Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) laid out his vision for a “realist” foreign policy on Thursday, arguing for an alternative to neoconservatism, liberal internationalism, and isolationism, one that is rooted in the U.S. Constitution, accountable to American voters, and one that decision makers in Washington clearly do not follow, particularly when it comes to the continued role in the war in Ukraine.
Sen. Lee’s remarks came during The American Conserative’s tenth annual foreign policy conference, in which he argued for Congress to reclaim its warmaking power. “When the same people making decisions about foreign policy are wrong over and over and over, maybe the room of people making these decisions should be bigger,” he said.
Lee also explained why he thinks the ongoing war in Ukraine was illustrative of the shortcomings of decision making in Washington.
While reasonable minds can disagree on whether and to what extent Washington should support Kyiv’s defense, “debate on this topic is not tolerated,” said Lee. “Anyone raising dissent or questions is immediately labeled a Putin apologist.” Lee argued that stifling such debate ignores three crucial strategic debates that should be a major consideration in all national security discussions.
First, he said, the decisions over aid to Ukraine are not happening in a vacuum. Funding Ukraine to the extent that the U.S. has comes with trade-offs, and the continued level of support is depleting American weapons stockpiles and distracts from other emerging threats, namely China.
Lee also lamented that the endgame to the war is rarely discussed and that it’s serving as a proxy for a larger, potentially dangerous, confrontation with Russia. “I don't think it is overstating anything to say that a stand off with a nuclear power requires a considerable amount of prudence and judgment, not peacocking and popping off,” he said.
Given that Russia has the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons and does not appear to be prepared to back down in Ukraine anytime soon, means, he added, that there needs to be a more mindful understanding of what is realistically achievable in this conflict.
Lee also focused a substantial portion of his address stressing the importance of NATO allies and other European nations playing their part in funding security on their continent. "Our European allies have, for decades, shirked their own defense. For decades they've relied on America for their security," he said. For Lee, Washington’s willingness to pay for such a large portion of this effort means that Europe has no incentive to increase its own level of defense spending, and ensures that they will remain underprepared for the next conflict in the continent. A new poll published on Wednesday by the European Council on Foreign Relations found that almost three-quarters of Europeans agree with Sen. Lee that the continent must boost its own defense capacity, and cannot always rely on the U.S. to provide a security guarantee.
Lee argued that Washington “should not spend one penny more” on Ukraine’s defense until other NATO members meet their defense commitments. The sentiment was echoed in a later panel by Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio), who said “as a condition for our participation in NATO, you have to honor the treaty. You have to fund your defense.”