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The unreality of American realism

The war in Ukraine can’t be compared to Vietnam.

By Lawrence Freedman

Most assessments of Vladimir Putin’s strategy suggest that he wants to keep the war going indefinitely, until the Ukrainians tire of the fight – or at least until their Western supporters decide to call it a day. In particular, so the logic goes, he is looking ahead to January 2025 when he hopes for Donald Trump’s return to the presidency.

There is a long way to go, and a number of trials, before Trump gets back to the White House, and even if he does, his priorities will be elsewhere and his policies unpredictable. For the moment there is still a bipartisan consensus supporting Ukraine, but since stories began to appear in the US press about the counteroffensive faltering there have been more questions about whether it is in American interests to support an indefinite war, and whether more effort needs to be made to find a diplomatic solution to bring it to a close.

I am in no position to assess the state of American politics. Nor do I want to address all the twists and turns of conservative thinking on the war. There are some on the right – Tucker Carlson and Colonel Douglas Macgregor come to mind – who are very suspicious of support for Ukraine. Others just don’t want to spend money on another country’s war. The Heritage Foundation, once a bastion of hawkish views, and until recently ready to argue the case for supporting Ukraine, has acquired a new populist leadership that has started to lobby against the Biden administration’s budget requests for further Ukrainian aid, much to the dismay of some conservative allies.

Many critics of Joe Biden’s stance on Ukraine take care not to make excuses for Vladimir Putin but they do take seriously the Russian president’s stubbornness, and wonder whether it is the best use of American resources to sustain Ukraine’s fight. Because they insist on an unsentimental assessment of American interests they often identify as “realists”. One of the more vigorous and credible contributions to this strand of thought comes from Elbridge Colby, who served in the Pentagon during the Trump administration. I follow Colby on Twitter and it seems to me that he engages in arguments respectfully and politely, and so I will try to do the same.

Colby co-founded an outfit called the Marathon Initiative. According to its website, this initiative reflects concern that: “America is entering an era of great power competition for which it is not prepared. How to secure American freedom and prosperity in this more competitive age is the organising national security question of our time.

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“The mission of the Marathon Initiative is to develop the diplomatic, military and economic strategies the nation will need to navigate a protracted competition with great-power rivals.”

This reflects a common theme in Washington as the US tries to put the long counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan behind it. Now the big challenge of grand strategy is posed by the ongoing rivalry with China, and the possibility that it could turn into a full war, as much as the conduct of the Russo-Ukraine War.

The Pacific vs the Atlantic

Although the Marathon Initiative speaks of “rivals” in the plural, Colby believes that there is only one rival that really matters: China. Thus, he might describe himself as a “Pacific firster”. His argument is that the US has insufficient capacity to manage conflicts with both Russia and China and so it must choose. Until the US sorts out its defence industrial base and produces equipment and ammunition in the necessary quantities, any material assistance to Ukraine coming from defence stocks limits the US ability to fight China in the near future, which he believes to be a distinct possibility.  

Managing the tension between the distinctive demands of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans has long been an issue in American grand strategy. It was put into sharp relief in December 1941 after the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor. The choice for President Franklin D Roosevelt was eased somewhat when Hitler almost immediately decided to declare war on the United States. This helped him make the case, encouraged by Winston Churchill, that the priority had to be to defeat Nazi Germany before the full weight of US power could be turned against Japan. This did not mean that the Japanese were left alone. In fact until 1944, more US resources were devoted to containing and pushing back against the Japanese. It was never either/or.

During the 1950s and 1960s the major military challenge was to deter the Soviet threat to western Europe, but the US also found itself fighting two land wars in Asia – first in Korea and then in Vietnam. This century, US military interventions have largely been in the Middle East and Central Asia. Just over a decade ago, worried that the Indo-Pacific region was being neglected, President Barack Obama “tilted” US foreign policy back in that direction. But again, it was not either/or. The crises over Islamic State in Iraq and then the Russian annexation of Crimea required US attention.

With China’s economy and its military capabilities growing, and its rhetoric and policies becoming more assertive, especially towards Taiwan, the consensus view in Washington is that the US is facing a severe, long-term challenge in the Indo-Pacific region from which it dare not resile and for which it must prepare. Under Donald Trump, trade and defence policies shifted to a much more adversarial stance, and this continued under Biden. I was struck on a visit to Washington a year ago by the strength of the view that China is the real enemy, which means that Ukraine was something of a distraction, diverting energy and effort away from the Pacific and sending it back across the Atlantic.

