Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., arrives at the U.S. Capitol on March 13, 2024, for a vote on whether to ban TikTok from the United States.

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., arrives at the U.S. Capitol on March 13, 2024, for a vote on whether to ban TikTok from the United States. Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Authoritarians are playing to win. America can’t if we don’t show up.

Two retired four-stars lay out the case for the National Security Emergency Package currently being considered in the House.

A global chess game is underway and America’s security depends on it. Congressional negotiators are counting votes to break gridlock and fund America’s national security. As they do, thousands of miles away, an opposite set of deliberations are afoot, from Moscow to Tehran to Beijing, not to build a secure America—but to work against the interests of our citizens.

As military officers who spent our lives in uniform and oversaw U.S. military operations at NATO and in the Pacific, we believe today’s world is more complicated, more threatening, and most of all more interconnected than any we’ve witnessed. 

In real time, Iran is seizing the opportunity to empower Houthi extremists in the Red Sea and Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon. As North Korean-built missiles fall on Ukrainian targets, Putin welcomes this rising regional instability, distracting the world from the battlefield between Kiev and Crimea. All the while, Beijing watches closely to determine whether the invasion of Ukraine is either a cautionary tale or a greenlight when it comes to Taiwan.

As the Senate passed the National Security Emergency Package last month, Senator Thom Tillis, R-N.C., aptly described this moment, “If we walk away, you will see the alliance that is supporting Ukraine crumble. You will ultimately see China become emboldened. And I am not going to be on that page of history.” As America’s national security hangs in the balance, the package now being considered in the House is essential to counter those who would do us harm. And with Putin making Ukraine’s economy another theater of war, the critical U.S. civilian economic and humanitarian assistance—alongside security assistance—will be just as vital to ensure Ukraine can continue to defend its territory and prevent Russian forces from pushing further into Europe.

Meanwhile, other crises metastasize. Ukraine is known as the “breadbasket of Europe” and the invasion is one of the core reasons that 9 in 10 people face acute levels of food insecurity in hot spots already affected by fragility and conflict – countries like Sudan, Yemen, and Syria. The last time the world faced such a significant food crisis, it helped contribute to bloody conflict across the Middle East and North Africa and the rise of ISIS. Currently, 150 million people are facing “acute food insecurity” and 108 million have been forced to flee their homes worldwide.

Likewise, China is on the march, accumulating influence and economic riches across Africa and the Global South. Beijing has upped its global development investment more than fivefold over 15 years, and is already beginning to reap the dividends. From critical minerals in Africa to relationships in Latin America and southeast Asia, the race is on for the export markets that will define this century.

In our country, meanwhile, isolationist headwinds are animating our nation’s politics.  Some of our fellow citizens believe our nation should turn inward. But we’ve learned the hard way that our two oceans will not protect us from the threats of the 21st century. And while the notion that politics should stop at the water’s edge may no longer be quite as sacrosanct, it's why we are part of a group of more than 260 retired three- and four-star generals and admirals who continue to speak out around the country on why America has to engage in the world to stop threats before they arrive on our shores.

Some argue that democracy is not suited to this moment. We disagree. We believe that the vibrancy of our democracy earns the United States a credibility that Putin, Kim Jong Un, and the Ayatollah can only dream of: admiration and allies, not just transactional relationships. But you can’t win if you don’t show up.

The world is watching the chessboard to see whether the United States can deliver—on security, on economic competition, and on humanitarian crises—in the way that’s always defined and differentiated us from the competition. Over the last year, it’s no secret that our allies have been stepping up—as they should—with European countries now committing $3 for every $1 the U.S. has contributed to Ukraine. Yet the stakes for our own interests are too high for our nation to sit on the sidelines.

We agree with Speaker Mike Johnson when he affirmed that “we can’t allow Vladimir Putin to march through Europe.” How can we get there? Passing the National Security Emergency Package in the House is critical, not just for the reinforcement it must bring to the Pentagon and our comrades in arms, but equally so to their partners at the State Department and USAID. 

These investments are essential to meet the civilian security, economic, and humanitarian needs rapidly piling up before those too demand military solutions. Together, these agencies—defense and civilian—make up America’s team and they need our urgent support.

In national security, one may debate causality against correlation, but there are no coincidences. When Moscow hosted Hamas at the Kremlin after the barbaric October 7 terrorist attacks, and Xi Jinping hosted Putin in Beijing during China’s recent 130-country conference, and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un toured Russian missile sites, the message was clear.

The authoritarians are playing to win on the global chessboard, and they’re acting in lockstep. 

Passing a budget up to the challenge is the first way to put us on a path to check our adversaries and competitors—and to protect our national interests, our citizens, and our way of life.

Philip Breedlove, a retired U.S. Air Force general, commanded NATO Supreme Allied Command from 2013 to 2016.

Sam Locklear, a retired U.S. Navy admiral, commanded U.S. Pacific Command from 2012 to 2015.