The debate over US aid to Ukraine raises key questions that apply to us all

For starters: how do we budget, on an individual level, for causes we care about in a polycrisis world?

US President Joe Biden meets Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Washington last month. The US has directed more than $75 billion in assistance to Kyiv. AP
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The stopgap funding bill passed by the US House of Representatives over the weekend to prevent the shutdown of the federal government did not include additional funding for Ukraine’s war effort against Russia.

A group of what are being described as “hard-right” Republican members of the House had been making life difficult for their party’s leadership, and avoiding a shutdown was deemed to be most likely achieved by narrowing the scope of the legislation required to maintain funding.

Although recent attempts by Republican members of Congress to pass amendments to defence spending bills that would cut or prohibit military assistance to Ukraine failed, the experience ultimately succeeded in persuading the party’s leadership to tackle the issue of Ukraine funding as a standalone one.

In the wider political landscape, 2024 presidential election hopeful Donald Trump has accused President Joe Biden of putting “Ukraine first” and “America last”.

There is support for Ukraine among Republicans despite this. “The United States isn’t arming Ukraine out of a sense of charity. We are backing a fellow democracy because it is in our direct interest to do so,” Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said.

His use of the word “charity” is a fascinating suggestion that, perhaps, there exists a misguided feeling among Americans that their government is only acting out of altruism. Does anyone think this? There is an obvious self-interest at work, of course, on both sides of the argument. As there should be.

In a column for The New York Times, Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman wrote that he does not believe the objections of the minority of Republicans to additional aid to Ukraine centre on the issue of it costing too much.

US Defence Secretary gets into heated debate over Ukraine response

US Defence Secretary gets into heated debate over Ukraine response
More and more, it seems there are too many in need and for us who want to help not enough money or time to do enough

“In the 18 months after the Russian invasion, US aid totalled $77 billion. That may sound like a lot. It is a lot compared with the tiny sums we usually allocate to foreign aid. But total federal outlays are currently running at more than $6 trillion a year, or more than $9 trillion every 18 months, so Ukraine aid accounts for less than 1 per cent of federal spending [and less than 0.3 per cent of GDP]. The military portion of that spending is equal to less than 5 per cent of America’s defence budget,” Prof Krugman explained.

So what are the reasons for the impasse over increasing Ukraine support?

Prof Krugman believes it is because they want to see Vladimir Putin’s Russia victorious and hate the idea of democracy.

For their part, a handful of Republican members of Congress said in advance of the shutdown vote that they would not back any stopgap measure under any circumstances, because they are opposed to funding the government – even temporarily – with a single up-or-down vote.

Matt Gaetz of Florida, for one, argued that the House must instead pass individual spending bills one by one.

“You have folks that come to Washington and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to be a fiscal conservative; I’m going to be tough on this’ – and then they’re not,” his colleague, Tim Burchett of Tennessee, told CNN.

Much of what politicians say is designed for public consumption and to help them win elections, and so we should not completely swallow it. Yet there is a truism at the heart of any rhetoric. In this case, most people are concerned about their weekly and monthly bills during a cost-of-living crisis, when interest rates are at record levels and respite seems far away, according to central bankers and economists.

Also, it is hard not to have sympathy right now for the idea that anyone might want to pay for things one at a time and not receive a huge bill in one go.

We did not suddenly arrive at this point. It has been a rough few years for everybody.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in late February of 2022. That followed the Covid-19 pandemic and disasters such as the Beirut Port explosion. In recent weeks, we have seen the devastation of an earthquake in Morocco and floods in Libya.

I have written before that we seem to be in an era of “perma-crisis” when every day we learn something horrible has happened to our brothers and sisters somewhere in the world – not to mention that they, unfortunately, happen directly to us at times too.

That is not to compare disasters on any kind of league table or to question the support for Ukraine. This is only to acknowledge that money for anything has to come from somewhere. In many countries – including the US – the source is ultimately the taxpayer.

Those of us fortunate enough to live in rich countries have always understood that it is important to support those in need. For many people, it is a pillar of their faith. More and more, it seems there are too many in need and for us who want to help not enough money or time to do enough.

We have in some cases signed up to provide monthly donations to the issues that matter most to us, setting up direct debits from our bank accounts, and for a while the organisation receiving these funds will find them to be adequate. Eventually, they will need more. That is what happens when we are trying to help find solutions to big problems.

The smaller problems will hove into view during that time too. They will bring with them the impulse to focus on resolving them. In any case, the new always seems more urgent but also a smaller problem appears to be something we can fix more quickly.

Being able to make a difference matters, and often it is a challenge to remember that we are having an impact when the problem is so large.

Published: October 06, 2023, 5:00 AM