Sure, it works in practice, but does it work in theory?
Over the years, I’ve heard this parody of academic pomposity put in the lips of various targets, from French intellectuals to University of Chicago economists. Lately, though, I’ve begun thinking it myself — about the hawkish side in the debate over the Ukraine war, whose practical policies have so far achieved favorable results but whose deeper theories of the conflict still seem implausible, unworkable or dangerous.
I was not a Ukraine hawk before the war came. I felt the United States had overextended itself with its half-open door to NATO membership and that eastern Ukraine, at least, wasn’t defensible against Russian aggression without a full-scale U.S. military commitment. Sending arms to Kyiv probably made sense, but as a means of eventually bogging down a Russian incursion, not stopping it outright. And a Ukrainian collapse, of the kind we saw from our client government in Afghanistan, seemed within the realm of possibility.
The war itself has defied those expectations. The hawks were proven right about Ukraine’s simple capacity to fight. They were proven right that American arms could actually help blunt a Russian invasion, not just create an insurgency behind its lines. And their psychological read on Russian President Vladimir Putin has been partially vindicated as well: His choices suggest a man motivated as much by imperial restoration as by anti-NATO defensiveness, and his conduct of the war offers little evidence that there is a stable, permanent peace available even with Ukrainian concessions.
So in the realm of practical policy to date, I have joined the hawks. Our military support for Ukraine has worked: We have safeguarded a sovereign nation and weakened a rival without dangerous escalation from the Russian side. And for now, with Russia continuing to mount offensives while mostly avoiding the bargaining table, there isn’t any obvious “off-ramp” to peace that we ought to force Kyiv to take.
Yet, when I read the broader theories of hawkish commentators, their ideas about America’s strategic vision and what kind of endgame we should be seeking in the war, I still find myself baffled by their confidence and absolutism.
For instance, for all their defensive successes, we have not yet established that Ukraine’s military can regain significant amounts of territory in the country’s south and east. Yet, we have Anne Applebaum of The Atlantic insisting that only Putin’s defeat and indeed “humiliation” can restore European stability, while elsewhere in the same magazine, Casey Michel calls for dismantling the Russian Federation, framed as the “decolonization” of Russia’s remaining empire, as the only policy for lasting peace.
Or again, the United States has currently committed an extraordinary sum to back Ukraine — far more than we spent in foreign aid to Afghanistan in any recent year, for instance — and our support roughly trebles the support offered by the European Union. Yet when this newspaper’s editorial board raised questions about the sustainability of such support, the response from many Ukraine hawks was a furious How dare you — with an emphasis, to quote Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution, on Ukraine’s absolute right to fight “until every inch of their territory is free”; America’s strictly “modest” and “advisory” role in Ukrainian decision-making; and the importance of offering Kyiv, if not a blank check, at least a “very very big check with more checks to follow.”
These theories all seem to confuse what is desirable with what is likely — and what is morally ideal with what is strategically achievable. I have written previously about the risks of nuclear escalation in the event of a Russian military collapse, risks that hawkish theories understate. But given the state of the war right now, the more likely near-future scenario is one where Russian collapse remains a pleasant fancy, the conflict becomes stalemated and frozen, and we have to put our Ukrainian policy on a sustainable footing without removing Putin’s regime or dismantling the Russian empire.
In that scenario, our plan cannot be to keep writing countless checks while tiptoeing modestly around the Ukrainians and letting them dictate the ends to which our guns and weaponry are used. The United States is an embattled global hegemon facing threats more significant than Russia. We are also an internally divided country led by an unpopular president whose majorities may be poised for political collapse. So if Kyiv and Moscow are headed for a multiyear or even multidecade frozen conflict, we will need to push Ukraine toward its most realistic — rather than its most ambitious — military strategy. And just as urgently, we will need to shift some of the burden of supporting Kyiv from our own budget to our European allies.
Those goals are compatible with what we’ve done to date, and they can obviously be adapted if better opportunities suddenly arise. But a good strategic theory needs to assume difficulty, challenge, limits. The danger now is that the practical achievements of our hawkish policy encourages the opposite kind of theorizing, a hubris that squanders our still-provisional success.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.