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The US Must Not Make Empty Threats

Summary:
Since the end of World War II, the United States has often overstated its resolve in military engagements, from Vietnam to Afghanistan. This has imposed massive costs not only in blood and treasure, but also in terms of America's credibility. CAMBRIDGE – As Russia masses troops along its border with Ukraine, fears of an invasion are mounting. The United States has warned that Russia would pay a heavy price, exacted first and foremost through economic sanctions. But President Joe Biden has also declared that he would not send military personnel to defend Ukraine. It is the right approach. Does Japan Vindicate Modern Monetary Theory? loveshiba/Getty Images

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Since the end of World War II, the United States has often overstated its resolve in military engagements, from Vietnam to Afghanistan. This has imposed massive costs not only in blood and treasure, but also in terms of America's credibility.

CAMBRIDGE – As Russia masses troops along its border with Ukraine, fears of an invasion are mounting. The United States has warned that Russia would pay a heavy price, exacted first and foremost through economic sanctions. But President Joe Biden has also declared that he would not send military personnel to defend Ukraine. It is the right approach.

On one hand, the threat of economic sanctions – in particular, exclusion of Russia from the SWIFT international payments system and cancellation of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany – might be enough to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin. On the other hand, any threat that the US and its allies would intervene with troops would not be believable – inviting Putin to call the West’s bluff.

But if Americans and Europeans are unprepared to send troops to Ukraine, why did Western leaders in 2008 promise eventual NATO membership to Ukraine, as well as to Georgia? After all, Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty declares that an armed attack against one NATO ally is effectively an attack against all of them. And yet nobody was prepared to come to Georgia’s defense when Russia invaded in 2008, or to Ukraine’s defense when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Nor has the West done anything to stop Russia from occupying Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Against this background, talk about Ukraine joining NATO has merely provoked Putin, while undermining the West’s credibility.

This reflects a broader problem with US foreign policy since the end of World War II: a poor match between the signals it sends and what it is subsequently able to carry out.

For starters, the US has often overstated its resolve in military engagements. For example, in Vietnam and Afghanistan, it failed to achieve its goals...

Jeffrey Frankel
Jeffrey Frankel, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, previously served as a member of President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers. He directs the Program in International Finance and Macroeconomics at the US National Bureau of Economic Research, where he is a member of the Business Cycle Dating Committee, the official US arbiter of recession and recovery.

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