The Great Bret Stephens Unfairly Marginalizes Opposition to U.S. Involvement In Ukraine
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Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was 12th century animalistic, sickeningly inhumane, and most important of all, mindless. Think about it. If plunder is one’s goal, or simply one of getting, the easy answer is openness to goods, services and people. This way the country choosing openness over invasion is taking in the best of what people in the other country produce, and as though they live next door. Also, if your country is better run you’ll attract the people who make the country not invaded desirable in the first place, and without loss of blood and treasure. So while Putin’s actions vis-à-vis Ukraine are reprehensible, I’m strongly of the view that the U.S. should have no role in helping Ukraine defend itself.

The great Bret Stephens of the New York Times asserts that the “most vocal opposition” to U.S. involvement in Ukraine comes from the “hard right,” and it’s opposition that at least on the surface lacks a “coherent philosophical grounding.” The view here is that Stephens has been too dismissive, and unwilling to look deeper into the why behind opposition. It’s not as shallow as he claims. Please read on.

Stephens writes that Ukraine doves are frequently "uber-hawks when it comes to China.” In my case, I write in opinion piece after opinion piece that the Chinese people are presently conducting a passionate love affair with all things American, and that we must be free to engage with them without restraint. Economies are just people, and the U.S. economy is exponentially bigger thanks to the entrance of the formerly starving Chinese into the “closed economy” that is the world economy. As opposed to the Chinese “taking our jobs,” their entrance into the global labor force has released fortunate Americans into much better, much more remunerative forms of work at the same time that the Chinese have been producing feverishly for us on the way to ever-soaring American living standards.

Only for the genius of openness to China to bear even greater, more peaceful fruits. It was either Fredric Bastiat, Cordell Hull or both who observed that “when goods can’t cross borders, armies do.” With each passing day as Americans and Chinese become more and more reliant on one another, the cost of a war between both countries grows and grows. Trade not only improves those who engage in it, it’s peaceful for powerfully raising the price of armed conflict.

All of the above rates mention given Stephens’s assertion that some of the so-called Ukraine doves would prefer that the resources directed to Ukraine “be held in reserve for a looming battle with Beijing over Taiwan.” Actually, no thanks. See above. From there, it’s not discussed enough just how much cross border investment takes place between Taiwan and the Mainland. The hope here is that the U.S. sidelining itself will lead to a more peaceful resolution. Naïve stuff of a hopeless dove? Possibly, but it’s arguably even more naïve to presume that the American people will countenance the staggering loss of men and treasure that would result from a defense of Taiwan. Better to encourage the trade and investment that would make invasion of Taiwan incredibly costly for the Chinese.

Stephens adds that the Ukraine doves are “the people who believe in the absolute inviolability of America’s southern border.” Not me. While Stephens occasionally calls for the building of a wall in his excellent exchanges with Gail Collins, my view is that walls and heavily armed boarders are in truth the epitome of big government, and worse, they’re the border crisis for suffocating the expression of market realities. The market reality is that so long as the U.S. is the world’s most prosperous country, people will risk everything to get here. Rather than step on this market signal, the political class should legalize work in the U.S. Per Stephens’s former Wall Street Journal colleague Joel Millman, those in Mexico who are legal to cross back-and-forth between Mexico and the U.S. don’t bring grandma, mother, the kids, and everything else they own when there’s work to be done. In other words, we have a border problem because we presume that market intervention works, and that by extension walls and guns will quiet markets. Good luck with that.

Back to Russia and Putin, it’s often said that if we do nothing about Ukraine, Putin will sense weakness and won’t stop at Ukraine. One senses Stephens has said as much. Except that such a view wasn’t even realistic before Putin’s invasion revealed the Russian military as much less than previously imagined. That is so because Stephens’s own New York Times reported as recently as 2021 that total Russian government debt is $190 billion. What the previous number tells us is not that Putin is a closet Classical economic thinker who properly sees government spending as the ultimate tax, but it does tell us investors are very skeptical about Russia’s economic future. Put another way, Russia doesn’t have the economy to expand militarily, let alone the military.

