In The National Interest

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 03-27-2023
The folks in Washington tell us that the US must not let Russia win in Ukraine, that this is about sustaining and defending a rules based international order, and that if we don’t stop Russia now, Russia will only want more. And other countries would be convinced that since Russia got away with it, they could as well. Finally, we are also told that only Ukraine gets to decide when to negotiate any truce or ceasefire or whatever.
But what is the US national interest in Ukraine? Do the words match the actions?
To answer that question, it’s first necessary to figure out what is, in fact, a national interest.
Start with this: a national interest is anything on which the federal government spends time and money. Strictly speaking nearly everything is of some interest to the federal government.
It is, for example, in our interest that the Olympics be held in a safe and secure environment and that team selection be conducted with due regard to the use or non-use of performance enhancing drugs. But if the IOC makes some truly silly decision, does that rise to the level of an airborne assault on Lausanne, Switzerland to seize control of IOC headquarters?
If some committee in the European Union changes the definition of cheddar cheese and makes it more difficult for Vermont Dairy farmers to sell their cheese in Europe, do we call for a trade embargo? An airstrike? Nuclear war?
In both cases (and thousands of others) these sorts of things are, in fact, in our national interests but we also have well organized lobbies that will work with Congress, and presumably with the European dairy industry, for example, and eventually something will be worked out, or the case might be brought to the World Trade Organization, maybe it will even end up with Congress crafting a new law. In no case can we imagine landing the Marines for a sharp cheddar.
Which leads to the “Vital National Interest.” Like the phrase “national interest,” this isn’t specifically defined, but it’s possible to see some differences.
Consider the issue of terrorists and terrorist supported insurgencies in the Sahel, that band of land that runs across much of the width of north Africa, along the southern edge of the Sahara, a piece of land that is perhaps 3,000 miles long and 500 or 600 miles wide, roughy half the size of the lower 48 states. For nearly a decade the US has had special operations personnel on the ground in Niger, longer than that in Somalia, and moving in and out of a number of other countries. US forces have been operating in perhaps a dozen countries (the numbers vary depending on which web site you believe and what year you’re referring to), but the point is that at least 3 different administrations, and arguably the last 6 administrations have committed US forces on the ground across Northern and Eastern Africa, and US personnel have been killed in these efforts.
That would seem to suggest that what is happening in the Sahel is viewed by multiple administrations as something concerning which we will not budge, that is, it is a “vital national interest.”
So, is the converse is also true? If something isn’t worth getting US personnel killed, is it not really a “vital national interest?” 
There are perhaps exceptions to that; many trade and technology issues are clearly of significant national interest but they are not going to be resolved by threats of violence, never mind warfare. But arguably, they aren’t “vital,” as, for example, we have seen billions of dollars in copyright and patent infringements flowing into China over the past several decades and yet the nation hasn’t acted decisively to stop it (one estimate places losses at more than half a trillion dollars in the last 20 years).
So, it mustn’t really be “vital.”
Now, ask yourself a simple question: if something is truly a “vital national interest,” should we count on another country to do it for us? If something is said to be of great interest to the nation, but we are not willing to defend that interest ourselves, then arguably it isn’t actually a “vital national interest.” 
So, perhaps we can define a “vital national interest” as anything the US is willing to commit not just assets, but lives, to achieve - whatever it is. We are willing to spend money on ensuring that sports competitions are conducted in accordance with our perspective of fair play. Fair play at the Olympics is in the National Interest. But it is not vital.
We are willing to commit US forces - US personnel in harms way - across much of North Africa. Fighting terrorism in the Sahel is in our vital national interest. 
So, we’re willing to spend money (in fact a great deal of it) in Ukraine but the Ukrainians can decide when to end the war or not; if Ukraine gets to determine when and how the war ends, then US interests will only be realized by accident. Said differently, the end state hasn’t even risen to the point of a US national interest - we’re letting another nation define the end state, never mind labeling it a “vital national interest” and demonstrating a willingness to shed US blood.
Or, perhaps Washington doesn’t mean it when they say that Ukraine gets to decide when the war is over. 
If this war is a US national interest, we need to define the minimum end state, to Ukraine and to the EU. If it’s “vital,” we need to put US forces in place to ensure the outcome. If it’s neither, then we are fighting for a “nice to have,” to the last Ukrainian. Or the DOD and the State Department and the West Wing aren’t being completely honest with what is happening to our money and our stuff.
That’s why this needs to be debated in Congress.