Whose Borders Should America Defend? | Opinion

A few years ago, The New York Times published an editorial cartoon that received an even greater than normal amount of mockery from the Right. Published in response to an October 2018 decision by President Donald Trump to send more than 5,000 troops to the U.S. border to aid in border security, the cartoon shows a line of armed soldiers standing at attention as President Trump directs them to the U.S.-Mexico border. One turns to a friend and says "I enrolled to fight in the Middle East—not the midterms."

Conservatives mocked the Times cartoon—and not just for its use of the term "enrolled" rather than "enlisted." More to the point, they saw the absurdity of the artist's implicit assumption that fighting in year 17 of a war thousands of miles from the United States obviously protected core U.S. interests, whereas protecting our own border from drug cartels, human smugglers, potential terrorists and millions of illegal immigrants was a cheap ploy for votes.

This cartoon came to mind during the recent debate over Ukraine. One of the heartening things about that debate has been the growth of a militarism-skeptical coalition on the Right that goes beyond paleoconservatives and MAGA world to even more establishment voices in the GOP.

Only the defense contractor lobby and its client congressmen and think tanks are beating the war drums for Ukraine, while many of our most conservative legislators have spoken out adamantly against it. And only the most gullible of voters are buying what the hawks are selling. A recent poll revealed that only 15 percent of Americans are willing to put "boots on the ground" in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, many prominent conservative media figures, including Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, have explained to their audiences why Russia might feel threatened by NATO encirclement and articulated Russia's legitimate interests in having a friendly Ukrainian government. NATO interventions in Kosovo and Libya have shown Russia quite clearly that the alliance can be more than purely defensive.

Ukraine is a corrupt quasi-democracy of no obvious strategic interest to us. But it is a clear strategic priority for Russia, a nation to which it has cultural, historic, ethnic and linguistic ties. (Indeed, Ukraine was part of Russia's empire for centuries). And Russia is well aware that the U.S. government played a critical role in toppling Ukraine's pro-Russian government in the 2004 "Orange Revolution."

None of this, of course, justifies a Russian invasion of Ukraine, or even meddling in its internal affairs—nor does it suggest that we should not set significant consequences for Moscow's doing so. But we must understand the strategic priorities of our adversary so that we can address their legitimate goals and concerns without sacrificing our own interests. This, not hysterical Russia-baiting, is the touchstone of effective diplomacy.

And yet, while a U.S. military solution in Ukraine is ill-conceived, reflexively ruling out non-military American involvement is also inadequate.

Ukraine defense volunteers
KYIV, UKRAINE - JANUARY 22: Civilian participants in a Kyiv Territorial Defence unit train on a Saturday in a forest on January 22, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Across Ukraine thousands of civilians are participating in such groups to receive basic combat training and in time of war would be under direct command of the Ukrainian military. While Ukrainian officials have acknowledged the country has little chance to fend off a full Russian invasion, Russian occupation troops would likely face a deep-rooted, decentralised and prolonged insurgency. Russia has amassed tens of thousands of troops on its border to Ukraine. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

As in Afghanistan, the gross incompetence of the Biden administration has muddled our strategic calculations. It should be possible to develop, in concert with our European allies, a strategy of deterrence against the most extreme forms of Russian misbehavior in Ukraine without having the president say (contrary to the claims of the Ukrainian government) that an invasion is imminent. Provocatively pulling out the family members of our diplomats was a sign of weakness, a move notably not imitated by any European nations. "Americans are safer in Kyiv than they are in Los Angeles...or any other crime-ridden city in the US," noted a Ukrainian diplomatic source with pointed dismay.

Of course, it also should have been possible to evacuate Afghanistan without leaving equipment and thousands of U.S. allies behind, but we failed to do that. Trump understood the value of strategic ambiguity and unpredictability. Trump's critics were correct when they said that with Biden we get stable predictability—but what is predictable for Biden's America is weakness and strategic error.

Fundamentally, the Europeans must lead any response to the possible violation of sovereignty and territorial integrity of a European nation. Yet, despite decades of U.S. pleas, most NATO countries are still not spending even 2 percent of their GDP on defense—the U.S. by contrast, spends well over 3 percent on the military and, in absolute amounts, well more than the next 11 countries combined. And with respect to the Ukraine-Russia conflict, Germany and France have been diffident, at best, about serious involvement. While we certainly have a real interest in not seeing Europe's borders changed by force, there is simply no need for America to be "more royalist than the king."

The best argument for some sort of U.S. involvement in Ukraine is that failure to act will jeopardize U.S. strength in more strategic areas—that weakness is provocative. Yet this truism only points out the incoherence of our current strategic posture.

During the Cold War, we had many mutual defense treaties that were a vital check against Soviet expansionism. More than three decades later, we have never seriously updated these pacts to reflect America's post-Cold War priorities. Is it essential that the U.S. continue to maintain mutual defense treaties with Haiti, Thailand or Paraguay?

Nothing damages American credibility more than saying we will come to the defense of countries that we are not actually willing to defend with our blood and treasure. My late mentor, President Ronald Reagan's former secretary of state George Shultz—who stared down the Soviets on many occasions—was fond of recounting to me a saying from WWII boot camp: "Never point this rifle at someone if you're not willing to pull the trigger. No empty threats." America has collective defense treaties with more than 50 countries—Ukraine not among them. We are pointing our rifle wildly throughout the world's potential trouble spots, including Ukraine, with no real intention of pulling the trigger.

A serious alliance policy would move away from empty promises of mutual protection with countries that are no longer core strategic allies, while identifying allies critical enough we are willing to risk the lives of our sons and daughters to protect them—and explaining our decisions to American citizens.

As for our politicians, too many remain more entranced with Ukraine's border than with our own. Just this week, pictures and video emerged of illegal aliens being picked up by the thousands at the border and flown into the U.S. interior at taxpayer expense. Republicans must forcefully tell Biden that his claims to be concerned about serious security threats to America on the Ukrainian border are not credible when he actively encourages the insecurity of America's own border. This is not merely a partisan issue but one that has broad support across the political spectrum.

Regardless of our ultimate strategy in Ukraine, conservatives must make absolutely clear to President Biden that America's biggest threats are not six thousand miles away—they are much closer to home. If we are going to spend blood and treasure defending borders, let's start with our own.

Jeremy Carl is a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.