Understanding why some in the US don’t want victory in Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin sees the Ukraine war as purely a matter of Russia’s national interest. In his view, Russia is fighting to reclaim territory that is historically part of the Russian empire. The war is a “local issue” that should not be an international concern.
The U.S. and its NATO allies see the Russian invasion as a grave violation of international order — an act of aggression by one sovereign state against another. In President Biden’s view, the U.S. has an obligation to defend that order. Just as it did when Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, invaded Kuwait in 1990.
When the first President Bush addressed Congress after the Iraqi invasion, he offered a stirring call to internationalist principle. Our purpose, Bush said, is to “defend civilized values around the world,” among them our commitment to “support the rule of law” and “stand up to aggression.” Which is more or less what the U.S. is doing now — but without sending U.S. troops.
Putin, however, blames the U.S. and its allies for turning the Ukraine conflict into “a global confrontation.” He sees Russia as “the aggrieved victim of a predatory West,” as the editors of the Washington Post put it.
President Biden’s response: “The West was not plotting to attack Russia.” The war was caused by “President Putin’s craven lust for land and power.”
The dominant bipartisan view since World War II is that the U.S. does not just have national interests: It also has international interests. Primary among these, a commitment to preserve world order and humanitarian values.
The argument for international interests was made by President Harry Truman when he announced the Truman Doctrine in 1947: “It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”
Whenever there is a threat to world order (like Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait) or to humanitarian values (like “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia), if the United States does not do anything, nothing will be done.
What would have happened if the United States had failed to act after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990? Most likely, nothing. Kuwait would have become part of Iraq.
Having acted in Kuwait, the first President Bush left the crisis in Bosnia to the Europeans. Bosnia was in Europe’s backyard. The U.S. had no vital interests there. What happened? Nothing.
The Europeans failed to act, and a new horror entered the world’s vocabulary: ethnic cleansing. Finally, the U.S. felt morally compelled to step in and lead a coalition to end the brutality.
When atrocities occurred in Cambodia, Rwanda, Congo and Darfur, the whole world — including the United States — looked away. So, nothing was done. The result was genocide.
The view that the United States has international interests as well as national interests has been the consensus of the U.S. political establishment of both parties since 1947. The American people have never completely bought into the idea, however. And it is now being challenged by a populist movement on the far right.
It started with Donald Trump, who argued that the U.S. has no interest in protecting the liberal world order. Most memorably, in his 2019 speech to the United Nations General Assembly he declared, “The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots.” In other words, America First.
Trump’s neo-isolationist views have been echoed by some on the right who oppose President Biden’s support for Ukraine. Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis denounced the Biden administration’s Ukraine policy saying, “They have effectively a blank-check policy with no clear strategic objective … I don’t think it’s in our interests to be getting into a proxy war with China.”
In some measure, this is pure partisanship, predictable in a time of bitter political polarization. But some on the far right see Putin as an ally in the U.S. culture wars. Putin regularly accuses the West of moral depravity. He told the Russian people in his annual state of the nation speech, “Millions of people in the West understand that they are being led to a real spiritual catastrophe. The elites, one must say, are simply going crazy.”
The war in Ukraine is a steel cage death match for Putin and Biden. It’s hard to see how Putin could stay in office if Russia is driven out of Ukraine (though it’s unclear who would succeed him). It’s also hard to see how Joe Biden could be re-elected if Ukraine falls to the Russians. If the war is fought to a stalemate, it’s not clear how either of them could survive politically without being able to claim “victory.”
Bill Schneider is an emeritus professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable” (Simon & Schuster).
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