Pay Me Now or Pay Me Later Is Not a Sound Policy

By Peter J. Wallison


August 22, 2023

“Pay me now or pay me later” is a familiar expression for car mechanics, house painters, and roofers—in other words, people who are reasonably sure that you’re going to need their services sometime after you’ve consulted them about a problem. And when that service is applied, it is likely to be much more extensive and expensive than it was when you were first shocked by their bid.

The phrase came to mind when I saw an article that the US could not afford to keep sending arms to Ukraine.

The fact is that the US and NATO have to win in Ukraine or they will face a continuing threat from Russia for the foreseeable future. Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, has made it clear that he wants to re-establish the old Soviet Union of his KGB youth—a crazy goal, to be sure, but one that is much in tune with Russia’s past and Putin’s view of his future.

The countries of NATO would like to have as much of a buffer zone as possible against a vengeful Russia of the future, so their interest in supporting Ukraine today is obvious.

But why is this in the interests of the United States?

Let’s begin with NATO itself. The US has fostered NATO for its own reasons.  Even though it is not physically threatened by a Russian invasion, if the weak nations of Europe are gobbled up by Russia, that country would become a far more dangerous adversary for the US than Russia alone.

This is pure pay me now or pay me later. If we beat Putin in Ukraine, it may end his rule in Russia, and his dream to recreate the Soviet Union, but if we back away because of the cost our assistance, we’ll be paying later to defend Poland and the others, possibly with the lives of American troops.

This is not only a 21st-century notion. We sold and delivered badly needed supplies to the UK before World War II, often against the opposition of Americans who thought it was a waste of our money and national resources. Thousands of lives of American commercial seamen were lost to German submarines, but this too was pay me now or pay me later. Eventually, after Pearl Harbor, we declared war on Germany, but by that time Hitler had taken over France and was in the process of creating a massive defensive wall against an invasion across the English Channel.

Paying later in this case was the heavy price on June 6, 1941, when we finally massed the forces to breach Hitler’s wall. As is often the case, the cost we had to pay later was far greater than the cost we did not want to pay at the outset.  

Today we are confronted with a growing menace from China, another superpower that is not only in an informal ally with Russia but also one with a population, resources, and technical skill to send manned rockets to the moon and build a navy larger than ours. China claims Taiwan, an island off the coast of China with which we are friendly, and which supplies most of the powerful computer chips that we need for our economy as well as our military. How will we deter China from attacking Taiwan, which the Chinese regard as a province of China?

What will happen if we hold back the resources we are now giving to Ukraine, and let that country be swallowed up by Russia? We will save a lot our shells, missiles, tanks and personnel carriers, but China will see this as a signal that we lack the will to defend Taiwan. What, after all, could be clearer?

Again, pay me now or pay me later.  

If we let Russia swallow up Ukraine because we thought it would cost too much, China will be far more likely to invade Taiwan. Chinese strategists will think: if the US will not help Ukraine—where it has allies and a history of intervening in Europe—why would it defend Taiwan?

And after China takes Taiwan, there are a number of nations that are now allied with the US that will be eager to become friends of a more powerful China: South Korea, the Philippines, maybe even Japan.

We could prevent this outcome, of course, by defending Taiwan with our army and navy, but at a huge cost in American lives and treasure.

Here again—pay me now or pay me later—we will be paying an enormous price to prevent the loss of Taiwan, because we failed to pay an infinitely smaller price in Ukraine today.

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