On May 21, 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden signed a bill providing $40 billion in aid to help Ukraine fight the Russian invasion. At the same time, the United States is facing rising inflation (8.3% in April) that threatens to provoke a recession. So why does Washington favor a costly war in Ukraine rather than confronting its many internal issues?
A series of grave internal crisis
The United States of America is currently facing a series of serious domestic problems. On the economic front, inflation hit a record high of 8.3 percent in April, potentially triggering a recession in 2023, while the country has just experienced the worst recession in its history in 2020 as a result of Covid-19. As of February 2022, U.S. external debt has reached $30 trillion, for an annual GDP of $24 trillion. The cost of this debt is estimated at $300 billion per year. On the health front, the U.S. has officially recorded the most deaths from Covid-19 globally, with more than one million deaths. This catastrophic toll comes in a country that suffers from a drug overdose epidemic that claims 100,000 lives every year. In the world's largest economy, shortages of infant milk go hand in hand with school shootings, the latest of which left 19 schoolchildren dead in Uvalde. Since the beginning of the year, the country has recorded more than 200 mass shootings, and there seems to be no effective political solution in sight to end this macabre phenomenon.
Proxy war in Ukraine
Despite this context, the political class in Washington seems more concerned with the war in Ukraine than with the major domestic crises that dramatically impact Americans' well-being. In a political landscape usually torn by hyperpartisanship between Democrats and Republicans, the Senate showed remarkable bipartisan support to vote for $40 billion in aid to Ukraine on May 18. Only 11 Republican senators voted against this financial support, while 192 Republican senators voted against the bill to ease the baby formula shortage the next day. In the U.S. Senate, it is more consensual to pour dozens of billions of taxpayer dollars into a distant foreign war than to help American parents feed their babies.
Beyond the Senate, the war in Ukraine, which the New Yorker openly describes as a "proxy war" enjoys the support of almost the entire American political class, which sees in this war the opportunity to weaken Russia durably and even to provoke a regime change in Moscow. Hence, some, like London School of Economic's Robert H. Wade, consider that the war in Ukraine was a "trap" carefully prepared by the United States and NATO to bring down Putin's regime.
Unlike Paris or Berlin, Washington is not seeking to negotiate with Vladimir Putin to find a way out of this war but rather to escalate the conflict, as shown by the provocative statements of top American officials. On March 26, President Biden openly called for a regime change, saying: "For God's sake, this man [Putin] cannot remain in power!" On April 25, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin admitted that the U.S. government wants "to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can't do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine." Lastly, U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, who is considered one of the most powerful elected officials in Washington, said that he wanted to see Ukraine win by "basically moving Putin back to Russia and hopefully getting rid of Putin."
Although candidate Biden promised in 2020 that "diplomacy should be the first instrument of American power," his administration is accused of hindering diplomatic efforts. According to Ambassador Chas Freeman, who served 30 years as a U.S. diplomat: "At best, the U.S. has been absent and, at worst, implicitly opposed" to any diplomatic resolutions of the conflict. Furthermore, many top U.S. strategists believe that this war could have been avoided if NATO had agreed to promise that Ukraine would never join the Atlantic alliance.
Unchecked militarism amongst Washington’s elite
Three hypotheses could explain, in part, the militaristic attitude of the American political elite. First, Ukraine allows Washington to demonstrate its military might to the world and to reassure its allies after the defeat in Afghanistan in 2021. After more than 20 years of occupation, $2 trillion spent, and the loss of 2,400 American soldiers, the Taliban's lightning capture of Kabul was a disaster and a humiliating American failure. By appearing to leave the Afghans entirely to their own devices, the United States also raised concerns among its allies about the credibility of American military engagement around the world. Moreover, the Afghan defeat is a continuation of the disastrous "war on terror," which has cost the American taxpayer more than $8 billion and has significantly destabilized the Middle East without bringing about the democratization President George W Bush promised.
By making a firm commitment to support Ukraine, Washington expects to indicate that the United States has the ability and the will to defend its allies, even though Ukraine is not a member of NATO. Strategically, the war in Ukraine has significantly strengthened the dominant role of the United States in the European security order. It also gave NATO a new lease on life after French president Macron described it as being "brain-dead" in 2019. Finland and Sweden formally decided to join the North Atlantic alliance soon, while Germany announced that it would devote more than 2% of its GDP to defense, which is something Washington had long been demanding.
The war in Ukraine also presents significant opportunities for the U.S. market, particularly in the arms and energy sectors. A significant portion of the $40 billion in aid to Ukraine ($9 billion) is earmarked for "replenishment of U.S. weapons stocks."This means that the money will directly benefit U.S. weapons companies like Raytheon Technologies, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing. Since 2022, Lockheed Martin's share price has risen by 26%. In this regard, CNBC notes that "more than a dozen [Congress] members reported trades-either their own or by their spouse or by their child-in sectors that were directly affected by the war in Ukraine."U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene purchased shares worth up to $15,000 each in Lockheed Martin and Chevron on February 22, 2022, just two days before the Ukrainian invasion began.
The conflict of interest is blatant and seriously challenges American democracy. The NGO Open Secret estimates that American arms companies have spent more than 2.5 billion on lobbying since 2000, including 285 million to finance the campaigns of key members of Congress. The arms industry employs 700 lobbyists on Capitol Hill for 435 elected representatives. These examples show how the American political elite, particularly in the legislative branch, is permeable to the interests of the major arms companies, which benefit directly from the war in Ukraine.
Lastly, the ideational factor might play a meaningful role in accounting for Washington's eagerness to confront Russia, especially when it comes to the political elites' triumphalist and exceptionalist ideology. In 1998, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared on television that "if we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation." Joe Biden seems to agree when he wrote, during his presidential campaign, that "it falls to the United States to lead the way”. No other nation has that capacity. No other nation is built on that idea. To the Washington elite, a multipolar world where the United States is no longer the dominating superpower is not imaginable, and any challenge to its post-Cold War hegemony by rival states like Russia or China is considered an unbearable provocation.
Yet the Washington ruling elite seems to forget that there is a high price to pay for global hegemony, and the American people are the ones paying for it. The war in Ukraine does not benefit the interests of the American people, especially when confronted with a series of domestic crises to which the federal state seems incapable of providing sustainable solutions. As China is bound to overtake the United States as the world's largest economy, it is highly hazardous for Washington to continue funding distant wars. Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, major countries such as China, India, and even Saudi Arabia have begun to extricate themselves from the supremacy of the U.S. dollar, which bodes ill for the American economy.
As Joe Biden himself promised, "as a nation, we have to prove to the world that the United States is prepared to lead again-not just with the example of our power but also with the power of our example." It is urgent that he keeps his words, for prioritizing foreign wars before national crises is not the best example America can give to the world.
Mahrus Harnadi Froment is a master's student at Sciences Po Paris and a research intern at CSIS Indonesia. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.