Why Ukraine Matters to Kansas

Those who study foreign policy as a career—as a passion—can easily rattle off speeches about why defeating Russia in Ukraine is about defending democracy, or proving the strength of alliances, or, most esoteric of all, defending the “rules-based international order.” In these speeches, policy experts rarely pause to explain the idea at the core: this world is a small world, and this war affects everything, from the lofty “global order” to the highly pragmatic wallet of a man in Kansas.

After World War II, the United States and its allies tried to ensure that such a disastrous global struggle would never happen again. One critical part of the structure of peace was a core principle: freedom to create, innovate, and build a brighter future would result in global prosperity. Nearly 80 years on, there is plenty of evidence that wealth accumulation has been uneven and, in some cases, exploitative, but there is indeed vastly expanded wealth, peace, and opportunity. During the postwar economic boom, the global economy experienced an annual growth rate of 5 percent, with global export volumes increasing 290 percent across capitalist countries. Global poverty also saw a significant reduction, dropping 86 percent between 1950 and 2020. Multinational corporations move goods and services around the planet with ease, creating jobs and profits along the way.

They can do this because the post-WWII order is largely predictable. Rules and norms govern global trade. There is legal recourse if someone breaks these rules; in extreme cases, there are national-level sanctions. As a result, Wal-Mart can source goods from across three continents. Amazon can move a T-shirt from India to St. Louis in a week. A hypothetical Kansan who owns a tire factory can get rubber from Indonesia and bead wire from Belgium, exactly when he needs them. Business is good.

This predictability is made possible by the United States’ global reach. The U.S. Navy ensures freedom of the seas. The dominance of the dollar ensures global businesses abide by consistent banking rules, devoid of artificial devaluation. U.S. policies like the Foreign Extortion Prevention Act (FEPA) prosecute global corruption and prevent many petty despots from halting goods in ports or adding 14 percent “fees” on container contracts. In the parts of the world where people follow the rules and enjoy a lasting peace, goods flow freely across borders and that wallet in Kansas gets fatter.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shook this law-abiding predictability. Putin’s goal is to make the West look foolish, as a way of making Russia seem strong. Putin wants to make the world believe that democracy is a sham, the United States does not defend its friends, and the mighty $27 trillion U.S. economy is fragile and hollow. Starting a new land war in Europe called into question the strength of global rules and predictability. Global supply chains were once again disrupted, quick on the heels of pandemic disruptions. Gas, food, transportation, and other goods got more expensive, including the cost of shipping rubber and bead wire, and that wallet in Kansas got thinner.

China is watching these lessons closely. China seeks to build a new global order with Beijing at the center. In its view, U.S. rules about fairness and free trade helped China rise, but those erstwhile supports have become shackles. Beijing thinks the time is right to abandon free trade and instead remake a global economy that is safe for Chinese business, often at the expense of personal freedoms and democracy. Beijing thinks it is possible to split the United States from its allies and thereby weaken it.

Right now, life is getting far more expensive and unpredictable for the hypothetical Kansan. Houthi rebels in Yemen have been attacking commercial vessels in the Red Sea. Global shipping is disrupted, so the Kansan’s tire business is missing several rubber shipments. Global gas prices have risen because Russia used its oil reserves to strongarm Europe. There are concerns that China could restrict its sales of rare earths like beryllium, a critical input for avionics, which would severely impact companies such as Spirit AeroSystems, one of his state’s largest employers. He heard on TikTok that China has been the victim of a U.S. smear campaign against telecom giant Huawei, but he also read on Twitter that Huawei’s unfair business practices are slowly driving its competitor Cisco out of business.

So why does Ukraine matter in a world trending toward unpredictability? How does sending air defense systems and F-16s to Kyiv help? It reduces fear—fear that a global bully like Russia can take by force anything it wants. It encourages confidence—confidence that partners will stand up against aggression and enforce the rules. Further, it keeps Putin busy in Ukraine and not invading Moldova, Estonia, Poland, or NATO’s newest allies, Finland and Sweden. The United States’ European partners can feel safe, and when they feel safe, they order tires from Kansas, T-shirts from India, and routers from Cisco. They open their wallets and make optimistic bets on the future.

Ukraine matters to Kansas. And Kansas matters to Ukraine, because Kansas can help stop a pointless, cruel, and expensive war of aggression. Russia is not just a bully who ignores borders and tries to convince people that democracy does not exist. Putin wants to upend the world and see the U.S. economy as weak as Russia’s. The fates of a Kansan and a Ukrainian soldier are intertwined.

Emily Harding is director of the Intelligence, National Security, and Technology Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Emily Harding
Director, Intelligence, National Security, and Technology Program and Deputy Director, International Security Program