Published July 6, 2023
It is hard to be the arsenal of democracy if you can’t make anything anymore. The war in Ukraine has deranged many people — Michael Rubin, a lunatic and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, wants to give Ukraine nukes — but it may also teach us some hard but necessary lessons. For instance, as the tides of war turn against Ukraine, it seems that globalist economics is defeating globalist foreign policy interventionism.
Ukraine’s much-hyped summer offensive has been disappointing. Or as The New York Times delicately informed its readers in a report on a minor Ukrainian victory, the assault is, “moving at a slower pace than expected” and has shown that “Kyiv’s and the Western allies’ hopes for a quick victory were unrealistic … every mile of their drive into Russian-occupied territory would be grueling and contested.”
The war has become one of attrition, and regardless of our sympathies, this favors Russia. Foreign policy realist John Mearsheimer recently observed, “The Russians have had the upper hand this year, mainly because they have a substantial advantage in artillery, which is the most important weapon in attrition warfare.” For all of the billions in aid the West has sent to the Ukrainians, they are still short of munitions; they don’t need F-16s and precision weapons nearly as much as they need a mountain of old-fashioned shells.
There has been a steady stream of stories warning that Ukraine’s forces are low on munitions and outgunned by their Russian enemies. Russia’s rate of fire is perhaps 10 times that of Ukraine. Worse still, the United States and its allies are depleting their own supplies, as well as struggling to provide weapons to other clients such as Taiwan. Though there is some overlap between the weapons systems that Ukraine and Taiwan each need, the fundamental problem is the limited industrial capacity of the United States.
From advanced weapons systems to the ordinary artillery shells that Ukraine needs by the thousands a day, America cannot produce enough to keep up with demand. And we lack the infrastructure and resources to quickly close the gap. The United States is unable to sustain its ambition of being the “arsenal of democracy,” regardless of how enthusiastically supporters of Ukraine try to cast our aid to the Ukrainians in such terms. Meanwhile, Russia is in position to slowly grind out a victory and annex much of Eastern Ukraine. Yes, it will rule over rubble, but it will have won and inflicted a humiliating defeat on the West in the process.
The course of the war may turn again, but we are learning a hard lesson about the limits of military power that cannot sustain its needs for weapons and materials. And those who are most supportive of giving Ukraine extravagant military aid are also those responsible for our inability to actually provide it. The Venn diagram of those who are most eager to give Ukraine lots of weapons is almost a perfect circle with those who have enthusiastically promoted globalization — and especially outsourcing our manufacturing to the Chinese communists.
Yes, we still largely build our own weapons, but the general malaise of American manufacturing inevitably implicates the defense industry. It is not only that weapons manufacturing has consolidated, but that its supply chains are also bound up with globalization and offshoring. And lately, as with everything else, the materials and components needed for weapons and equipment may be stuck on a boat from China, if they’re available at all.
Furthermore, as American manufacturing has declined as a source of employment, so has the skilled labor pool that defense manufacturing needs to hire from. Thus, even if there were the will and the money to quickly spin up weapons manufacturing, the workers, as well as the infrastructure, would likely be lacking.
The U.S.’s inability to sustain weapons manufacturing at wartime levels is bad news for Ukraine. However, that conflict is peripheral to American interests. Much worse for us could come from a war with China, presumably over Taiwan. The U.S. may still be ahead in technology and training, though that might not last much longer under the woke Pentagon, but as has been said, quantity has a quality of its own. If we cannot replace our losses, we will lose.
Industrial policy is defense policy. The ability to build is essential to our national defense, but our leaders have spent decades degrading our manufacturing capabilities and boosting that of our rising rival. This was done in the name of free trade, but trade with a communist regime is unfree by definition. And while genuinely free trade has benefits, it is the duty of our leaders to balance these advantages against other national interests, of which defense is the first.
We are being taught this lesson at the expense of Ukrainian lives. Hopefully, we learn it before it costs us American lives as well.
Nathanael Blake is a senior contributor to The Federalist and a postdoctoral fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.