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Ukraine Is a Wake-Up Call for America

Hard power still matters and the world is still a dangerous place.
February 15, 2022
Ukraine Is a Wake-Up Call for America
Ukrainian Military Forces servicemen of the 92nd mechanized brigade use tanks, self-propelled guns and other armored vehicles to conduct live-fire exercises near the town of Chuguev, in Kharkiv region, on February 10, 2022. - Russia's deployment for a military exercise in Belarus and on the borders of Ukraine marks a "dangerous moment" for European security, NATO's chief said on February 10, 2022. (Photo by Sergey BOBOK / AFP) (Photo by SERGEY BOBOK/AFP via Getty Images)

At this point, it is not known if Vladimir Putin will carry out the invasion of Ukraine that he has so thoroughly prepared. But it is not too soon to reflect on the truths that this crisis has already revealed.

The first and most obvious revelation is that war among great powers is not obsolete. It is true that Europe has recently enjoyed the longest period of peace in its history, but the spread of anti-war, cosmopolitan values has been confined to northwest and central Europe. In east and southern Europe—as well as in China, South Asia, and the Middle East—ethnic or religious nationalism that uses historical trauma to create a culture of resentment which justifies wars of revenge and retribution is alive and is actively stoked by authoritarian governments (and occasionally democracies) for their own purposes.

We are not living in a Citizen of the World era, in which war is anathema to “civilized” nations. Nor are we living in a world in which cyber attacks and economic sanctions have replaced kinetic warfare. Information warfare, of which cyber war is a subset, is as old as kinetic war, and has always been a complement to combat—to real war, as Clausewitz called it. The ability to engage in combat is itself a form of psychological or information war. Information war can enable combat capabilities, but can seldom win without them. We have preferred to ignore this. Vladimir Putin has kindly reminded us.

Second, the United States cannot defend itself by staying at home. The identity of the United States derives from its principles, the principles in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Who we are is not defined by sacred territory or ancestral race, but by universal values.

Because of this, attacks on those values necessarily threaten us. If we do not uphold our values at home, we are weaker abroad. And if we do not uphold those values abroad, we call into question why we would uphold them at home. If oppression is acceptable for foreigners, why is it not acceptable for us? Either “all men are created equal,” or they are not.

Third, the United States cannot defend others or itself with shields alone. There has been intelligent discussion of how defensive military technology can now make small countries such as Ukraine or Taiwan “porcupines” that are costly to attack. But even porcupines cannot endure protracted campaigns conducted by enemies many times their size and armed with nuclear weapons.

Nor can the United States defend itself with shields alone. The unhappy history of military isolationism in the 1930s and the astronomical costs of anti-bomber and anti-missile defenses in the 1950s should be a caution. If we are purely defensive, the enemy can attack us when and where he chooses. If we try to be able to defend ourselves wherever he attacks, we will spend ourselves into bankruptcy. A sword that deters the enemy by threatening what he values has been proven to be superior to a quest for leakproof defenses, however valuable limited defenses may be.

Today, we face a hostile China along with an embittered Russia and radical Islamic theocracies in Iran and in Afghanistan. The only way to deal with these multiple threats at an affordable price is to have swords with which we can threaten what our enemies fear most.

That sword should have military and non-military components. The Department of Defense is now considering how to compete in a world with multiple hostile great powers. This effort should be supported.

At a minimum, it should not be hamstrung by the lack of budget approved by Congress. In many ways, our adversaries fear our non-military ability to support those who seek liberty in their own countries, as the United States supported the Polish workers and as the Israeli government assisted Soviet Jews in the 1970s and 1980s.

A call for military and non-military swords is not wishful thinking. The swords should be used carefully, as should all sharp implements, but it is naïve to think we can prevail without them.

Stephen Peter Rosen

Stephen Peter Rosen is the Beton Michael Kaneb Professor of National Security and Military Affairs at Harvard University.