American Grand Strategy, Realism, and the Russo-Ukraine War

Colby co-founded an outfit called the Marathon Initiative. According to its website, this Initiative reflects concern that:

‘America is entering an era of great power competition for which it is not prepared. How to secure American freedom and prosperity in this more competitive age is the organizing national security question of our time.

The mission of The Marathon Initiative is to develop the diplomatic, military, and economic strategies the nation will need to navigate a protracted competition with great power rivals.’

This reflects a common theme in Washington as the US tries to put the long counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan behind it. Now the big challenge of grand strategy is posed by the ongoing rivalry with China, and the possibility that it could turn into a full war, as much as the conduct of the Russo-Ukraine War.

The Pacific versus the Atlantic
Although the Marathon Initiative speaks of ‘rivals’ in the plural Colby believes that there is only one rival that really matters – China. Thus, he describes himself as a ‘Pacific Firster’. His argument is that the US has insufficient capacity to manage conflicts with both Russia and China and so it must choose. In practice until the US sorts out its defense industrial base and produces equipment and ammunition in the necessary quantities, then any material assistance to Ukraine coming from defense stocks limits the US ability to fight China in the near future, which he believes to be a distinct possibility.  

Managing the tension between the distinctive demands of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans has long been an issue in American grand strategy. It was put into sharp relief in December 1941 after the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor. The choice for President Roosevelt was eased somewhat when Hitler almost immediately decided to declare war on the United States. This helped him make the case, encouraged by Winston Churchill, that the priority had to be to defeat Nazi Germany before the full weight of US power could be turned against Japan. This did not mean that the Japanese were left alone. In fact until 1944, more US resources were devoted to containing and pushing back against the Japanese. It was never either/or.

During the 1950s and 1960s, although the major military challenge was to deter the Soviet threat to Western Europe the US found itself fighting two land wars in Asia – first in Korea and then in Vietnam. This century US military interventions have largely been in the Middle East and Central Asia. Just over a decade ago, worried that the Indo-Pacific region was being neglected, President Obama ‘tilted’ US foreign policy back in that direction. But again it was not either/or. The crises over ISIS in Iraq and then the Russian annexation of Crimea required US attention.

With China’s economy and its military capabilities growing, and its rhetoric and policies became more assertive, especially towards Taiwan, the consensus view now in Washington is that the US is facing a severe long-term challenge in the Indo-Pacific region from which it dare not resile and for which it must prepare. Under Trump trade and defense policies shifted to a much more adversarial stance, and this continued under Biden. I was struck in a visit to Washington a year ago of the strength of the view that China is the real enemy, which means that Ukraine was something of a distraction, taking energy and effort away from the Pacific and sending it back across the Atlantic.

How much need this be either/or? While the Chinese challenge is real the possibility that this might lead to an early war is speculative. At some point China may decide to take Taiwan and the United States will feel obliged to respond. But there are also reasons why Beijing may hold fire – so long as Taiwan doesn’t force the issue by declaring itself to be independent of the mainland. China has entered a period of economic turbulence and President Xi might prefer to steer the country to calmer conditions rather than add to the storms by embarking on a chancy military adventure. It has to work out how to handle the other tensions in its neighborhood – over its claims in the South China Sea or its border dispute with India.

Furthermore, the geopolitical divide between the Atlantic and the Pacific is no longer as sharp as it once seemed to be. American allies in the Pacific region – Australia, Japan, South Korea – have also become active supporters of Ukraine, while the main European powers have acknowledged that they also have vital strategic interests in the Pacific. What happens to Ukraine has relevance to the Pacific region. The quality of the US alliance network will be undermined if states lose confidence, once again, in the staying power of the US - if having promised to support Ukraine ‘for as long as it takes’ it gets bored or frustrated and walks away.

