Robert Bolt’s masterpiece, A Man For All Seasons, tells the story of the doomed, heroic, and very human Sir Thomas More. The moral is that it easy to believe in things when they are popular; far harder, and far more important to do so, when they mean that you will risk something.
I’m not going to be beheaded, as was More. But I do bear an unfashionable message.
Almost the whole of the British elite supports the trendy, hawkish view regarding the war in Ukraine: that Volodymyr Zelensky must be entirely supported and given whatever he wishes. After over a dozen meetings with every sector of the British elite recently, this uniformity of belief was by far my firm’s most striking takeaway. There is literally no debate as to whether this is the wise course.
One common assumption was that Ukraine was self-evidently winning the war, and that American support for Kiev would be endless. The only time I saw any of my British friends squirm was when I suggested that both these lazy suppositions are deeply questionable.
First, the war is devolving into a stalemate that is likely to go on for the next year. Second, as Boris Johnson’s visit to Washington, Republican patience with endless, extensive support for what amounts to (at best) a second-order prioritym is wearing very thin.
These views are not popular. That doesn’t mean they are wrong.
Winter has predictably seen the war grind into stalemate; now two questions may well determine the outcome of the contest.
Will Russian domestic alarm at a lack of victory, now that Vladimir Putin has had to call up reservists in a draft, doom his adventurism? Or will the US, which is overwhelmingly keeping the lights on in Ukraine, experience war weariness of its own?
The realist danger ought to be obvious: Russia, seeing Ukraine as a first-order interest (as America would Mexico), will always care more about the war in Ukraine than the US.
Come the spring, it is clear the Russians will throw new masses of men, numbering between 180,000-300,000 new conscripts, onto the offensive. Although little more than cannon fodder, the new troops are likely by simple numbers to make some gains, if not decisively overrun the country.
Then it will be the Ukrainians turn. Bolstered by more advanced weaponry from its NATO allies, including a number of Leopard 2 tanks from Germany and Europe and Abrams tanks from the US, Kyiv will likely blunt the Russian drive and undertake an offensive of their own, which in turn will grind to a halt given Russian numerical superiority.
If all this holds, we will be back where we are now at the end of the year, in an increasingly attritional war with masses of casualties with little to show for the horrendous sacrifices. It is then, a year on from now, that war fatigue on both sides will become the overriding question.
Little-covered in the British press is that American support, is already fraying. The Republicans, never fashionable at the best of times, has come to the deeply unpopular view that support for Zelensky must be limited, conditional, and even come to an end over time. While almost no-one in the GOP is cheerleading for Putin, they is not mindlessly in the tank for Kiev either.
January polling in the Washington Post makes this clear: a comfortable majority of Democrats supports Joe Biden’s Wilsonian line, but for the first time a bare majority of Republicans (with the trend line decisively heading downwards) is against giving further aid. This bombshell has received far too little exposure in London.
There are three broad factors that together explain this steady erosion in political support.
First, years of frustration at allied free-riding in terms of defence spending are finally bearing fruit.
While for Washington Ukraine is demonstrably a second- or even third-order priority, it is accepted that this is not true in Europe, much closer to the fighting and more affected by the outcome.
Yet, once again, the US seems to care more about European security than do the Europeans. In terms of total aid, America has committed an eye-watering $120 billion to Ukraine, more than the rest of the world put together.
Europe’s collective GDP is roughly the same as America’s, yet 70-plus years after the founding of NATO we find that the US is still cross-subsidizing Europe’s safety net by paying a disproportionate share of the common defence.
Enough, an increasing number of Republicans think, is enough. If the war matters as much as European hawks think, it is time for them to put their money where their mouth is – or simply stop having bold, expensive postures that American taxpayers must pay for.
Second, conveniently forgotten in all the ringing Times editorials, is that fact that America has a debilitating set of domestic problems itself that simply aren’t being addressed. The pandemic made plain that America’s schools are a mess; doing away with testing (as the teacher’s unions advocatine) won’t this glaringly issue any less real.
America’s kids don’t know nearly enough; its infrastructure is falling apart. The opioid crisis (with fentanyl killing more than 70,000 in 2021) is as grossly underreported at home and abroad as it is dangerous to the nation. Border policy is non-existent.
American elites don’t discuss these vital issues enough; practically no foreign commentary dwells on them at all. Were they the centre of media attention the idea that the US ought, or at least might, choose to re-focus on its domestic problems would not seem so outlandish.
Third, and the reason for my personal flagging support, is the geopolitical argument against over-committing to Ukraine. The strategic future of the world is undoubtedly in the Indo-Pacific, location of much of both the world’s future economic growth and its future political risk as China and the US vie for dominance.
For that reason, my firm spends roughly 70 percent of our time on the region. It is safe to say that the Biden administration, in terms of both money and focus, spends far less than they should, and the obvious reason is the war.
The idea that America can do everything is false. With US debt standing at an unfathomable 31 trillion dollars, doubling defence spending to avoid difficult foreign policy decisions is just magical thinking.
It should be obvious that the US should be focusing like a laser-beam on assembling the broadest possible alliance in the Indo-Pacific, training with them and arming them to the teeth, in order to make the Chinese hesitate in making a lunge at Taiwan.
Only by so doing, and (hopefully) peacefully halting China’s adventurous designs can global peace and prosperity be guaranteed for the next generation.
It should go without saying, but it does not, that the strategic outcome in the Indo-Pacific is overwhelmingly more important than the fate of Ukraine. Yet, nonsensically, the Biden administration is diverting weapons caches promised to Taipei to Kyiv.
For Wilsonian utopians, strategic choices never have to be made; every problem is equal, and all can be solved. But even the US economy has limits, as does the patience of the American people. The public support necessary for a vast new defence spending programme isn’t there.
A year from now, it is a certainty that for all these sound realist reasons, Republican support for the war will be lower than it is today. With the election will be on the horizon, whoever is the GOP nominee (likely Ron DeSantis or Donald Trump) will likely share the party’s view.
Such a shift in the US position will come as a nasty surprise to many. But they will have nobody to blame but themselves for not seeing it coming.
This piece was originally published in Conservative Home