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Josh Hawley Urges Restraint Over Ukraine. On China? Not So Much.

Josh Hawley
Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan, speaks with Senator Josh Hawley from Missouri, before delivering testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on the proposal to establish a United States Space Force at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, April 11, 2019. (DoD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro)

The Biden administration should reject calls to expand America’s commitments in Europe and instead maintain a steely focus on a much bigger threat to US national security: China. This is the counsel that Sen. Josh Hawley has offered to Secretary of State Antony Blinken amid fears of an impending Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Hawley’s intervention is notable because it is a high-profile case of dissent from the broad bipartisan consensus that the United States ought to play a leading role in preventing war in Eastern Europe. Other Republicans have spoken out in favor of restraint, too. But there are not many who would call Europe a “secondary theater,” as Hawley just did.

What explains Hawley’s seemingly dispassionate views on Ukraine, and is he right to frame European security as a sideshow to great power competition in the Indo-Pacific?

At first glance, Hawley’s advice has the appearance of sound strategic thinking. While it might be popular today to adopt a tough stance in defense of Ukraine, Hawley argues, President Biden ought to fix his gaze on the long-term challenge posed by China. Preventing Beijing from dominating the Indo-Pacific is a core interest of the United States, says Hawley. Saving Ukraine from Russian predation is not.

Some of Hawley’s proposals for how to approach European security are entirely defensible when considered on their own. For example, the idea that Washington should rule out Ukrainian membership in NATO is one that a sizable number of scholars and analysts have made.

Hawley is also on firm ground when arguing in general terms for the United States to “do less” in Europe. Of course, reasonable people can disagree on this point. But it is certainly not outlandish to suggest, as Barry Posen has put it, that “Europe can defend itself.”

Finally, Hawley is surely well within the mainstream when he argues: “Our interest [in defending Ukraine] is not so strong, however, as to justify committing the United States to go to war with Russia.” Only a tiny number of US leaders would disagree with this view.

So far, so good.

But by tying restraint in Europe to a tough and uncompromising stance toward China in the Indo-Pacific, Hawley’s analysis starts to lose consistency and thus persuasiveness. Simply put, it is difficult to square Hawley’s acute anxieties about China’s rise with his composed attitude toward overt Russian aggression.

The problem is this: If the logic of restraint and a regional strategy of buck-passing – that is, relying on allies and partners to solve their own security crises – make sense in Europe, why does the Indo-Pacific uniquely require the unilateral application of hard US power?

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Hawley is simply applying different criteria when drawing up proposals for US foreign policy in Europe and Asia – perhaps because he wants to reach a certain conclusion.

For instance, Hawley is incensed that European allies spend less than 2 percent of GDP on defense – a travesty that would justify the United States refusing to expand its security commitments in Europe until regional governments have met the 2 percent threshold.

Yet the Senator does not apply this same standard to Asia. If he did, Hawley would be forced to admit that US treaty allies such as Japan, the Philippines, and Thailand all spend far less than 2 percent of GDP on defense. Even Taiwan, which faces an ongoing and existential threat from Beijing, only spends around 2 percent of GDP on its military.

Why, then, does Hawley not urge US restraint in the Indo-Pacific until more of America’s allies begin to pull their weight? He does not say, but it is not too much of a stretch to imagine that Hawley’s insistence on distinguishing Europe from the Indo-Pacific stems from his track record of intense anti-China bias.

Viewed in this light, Hawley’s foreign policy ideas might have less to do with a sober discernment of core and peripheral interests than a cold calculation that opposition to China pays in the current political climate, whereas opposition to Russia does not always – at least in the Republican Party.

Hawley must know that, if it wanted to, the United States could oppose both Russia in Europe and China in the Indo-Pacific. Doing so would be expensive, but not unaffordable for a country as wealthy as the United States. As always, triage is a strategic choice.

He also knows that the United States could opt to actively oppose neither of its great power rivals and instead rely on other rich nations to do the work of preserving international stability. This is not just an idea applicable to Europe. It is equally viable in Asia.

Both of these stylized alternatives are principled grand strategies with much to recommend them. However, it is neither principled nor prudent to paint China as an aggressor bent on achieving regional hegemony while minimizing the threat posed by Russia.

After all, it obviously strains credulity to say that China poses a bigger threat to the vast Indo-Pacific region than Russia does to its immediate neighbors in Eastern Europe at a time when 100,000 Russia troops are amassed at the Ukrainian border.

These are tumultuous times. America faces numerous challenges abroad. It is right that the United States undergoes a process of deciding anew its core national interests in regions like Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

But these discussions over foreign policy must be rooted in good ideas, not rigid ideologies or political self-interest. Unfortunately, Sen. Hawley’s uneven treatment of European and Asian security would seem to betray a foreign policy based upon hostility toward China if not something even more cynical.

Dr. Peter Harris is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Colorado State University, where his teaching and research focus on international security, International Relations theory, and US foreign policy. He is also a non-resident fellow with Defense Priorities and a 1945 Contributing Editor.

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Peter Harris is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Colorado State University, where his teaching and research focus on international security, International Relations theory, and US foreign policy.