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Armas No. 6 — The Ukrainian bargain.
American military aid to Ukraine in historical context.
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One of the major questions facing the United States as it adjudicates its budgetary priorities is the relative return on investment for the aid to Ukraine. That aid, to understate the case, has been prodigious: just north of $48 billion in 2022 alone, with likely at least as much to come in 2023. That figure is a total, which is roughly split between humanitarian aid ($9.9 billion), financial aid ($15.1 billion), and military aid ($22.9 billion). Given the sheer size of it, it's worth looking at how the American aid to Ukraine stacks up against comparable U.S. wartime aid in the modern era. If, as Zelensky told the Congress some weeks back, this "money is not charity, [but] an investment in ... global security and democracy," then we can consider it in that light.
For the purpose of this comparative analysis, we will proceed from two baselines given the slippery nature1 of budgeting and related inquiry.
The first is that we will consider military aid only: in other words, we'll proceed from that $22.9 billion figure.
The second is that we'll consider, for purposes of comparison, only modern-era — which is to say, post-1940 — American military aid to nations in comparable circumstances. That is, U.S. wartime assistance to a third party engaged in open warfare versus an American rival against whom America itself is not at war. (American aid to the Juaristas versus the Emperor Maximilian's forces would amply qualify, but sadly it is too far outside our timeframe.) Call it a proxy fight if you will, although the label fits poorly at points.
Within our timeframe and criteria, we arrive the following historical parallels2:
U.S. military aid to the British Empire, in its war against Germany and Italy, 1941.
U.S. military aid to France in Indochina only, with figures available for 1951, 1953, and 1954.
U.S. military aid to the Republic of Viet Nam following the American withdrawal, 1972-1975.
U.S. military aid to Israel in and around the Yom Kippur War, 1973 and 1974.
U.S. military aid to the Afghan mujahideen, with figures available for 1980-1982, 1985, and 1987.
We will set these against the American aid to Ukraine, in both current and constant dollars — and also compare them as proportions of American gross domestic product, American federal-budget outlays, and American national-security spending, again in current and constant dollars.
First up is American military aid per recipient per year, in current dollars.
Aid to Ukraine quite obviously surpasses all else by orders of magnitude. This does not tell us much, however. Let's adjust for inflation across the years. Next up is total American military aid per recipient per year, in constant dollars.
You see that 2022 Ukraine still tops the list, just beating out 1973 South Vietnam, which itself barely beats out the British Empire of 1941. It is obvious in this context that the American commitment to Ukraine is both huge and historic — as befits events there. Nevertheless, this still isn't the whole context, and therefore not the whole story.
Next, let's look at American aid to each of these recipients, in constant-dollar terms, as a proportion of total U.S. gross domestic product.
This gives us a very different picture. None of the examples crack one percent of the total American economy in their given year, in constant dollars. Aid to Britain in 1941 outstrips all else by orders of magnitude, at about 0.84% of American GDP. Aid to Ukraine in 2022, on the other hand, isn't even in the top five: by this metric, it is less than what France got for its futile pursuits in Indochina in 1953.
Let's do the same analysis, again in constant dollars, versus total federal outlays.
We see here the genuinely herculean budgetary effort the United States put forth to keep Britain in the fight in 1941 — and the tremendous importance ascribed to fighting Communism in east Asia in 1954, 1973, and 1972. We also see the strategic importance of Israel as a counterweight to a Soviet-dominated order in the Middle East in 1974. And, of course, we see Ukraine in 2022 — seventh down the list at a mere 0.36% of federal outlays in constant dollars.
Finally, let's do the same analysis, again in constant dollars, versus U.S. national-security spending.
Again, Ukraine in 2022 — although a significant proportion of American defense budgeting at 1.39% of the total — takes an increasingly distant back seat to France in Indochina in 1954, Israel in 1974, South Vietnam in 1972 and 1973, and the British Empire in 1941. Every one of them, save the first, is more than double the Ukraine-2022 figure, with the last being over twelve times its size.
One very interesting thing to note is that if you re-run the figures with the full total of all 2022-Ukraine aid — including fiscal and humanitarian, to the full $48 billion — although it obviously pushes both the current- and constant-dollar analyses to extraordinary heights, it still doesn’t affect the proportionate comparisons much. Even with just over a doubling in size, the Ukrainian share versus constant-dollar GDP, federal outlays, and defense expenditures remains historically normal, and smaller than what France, Britain, Vietnam, and Israel received in their times.
The question arises: why do these comparisons? It is certainly not to argue that American aid to Ukraine is small, nor that it is insignificant by comparison. Neither assertion would be true. It is, however, to place that aid in context. It is historically large — but so is our economy, and so is our budgeting, and this allocation takes place within those contexts. Set within those contexts, we start to see an American military-aid effort for Ukraine that is well within historical precedent, and not even close to the largest of its kind.
Quantitative analysis goes only so far, and it is never the last word. Ultimately the question of a return on "investment in ... global security and democracy" is a qualitative one. We can look at our historical examples and make some judgments to that end. The money spent on Britain in 1941 is almost universally regarded as generating a strong return for the American interest; that spent on South Vietnam was mostly squandered thanks largely to America's own unreliability as a wartime partner by the early 1970s. The funds sent to the Afghan mujahideen, minuscule versus the rest in nearly every metric, arguably generated the greatest imaginable returns in a contributory cause of the fall of the Soviet empire — but one could also argue that they were, in the longer run, net negatives versus our own accounts. So much of this is clear only in the long run and the light of history. These are perspectives we try to anticipate, but are in our moment denied.
Nevertheless we can look at the Ukraine spending and make a preliminary assessment, subject to revision and events. As things stand — as the spending remains proportionately minuscule, and as the war machine of a great-power American rival is ground to pieces on the killing steppe — our military aid to Ukraine looks like one thing in particular.
It looks like a bargain.
This analysis was itself assembled from a grab-bag of USG public sources, and is necessarily incomplete: you’ll note the absence of several years of data for funding for the Afghan mujahideen, for example. You’ll also note that a great deal of historical military aid is uncounted here, as it gets disbursed to relevant third parties: for example 1980s aid to Pakistan that ended up routed toward Afghan guerrilla networks, or U.S. aid to quasi-autonomous Indochinese entities in the French-Union period. The reader is encouraged to understand this as a broad-strokes analysis, subject to a great deal of revision at the margins — how do you characterize or quantify a destroyers-for-bases deal, anyway? — but nevertheless essentially true.
I considered including American aid to Pakistan during the various Indo-Pakistani wars, but India even at its most pro-Soviet never quite fit the bill of an American rival or antagonist. The purpose of American aid to Islamabad in this context was never really to defeat India, so much as it was to buy Pakistan.