As we approach the anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine – and the ferocious Ukrainian response backed by a U.S.-led Western coalition – the following question urgently needs answering: How is it that on Feb. 23, 2022, virtually no one in America was arguing that it was in our core national interest to enter into an indirect war with Russia to stop it from overrunning Ukraine, a country most Americans couldn’t find on a map in 10 tries? And yet now, nearly a year later, polls show solid (though slightly shrinking) American majorities for backing Ukraine with arms and aid, even though this risks a direct conflict with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
That’s a head-snapping shift in U.S. public opinion. Surely it’s partly explicable by the fact that no U.S. combat forces are in Ukraine, so it feels as if all that we’re risking, for now, is arms and treasure – while the full brunt of the war is borne by Ukrainians.
But there is another explanation, even if it’s one that most Americans might not be able to articulate and many might only reluctantly agree with.
They know at some deep level that the world we live in today is tilted the way it is because of American power. That doesn’t mean we have always used our power wisely, nor could we have succeeded without allies. But to the extent that we have used our power wisely and in concert with our allies, we have built and protected a liberal world order since 1945, which has been hugely in our interest – economically and geopolitically.
‘I turned around and saw a bullet had hit her. And a red patch appeared straight away on her sweater’
This is an order in which autocratic great powers such as Nazi Germany, imperial Japan or modern Russia and China are not free to simply devour their neighbours. And this is an order where more democracies than ever have been able to flourish, and where free markets and open trade have lifted more people out of poverty than at any time in the history of the world. It’s not always perfect – but in a world where perfect is never on the menu, this order has produced almost 80 years without a Great Power war, the kind of war that can destabilise the whole world.
Upholding this liberal order is the underlying logic that brought the United States and its Nato allies to help Ukraine reverse Putin’s “marry me or I’ll kill you” invasion – the first such onslaught by one country in Europe against another since the end of the second World War.
Now the bad news. For the first year of this war, the United States and its allies have had it relatively easy. We could send arms, aid and intelligence – as well as impose sanctions on Moscow – and the Ukrainians would do the rest, ravaging Putin’s army and pushing his forces back into Eastern Ukraine.
I don’t think year two is going to be so easy.
Putin, it’s now clear, has decided to double down, mobilising in recent months possibly as many as 500,000 fresh soldiers for a new push on the war’s first anniversary. Mass matters in war – even if that mass contains a large number of mercenaries, convicts and untrained conscripts.
Putin is basically saying to President Joe Biden: I can’t afford to lose this war and I will pay any price and bear any burden to ensure that I come away with a slice of Ukraine that can justify my losses. How about you, Joe? How about your European friends? Are you ready to pay any price and bear any burden to uphold your “liberal order”?
This is going to get scary. And because we have had nearly a century without a Great Power war, a lot of people have forgotten what made this long era of Great Power peace possible.
While I argued in my 1999 book “The Lexus and the Olive Tree” that the massive explosion of global commerce, trade and connectivity played a major role in this unusually peaceful era, I also argued that “the hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist – McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the builder of the F-15.” Somebody needs to keep the order and enforce the rules.
That has been the United States, and I believe that role is going to be tested now more than any time since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Are we still up for it?
There is an important new book that puts this challenge in a larger historical context. In “The Ghost at the Feast: America and the Collapse of World Order, 1900-1941,” Brookings Institution historian Robert Kagan argues that whatever isolationist twitches Americans may have, the fact is that, for the past century-plus, a majority of them have supported using U.S. power to shape a liberal world order that kept the world tilted toward open political systems and open markets in more places in more ways on more days – enough to keep the world from becoming a Hobbesian jungle.
I called Kagan and asked him why he sees the Ukraine war not as something that we’ve stumbled into but rather the natural extension of this century-long arc of U.S. foreign policy that he’s been writing about. Kagan’s answers will comfort some and discomfort others, but it is important to have this discussion as we enter year two of this war.
“In my book,” Kagan said, “I quote from Franklin Roosevelt’s 1939 State of the Union address. At a time when American security was in no way threatened – Hitler had not yet invaded Poland and the fall of France was almost impossible to imagine – Roosevelt insisted there were nevertheless times ‘in the affairs of men when they must prepare to defend not their homes alone but the tenets of faith and humanity on which their churches, their governments and their very civilisation are founded.’ In both world wars and throughout the Cold War, Americans acted not in immediate self-defence but to defend the liberal world against challenges from militaristic authoritarian governments, just as they are doing today in Ukraine.”
But why is backing Ukraine in this war not only in our strategic interest but also in line with our values?
“Americans continually struggle to reconcile contradictory interpretations of their interests – one focused on security of the homeland and one focused on defence of the liberal world beyond America’s shores,” he said. “The first conforms to Americans’ preference to be left alone and avoid the costs, responsibilities and moral burdens of exercising power abroad. The second reflects their anxieties as a liberal people about becoming what FDR called a ‘lone island’ in a sea of militarist dictatorships. The oscillation between these two perspectives has produced the recurring whiplash in U.S. foreign policy over the past century.”
International relations theorists, Kagan added, “have taught us to view ‘interests’ and ‘values’ as distinct, with the idea that for all nations ‘interests’ – meaning material concerns like security and economic wellbeing – necessarily take primacy over values. But this is not, in fact, how nations behave. Russia after the Cold War has enjoyed greater security on its western border than at practically any time in its history, even with NATO’s expansion. Yet Putin has been willing to make Russia less secure to fulfil traditional Russian great power ambitions which have more to do with honour and identity than with security.” The same seems to be true with President Xi Jinping of China when it comes to recovering Taiwan.
It is interesting to note, though, that a growing number of Republicans, at least in the House and on Fox News, don’t buy this argument, while a Democratic president and his Senate do. What gives?
“American foreign policy debates are never just about foreign policy,” Kagan answered. “The ‘isolationists’ in the 1930s were overwhelmingly Republicans. Their greatest fear, or so they claimed, was that FDR was leading the nation toward communism. In international affairs, therefore, they tended to be more sympathetic to the fascist powers than liberal Democrats. They thought well of Mussolini, opposed aiding the Spanish Republicans against the fascist, Nazi-backed Franco and regarded Hitler as a useful bulwark against the Soviet Union.
“So it’s not so surprising today that so many conservative Republicans have a soft spot for Putin, whom they see as a leader of the global anti-liberal crusade. Perhaps it is worth reminding Kevin McCarthy that the Republicans were destroyed politically by their opposition to World War II and were only able to resurrect themselves by electing an internationalist Dwight Eisenhower in 1952.”
There are also many voices on the left, though, who are legitimately asking: Is it really worth risking World War III to drive Russia all the way out of Eastern Ukraine? Haven’t we hurt Putin so badly by now that he won’t be trying something like Ukraine again soon? Time for a dirty deal?
Since I suspect that this question will be at the center of our foreign policy debate in 2023, I asked Kagan to kick it off.
“Any negotiation that leaves Russian forces in place on Ukrainian soil will only be a temporary truce before Putin’s next attempt,” he said. “Putin is in the process of completely militarizing Russian society, much as Stalin did during World War II. He is in it for the long haul, and he is counting on the United States and the West to grow weary at the prospect of a long conflict – as both the left and right isolationists at the Quincy Institute and in Congress have already indicated they are.
“That the United States is flawed and uses its power foolishly at times is not debatable. But if you cannot face squarely the question of what would happen in the world if the United States kept to itself, then you are not engaging these difficult questions seriously.”
Thomas Friedman is a New York Times columnist
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.