Please keep total Russian debt top of mind as federal lawmakers vote Ukraine tens of billions in support. The massive amount of American aid to Ukraine is first an indication of just how blithely American politicians can throw around money (a danger in and of itself), but more troubling, it’s a signal of the somewhat terrifying reality that we’re already at war with Russia.

It all raises a basic question: would Americans be willing to spill blood in addition to treasure over Ukraine? It’s possible we would in the way that it’s possible Americans wouldn’t mind enormous death and wealth destruction based on our being part of a China/Taiwan conflict, but color me skeptical. War isn’t just expensive from a trade perspective, it’s incredibly expensive from a life perspective. The bet here is that exponentially more Americans would look askance at our defense of Ukraine if they thought it could lead to actual war with Russia.

All of which calls for further questions about whether we should bleed treasure now, and possibly more than treasure for Ukraine. It’s worth asking simply because Ukraine was for the longest time part of Russia. All it takes to realize the previous truth is to read Leo Tolstoy, and the other great Russian novelists. The great British journalist Viv Groskop writes of Nikolai Gogol as “the most adorable of all the Russian writers,” but as my RealClearMarkets colleague Rob Smith has pointed out, Gogol was Ukrainian. In my case, I grew up in the closing decades of the Cold War as did Stephens: Chernobyl, Kiev and Odessa were distinctly Russian, or Soviet cities. This once again isn’t to defend what Putin has so mindlessly done in Ukraine, but it is to question our involvement there.

Interesting about the many conservatives who support what we’re doing in Ukraine, how quickly things change. Not too many years ago Ukraine was viewed as corrupt, run by oligarchs connected to government, and who were buying political influence in the U.S. through errant sons of prominent politicians. Has something changed since 2020, or is Ukraine still corrupt much like Russia is? Which speaks to another reason I question our involvement: how much would life be different for Ukrainians if Russian troops had taken over in February of 2022 without any resistance?

It would be great if the above question were at least asked, or thought about. Can the Ukraine “hawks” really believe that life under Putin would presently be much different than under Zelensky? Whatever the answer, we can certainly put a number on how many fewer Russians and Ukrainians would have been maimed and killed absent a drawn out war made possible by U.S. aid and military know-how, not to mention how much better shape Ukraine’s cities would be in absent bombing and warring that seemingly has no endpoint. It’s a long way of saying I’m against our involvement in Ukraine simply because it’s hard not to be horrified by the hundreds of thousands of dead on both sides, and the monumental wealth destruction in Ukraine.

Which leads me to my biggest reason for not wanting anything to do with Ukraine: governmental incompetence. Stephens knows this is real. His weekly exchanges with Gail Collins drip with skepticism about our political minders. With good reason. I’m merely saying that governmental incompetence doesn’t stop at our borders. And it’s arguably magnified when you match the frequently incompetent with endless amounts of money. I want nothing to do with Ukraine out of fear that the U.S. political class will make the situation in Ukraine much worse

Closing up what’s gone on too long, Stephens claims that Ukraine doves include “the same people who fault Biden’s shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan.” It’s a bit of a non sequitur, but illuminating as a reminder of just how bad our intervention can make things despite Stephens’s recent protests otherwise.

Instead of “doing something” every time people, businesses and countries need help, how about opening our borders to Ukrainians who would prefer not to be ruled by Russia? As Tolstoy crucially pointed out in War and Peace, Napoleon’s arrival to an empty Moscow deprived him of the purpose of taking Moscow. And it was the beginning of the end for him. Rather than risk lives and potentially American lives with guns, how about warring with Putin by draining Ukraine of the people who make it Ukraine?

John Tamny is editor of RealClearMarkets, Vice President at FreedomWorks, a senior fellow at the Market Institute, and a senior economic adviser to Applied Finance Advisors ( His latest book is The Money Confusion: How Illiteracy About Currencies and Inflation Sets the Stage For the Crypto Revolution.

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