American Foreign Policy and the Ukraine Crisis: Six Probable Consequences beyond the War
Michael Stricof, Aix Marseille Université, LERMA – OREMA
The Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, although many of the consequences remain unknown. Fog of war is real, and it is far too early to comment on events on the ground in Ukraine in more than journalistic fashion. However, the impacts for US international relations can in many ways be judged.
1. NATO reinforced. Whatever Vladimir Putin’s intentions in this specific case, weakening NATO has long been a goal for Russia, which has long felt encircled by the Western alliance. Misinformation campaigns and direct interference have sought to sow mistrust among partners and criticize NATO activities. The invasion of Ukraine has clearly backfired against this strategy. NATO will likely emerge from the sidelines of this war more unified than before, with Europeans more ready to invest in their defense.
2. European defense. The United States has an interest in increases in European defense spending. At the heart of the seemingly transactional discussions of burdensharing, often focusing too narrowly on the percentage of GDP spent by a NATO member on their defense, is a concern about the readiness of European militaries. This is about their ability first to provide a credible deterrent to aggression against the alliance and second to support out of area operations led by the United States. Ready allied forces allow the US to leverage what the National Security Strategy calls “America’s greatest strategic asset.” Alliance are, according to this guidance “a tremendous source of strength and a unique American advantage”. Stronger NATO members in theory minimizes the risks of destabilizing forces like Russia, but even more fundamentally for the future helps the US compete with its primary geostrategic rivalry, China. US alliances provide unique advantages in confronting a country with similar economic (and therefore military) potential. Whether Russian aggression will lead to advances in independent European defense, as French President Emmanuel Macron clearly hopes, is an open question, but reinvestment in NATO or through Europe is clearly likely.
3. China lessons. While strengthening US alliances, the war in Ukraine carries significant potential benefits for China as well as lessons about confrontation with the West. The use of sanctions as a primary tool for punishing Russian aggression, while a well-known strategy, will likely accelerate Chinese decoupling from Western economic systems. Excluding Russian banks from SWIFT, in particular, signals the weakness of depending on a single system for international banking and may lead other powers to adopt Chinese alternatives. Economic decoupling is a goal for both the US and China. The United States seeks to strengthen its supply chains for critical technologies and assure that its own infrastructure as well as that of allies are not a potential source of weakness for a future conflict with China. China, similarly, will continue to challenge the Western dominated institutions and architecture. In return the US will criticize China as opposing the “rules-based international system”. China also may benefit from the current sanctions, as Russia sells its energy elsewhere at a discount. The US desire to reorient Europeans towards confrontation with China may equally be slowed (Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was part of the realities that interrupted Obama’s pivot to Asia), although it remains to be seen if on balance NATO readjusts policy.
4. Modernization priorities. Procurement is about tradeoffs. As the latest National Defense Strategy and National Security Strategy have made clear, the defense budget has limits that will require choices about where and how the US invests in the next generation of military hardware. When these latest strategies were prepared, emphasis was on emerging technologies, especially in space, cyber and other gray zone priorities. The invasion of Ukraine emphasizes the continuing role played by conventional weapons in still-possible open warfare. Russian aggression also raises the specter of escalation. Nuclear deterrence has always been a central part of American defense strategy, but urgency will be injected in current nuclear modernization plans. Although this will unlikely change the official turn towards newer kinds of military technology, limited budgets and never-ending bureaucratic turf wars mean that promised transformations are often less rapid and less complete than public explanations would suggest. The war in Ukraine may, ultimately, slow reinvestment. The Biden administration’s interim National Security Strategy issued in 2021 promised to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons” (while providing necessary updates to maintain the deterrent). The National Defense Strategy and National Military Strategy, when finally available, may already signal a change from this as strategic deterrence gains priority.
5. New partners. Finland, Sweden, Ireland, Austria and even Switzerland have broken historic neutrality in condemning Russian aggression and contributing to the sanctions regime. It is not certain that NATO will gain any new members immediately—indeed discussion of expanding the alliance during the crisis may be an unwise provocation—but Russia is increasingly isolated from potential partners in Europe and membership in or at least collaboration with NATO is increasingly attractive despite the rocky transatlantic relations of the Trump years.
6. US leadership. US National Security Strategy has emphasized the need to renew US leadership in the current crisis-filled world. While the damage of the Trump years and mistrust within the US itself about the importance of international relations diminishes chances for real renewal, the Russian invasion of Ukraine allows the United States to once again position itself as the most legitimate great power for countries worried about Russian or Chinese aggression. New partners and renewed European modernization suggest a rush to align with a reinforced West which is still led, broadly speaking, by the United States.
War in Ukraine remains uncertain, and this list of potential benefits for US foreign policy are theoretical in comparison to the very real suffering occurring in Ukraine. They may also be offset by gains made by China, the US’s main strategic competitor. As events unfold more perspectives will be possible in the short term, and only over the next years as new strategic concepts translate into real defense and foreign policies will consequences be truly measured.