There is also a demonstration effect. If Russia, a supposed partner of China, continues to struggle in a war it started then that provides a timely reminder about why it is best not to try to solve problems with armed force unless there really is no other option. From this perspective one might assume that the Marathon Initiative would be pleased about Russia’s stumble into a long, costly, and futile war, and that it would be helpful to ensure that it stumbled even more. Should Russia recover its position and even prevail then it would create a major security crisis that would leave the US with even less capacity to focus on China. For a relatively small price, in terms of overall GDP, the US and its allies have been able to reduce the future threat posed by Russia. Thus Senator Mitt Romney (R- Utah) has argued that:

The single most important thing we can do to strengthen America relative to China is to see Russia defeated in Ukraine. A weakened Russia deters the CCP’s territorial ambition, and halts Putin’s vision of reestablishing the old Soviet Union. Supporting Ukraine is in our interest.

For Romney, diminishing Russia’s military capabilities for less than five percent of the defense budget, and without US troops actually doing any fighting makes good strategic sense.

Why Does Colby Disagree?
In the immediate aftermath of the full-scale Russian invasion Colby urged support for Ukraine while stressing that the defense of Taiwan had to come first. While others wished to do more than he proposed, he was not for away from the mainstream.

We should quickly and robustly bolster Ukraine’s ability to defend itself, providing Ukraine’s defenders with weapons, including anti-tank and anti-air systems, as well as other forms of aid like intelligence support, energy, and food. The Russians gave us a model of how to do this in their support of North Vietnam and the Viet Cong.

He was keen that the European allies should raise their game in their military preparedness as well as supporting Ukraine. It was a fine balance but the hope was that Ukraine could be backed without Taiwan being neglected.

The longer the war has gone on, the more concerned he has become that this balance was being lost, tipping too far away from Taiwan. In a July article Colby described the dilemma facing Washington as follows:

America and Europe need to prepare for the long-haul in addressing European security, even as America must urgently shift to prioritizing readying for a conflict with China in the Western Pacific.

Now limits must be put on what can be sent to Ukraine:

Any resources that could be useful for defeating a Chinese attack along the first island chain should be reserved to that end. This includes strike weapons like HIMARS, ATACMS, GMLRS, and tactical UAVs as well as defensive systems such as Patriot, NASAMS, Harpoons, Stingers, and Javelins that Taiwanese or U.S. defenders could use to degrade an invasion force.

Therefore the burden of helping Ukraine should shift to the Europeans. According to Colby they have not yet done enough ‘to both rearm themselves and arm Ukraine consistent with what strategic reality requires.’ One way to be sure they got the message was for Washington to be ‘clear and credible’ about its Pacific focus. If they don’t do the necessary, the US will not bail them out. The US could still provide some weapons – those that are ill-suited for a fight against China, largely old aircraft and some tanks and fighting vehicles that would otherwise be retired. And the more Europe takes responsibility for its own defense and Ukraine’s, the more the US can release capabilities held in the in the European theatre.

Again, Colby is not unique in believing that the Europeans should take defense more seriously and spend more. This has been a regular theme of American commentary on European security for decades, and while more is being done for Ukraine than often appreciated, there are real grounds for concern that they will fall short in terms of what is needed for the long-term. Unfortunately, even if Europeans embraced Colby’s approach, and were prepared to take over responsibility for Ukraine from the US this would be an extremely long-term project and incredibly disruptive. Meanwhile there is a bitter fight underway and Ukraine needs everything it can get now.

In short, Colby’s position appears to be that in order to preserve military assets for a war that may occur in the future, and would in the first instance be quite different in kind to that underway in Ukraine (much more maritime for starters), Ukraine should be denied assets it desperately needs in the vague hope that Europe will make up the shortfall, though, with the best will in the world, this could not be done in time to affect the war’s outcome.

So something has to give. Colby is worried that the Pacific imperative will lose out to the European. It is no longer clear exactly what Colby believes can be done for Ukraine to help it push Russian forces out of its country only that whatever it is, it should not be provided by the United States.

