Ukraine: How should we help?

It is impossible not to admire the bravery of the people of Ukraine as they fight for their independence and freedom. Without help, Russian troops are almost certain to capture Kyiv and other key cities. The EU and many other countries have pulled together as never before to impose serious sanctions and provide military and humanitarian supplies. See: “Sanctions”  Putin’s failure to prepare the Russian people for a military attack on their fellow Russians and cousins in Ukraine is provoking protests in Russia against this war.  But these may not be enough to save Ukraine and it is tempting to think we should provide boots on the ground to insure a Russian defeat. President Biden is right to believe that this would be a grave mistake.

Military interventions always look more compelling at the start, while going through the front door. Sure, our army can squash whoever. Years later, as we leave or are pushed out the back door (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, etc.), they are revealed as foolish endeavors from the beginning. While Vietnam has prospered after our withdrawal and Iraq’s development is promising, they might well have reached these achievements sooner if we had stayed out. Why is this so? Why can’t we just take over countries under attack and make them better?

Generally, the countries we attack are engaged in civil wars (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Libya). Even Russia’s attack on Ukraine has elements of a civil war. We almost never understand the nuances of such battles nor have sufficient military and diplomatic officials who speak their languages and know their histories as they rotate in for two years then out. We can never be sure which side or sides we should support.

Putting aside that we don’t really have the resources to fully police the world, we have rarely achieved our objectives in the wars we have undertaken since WWII even if those objectives seemed reasonable at the outset. Iraq is an example where we did not have a good reason (or any reason at all except feeding our military industrial complex) to begin with. Part of the reason is that we have never invested in the training needed to be successful imperialists. We are bad at running other countries. You can read some of my firsthand experiences with just how bad we were at running Iraq in my book: “My travels to Baghdad”

If we send in the American Army to defend Ukraine against Russia, even if no escalation in fighting results (which is by no means certain), we will be forced to remain there for X number of years to keep the peace. Which factions would we support or favor? Why do we imagine that it would be different than our experiences in Afghanistan or Iraq? While it is emotionally hard not to walk through that front door with our troops, we must remember what the back door feels like, not to mention the X years in between. President Biden is right not to do so. “Reflections from the netherworld”

Most Americans are good hearted and want to help those in need. However, I am hard pressed to think of a time when we successfully did so with our Army.

Author: Warren Coats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 1975 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My recent books are One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina; My Travels in the Former Soviet Union; My Travels to Afghanistan; My Travels to Jerusalem; and My Travels to Baghdad. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.

One thought on “Ukraine: How should we help?”

  1. Thank you Warren This badly needs saying and you put it authoritatively. I wish our leader-writers, so many of whom are busily whipping up popular demand for “more action” would read this and pay attention. Robert

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