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The National Interest: Americans Are Not Ready to Go to War for Ukraine

28.04.2017 12:01

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson committed what amounts to an unconscionable sin in the eyes of many foreign policy watchers when he wondered aloud two weeks ago during a meeting in Lucca, Italy, "Why should U.S. taxpayers be interested in Ukraine?"

The more important question isn’t “Why should Americans care about Ukraine?” But rather “How much should Americans care about Ukraine?” or “What should Americans be willing to risk, and to spend, to affirm Ukraine’s territorial integrity?”

And it is here where we can see a sharp disconnect between foreign policy elites and the public at large, a divide that Donald Trump ruthlessly exploited with his “America First” rhetoric during the campaign, and in the earliest days of his presidency.

Several years ago, a poll asked Americans if they'd be willing to go to war with Russia to protect Poland, Turkey and Latvia. The respondents said 40, 29 and 21 percent for yes, respectively. Only 56 percent would defend the United Kingdom. These are all formal U.S. treaty allies. Ukraine is not. The same poll found that 22 percent of respondents would be willing to go to war with Russia over Ukraine.

One may discount the accuracy of such polls. Given a high “not sure” response rate, it would be reasonable to predict that public sentiment would change if a president forcefully called for U.S. military action. Still, we cannot ignore that, for most Americans, defending the security of others is not the essence of what makes America special. Indeed, it ranked dead last in a list of twelve possible “very important” foreign policy goals in the latest Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll.

Today, some of the widest gaps can be seen between Republican elites and Republican voters. The poll, taken before the November election, found that 71 percent of GOP leaders counted “defending our allies’ security” as “very important,” whereas just 36 percent of rank-and-file Republicans felt the same way.

In general, Americans care about others, but they rarely care enough to risk American lives in the service of certain principles. It isn’t even clear that most Americans would be willing to pay higher taxes, or accept cuts in popular domestic spending programs, as a sign of their caring for others’ security. We may celebrate or lament such public sentiment. But we shouldn't ignore it. And Secretary of State Tillerson should be praised, not excoriated, for daring to ask an essential question.