Candidates for president and other high offices and public policy organizations alike are attempting to poke holes in U.S. aid to Ukraine by drawing comparisons to American immigration policy. Their rhetorical approach is as fatuous as it is strategically dangerous, undermining our nation’s ability to face current and impending challenges.
It should be no surprise that the Ukraine War is still dragging on after 18 months. Indeed, the war started eight and a half years ago, when Russia snatched Crimea from Ukraine during Kyiv’s period of weakness beginning in 2013. This has already been, and inevitably will be, a long war.
In 2015, Russia hoped to bully Ukraine, through a combination of subversion, threats, and political-economic manipulation, into accepting the Russian-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” as part of the Ukrainian polity. The Russian-controlled east would hold between 10 and 15 percent of parliamentary seats at a minimum, and Russian electoral interference and other active measures would enhance the electoral gains of pro-Kremlin parties, such that Russia could wield a veto over Ukrainian foreign policy.
Putin’s objective did not change in 2022, but his method did. Having detected an opportunity, he sought to absorb Ukraine directly. With its economy now only the size of Italy, and its population in near-terminal decline for decades, Russia is no longer a great power without Ukraine. Its effective control of Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, the Caucasus, and Ukraine, however, would make it a truly global power again, with sufficient control of the global food and energy supply to make it competitive with the Euro-Atlantic alliance.
The arc of Russian strategy is long, as is the current war. The U.S. and its allies, however, have not fully accepted this reality — hence the pernicious leaks from Washington about a negotiated settlement, and the increasing drumbeat on the American right to simply “end” the war.
There are undeniably trade-offs between support for Ukraine and other policy priorities. A handful of the weapons supplied to Ukraine’s armed forces, namely MANPADS and anti-tank guided missiles, could have some impact in the Indo-Pacific if a Sino-American war erupts. But the industrial issues that plague U.S. defense production have little to do with Ukraine. Considering the air-sea character that an Indo-Pacific conflict would take, and the specific nature of the U.S. defense industrial difficulties, the trade-offs between Europe and Asia are largely irrelevant.
Still, even that is a debate worth having, unlike the completely unserious attempt to pit the issue of domestic border security against that of our support for Ukraine.
Border security is a unique American political football that has become entwined in the culture war. There are obvious policy issues that any administration must address regarding immigration control. Protectionist arguments that accuse Latin American migrants of “taking American jobs” and driving wages downward might even have some merit. And undeniably, many of the illicit drugs in the United States come through Mexican pipelines, supported by the powerful drug cartels that have bedeviled Latin American political development since the 1970s.
Yet these issues are not questions of grand strategy.
There is a conversation to be had about Washington’s Latin America policy. For example, the U.S. has left Chinese investment in the Western Hemisphere unchallenged for far too long. It struggles to assist Latin American governments in the construction of stable, attractive, open societies that allow an already dynamic business class to flourish and enjoy the benefits of liberalism like their North American neighbors.
But these issues are not what the neo-isolationist camp wishes to discuss, given its facile declarations that Ukrainian borders matter to Washington, but our borders do not.
Today, the neo-isolationists even drone on about deploying military forces in Mexico to combat drug cartels. This deeply ignorant and simplistic suggestion defames the American intelligence and law enforcement officers who already work thanklessly and discreetly with their Mexican counterparts through the existing framework for the benefit of both countries. It also denigrates the 5,000-plus Mexican soldiers law enforcement officers who have already died in the line of duty; the thousands of kidnapped and murdered Mexican citizens; and the assassinated Mexican political and civil leaders, whose mistake was to seek a better future for their country against organized crime.
The idea that this problem could be solved by sending anti-tank weapons to Mexico instead of Ukraine is simply brain-dead. Equally bizarre is the idea that “cash” sent to Ukraine could somehow be redirected to the border. The underlying logic of the neo-isolationist argument implies that we are sending pallets full of cash to Kyiv, which simply isn’t so. Most of the money “spent” on Ukraine has been in the form of contracts to American companies replacing weapons transferred to the Ukrainian military. That money never even leaves the U.S.
The U.S. faces a parlous strategic situation. War rages in Europe as Russia seeks to shatter a global American-backed security system. The Middle East is on the brink of catastrophe, with Iran on the cusp of obtaining nuclear weapons and Russia and China attempting to peel off American partners. In Asia, China menaces Taiwan, stridently threatening reprisals toward any power that opposes its ambitions.
Every element of the Eurasian security architecture is under pressure. Navigating these dangers requires a steady political hand and a combination of strategic creativity and moral resolve. Injecting irrelevant border questions into the center of grand strategic debates is as frivolous as it is harmful to developing strategy. When strategic rationality is in short supply, the absurd becomes genuinely dangerous.
Seth Cropsey is founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of “Mayday” and “Seablindness.”
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