Capstones: The Free World's Wall of Strength
Ukraine’s tenacious defense of freedom in the face of Vladimir Putin’s criminal war has inspired the world, reawakened NATO, and re-reminded Americans that our ideals and interests are woven together. President Joe Biden should seize this moment to rebuild, fortify and expand what he aptly called the “wall of strength” embodied by the freedom-fighters of Ukraine.
The blueprint for this effort is found in what President Franklin Roosevelt described as “armed defense of democratic existence.”
First, America must reconstitute its deterrent military strength by pursuing, in FDR’s words, “a swift and driving increase in our armament production.”
America cannot deter war or defend the Free World on the cheap. In a time of metastasizing threats—backdropped by Putin’s invasion of Georgia and first invasion of Ukraine, Beijing’s military buildup and militarization of illegal manmade islands in the South China Sea, Iran’s expansion across the Middle East, North Korea’s nuclear tests and missile tests, the ISIS blitzkrieg through Syria and Iraq—the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration guillotined the defense budget from 4.7 percent of GDP in 2009 to 3 percent by 2016. Even today, the U.S. spends just 3.2 percent of GDP on defense; the Cold War average was more than twice that.
To contain this axis of tyrants and terrorists—and to keep Cold War II from turning any hotter—America must shift toward Cold War levels of defense spending. With expenditures on new (Affordable Care Act) and unforeseen (COVID relief) domestic programs consuming an ever-greater share of the federal budget the past decade, this won’t be easy. As historian Niall Ferguson observes, “Americans like security. But they like Social Security more than they like national security.” New generations of Americans—those with no memory of cold wars or world wars—are learning that the primary responsibility of government is to provide “security against foreign danger,” as James Madison explained. Awake to the danger, the president and congressional leaders are now talking about a much larger defense budget.
Second, allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific must join the rearmament effort. There are hopeful signs on this front. Defense spending was inching upward in Britain and Europe even before the siege of Ukraine. Germany’s February transformation points to far more dramatic and rapid increases. In a stunning reversal, Germany announced that it’s nearly doubling defense spending to 2 percent of GDP (something Washington and NATO have been begging Berlin to do since 2006); unveiled a massive $112.7-billion rearmament fund; and has decided to modernize its aging air force with F-35s. Post-Ukraine, Germany will no longer be a free-rider in the Free World.
Poland—thrust to the frontlines of Cold War II by Putin’s invasion—announced that its defense budget will jump to 3 percent of GDP next year. French President Emmanuel Macron recently announced that his government would increase defense spending, calling it “the price for peace, freedom and democracy.” Italy has outlined plans to lift its defense budget to the NATO standard of 2 percent of GDP. Estonia and Lithuania are increasing defense spending, and Latvia is increasing defense spending by 13 percent this year. The Dutch government is reworking its defense budget, with Prime Minister Mark Rutte declaring in March, “The Netherlands will spend a lot of extra money on defense.” Norway, which shares land and maritime borders with Russia, is making immediate emergency investments to increase the number and tempo of naval deployments, bolster ammunition and fuel stocks, and enhance its ability to receive allied reinforcements. Romania is increasing defense spending by 23.7 percent for FY2023.
Free World allies in the Indo-Pacific are a step ahead of Europe: South Korea’s defense budget is 64-percent larger (as a share of GPD) than that of European NATO. Japan has increased defense spending 10 consecutive years, is upconverting warships into aircraft carriers ready to deploy F-35s, and is discussing Cold War-style nuclear-sharing arrangements. Australia is expanding basing arrangements for U.S. air and ground forces, increasing defense spending by 40 percent, and partnering with the U.S. and Britain to add nuclear-powered submarines to its arsenal.
Third, the Free World must help free peoples defend themselves. “Let us say to the democracies,” in FDR’s words, “we Americans are vitally concerned in your defense of freedom. We are putting forth our energies, our resources and our organizing powers to give you the strength to regain and maintain a free world.”
Ukraine illustrates how even an outmatched force—if committed and equipped with the right mix of weapons—can hold back a full-spectrum military power. Yet Russia’s rampage through Ukraine also reminds us that helping free nations harden their territory against invasion is preferable to scrambling to help them try to claw it back.
FDR’s promise to devote America’s energies, resources and organizing powers—what he called the “great arsenal of democracy”—to those willing to fight for freedom prepared the battlespace for U.S. entry into World War II and shaped how America waged Cold War I. Vowing to “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures,” the Truman Doctrine provided a roadmap for Cold War I. And declaring that “support for freedom-fighters is self-defense,” the Reagan Doctrine hastened the end of Cold War I.
In these early hours of Cold War II, the Biden administration should invite democratic partners to join the U.S. in pooling their energies, resources and organizing powers to help nations in the crosshairs of tyrant regimes defend their freedom. Call it the Biden Doctrine. The Free World’s effort in Ukraine can serve as a template. Now, as in the 1940s and 1980s, support for freedom-fighters is a matter of self-defense.
In Europe, this translates into ongoing material support to sustain a free Ukraine and its heroic defenders. NATO is off to a good start in this regard: The U.S. has shipped small-arms ammunition, mortar and artillery shells, Javelin antitank systems, Stinger antiaircraft missiles, and grenade launchers. Britain has delivered antitank and antiaircraft missiles. The Balts have sent antiaircraft and antitank weapons, Poland antiaircraft weapons, the Czech Republic assault rifles, Turkey ground-attack drones, Germany antitank weapons and surface-to-air missiles, Canada and Denmark antitank weapons, Spain ammunition and RPGs. Even neutral Sweden and Finland have delivered thousands of antitank systems. All told, 28 countries are shipping military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine in its fight for survival.
