Tanks and the middle class

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It’s quite a dramatic moment in the Ukraine war, with some crucial decisions being taken in the Swamp (aka Washington DC).

I basically agree with the Biden administration’s decision to send Abrams tanks to the Ukrainians — mainly as a way of giving the Germans cover to “unleash the Leopard” (tanks). 

But I wonder, Rana, what do you think? I know that you are a firm believer that America’s top priority has to be rebuilding its domestic economy. I think (or thought) that is also what the Biden administration believes. But does pouring military aid into Ukraine really qualify as a “foreign policy for the middle class”? To me, it feels like very traditional American grand strategy: contain Russia and China; take on the main burden for preserving security in both Europe and Asia.

You have expressed strong reservations about the defence commitments that Biden has made towards Taiwan. How do you feel about the Ukraine policy?

As I say, although I have my own reservations about the tanks decision, I’m in favour, on balance, for a mixture of moral and strategic reasons.

The moral case for helping Ukraine to defend itself is hard to argue with. They are the victims of an unprovoked war of aggression. And Russia is committing all manner of war crimes — killing and torturing civilians and abducting children.

It also sounds like the battlefield need for the tanks is real as Russia seems to be preparing to mobilise more than a million more troops. And the self-interested strategic reason also applies. If Russia were to take Ukraine, the fear of further Russian (and maybe Chinese) aggression would mount.

But that said, of course, I’m also uneasy — as, I think, any sane person would be. One of my main concerns is the natural human tendency to confuse what you would like to be true with what is actually true. (Otherwise known as wishful thinking.) The advocates for the tanks decision say that giving the Ukrainians a greater ability to take the offensive will shorten the war. Russia will be forced back and that will lay the basis for a Ukrainian victory.

But Russia is also preparing to step up operations by throwing more troops into battle — and the economic cost to Ukraine is mounting. Some argue that Russia is better placed to win a war of attrition since it has more men to throw into battle and its economy is in better shape. The Russians may also have noticed that, in recent years, the west has not demonstrated tremendous “strategic patience”. The lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan is that we eventually pack up and go home.

Ukraine is also, for understandable reasons, sending mixed messages. In the same conversation you can be told that Ukrainian victory is inevitable, and that if more weapons aren’t sent soon the country is in danger of losing. It’s already clear that the request for tanks will not be the end of it. In fact, the front page of yesterday’s FT was about Ukraine’s request for advanced fighter aircraft.

Less talk is now heard — both in Washington and in Moscow — about the danger of nuclear escalation. It’s believed the Chinese have had a word with the Russians, urging them to dial down the rhetoric. So that’s good.

On the other hand, I was less than reassured last week to hear Boris Johnson give a speech in which he said talk of a Russian nuclear threat is “nonsense”, adding: “He’s not going to use nuclear weapons.”

The experience of the Brexit referendum tells me that when Johnson tells you not to worry — then that really is the time to start worrying. Here is a man infamous for recommending rash courses of action and for failing to think through the consequences.

Johnson is now clinging on to his strong advocacy for the Ukrainians (and I’m assured that he really is a hero there) as his last remaining claim to statesmanship. But even this is a bit dishonest. In a speech in 2016, during the Brexit referendum, Johnson argued that the EU was partly to blame for Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, saying that the EU defence policy had “caused real trouble” and adding: “look at what has happened in Ukraine”. His remarks drew a direct rebuke from 10 Downing Street, which replied, “The illegal annexation of Crimea was brought about by Russia alone.”

Why am I bringing this up now? Well, partly just because I can’t stand Johnson. But also because I think it’s an illustration that people’s positions on Ukraine can be coloured by all sorts of extraneous considerations — such as, in Johnson’s case, a desire for political rehabilitation.

Rana Foroohar responds

Gideon, first, let me say that, like you, I thought our FT colleagues did a fabulous job reporting the “tick-tock,” as we used to say in American news magazine journalism, of the US-Germany agreement to send tanks to Ukraine. I’m also in favour of the decision. I don’t think it’s driven by a grand bargain around containment as much as a decision to support both Ukraine, and Germany, for reasons that are both humanitarian and political (in the sense that it’s about supporting allies, which Biden is truly passionate about). 

