Rally for Ukraine in Washington, DC, February 2022

Washington DC, February 2022. CREDIT: Mike Maguire (CC).

U.S. Leaders Need to Make the "Doorstep" Case for Supporting Ukraine

Feb 28, 2023

Assessing the latest U.S. pledges of support to Ukraine, Newsweek's Katherine Fung notes that the president "will have to make his case to the American people and show them that a significant, sustained commitment to Ukraine is vital" to the United States. Writing in the The New York Times, his Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen puts forward her appeal to the American public for continued U.S. support for Ukraine.

The Treasury secretary frames her case in a humanitarian appeal for supporting a nation that is facing aggression, motivated "by a moral duty to come to the aid of a people under attack." Echoing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, U.S. assistance is also an "investment in global security and democracy"—by showing a commitment to uphold the "rules-based international system" and to prevent forcible changes to borders or forms of government. The broad package, not only of military equipment, but of humanitarian aid and budgetary support to Ukraine's government (to pay for social welfare and government services), is grounded in an ethical assertion that the United States ought to assist others in their "struggles for freedom and justice" against the "brutality and oppression" of Vladimir Putin's invasion.

And yet the comments on Secretary Yellen's op-ed, even if they may be broadly unrepresentative of larger U.S. sentiment, highlight some of the limitations of an appeal couched in this fashion. From questions as to whether this generosity would equally be dispensed to African or Asian nations which have also faced oppression and invasion, to more pointed comments about continuing unmet domestic needs and the ethical obligations owed to poor communities and communities of color, the dispersal of resources always brings up the dilemma of how to balance competing claims. While a majority of Americans have supported providing aid to Ukraine, Pew Trust public opinion data shows that there has been some erosion in that support, which calls into question President Biden's pledge, reinforced by Secretary Yellen, that U.S. assistance will continue "as long as it takes."

Part of the challenge is to better connect the situation in Ukraine to the American doorstep. Many Americans still do not draw a clear connection between the maintenance of a "rules-based international order" with concrete daily concerns—that the U.S. standard of living has been directly connected to the existence of a global system that permits a much higher and sustained degree of trade and economic interaction. The extent to which Americans of all social classes benefit from a world more defined by open trade, communications, and societies "lightly defended," as the late Charles Krauthammer put it, is a world where fewer resources would be diverted to military and security concerns. The Treasury secretary seems to be arguing that a win for the Kremlin in Ukraine could be the first major sign that forcible revision of the international order is a plausible strategy—and opens the doorway to a new period of instability.

Secretary Yellen could also invoke a more direct appeal to naked self-interest. A similar massive U.S. aid program—the Marshall Plan—was also couched in broad-minded terms but also won domestic support by showing how U.S. aid and assistance dispersed through the plan would be translated into increased demand for U.S. goods and services. It is not wrong to note that aiding Ukrainian reconstruction can not only be a moral obligation and a necessary security measure, but also good business.

Ukraine's heroic resistance against the Russian invasion galvanized U.S. public opinion. However, as Pew's John Gramlich has noted, when Americans "have become less likely to see the war as a major threat to the U.S., they have become more likely to say the U.S. is providing too much support to Ukraine." An appeal to broad moral principles of humanitarian obligation may not be enough—and sustaining the U.S. commitment to Ukraine will require U.S. officials to become much more explicit about the doorstep linkages.

For more on Russia's invasion of Ukraine and U.S. foreign policy, don't miss the latest episode of The Doorstep, with Alex S. Vindman.

Ukraine-Russia War Vindman Doorstep podcast Spotify link Ukraine-Russia War Doorstep Apple Podcast link

Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

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