The void where strategy should be.
How the Biden Administration's approach to Ukraine risks, and causes, war.
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The signal challenge of strategic leadership in a crisis is simply remaining strategic. This means above all else retention of an awareness of core interests, and placing them at the center of decisionmaking.
This is too often difficult in the moment. History provides ample examples of leaders and leadership failing the test. Recall, for example, the British refusal to come to terms with the Americans prior to 1776, leading directly to a revolution that proved forbiddingly expensive and difficult to suppress. The British did eventually send a peace delegation to the Continental Congress in 1778, the Carlisle Commission, bearing terms that would have caused America to erupt in celebration in 1775. It was far too late: Parliament and Crown alike had lost sight of Britain’s core interest, which was never in ruling the Americans, but in retaining them. Or recall Adolf Hitler’s impulsive decision to declare war on the United States shortly after receiving the news of Pearl Harbor, thereby providing the final and arguably decisive element of the Grand Alliance that would defeat him. Unlike the British of George III’s era, Hitler’s grasp of the national interest was irredeemably deranged, and it resulted in a series of colossal blunders that compounded toward suicide.
Of course we may also look at historical examples of strategic leadership that succeeded in retaining its grasp of core interests. There is the 1861 Trent affair, which led to popular pressure in both Britain and the United States for war upon the other. Fortunately, neither national government saw it as a compelling interest — although I will confess an alt-history interest in a war of the Union against both the Confederacy and the British Empire — and so the fervor was allowed to pass. In the modern era, as in so many spheres, the Administration of George H.W. Bush provides salutary examples of strategy gone right. One is the 1989-1991 management of the slow-motion Soviet collapse, which was probably the only major revision of the European order unaccompanied by a continental war; and the other is the 1991 decision to leave the regime of Saddam Hussein in place, free of an American drive on Baghdad. The first was unappreciated then and now as the triumph it was. The second took about fifteen more years to look like wisdom.
All this being said, and understanding that we assess strategic leadership by fidelity to interests and a consequent fixation on strategy, we may ask ourselves how the Biden Administration is doing in this vein vis a vis the Ukrainian war. The short answer is: not well. Unfortunately, it does not appear that the Administration quite understands what the American interest is in Ukraine, nor in the world at large.
We should look to actual policymaking, rather than declarations of values or intent, in assessing the record here. Armas readers who have been here for some time will recall an extended argument for an American defense of Ukraine as necessary to the preservation of the 1989-1991 settlement, which was both a victory to be defended and a remarkable guarantor of a general European peace. That peace under those terms, undergirded by American hegemony, both precluded American involvement in otherwise inevitable warfare — on which, QED — and also contributed directly to the American way of life in terms of security and material prosperity alike. This is the synoptic version of the Armas case, and as with all human affairs it is far from indisputable. The point is that it exists.
Nothing like it has been advanced by the Biden Administration. Instead, what we have seen from the national-security and foreign-policy apparatus has been reactive, contradictory, and counterproductive. Policymaking appears unmoored from any consistent sense of strategic narrative or national interest.
The Administration led with a series of mixed signals prewar. Set aside the Afghanistan debacle: we won’t know for a generation or more exactly how that affected the Russian calculus. We do know that the Biden Administration, prior to the invasion of 24 February 2022, had solicited Russian aid in one of its top-tier policy objectives in the revival of the JCPOA with Iran; we know that it had effectively agreed to the completion of the Nordstream 2 pipeline tying Germany to Russia in the energy sphere; and we know that the President of the United States himself had declared that America would not fight for Ukraine. When we look to the Russian surprise at the depth and scope of Western sanctions following the invasion of Ukraine, we cannot simply accept the narrative that Russian leadership deceived itself. That factor is certainly present, but also present is the reality that the leading Western power had tied a major priority to Russian agency, acceded to a major Russian strategic-infrastructure project, and asserted its unwillingness to oppose Russia in a forthcoming military action. If you accept the frequent Russian declarations that the United States is the controlling power in the Western alliance — and they do seem to believe it — then what emerges from Biden-Administration action is consistent American signaling that an invasion of Ukraine will not be seriously countered.
In the vein of Talleyrand’s condemnation of the execution of the Duc d'Enghien — “worse than a crime, a mistake” — all this raises the question as to whether the war would have happened at all without that Biden-Administration signaling. This past weekend’s Armas noted the consistent Russian behavior in the face of force majeure — they back down — and one may wonder at the tragedy of our failure to try a bit of it before the Spetsnaz crossed the borders. In asking this question, we should avoid the analytic error so common in historical assessments, which is to make it all about ourselves: but we should also understand that we ourselves are protagonists in this drama. Perhaps the whole apparatus of the American Presidency ought to consider inhabiting the role.
The hasty campaign to publicize Russian intentions in the final prewar weeks, while accurate, had no meaningful effect on outcomes whatsoever. The Russians invaded nonetheless, and the Ukrainians, understandably skeptical of American intelligence and public diplomacy, failed to make use of the time. To the extent the publicity campaign succeeded, it raised alarm in European capitals (although, notably, insufficient to move Berlin). But the Americans never threatened credible consequences in the event of their predictions coming true, as indeed they did. Nor did the Americans express material and consequential confidence in their predictions by taking action on any of the prior signals sent. Russia will invade Ukraine, declared the American apparatus, but we are still working with you on Iran, we are still not sanctioning Nordstream 2, and we are still not promising any sort of defense of Ukraine. None of this is deterrent action: it is precisely the opposite. A hard-power devotee like the one in the Kremlin could rationally and defensibly calculate that the Biden Administration was communicating that the major Western response to the invasion of Ukraine would be harsh language.
