In the Thick of ItA blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
European Security and Insecurity: Harvard Fellows and Students Explore Impact of Russia’s War Against Ukraine on America
As the U.S. Congress wrestles with a legislative package to provide continued assistance to Ukraine, a series of discussions on the Russian-Ukrainian war held by a study group, which I recently led at Harvard’s Kennedy School, seems highly relevant. Over multiple meetings during the fall semester, approximately 30 students debated the key issues confronting Americans as a result of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Students were assigned to one side of each debate, meaning that many of them were not representing their personal views. One of those debates considered whether the United States should continue to provide the substantial level of military assistance to Ukraine that it had since the start of the war in February 2022. The arguments the two sides deployed in making their case are directly relevant to the current debate on Capitol Hill.
A strong majority of students felt the United States should continue to provide significant aid. The debate motion read: “The United States should continue to provide the substantial level of military assistance to Ukraine that it has over the past 18 months.” The initial vote, prior to the debate, showed 80% of the students supported the motion. That first vote captured the students’ personal opinion. Following the debate, 62% supported the motion. That second vote reflected how the debate shifted those opinions. Here is what the students contended.
First, they argued that the United States needs to support Ukraine at a significant level and, in so doing, uphold international law, because such action would allow for the continuation of Pax Americana, which has helped maintain peace and security for much of the world since 1945. If the United States does not stand up in support of the United Nations Charter and ensure that might does not make right, the rules-based global order will erode with negative implications for the United States. Multiple UNGA votes in support of Ukraine show that most countries in the world do not want that outcome. In response, those arguing against continuing substantial U.S. assistance said the Biden administration has set strategic aims in the case of Ukraine that are too vague, and the United States cannot afford to continue its enormous support given overwhelming U.S. debt. Bankrolling stalemates can lead to open-ended commitments with no expiration date. They also quoted U.S. President John F. Kennedy who stated that the kind of peace the world needs is “not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war.”
Second, those in favor of continuing substantial aid maintained that European defense equals American defense. They argued that U.S. assistance to Ukraine is critical because helping to defend Ukraine is inexorably tied to defending NATO Europe—countries to which, unlike Ukraine, the U.S. has a collective defense commitment enshrined in a treaty. They further contended that European Allies are contributing mightily to Ukraine’s defense, noting that some countries surpass the amount of aid the United States is providing if viewed as a percentage of GDP. By helping Ukraine prevail over Russia, the United States is enhancing security on the European continent. The pro side concluded that it is better to stop an expansionist Russia in Ukraine. In contrast, those arguing against continued substantial U.S. aid maintained that European countries have developed mechanisms through the European Union to take charge of their own defense and are well positioned to take on support for Ukraine without the need for U.S. engagement. Thus, they maintained, the United States should encourage, even push, Europe to improve its military readiness and increase its military spending to enable the European Union and individual European countries to take full responsibility for aiding Ukraine. Europeans need to care more about Ukraine than the United States does—geography is destiny.
Finally, those in favor of ongoing substantial U.S. aid pointed out that there is strong public support in the United States for continued aid to Ukraine. They argued that the United States is wealthy enough to manage both domestic and international priorities. If policymakers prioritize one sphere over the other, the cost to the United States will be serious in the long run. Because the pro side was uncertain about how long domestic support for Ukraine would last in the run-up to a presidential election, they argued for a large assistance package being agreed to by Congress as soon as possible. The con side, in response, argued that public support for Ukraine is declining, with ever more Americans worried about domestic issues like health care and border security. Continuing support for Ukraine cannot be taken as a given and the Biden administration needs to wake up to that reality and curtail Ukraine assistance.
Looking back at these debates, I am struck by how prescient the arguments of students were. Today they are watching Congress and the Biden administration deal with these issues in real time. Having debates like this, not only in a classroom at the Kennedy School or in the halls of Congress, but also across the country, is important for making good public policy. How Americans answer these questions is existential for Ukraine and critical to U.S. leadership in the world.
- These percentages are included simply as points of interest. Given the small number of students and the lack of a random sample, among other things, this poll has no scientific validity.
- The core of the rules-based global order is captured in the U.N. Charter.
- “Commencement Address of President John F. Kennedy at American University,” Washington, DC, June 10, 1963.
- The students referenced the Chicago Council survey, which was the focus of this Washington Post article.
Dr. Karen Donfried is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. She recently stepped down as Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs.
Opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author, unless otherwise stated. U.S. State Department photo free for use in the public domain.