The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why the U.S. must calculate a ‘solvency’ risk as it arms Ukraine

A Ukrainian soldier launches a U.S. Javelin missile during military exercises in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, Jan. 12. (Ukrainian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
5 min

The Biden administration has had two overriding military goals in the Russia-Ukraine war: First, to deny Moscow victory against Kyiv, and second, to avoid direct U.S. involvement in the fighting. Through large-scale weapons transfers to Ukraine, Washington has so far achieved both objectives. But at the start of the war’s second year, a third strategic challenge looms: to simultaneously maintain U.S. military readiness in its priority theater of East Asia, as well as the Middle East.

It is becoming clear that indefinite U.S. military support for Ukraine will meaningfully limit the Pentagon’s own supply of armaments. Last week, the publication Defense One reported on remarks by Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro. He was asked whether “the Navy might get to the point where it has to make the decision whether it needs to arm itself or arm Ukraine, and has the Navy gotten to that point yet?”

The former commander responded with concern: “I wouldn’t say we’re quite there yet, but if the conflict does go on for another six months, for another year, it certainly continues to stress the supply chain in ways that are challenging.” The Pentagon believes that China wants the military capability to win a war over Taiwan by 2027; if the United States defended the island, the Navy would play a crucial role.

Meanwhile, a report this month from the Center for Strategic and International Studies concluded that key weapons the United States has so far transferred to Ukraine — including Excalibur guided artillery shells and Javelin missiles — are unlikely to be restocked for at least five years.

Follow Jason Willick's opinionsFollow

In his 1943 book, “U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic,” the journalist Walter Lippmann proposed that the United States’ position in the world became “insolvent” when its commitments abroad came to exceed its military power. The “forgotten principle” of foreign policy was to keep the country’s “objectives and its power in equilibrium,” Lippmann wrote. Engagement abroad based on “some kind of abstract theory of our rights and duties” courts disaster.

Yet in the period after World War I, according to Lippmann, “at the very time when we were reducing our power,” the United States also “renewed and even enlarged our commitments,” especially in the Pacific. That growing imbalance helped trigger World War II. “Eventually there is a reckoning for nations, as for individuals, who have obligations that are not covered by their resources.”

The specter of foreign-policy insolvency has haunted recent presidencies. The United States has obligations in three main regions: East Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Presidents Donald Trump and Biden have seen East Asia as the most important of the three and sought to buttress the United States’ strategic balance sheet by shedding obligations in other theaters. The Trump administration downgraded relations with NATO and tried to withdraw U.S. troops from Germany, while the Biden administration withdrew from Afghanistan and downgraded relations with Saudi Arabia.

The Trump administration’s defense-spending hike and pressure on NATO countries to increase their contributions improved Washington’s foreign-policy solvency. But U.S. military spending remains far lower as a share of gross domestic product than it was during the Cold War, and even congressional Republicans are contemplating cuts. With Washington providing the lion’s share of Ukrainian arms as China’s military grows rapidly, the United States doesn’t have much hard power to spare.

Press Enter to skip to end of carousel
Opinion writers on the war in Ukraine
Post Opinions provides commentary on the war in Ukraine from columnists with expertise in foreign policy, voices on the ground in Ukraine and more.
Columnist David Ignatius covers foreign affairs. His columns have broken news on new developments around the war. He also answers questions from readers. Sign up to follow him.
Iuliia Mendel, a former press secretary for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, writes guest opinions from inside Ukraine. She has written about trauma, Ukraine’s “women warriors” and what it’s like for her fiance to go off to war.
Columnist Fareed Zakaria covers foreign affairs. His columns have reviewed the West’s strategy in Ukraine. Sign up to follow him.
Columnist Josh Rogin covers foreign policy and national security. His columns have explored the geopolitical ramifications of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. Sign up to follow him.
Columnist Max Boot covers national security. His columns have encouraged the West to continue its support for Ukraine’s resistance. Sign up to follow him.


End of carousel

Lippmann’s account of U.S. foreign policy also helps explain Americans’ polarization. A poll this month found that a majority of Republicans no longer support additional funding for Ukraine, even as the Washington establishment is committed to Kyiv’s victory. “Our experience since the foundation of the Republic has shown that domestic division over foreign relations is the outward and visible consequence — and not the cause — of an insolvent foreign policy,” Lippmann argued.

In other words, growing GOP skepticism of Ukraine’s defense might be partly a result of America’s culture-war dysfunction. But it might also be because conservative voters sense that war in Europe is drawing down reserves of U.S. military power that might need to be tapped to cover obligations in Asia and the Middle East.

Of course, the United States’ main rivals in each theater — Russia, China and Iran — are leagued together. A sudden Russian military collapse could have relieved Washington’s strategic dilemma by allowing it to focus more intensively on China in the coming years. But that hasn’t happened, and Washington was unwilling to risk direct war with Russia to bring it about. Now China’s interest is likely in a grinding, perpetual war in Europe that drains U.S. munitions and occupies the defense-industrial base.

Sending tanks to Ukraine, as Washington is debating, would likely have less impact on U.S. readiness in the Pacific, where naval and air forces are predominant. But in the long run — and Russia’s revanchism will likely persist for years — European countries will need to take the leading role in the defense of the continent’s frontier against Moscow.

In a 1987 essay on the “Lippmann gap,” the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington observed that conservatives are apt to “expand American commitments more than they increase American power,” while liberals are apt to “reduce American power more than they reduce American commitments.”

Republicans are taking a less interventionist position than they did in the Cold War, so Huntington’s conservative and liberal categories may now be reversed. The underlying dynamic remains, however, and Lippmann’s warning should weigh on American strategists as they seek to avoid the insolvency that could trigger a great-power war in the 21st century.