Since the invasion, matters have been little better. The Americans made a desultory effort to expel the Russians from SWIFT, and were rebuffed, with the President lamely explaining that the Europeans weren’t up for it. Then, in the first full weekend of the war, as it became manifest that the Ukrainians would credibly resist, something extraordinary unfolded. The President of the United States retreated to his hideaway in Delaware. As he rested, the Europeans swung into action with an array of financial, armament, and trade supports for Ukraine, and concurrent punishments for Russia, that were historically unprecedented. While President Biden was weekending in Delaware, Germany announced its intent to rearm, and the European Union suddenly emerged as a real defense power. Europe transformed in ways it hadn’t since 1989, and by the close of the weekend, a definitive picture emerged of the Americans attempting to keep up. When Ukrainians of today tell their grandchildren of their vital aid in these fraught days, they will first speak of themselves, and second of the Europeans. The United States of America will come third.
The United States rushed to meet the Europeans where they were, as the biggest partner in the alliance, but suddenly not the prime mover. Even now, the measures are simultaneously dramatic and insufficient. Ukrainian receipt of intelligence is still subjected to an artificial time lag, lest the Russians object (imagine being a Russian analyst explaining that); and we move only with reluctance to the shutdown of Russian energy exports to the United States. Pause here to consider what all this says about American strategic direction. If strategic leadership is fidelity to interests, then what was the interest expressed in American prewar policy? How did that interest change, or did it, in American post-invasion policy? Do we see a consistent strategy unfolding here — or are we in fact witnessing a series of strictly tactical and reactive moves on the part of national leadership?
To ask the question is nearly to answer it.
This past week, we have seen the Biden Administration continue its rapid accumulation of strategic contradiction and confusion of interests. At this point, the Presidential apparatus appears to have internalized the blue-check consensus that the Ukraine war is the surpassing issue of our time — in their limited defense, it’s close, but not quite there — and is therefore moving rapidly toward its prioritization at the expense of all else. We also see the Executive Branch’s fixation on its own priorities, most significantly in the retention of domestic political power, and these are tellingly allowed to affect strategic matters.
We therefore see the Administration undertake a series of moves that, in themselves, suggest that the isolation of Russia is now the signal purpose of American strategy and interest, but not the signal purpose of the Administration. As a bipartisan consensus coalesces in the United States for the exclusion of Russian energy imports, the Administration embarks upon a series of bizarre initiatives to mitigate what it assumes will be the market repercussions of that policy’s success. An American entreaty to dictatorial Venezuela, a regime we tried to overthrow not long ago, is made: perhaps we can get their oil. An American trial balloon is floated: perhaps, once we get JCPOA back with Russian help, Iranian oil may come on the market. Reporting comes to light that the Americans are looking at reducing the tariffs on Chinese goods. Other reporting asserts that the President is suddenly considering a fence-mending trip to Saudi Arabia.
To summarize, American policymaking fixation upon Ukraine, in the absence of strategy grounded in interest, is yielding American decisions to empower China, Venezuela, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
All this is quite a lot of revision of specific American priorities! It communicates two things that are by now obvious. One is that the Biden Administration has nearly subordinated its whole policymaking to the pursuit and punishment of Russia — which is not the same as Ukrainian victory — and is simultaneously attempting to alleviate the domestic political effects of that pursuit. That attempt itself overturns prior consensus on the American interest, and the tragedy of it is that it will be mostly futile.
As things stand, the Administration will capitulate on a variety of matters in an array of places, and still the consequences will come. The dollar’s global reserve-currency status, one of the pillars of American prosperity, will erode as a consequence of the Russian expulsion from dollar access, and the American private-sector cutoff of Russian credit and payments. Energy price-driven inflation will accelerate, because nothing the Venezuelans or the Iranians could deliver — and they won’t — would match the market signal of simply reviving the Keystone pipeline, or opening federal lands to exploitation. Most ominously, food prices will almost certainly spike worldwide in months to come, as Russian fertilizer and Ukrainian grain both exit global markets. Ireland, for one, is already preparing for this eventuality, moving its agricultural sector to what is being described as “wartime tillage.”
(If you think there’s instability now, just wait for the hot months when there isn’t enough fuel and not enough food. The United States will remain able to feed itself, but these are global commodities markets, so we’ll get hit with the price rises regardless.)
The signal challenge of strategic leadership in a crisis is simply remaining strategic. This means above all else retention of an awareness of core interests, and placing them at the center of decisionmaking. In the greatest test of American policy and diplomacy in a generation, the Biden Administration is not meeting the challenge. Its inability to identify and express American interests may well have directly contributed to the war’s outbreak. The same inability then rendered American policy reactive and late, first versus the Europeans, and then versus blue-check fixations. The same inability, intersecting with the Administration’s domestic political self-interest, is now producing a clutch of poorly considered policy moves that will redound against the United States in the fullness of time.
Aid to Ukraine is important, and there is much more room for American aggression in that pursuit. But American policy must be subordinated to strategy, not vice versa. There is a land war in Europe, and in these straits Americans deserve leadership that is focused upon the American interest, and driven by it. We don’t have it. What we have is simply confusion and reaction. Elements of the system work, but the system does not cohere. Some time back, I predicted that if this war continues past thirty days, the United States will find a way to enter it. That was written not out of expectation or hope — American war with Russia is a disaster in any scenario — but out of lack of confidence in the leadership now. That lack of confidence is unfortunately vindicated.
We are doing many of the right things. But we have no strategy. This, above all else, is why we must consider the awful possibility that we will blunder into war.
Here’s the latest war map.