Putting U.S.’s Aid to Ukraine in Context

Contrary to this Creative Commons image, Uncle Sam has plenty of money. That isn’t the issue.

I haven’t done one of my research deep dives on a political matter of salient interest in a few months, and I think Russia’s immoral and illegal invasion of Ukraine — and that is precisely the way to contextualize the war — in February of this year is worth digging into. By digging into, I mean the United States angle of it; there are far better and smarter people than I am to dig into the Ukraine-Russia aspect of it. The United States aspect refers to our aid to Ukraine since at least 2015, and obviously, the aid allocation amount increasing dramatically within the seven months since the invasion.

My math is probably off somewhere, but all told, across three presidents (Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden), the United States has committed more than $16 billion to Ukraine, and nearly $13 billion of that is just since January. Through the Biden administration, there have been 21 packages of military aid, and the money outlined isn’t counting some of those packages, where the valuation hasn’t been ascertained when we’re sending artillery rounds, radar systems, trailers and trucks, mine-clearing equipment, small arms, night vision, etc. Most of the packages have come in varying increments, like $75 million here, $250 million there, with the latest nearly $3 billion being the most.

The salient point I referred to above is the way people domestically view this spending in America. Conservatives and so-called libertarian pundits have blasted this spending as unnecessary and a misallocation that could better be spent on domestic [insert their preferred pet project to juxtapose with Ukrainian aid to generate the most outrage]. I’ve also heard from regular Americans who are frustrated by the spending — and that goes back to an age-old concern with foreign aid spending — and wondering why the United States government isn’t spending more domestically.

I’m going to try to break this down. In 2021, the United States government spent $6.82 trillion. That’s trillion. Not billion, not even million, but trillion. In other words, $16 billion — and that’s the figure for eight years, even if most of it has come from this year — represents about 0.23 percent of federal spending. Not even one percent. That isn’t a comment about whether it is a good use of federal allocation, but rather, to put it in the proper context. Again, to go to the federal foreign aid analogy, people wildly misunderstand and exaggerate the extent the United States spends on foreign aid. While foreign aid represents a bigger chunk of the budget than Ukrainian-specific aid, it still isn’t a big chunk: About $51.1 billion (in 2020), or 1 percent of the budget. Seriously, Americans think foreign aid is like 25 percent of the budget, which is ludicrous. Some thought it was even as high as 51 percent!

So, let me speak plainly: Whether it is concern about overspending on foreign aid or present concern about overspending (or spending at all) on aiding Ukrainians against Russian invaders, Americans widely overestimate the spending and that is because of fear of the other and fear of the foreigner, and that is precisely why conservative and so-called libertarian pundits continue to punch this point over and over without the necessary context. If you have this context and you still think it is a misallocation of federal tax dollars, then I can at least understand that. We can have that discussion. But if you’re concerned about the allocation of that money because you think it represents a large chunk of the American budget that otherwise would have, and should have, gone to Americans, you’ve been led astray from the facts.

For the record, on the spending, I think the American government has plenty of money to address X, Y and Z domestic concern that pundits pretend isn’t being adequately solved because of aid to Ukraine; the problem isn’t the aid to Ukraine, it is that the American government is bad at solving problems and bad at adequately allocating money for those problems. There is not a shortage of money problem. In addition, inflationary and other economic concerns are far deeper, systemic, and stretch back before the conflict to be put at the doorstep of Ukrainian aid, either. Ukrainian aid is another convenient scapegoat in that regard.

As for the actual purpose of the money, I’m about as morally, socially and politically pacifist as it comes. But I don’t see fault with the United States offering its plethora of surplus equipment and relatively “budgetary pocket change,” as it were, to Ukraine to help fight aggressive and immoral invaders waging war on them.

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