukraine? The answer is yes, from both a historical and an “America First” perspective.
Americans have always understood that freedom at home is endangered by autocracy and dictatorship abroad. Our republic was the only large self-governing nation in the world when we gained independence. Even Britain, the “mother of parliaments,” was still at best an aristocratic republic with an extensive political role for its hereditary monarch. Our founders understood it was in America’s interest to keep these powerful forces far from our shores so that they would never be tempted to stamp out our flickering flame of freedom.
That recognition led to a consistent policy that lasted decades. The United States wouldn’t involve itself in European wars, but it would not tolerate those wars being used as cover to establish despotic power in the Americas. The famous Monroe Doctrine was the first tangible expression of this view. Laid out in 1823, it stated that the United States would oppose European attempts to expand colonies in the Western Hemisphere. This effectively placed the United States as the guarantor of security for the new republics in Latin America that had thrown off Spanish rule in the preceding decade. Far from being unconcerned with what happened thousands of miles away in a time without rapid communications, the United States understood that its security depended on keeping autocratic nations with imperial designs as far away as possible. Indeed, that’s why the United States threatened to intervene in Mexico’s civil war, forcing France to withdraw its military support for an emperor it imposed on our southern neighbor.
Fast-forward to today. U.S. security still depends on keeping dictatorial regimes as far from American shores as possible. Moreover, technological advances mean those efforts now must take place in Europe and Asia, not just our own backyard. Tanks can cover hundreds of miles in a short period, and naval and air forces can launch assaults against the homeland from far away. That will inevitably draw the United States into faraway conflicts. If we waited until foreign dictators established outposts close to our borders, we would already be at the brink of collapse.
Russia under Vladimir Putin has revealed itself to be such an imperial power. Its economy is tiny — smaller than Germany’s — but Putin has nevertheless devoted significant resources to building a military capable of exerting global power. He sent Russian troops to Syria to prop up that nation’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, and supports Venezuela’s repressive regime. Russia does not have a “border dispute” with Ukraine; it is committed to eliminating U.S. global supremacy and, by extension, the democratic order that hegemony sustains.
This is why “America First” principles dictate widespread, intelligent global engagement. That does not require the United States to chase every will-o-the-wisp threat, nor does it require U.S. military engagement to beat down every potential enemy. Such wrong-headed thinking is what led us into 20 years of believing that Islamist terrorism was the primary threat to U.S security when the real threat was the growing economic and military strength of two autocratic regimes, China and Russia. It also led to the growing isolationist sentiment that too many “America First” adherents espouse. The United States still has a historical obligation to keep autocrats in their lands and reduce their ability to spread their influence and threaten us.
America’s overseas alliances are the linchpin of our own security. The invasion of Ukraine, coupled with the effective Russian conquest of Belarus, means Russia’s military will again be stationed in strength on NATO’s borders. Putin’s demand that NATO not station troops in its own member states indicates he will not stop with Ukraine. And his unprovoked war shows the lengths to which he will go to reach his goals.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine presents conservatives with what Ronald Reagan called a “time for choosing.” Conservatives should stand with our historical commitments and lead America into the coming global conflict, which we cannot safely avoid.