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The Correct Conservative Approach to Ukraine Shifts the Focus to China

6 minute read
Colby is a principal at The Marathon Initiative. He is the author of The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict from Yale University Press.
Roberts is the president of The Heritage Foundation.

The war in Ukraine has now entered its second year—but President Joe Biden has yet to articulate a credible strategy. It is therefore critical for conservatives to take stock and clearly chart out a path forward that can fill this vacuum, a vision rooted in conservative principles that heeds the lessons of history. In other words, a foreign policy that serves American interests, and thus is not a recipe for perpetual conflict.

In this context, it is vital to frame correctly what a conservative approach to U.S. foreign policy should be. This is to put the interests of Americans—their security, freedom, and prosperity—front and center. This does not mean disparaging the interests of others; to the contrary, it requires international collaboration. But it means forthrightly evaluating our foreign policy based on how it serves those concrete interests.

This approach cautions against two extremes. We cannot just pull back from the world and hope for the best. The world is too dangerous, and we cannot trust rapacious governments not to exploit our withdrawal. On the other hand, it is simply untenable for Americans to bear the vast majority of the burden among our allies in standing up to threatening states.

Serving Americans’ interests requires realism. Conservatives are proud of America and unabashed in their assertion of its values and interests. They are not self-flagellators. But true conservatives are also practically minded. If nothing else, conservatism understands that the world is a competitive and often dangerous place, tradeoffs exist, and meeting one’s responsibilities—whether as a nation, community, or family—requires sober planning, a clear and sober assessment of things, and effective implementation.

In this context, we need to be absolutely clear: Without question, the top external threat to America is China—by far. China is ten times the economic scale of Russia and leads the world in manufacturing. Beijing seeks first to dominate Asia, now the world’s largest market zone, and from that position control the global economy. This will enable it to inject itself into every part of American life—undermining our jobs, our freedoms, and ultimately our security. We cannot allow this to happen.

Read More: An Insider’s Perspective on China’s Strategy in Ukraine

China is making significant progress toward that goal. It is undertaking a historically unprecedented military buildup specifically designed to defeat the American military and to split apart our alliances in Asia that designed to prevent Beijing from dominating this critical region. And yet, despite a lot of fanfare and talk, our military position in Asia continues to deteriorate. As The Heritage Foundation has extensively documented, America’s armed forces (and the industrial base to support it) are too old, too unready, and too small to ensure we can defeat China in a war in the Western Pacific. This is an intolerable danger.

It’s through this lens that we need to view the Ukraine war. First, let’s be clear: Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is an evil act. It is wrong to conduct a war of aggression to conquer another country. It is wrong to conduct atrocities. These are some of the reasons why it’s been the right thing for America and European nations to support Ukraine. It is also in our collective interest for the Russian military to be weakened and kept from NATO’s borders.

But we do not live in a vacuum. China is making progress toward its goal that, if achieved, would be the most dangerous to Americans. And we do not have unlimited resources. In a republic, the nation’s foreign policy should serve the citizens’ interests considering all the threats and needs the nation faces. To serve Americans’ interests, Congress must put the most consequential and grave national security threats first.

Yet we are not doing that. The fact is that our concentration on Ukraine has undermined our ability to address the worsening military situation in Asia, especially around Taiwan. Advocates for unconditional support of Ukraine say that these two objectives are not in tension. Yet this is simply not borne out by the facts. The U.S. has already sent tremendous quantities of military hardware that will take years to replenish to Ukraine and spent roughly $112 billion on aid, all while continuing to underinvest in the Pacific. This aid includes weapons, industrial base focus, and money that could have gone to the primary theater. This is the real world, one in which American largesse is not unlimited, not the one we might wish it to be. In this world, America must focus on China and deterring war over Taiwan.

Meanwhile the Biden Administration, while dramatically increasing domestic spending, has failed to invest the resources necessary to redress the worsening military balance in Asia. Now we are in a situation in which we cannot continue to spend and borrow as U.S. national debt climbs over $31 trillion. Former George W. Bush economics advisor Glenn Hubbard has argued, the U.S. is in a very difficult fiscal position; given the profligate spending of recent years, it can no longer afford to simply borrow to fund any needed defense increases.

This means that the economic tradeoffs are real—it is vital to face up to this because the Ukraine War seems unlikely to end any time soon. Russia will likely continue mobilizing its population for war, both in expanding its military and putting its economy on a war footing. The U.S., therefore, needs to focus its limited resources on the threat most dangerous to America: China.

Fortunately, though, this doesn’t require abandoning Ukraine. The solution is clear: for European countries, especially Germany, to step up and take the lead in their own conventional defense and in supporting Ukraine. Many treat this as far-fetched, but it isn’t. The European economies dwarf Russia in scale. If they put their minds to it, they can shoulder a greater burden of defending themselves and supporting Ukraine. And they have every reason to— as Ukraine is in their neighborhood. The U.S. should still help, but in a supporting role consistent with a genuine prioritization of Asia.

Yet the Biden Administration and many in Congress have done exactly the opposite: smother any hint of European assumption of responsibility by strutting around as “American leadership.” The results have been predictable. Germany, Europe’s largest economy, has barely budged in its military buildup and provided only meager support to Kiev. This must change.

For the first time in modern history, the U.S. faces a peer superpower in China. We must act like it. However just and noble Ukraine’s cause is, continuing to focus on it at the expense of confronting and deterring China is not wise, moral, or conservative.

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