For the first 20 months of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the case made by the Biden administration to the American people about support for the country was built almost exclusively on moral and emotional considerations: standing up for victims against aggressors, fighting for democracies against autocracies.
On October 19, that changed. Now it needs to change some more.
In an Oval Office address watched by 20 million Americans, President Joe Biden argued that the US is facing a coalition of challengers — Moscow and Beijing, Iran, and Hamas — who share the common aim of undermining American power and influence. Holding the line, from Ukraine to Israel, he said, is the key to ensuring that the US doesn’t have to fight a much larger war. While that message may have fallen on stony ground in parts of Capitol Hill, where aid for Ukraine is still stuck, all indications are that it is finding fertile ground among ordinary Americans of all political persuasions.
Contrary to what passes for conventional wisdom — which holds that Americans, and thus their elected representatives, no longer support aid to Ukraine — polling data suggest that a majority of voters continue to believe that Washington should send more military and economic aid to Kyiv.
To wit, 53% of respondents to a Quinnipiac University poll on November 2 supported further military aid, including 77% of Democrats and 52% of independents. A New York Times/Siena survey released November 5 showed 58% support for additional economic and military aid, including 79% of Democrats and 55% of independents, versus only 38% opposition.
Those numbers, while reassuring, shouldn’t induce complacency. The overall margins are still too close for comfort, and the fact that a strong majority of Republican voters — who currently control the House of Representatives and may well recapture the White House in 2024 — oppose further aid to Ukraine is a growing problem.
To be sure, there are strong voices in the Republican caucus — not least Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — who are strongly committed to Ukraine. The hard reality, however, is that the party is not trending in their direction: with the exception of Nikki Haley, the entirety of the GOP presidential field goes in for one degree of Ukraine skepticism or another, and the polls make it obvious why.
The question for the Biden administration, and for Ukraine’s supporters in both parties, then, is how to shift that logic and get Republicans and even more independents on board. The answer is national security.
An October 17 Quinnipiac University poll points the way: 65% of respondents said that supporting Ukraine was in America’s national interest, including 87% of Democrats, 63% of independents, and, remarkably, 49% of Republicans (versus 44% of Republicans who disagreed). Note that these responses were collected before President Biden made his Oval Office address linking Ukraine and Israel, and laying out the national-security case for supporting both.
Since then, Ukraine’s supporters on both sides of the aisle have taken that discourse and run with it, and the anti-Ukraine rhetoric of the Freedom Caucus has oddly diminished. The implication is clear: a focus on American national security puts Ukraine’s opponents on the back foot. Taking the fight to them works.
Leadership in support for Ukraine, however, will require more than just boldness. Patience, too, is key. Here, the fact that the White House has linked Ukraine and Israel is instructive.
In March 1948, on the eve of the establishment of the state of Israel by the United Nations, only 28% of Americans sided with the Jewish population of British Mandate Palestine, versus 11% who sided with the Arabs, and 44% who thought the US should avoid taking sides. Nevertheless, President Harry Truman surveyed the post-war reality in Europe and globally, the growing confrontation with the Soviet Union, and concluded that the emergence of a Jewish democracy in the Middle East was in America’s national interest. Thereafter, American support was crucial to Israel’s initial survival.
Nearly two decades later, despite a majority of Americans opposing military aid, US support proved crucial in seeing Israel through the Six-Day War. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the national security imperative to support Israel was firmly implanted in Americans’ foreign-policy imaginations. Now, in 2023, that imperative is so clearly entrenched that it provokes virtually no division in an otherwise hopelessly divided Washington.
The history of America’s engagement with Israel should provide both hope and impetus for those who understand what is at stake in Ukraine. Americans, by and large, care about their country’s role in the world. Already, a majority are convinced that a Ukrainian victory and a Russian defeat make America stronger and more secure. What they want is for their leaders, regardless of party, to pursue those convictions with courage and consistency.
Sam Greene is the Director for Democratic Resilience at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). Sam is also a Professor of Russian Politics at King’s College London.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.