After winning the Battle of Kiev, Ukraine needs the weapons to keep flowing to hold on to territory in the east and to retake as much of Putin-occupied Ukraine as possible. With Washington delivering on a multi-billion-dollar aid package, NATO establishing an “international donor coordination center” for weapons delivery, new weapons and pledges coming daily, and Russia sustaining unimaginably brutal losses, there’s every indication that Ukraine can and will make Putin’s regime bleed for a long time.
Beyond Ukraine, defensive weapons should flow to Georgia and Moldova (where Russian outposts are bitterly opposed). NATO should bolster Kosovo against Russian interference and outright subversion. And NATO should remove any obstacles standing in the way of Sweden and/or Finland joining the alliance. The invasion of Ukraine has added fuel to the NATO-membership movement within both of these long-time neutrals.
With U.S. forces already heavily committed in Poland, NATO should convert its rotational presence in the Baltics into permanent defensive installations (something Washington is finally considering). To their credit, NATO’s political leaders recently announced that in addition to existing multinational battlegroups in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, the alliance is standing up four more in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. Washington should deploy U.S. ground units in each of these battlegroups. There’s a reason U.S. forces were based in West Berlin throughout the Cold War, along the 38th Parallel since 1953, in Kuwait since 1991 and in Kosovo since 1999. It’s the same reason Poles cheered the arrival of American soldiers after Putin’s first invasion of Ukraine: American troops make it clear that crossing this line means you are going to war against America—no ambiguity or doubts about the consequences.
If Putin survives the guerrilla war, financial onslaught and diplomatic isolation he’s unleashed upon himself, this “wall of strength” in Europe will help him see that his plans for a reconstituted Russian Empire will not and cannot succeed. As Churchill said of Putin’s predecessors, “There is nothing they admire so much as strength.”
In the Indo-Pacific, the Free World should fortify Taiwan’s island democracy with “porcupine defenses”—drones capable of swarm attacks, shoulder-launched antiaircraft missiles, anti-personnel and anti-armor systems, nondigital communications operable despite cyberattacks, a citizenry trained in and equipped for small-unit operations. These are the kinds of countermeasures that have bled Putin’s army. Indeed, Xi Jinping must be made to understand that attempting in Taiwan what Putin has done in Ukraine will lead not to victory parades and an ascendant legacy, but to his soldiers in body bags, his military hardware in flames, his invasion force and international standing in tatters.
Beyond Taiwan, the Quad—enfolding the U.S., India, Australia and Japan—needs to increase joint military exercises, enhance interoperability and deepen coordination in every domain.
The region’s thin web of missile defenses must be widened beyond the U.S., Japan and Australia.
With an array of “anti-access/area-denial” (A2/AD) missile systems, Beijing believes it has checkmated allied maritime power. Indo-Pacific allies should show Beijing that two can play the A2/AD game. As researchers at RAND detail, the U.S. and partner nations—Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines—could rapidly field a network of anti-ship missiles to “challenge Chinese maritime freedom of action should China choose to use force against its island neighbors.
In the Americas, where Russia long ago reverted to its Cold War tactics and where China is buying loyalty, access and military toeholds, Washington should point to Ukraine and Hong Kong as evidence of how “partnership” with these ruthless regimes ultimately ends.
Here at home, Washington’s decision to stop importing oil from Putin’s Russia (which accounts for 7 percent of U.S. petroleum imports) is an important step. The next step is to unleash America’s vast energy endowment (264 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, 327 trillion cubic-feet of natural gas in the Outer Continental Shelf, 3 trillion barrels of oil-shale deposits) and then flood the international market with American energy. As Gen. Martin Dempsey, former Joint Chiefs chairman, observes, Washington must view “energy as an instrument of national power.” Of course, this would require a dramatic shift in the administration’s full-tilt drive for green energy and rigid pursuit of climate-change goals.
In response to Putin’s militarization of the Arctic, NATO should coordinate the defense of alliance territory and interests in the High North—Iceland, Denmark, Canada, Norway and the U.S. are NATO members and Arctic states—by standing up an Arctic-focused command.
In the Middle East and Africa, the Free World should work with proxies to deliver punishing blows against Russia’s mercenary armies in Mali, Libya and Syria; walk Turkey back from business-suit autocracy; expand the economic and diplomatic reach of the Abraham Accords (which have enhanced the security of democratic Israel); and isolate Iran’s terrorist tyranny and punish its acts piracy.
Indeed, from the Persian Gulf and Mediterranean, to the South China Sea and South Pacific, the Free World should surge what Adm. Mike Mullen, former Joint Chiefs chairman, calls a “thousand-ship navy.” Deploying “the best capabilities of all freedom-loving navies of the world,” this navy of navies could promote and preserve freedom of the seas—and outmaneuver and outmatch the axis of tyrant regimes. A similar partnership is needed in cyberspace and space. The building blocks are in place at NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defense Center and within Operation Olympic Defender.
In this effort to restore the Free World’s “wall of strength,” the words of Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky should be our rally cry: “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.” The fight is indeed here.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he leads the Center for America’s Purpose. A shorter version of this essay was published in Real Clear Defense.