Does this need to be either/or? While the Chinese challenge is real, the possibility that this might lead to an early war is speculative. At some point China may decide to take Taiwan and the US will feel obliged to respond. But there are also reasons why Beijing may hold fire – so long as Taiwan doesn’t force the issue by declaring itself independent of the mainland. As China has entered a period of economic turbulence, Xi Jinping might prefer not to add to their troubles by embarking on a chancy military adventure. It has to work out how to handle the other tensions in its neighbourhood – such as its claims in the South China Sea or the border dispute with India.

Furthermore, the geopolitical divide between the Atlantic and the Pacific is no longer as sharp as it once seemed to be. American allies in the Pacific region – Australia, Japan, South Korea – have also become active supporters of Ukraine, while the main European powers acknowledge that they also have vital strategic interests in the Pacific. What happens to Ukraine has relevance to the Pacific region. The quality of the US alliance network will be undermined if states lose confidence, once again, in the staying power of the US – if after having promised to support Ukraine “for as long as it takes”, it gets bored or frustrated and walks away.

There is also a demonstration effect. If Russia, a supposed partner of China, continues to struggle in a war it started, that provides a timely reminder about why it is best not to try to solve problems with armed force unless there really is no other option. From this perspective one might assume that the Marathon Initiative would be pleased about Russia’s stumble into a long, costly and futile war, and that it would be helpful to ensure it stumbled even more. Should Russia recover its position and even prevail in Ukraine, it would create a major security crisis, leaving the US with even less capacity to focus on China. For a relatively small price, in terms of overall GDP, the US and its allies have been able to reduce the future threat posed by Russia. Thus, the Republican senator Mitt Romney has argued that “the single most important thing we can do to strengthen America relative to China is to see Russia defeated in Ukraine. A weakened Russia deters the CCP [Chinese Communist Party]’s territorial ambition, and halts Putin’s vision of re-establishing the old Soviet Union. Supporting Ukraine is in our interest.”

For Romney, diminishing Russia’s military capabilities for less than 5 per cent of the defence budget, and without US troops actually doing any fighting makes good strategic sense.

Why does Elbridge Colby disagree?

In the immediate aftermath of the full-scale Russian invasion, Colby urged support for Ukraine while stressing that the defence of Taiwan had to come first. While others wished to do more than he proposed, he was not far from the mainstream. “We should quickly and robustly bolster Ukraine’s ability to defend itself,” he wrote in Time magazine, “providing Ukraine’s defenders with weapons, including anti-tank and anti-air systems, as well as other forms of aid like intelligence support, energy, and food. The Russians gave us a model of how to do this in their support of North Vietnam and the Viet Cong.”

He was keen that the European allies should raise their game in their military preparedness as well as in support for Ukraine. It was a fine balance but the hope was that Ukraine could be backed without Taiwan being neglected. The longer the war has gone on, the more concerned he has become that this balance was being lost. In a July article for the same magazine, Colby described the dilemma facing Washington as follows: “America and Europe need to prepare for the long-haul in addressing European security, even as America must urgently shift to prioritising readying for a conflict with China in the Western Pacific.”

Now limits must be put on what can be sent to Ukraine: “Any resources that could be useful for defeating a Chinese attack along the first island chain should be reserved to that end. This includes strike weapons like Himars, ATACMS [Army Tactical Missile System], GMLRS [Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System] and tactical UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] as well as defensive [missile] systems such as Patriot, Nasams, Harpoons, Stingers and Javelins that Taiwanese or US defenders could use to degrade an invasion force.”

Therefore, the burden of helping Ukraine should shift to the Europeans. According to Colby they have not yet done enough “to both rearm themselves and arm Ukraine consistent with what strategic reality requires”. One way to be sure they got the message was for Washington to be “clear and credible” about its Pacific focus. If it doesn’t do the necessary, the US will not bail Europe out. The US could still provide some weapons – those that are ill-suited for a fight against China, largely old aircraft and some tanks and fighting vehicles that would otherwise be retired. The more Europe takes responsibility for its own defence and Ukraine’s, the more the US can release capabilities held in the European theatre.