The Vietnam Analogy
On 25 August Colby posted a thread on Twitter. It was this that got me interested in his views, because, to be frank, I found the analogy a bit odd. Still the advantage of analogical reasoning is that by comparing situations with some apparent similarities you can also explore the differences. This is what he posted.

The echoes of Vietnam in U.S. policy toward Ukraine today are a lot stronger than is commonly admitted. It’s far from an exact analogy. But there’s more to take heed of than the complete dismissal of the relevance of Vietnam suggests. 1/

Support for South Vietnam started as a universally-supported cause of defense against aggression. The U.S. was not directly involved in the first years. But our own rhetoric and investment in the conflict upped the stakes. We tied our own credibility more and more to it. 2/

Our approach in the early years was about building up Saigon’s ability to defend itself. But what would we do when South Vietnam was on the verge of losing? That was the key question by 1963-1965. And by that point we had built Vietnam into a whole test of our credibility. 3/

LBJ didn’t *want* to get directly involved in Vietnam. Far from it. But by that point he didn’t think he could just let it go down. He and Washington as a whole had talked it up way too much. 4/

Further, the whole approach to Vietnam until late in the war was characterized by middle course measures - splitting the baby. More troops here, less bombing there, restrictions on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and Haiphong, etc. No single decision was foolhardy. They were middling. 5/

But the total effect of a whole succession of middle course decisions was - to put it tragically mildly - very suboptimal. We started out with advisors but by 1968 we found ourselves with 500,000 troops in country, Westmoreland asking for more, and no good end in sight. 6/

We didn’t end up there by stupidity. As today, there were voices arguing for us to ignore the huge escalation/quagmire reputational risks of invading the North or nuking the Red River Dikes. These weren’t serious options. But then half-measures left us in a very bad place. 7/

Was there a better path in Vietnam? I’m really not sure. That’s one of the tragedies of the War. But we definitely would have been better off if we had realistically evaluated things and made the hard choices earlier. 8/

I think that’s the “lesson” of Vietnam for U.S. policy toward Ukraine. Let’s be *really clear and realistic* in how important the Ukraine conflict is for Americans, where it’s realistically heading, what it’ll involve to continue pursuing it, and how far we’re prepared to go. 9/

What stands out in this thread? It is about the consequences of making a commitment to an ally that then began to lose. To honor the commitment it was necessary to invest far more in the fight, in this case sending US forces to fight on South Vietnam’s behalf. But then the US was unable to agree on a decisive strategy one way or the other - going all in or getting out.

Does the Vietnam experience provide guidance on what to do about Ukraine? The differences between the two situations suggests not.

First, the big issue in the early 1960s was whether or not to put in US ground forces and if so how many. That matter has already been decided by the US for Ukraine. President Biden made it clear from Day One that no US forces were going to fight in Ukraine. He wishes to avoid a direct confrontation with Russia.

Second, during the early 1960s President Kennedy was reluctant to send in the army or marines, although the advisers that were dispatched hardly played a passive role. He saw the challenge as not one of defeating the Viet Cong in pitched battles, but of dealing with an insurgency in which the South Vietnamese government was losing control of rural areas. Part of the problem was the deep unpopularity and corruption of President Ngo Dinh Diem. In many ways the turning point was the assassination of Diem a couple of weeks before Kennedy’s own assassination in November 1963. This was followed by continuing instability in Saigon. None of this is relevant to the current war in Ukraine.

Third while it is true that the US failed to find and stick with a war-winning strategy, the commitment was hardly half-hearted. There were massive troop commitments and bombing campaigns.

The analogy soon falls apart. Ukraine is a not a counter-insurgency campaign but resistance to foreign occupation, and the US has not committed troops. Ukraine is not divided and it has a stable leadership.

We are then left with what Colby identifies as the top ‘lesson’ of Vietnam for US policy toward Ukraine. He wants clarity on

‘how important the Ukraine conflict is for Americans, where it’s realistically heading, what it’ll involve to continue pursuing it, and how far we’re prepared to go.’

