Ukraine and the crisis of American self-belief
By Bret Stephens
Central to much of the skepticism regarding America’s involvement in the crisis in Ukraine is the question, “Who are we?”
Who are we, with our long history of invasions and interventions, to lecture Vladimir Putin about respecting national sovereignty and international law? Who are we, with our domestic record of slavery and discrimination, our foreign record of supporting friendly dictators, and the ongoing injustices of American life, to hold ourselves up as paragons of freedom and human rights? Who are we, after 198 years of the Monroe Doctrine, to try to stop Russia from delineating its own sphere of influence? Who are we, with our habitual ignorance, to meddle in faraway disputes about which we know so little?
Such questions are often put by people on the left, but there’s a powerful strain of the same thinking on the right. When Bill O’Reilly asked Donald Trump in 2017 how he could “respect” Putin when the Russian president is “a killer,” the president replied: “We’ve got a lot of killers. What, you think our country’s so innocent?”
Trump aside, there’s something intrinsically virtuous about this kind of thinking: Who is it who tells us to first cast out the beam in our own eye before we cast out the mote in the eye of another? Countries, like people, are better off when they proceed with more self-awareness, less moral arrogance, greater intellectual humility and an innate respect for the reality of unintended consequences.
But neither people nor countries are well-served by the defects of those virtues: self-awareness that becomes a recipe for personal or policy paralysis, intellectual humility that leads to moral confusion, a fear of unknown risks that becomes an asset to an enemy. These are some of the deeper risks we now face in the contest with the Kremlin.
Why has Putin chosen this moment to make his move on Ukraine? As many have pointed out, Russia is an objectively weak state — “Upper Volta with nuclear weapons,” as someone once quipped — with a nominal GDP smaller than that of South Korea. Outside of energy, minerals and second-rate military equipment, it produces almost nothing that outsiders want: no Russian iPhone, Lexus or “Fauda.” Putin’s problem with Ukraine, starting with the Maidan uprising of 2014, is that Ukrainians want nothing to do with him. If he were a Disney character, he would be Rapunzel’s mother.
But Putin has advantages his opponents don’t, which go beyond the correlation of military forces in the Donbas.
One advantage is the correlation of appetites: Putin wants Ukraine under his thumb much more than the West wants to keep Ukraine in its orbit, and he’s willing to pay a higher price to get it. Another advantage is the correlation of attention spans: Putin has methodically set his sights on returning Ukraine to his fold since at least 2004. For the West, Ukraine is another complex crisis of which it will eventually tire. A third advantage is the correlation of wills: Putin wants to change the geopolitical order of Europe and is prepared to take large risks to do it. The Biden administration wants to preserve a shaky and increasingly lifeless status quo. Fortune tends to favor the bold.
But Putin’s greatest advantage is self-belief. Serious historians may scoff at his elaborate historical theories about Ukraine’s nonexistence as a true state. But he believes it, or at least he makes a convincing show of it. What, really, does the West believe about Ukraine, other than that it would be a shame, and scary, if Putin were to swallow large chunks of it? Certainly nothing worth fighting for.
Most of us understand that history has a way of turning into myth, but the reverse can also be true: Myths have a way of making history. Fortune also tends to favor fervent believers.
The United States used to have self-belief. Our civilization, multiple generations of Americans believed, represented human progress. Our political ideals — about the rule of law, human rights, individual liberties, democratic governance — were ideals for all people, including those beyond our borders. Our literature spoke to the universal human experience, our music to the universal soul. When we fought wars, it was for grand moral purposes, not avaricious aims. Even our worst blunders, as in Vietnam, stemmed from defensible principles. Our sins were real and numerous, but they were correctable flaws, not systemic features.
It goes without saying that this self-belief — like all belief — was a mixture of truth and conceit, idealism and hubris, vision and blindness. It led us to make all sorts of errors, the acute awareness of which has become the dominant strain of our intellectual life. But it also led us to our great triumphs: Yorktown and Appomattox; the 13th and 19th amendments; the Berlin Airlift and the fall of the Berlin Wall; the Marshall Plan and PEPFAR.
These victories were not the result of asking, “Who are we?” They came about by asking, “Who but us?” In the crisis of Ukraine, which is really a crisis of the West, we might start asking the second question a little more often than the first.