Colby is not unique in believing that the Europeans should take defence more seriously by spending more. This has been a regular theme of American commentary on European security for decades, and while more is being done for Ukraine than often appreciated, there are real grounds for concern that it is not enough in the long term. Even if Europeans embraced Colby’s approach, and were prepared to take over responsibility for Ukraine from the US, this would be an extremely long-term project and incredibly disruptive. Meanwhile, there is a bitter fight underway, and Ukraine needs everything it can get now.

His position appears to be that to preserve military assets for a war that may occur in the future, and would in the first instance be quite different in kind to the one under way in Ukraine (for example, much more maritime), Ukraine should be denied assets it desperately needs in the vague hope that Europe will make up the shortfall. Though, with the best will in the world, this could not be done in time to affect the war’s outcome.

Something has to give. Colby is worried that the Pacific imperative will lose out to the European. It is no longer clear exactly what Colby believes can be done to help Ukraine push Russian forces out of its country – only that whatever it is, it should not be provided by the US.

The Vietnam analogy

On 25 August Colby posted a thread on Twitter. It was this that got me interested in his views, because, to be frank, I found the analogy between the US’s policy in Ukraine and Vietnam a bit odd. Still the advantage of analogical reasoning is that by comparing situations with some apparent similarities you can also explore the differences. This is what he posted:

“The echoes of Vietnam in US policy toward Ukraine today are a lot stronger than is commonly admitted. It’s far from an exact analogy. But there’s more to take heed of than the complete dismissal of the relevance of Vietnam suggests.

“Support for South Vietnam started as a universally-supported cause of defence against aggression. The US was not directly involved in the first years. But our own rhetoric and investment in the conflict upped the stakes. We tied our own credibility more and more to it.

“Our approach in the early years was about building up Saigon’s ability to defend itself. But what would we do when South Vietnam was on the verge of losing? That was the key question by 1963-65. And by that point we had built Vietnam into a whole test of our credibility.

“[President Lyndon B Johnson] didn’t *want* to get directly involved in Vietnam. Far from it. But by that point he didn’t think he could just let it go down. He and Washington as a whole had talked it up way too much.

“Further, the whole approach to Vietnam until late in the war was characterised by middle course measures – splitting the baby. More troops here, less bombing there, restrictions on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and Haiphong, etc. No single decision was foolhardy. They were middling.

“But the total effect of a whole succession of middle course decisions was – to put it tragically mildly – very sub-optimal. We started out with advisers but by 1968 we found ourselves with 500,000 troops in [the] country, [General William] Westmoreland asking for more, and no good end in sight.

“We didn’t end up there by stupidity. As today, there were voices arguing for us to ignore the huge escalation/quagmire reputational risks of invading the North or nuking the Red River Dikes. These weren’t serious options. But then half-measures left us in a very bad place.

“Was there a better path in Vietnam? I’m really not sure. That’s one of the tragedies of the war. But we definitely would have been better off if we had realistically evaluated things and made the hard choices earlier.

“I think that’s the ‘lesson’ of Vietnam for US policy toward Ukraine. Let’s be *really clear and realistic* in how important the Ukraine conflict is for Americans, where it’s realistically heading, what it’ll involve to continue pursuing it, and how far we’re prepared to go.”

What stands out in this thread? It is about the consequences of making a commitment to an ally that then began to lose. To honour the commitment it was necessary to invest far more in the fight, in this case sending US forces to fight on South Vietnam’s behalf. But then the US was unable to agree on a decisive strategy one way or the other – going all in or getting out.

Does the Vietnam experience provide guidance on what to do about Ukraine? The differences between the two situations suggest not.

First, the big issue in the early 1960s was whether or not to put in US ground forces and if so how many. That matter has already been decided by the US for Ukraine. President Biden made it clear from the beginning that no US forces were going to fight in Ukraine. He wishes to avoid a direct confrontation with Russia.

Second, during the early 1960s, President John F Kennedy was reluctant to send in the army or marines, although the advisers that were dispatched hardly played a passive role. He saw the challenge as not one of defeating the Viet Cong in pitched battles, but of dealing with an insurgency in which the South Vietnamese government was losing control of rural areas. Part of the problem was the deep unpopularity and corruption of the South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem. In many ways the turning point was the assassination of Diem a couple of weeks before Kennedy’s own assassination in November 1963. This was followed by continuing instability in Saigon. None of this is relevant to the current war in Ukraine.

Third, while it is true that the US failed to find and stick with a war-winning strategy, the commitment was hardly half-hearted. There were huge troop commitments and bombing campaigns.

