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On December 12, 2021, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky issued an explicit and precise vision for his country’s future: “We want to unblock the Donbas peace process…return Crimea, gain membership in the European Union…and [join NATO] in 2022.” Progress toward those first three objectives is understandable and favorable, but Ukraine joining NATO must be opposed by the United States.

Established in 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a trans-Atlantic military alliance that was established to contain the spread of Soviet communism in Europe during the Cold War. After the ‘Evil Empire’ collapsed in 1991, NATO was kept intact, eventually expanding its membership to include states that once formed the Soviet bloc.

Today, the issue of NATO expansion sits at the heart of heightened military tensions between Ukraine and Russia. Ukrainian President Zelensky has been outspoken on his intent to join the alliance, ignoring previous Russian signals that doing so would amount to a serious provocation.

With an unprecedented land war in Europe seeming ever more likely over this contentious issue, Washington ought to ask itself a logical yet overlooked question: Is expanding NATO to include Ukraine in the interest of the United States? 

No, it is not, and ordinary Americans have many reasons to care why.

To begin with, Kyiv joining NATO will increase – rather than deter – the likelihood of war in Europe. Expanding the alliance comes at the cost of allies having to defend additional European territory. With Ukraine becoming a member, a Western war against Russia could very well be possible given the contested status of Crimea and the Donbas between Moscow and Kyiv; what is to prevent the latter from dragging all other 30 NATO allies into a war against Russia to reclaim those territories? Are those countries, including the United States, willing and prepared to do so?

Secondly, expanding NATO to include Ukraine distracts from the domestic agenda of American voters. Many of Washington’s politicians seem content with Ukraine joining the alliance, even though doing so ironically undermines their political positions:

Progressive Democrats intend to legislate universal healthcare and free public college, yet they allow Europeans, many of whom already enjoy these public privileges under American protection, to prevent the United States from doing the same by forcing it to expend additional resources to protect more Europeans?

Likewise, conservative Republicans, who pride themselves on supporting the “America First” agenda, are comfortable with extending U.S. protections to the rest of the world in exchange for an increase in the federal defense budget and an emboldened military-industrial complex?

“Standing up to Putin” in recent years has produced political hypocrisy that runs both ways. It should not be controversial nor surprising to insist that Washington must be in full control of its military budget, national debt and foreign policy at all times.

Ultimately, and akin to any other sovereign country, Ukraine has the right to protect its sovereignty and shape its future in accordance with international law. Those rights, however, do not extend to forcing ordinary Americans to protect Kyiv for the rest of its existence.

Those who oppose NATO’s expansion deserve not to be immediately labeled as isolationists and opponents of the alliance, and they certainly deserve not to be immediately vilified as endorsers of Vladimir Putin. Remaining in NATO continues to be in the long-term strategic interest of the United States, and strengthening the alliance as it stands must be a priority for any U.S. administration, especially amid China’s assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific.

In the famous words of former Vice President Mike Pence, “America first does not mean America alone.” The United States can oppose NATO’s expansion while also maintaining a healthy, working relationship with the alliance and Europe.

Regardless, NATO remains in a great geostrategic position today. Currently, 30 members – as opposed to 16 during the Cold War – make up the alliance; with the Bucharest Nine being a part of those 14 new additions, welcoming Ukraine to NATO will ultimately do more to provoke Russia than it will to strengthen NATO itself.

The United States must acknowledge this strategic reality and salvage its reputation, especially if it wants to win its credibility war against China.

Washington rightfully criticizes Beijing for violating the “rules-based” international order, yet by refusing to draw a red line on Ukraine joining NATO, it remains complicit in the military tensions unfolding in Europe today. Ukraine acting as a buffer between Russia and the West is largely the latter’s fault, and glancing over Putin’s predictable security concerns on this issue would make America a “disruptor” to world peace just as much as China is in the Indo-Pacific today.