Yet not only is the scale of US engagement in Ukraine marginal compared to Vietnam there is also far less controversy about the nature of the war and what continuing with existing policy requires. The main criticism is that the Administration has been too cautious when it comes to certain types of weapons, but that is not the criticism being made here.

Here the criticism is that the Administration has failed to explain how it can bring this war (which remember it is not actually fighting) to a satisfactory end. Thus to quote one group supporting this critique (Concerned Veterans for America) it sends ‘confused and mixed signals about its desired end-state in Ukraine.’ It then goes on to say:

‘Russia’s war on Ukraine is immoral and unjustified. Prolonging or expanding the war will only bring more devastation and suffering for the Ukrainian people, leaving them worse off and Americans no safer or more prosperous.’ 

This statement is hardly a masterpiece of clarity. It recognizes the Russian role in starting the war but glosses over its responsibility for its prolongation and expansion. It is no more coherent than leftist critiques that argue that Ukrainians have been manipulated into fighting to enrich American defense contractors. As Ukrainians regularly point out a Russian occupation is hardly going to ease their suffering.

Realism and Realists
Recent news from the front has been more positive for Ukraine, although there is still a long way to go and all gains are achieved at a high cost. It has long been evident that Putin’s strategy is to keep the war going for as long as possible in the hope that Western opinion will turn, though he also hoped that his own forces would do better in their offensives. Even before the start of Ukraine’s June offensive, as the scale of the military task came into view, there was a shift to a longer-term perspective. The focus now is on sustaining the war into next year and even beyond.

Recognizing this and working how to cope over the long-term seems to me to be eminently realistic. To me ‘realism’ is a natural requirement for assessing international politics. It accepts the need to deal with the world as it is rather than how one wishes it to be, judging actions by their consequences rather than their motives, paying attention to hard factors of power, including armed force, and calculations of interests when working out strategies, avoiding wishful thinking and doubting appeals to the ‘better nature’ of foreign governments.

In this respect realism can support a variety of positions. It can see virtue in restraint and keeping clear of overseas entanglements but also explain why it is best to confront a state acting aggressively soon rather than later. It does not preclude trusting other governments because interests can be shared and alliances can enhance security. Nor need it be antithetical to idealism. There are great causes worthy of support. All that realism requires is that they are pursued with due regard for what is possible rather than simply what is desirable. It should encourage a grounded discussion about the risks and possibilities of alternative courses of action.

Unfortunately, the term has been appropriated by one position in the current debates, those most skeptical of supporting Ukraine, suggesting that those with a different view are by definition ‘unrealistic’. Colby and other self-declared Realists have taken to highlighting the military challenges faced by Ukraine, and reports about Russia’s ability to sustain its war efforts, as a blow to the Administration’s strategy. This even gets to the point where a lack of Ukrainian military progress is presented as vindication of the theory and one in the eye for liberal internationalists.

Yet these Realists, with a capital ‘R’, have no better idea about how to bring an early end to the war, other than making it impossible for Ukraine to continue. Even those convinced that a negotiation must come flounder when faced with the determination of Ukrainians not to given in to a cruel occupation and Putin’s demands that Ukraine agree the partition of its territory. In the current circumstances it is unavoidably difficult to explain when and how this war will end. Any attempt to do so would be a work of fiction. Wars are contests between two opposing wills. Nothing ever quite goes as smoothly as might be wished in military operations. This war has been through many twists and turns already. There are more to come.

Choices in foreign policy are never simple and are always sub-optimal. The choice faced now is whether to continue to support Ukraine fighting a messy, tragic war, which it may take time to win, or to let it carry on alone, with the prospect of an even more tragic conclusion from which the Western Alliance, let alone Ukraine, might never recover. As Western countries are not actually doing the fighting and have the resources to sustain Ukraine in its struggle, in the end this is not that difficult a choice to make.

Lawrence Freedman is Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London. The article originally appeared on Lawrence Freedman’s Substack “Comment is Freed.”