The analogy soon falls apart. Ukraine is not a counter-insurgency campaign but resisting foreign occupation, and the US has not committed troops. Ukraine is not divided, it has a stable leadership. We are then left with what Colby identifies as the top “lesson” of Vietnam for US policy towards Ukraine. He wants clarity on “how important the Ukraine conflict is for Americans, where it’s realistically heading, what it’ll involve to continue pursuing it, and how far we’re prepared to go”.

Yet not only is the scale of US engagement in Ukraine marginal compared with Vietnam, there is also far less controversy about the nature of the war and what continuing with existing policy requires. The main criticism is that the administration has been too cautious when it comes to certain types of weapons, but that is not the criticism being made here. It is that the administration has failed to explain how it can bring this war (which, remember, the US is not actually fighting) to a satisfactory end. To quote one group supporting this critique (Concerned Veterans for America) it sends “confused and mixed signals about its desired end-state in Ukraine”. It goes on to say:

“Russia’s war on Ukraine is immoral and unjustified. Prolonging or expanding the war will only bring more devastation and suffering for the Ukrainian people, leaving them worse off and Americans no safer or more prosperous.”

This statement is hardly a masterpiece of clarity. It recognises the Russian role in starting the war but glosses over its responsibility for prolongation and expansion. It is no more coherent than leftist critiques that argue that Ukrainians have been manipulated into fighting to enrich American defence contractors. As Ukrainians regularly point out, a Russian occupation is hardly going to ease their suffering.

Realism and realists

Recent news from the front has been more positive for Ukraine, although there is still a long way to go and all gains are achieved at a high cost. Putin’s strategy is to keep the war going for as long as possible in the hope that Western opinion will turn, though he also hoped that his own forces would do better in their offensives. Even before the start of Ukraine’s June offensive, as the scale of the military task came into view, there was a shift to a longer-term perspective. The focus now is on sustaining the war into next year and even beyond.

Recognising this and working how to cope over the long term seems to me to be eminently realistic. To me “realism” is a natural requirement for assessing international politics. It accepts the need to deal with the world as it is rather than how one wishes it to be, judging actions by their consequences rather than their motives, paying attention to hard factors of power, including armed force, and calculations of interests when working out strategies, avoiding wishful thinking and doubting appeals to the “better nature” of foreign governments.

In this respect realism can support a variety of positions. It can see virtue in restraint and keeping clear of overseas entanglements but also explain why it is best to confront a state acting aggressively sooner rather than later. It does not preclude trusting other governments because interests can be shared and alliances can enhance security. Nor need it to be antithetical to idealism. There are great causes worthy of support. All that realism requires is that they are pursued with due regard for what is possible rather than simply what is desirable. It should encourage a grounded discussion about the risks and possibilities of alternative courses of action.

Unfortunately, the term has been appropriated by one position in the current debates, those most sceptical of supporting Ukraine, suggesting that observers with a different view are by definition “unrealistic”. Colby and other self-declared realists have taken to highlighting the military challenges faced by Ukraine, and reports about Russia’s ability to sustain its war efforts, as a blow to the administration’s strategy. This even gets to the point where a lack of Ukrainian military progress is presented as vindication of the theory and one in the eye for liberal internationalists.

Yet these Realists, with a capital “R”, have no better idea about how to bring an early end to the war, other than making it impossible for Ukraine to continue. Even those convinced that a negotiation must come, flounder when faced with the determination of Ukrainians not to give in to a cruel occupation and Putin’s demands that Ukraine agree to the partition of its territory. In the current circumstances, it is unavoidably difficult to explain when and how this war will end. Any attempt to do so would be a work of fiction. Wars are contests between two opposing wills. Nothing ever quite goes as smoothly as might be wished in military operations. This war has been through many twists and turns already. There are more to come.

Choices in foreign policy are never simple and are always sub-optimal. The choice faced now is whether to continue supporting Ukraine in a messy, tragic war, which it may take time to win, or to let it carry on alone, with the prospect of an even more tragic conclusion from which the Western alliance, let alone Ukraine, might never recover. As Western countries are not actually doing the fighting and have the resources to sustain Ukraine in its struggle, in the end this is not that difficult a choice to make.

Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to the New Statesman. This piece originally ran on his Substack “Comment is Freed”.

[See also: Congressman Don Bacon: “Joe Biden does only enough to ensure the Ukrainians can keep a gridlock”]

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