What I’d like to know is, what is the US getting — if anything — in return from Germany on the economic front? As the FT piece outlined, “Washington demonstrated to Berlin that it’s willing to do something it wouldn’t have done otherwise for the sake of that relationship”. 

Now, it’s time for Germany to do the same. One could think of plenty of small bore things here — such as lowering auto tariffs in exchange for preferred treatment within the Inflation Reduction Act’s green subsidies, or some such. But I think it’s really time for the US and Germany to have a come-to-Jesus talk about the big-picture stuff. To me, that includes three main issues.

First, what role should the US government play going forward in European defence? It’s clear that the paradigm of the post-world war two era needs to shift, and it’s encouraging that the Germans themselves have acknowledged they need to spend more of their own money on European security. But we need a new, post-neoliberal bargain on what role the US will play in Nato (both in terms of spending and active involvement in conflict), and what it will get in return.

While I know some of our colleagues disagree, I think that middle America still feels a kinship with and some obligation to Europe. But I don’t think that Americans are willing to continue paying as much as they have for European security (and by extension free trade) without some sense that Europe is signing on to things that the US needs support on, for example the American approach to decoupling with the Chinese surveillance state.

That’s the second issue; are we entering a bipolar world (with the US/EU as one pole, and China as another) or a tripolar world, with the US, EU and China in different places, which I think inevitably means that Europe draws closer to China.

While the US restrictions on exporting semiconductors to China were perhaps too broadly written, I think Germany and other countries like the Netherlands or the UK are being wilfully blind to think they can simply pick up the technology trade left behind by the US without totally compromising their own positions on digital privacy, human rights, environmental and labour standards, etc. Europe doesn’t want to make tough choices between the US and China. But this is really about making tough choices between mercantilist impulses and the defence of liberal democracy. Europe needs to get on the right page here.

That gets to the third point: how should the US (and its allies) think about Taiwan? This is a tricky one, not from a moral point of view (we should support allies and liberal democracy) but from a realpolitik standpoint. I don’t think that the US can go it alone in a conflict with China over Taiwan. It would be economically and politically devastating to wage a hot war over the island. There’s been a lot of political posturing around Taiwan. But I’d like to see the US spend much more time on the economic consequences of any Chinese action to take the island. We need to get our own supply chain house in order, understand fully what the economic consequences of decoupling are, and work with allies to create more redundancy not only in semiconductors but in the entire technology supply chain, so that, should there be a major disruption in Taiwan and the South China Sea in general, we aren’t left without a back-up plan.

In short, politics and economics are more intertwined than they have been in half a century — for good and for ill. In that sense, I think quite a bit of overlap exists between foreign policy for the middle class (which assumes international relations must serve domestic as well as global interests) and what’s happening in Ukraine.

Your feedback

And now a word from our Swampians . . .

In response to “An industrial strategy we can all live with”:
“Reading today’s Swamp Notes reminded me how fraught the word ‘strategy’ can be. It seems to me that Rana and Gideon are using the word in two quite different ways: strategy as a destination (encouraging investment in where we need to be tomorrow); and strategy as business plan (investing in what has already been established). The word’s capaciousness can be helpful, particularly for the many consultant- and academic-thought leaders who redefine it constantly. But wouldn’t it be helpful, if any use of the word required a definition from the author/speaker?” — Nan Stone, Cambridge, Massachusetts

“Nothing is absolute. The move by Margaret Thatcher’s government and others to abandon industrial policy and let market forces lead was right at the time. But as many businesses are aware, letting each department do its own thing results in suboptimal decisions. The 2008 financial crash was the result of suboptimal decisions by the financial sector . . . As the Bank of England now does for the financial sector, stress testing of the economy is a crucial role of government. The subsequent industrial policy may not pick winners, but it will result in a country that is a safer and more resilient place to be.” — Mike Frampton, Horsham, West Sussex

Your feedback

We’d love to hear from you. You can email the team on swampnotes, contact Ed on edward.luce and Rana on rana.foroohar, and follow them on Twitter at @RanaForoohar and @EdwardGLuce. We may feature an excerpt of your response in the next newsletter

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