Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

There Is a West

The crisis in Ukraine has reminded the United States and Europe that they have a purpose in the world.

Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
James Traub
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
More than 100,000 protesters crowd around the victory 
column near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin to demonstrate 
for peace in Ukraine on Feb. 27.
More than 100,000 protesters crowd around the victory column near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin to demonstrate for peace in Ukraine on Feb. 27.
More than 100,000 protesters crowd around the victory column near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin to demonstrate for peace in Ukraine on Feb. 27. ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

Sometimes we cannot know what principle we are prepared to defend until it is challenged. In There Is a North, the historian John L. Brooke argues that only after the American South coalesced around the defense of slavery post-1850 did the North discover its own identity in the opposition to slavery. Similarly, in the aftermath of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine—and of the startlingly, almost thrillingly, unified response by major democratic states—we can say, “There is a West.”

We do not yet know quite what that means or whom that includes or just how binding that sense of common purpose will prove to be. We do know, however, how deep and widespread the reaction to Putin’s violation of international law and norms has been: Germany has agreed to increase defense spending to 2 percent of GDP after resisting that goal for years; Japan has vowed to accept Ukrainian refugees despite its traditional discomfort with outsiders of all kinds; Britain has finally acted to subject the expatriated fortunes of Russian oligarchs to serious scrutiny; and, of course, the United States and the European Union have worked in tandem to impose escalating sanctions on Russia.

The sense that democracy is under threat is nothing new, of course. Last summer, in the run-up to U.S. President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy, I spoke to senior officials in a number of European capitals and found them far more hospitable than I expected to Biden’s call to defend democracy from autocratic challenges. Almost all were wary of being dragged into a coalition against China or perhaps a renewed version of George W. Bush’s bellicose Freedom Agenda. Instead, and quite unexpectedly, the provocation came from Russia, not an economic superpower but a rogue state prowling its neighborhood with a nuclear-armed switchblade. And Putin invaded a peaceable neighbor—something unheard of, at least in Europe.

Sometimes we cannot know what principle we are prepared to defend until it is challenged. In There Is a North, the historian John L. Brooke argues that only after the American South coalesced around the defense of slavery post-1850 did the North discover its own identity in the opposition to slavery. Similarly, in the aftermath of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine—and of the startlingly, almost thrillingly, unified response by major democratic states—we can say, “There is a West.”

We do not yet know quite what that means or whom that includes or just how binding that sense of common purpose will prove to be. We do know, however, how deep and widespread the reaction to Putin’s violation of international law and norms has been: Germany has agreed to increase defense spending to 2 percent of GDP after resisting that goal for years; Japan has vowed to accept Ukrainian refugees despite its traditional discomfort with outsiders of all kinds; Britain has finally acted to subject the expatriated fortunes of Russian oligarchs to serious scrutiny; and, of course, the United States and the European Union have worked in tandem to impose escalating sanctions on Russia.

The sense that democracy is under threat is nothing new, of course. Last summer, in the run-up to U.S. President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy, I spoke to senior officials in a number of European capitals and found them far more hospitable than I expected to Biden’s call to defend democracy from autocratic challenges. Almost all were wary of being dragged into a coalition against China or perhaps a renewed version of George W. Bush’s bellicose Freedom Agenda. Instead, and quite unexpectedly, the provocation came from Russia, not an economic superpower but a rogue state prowling its neighborhood with a nuclear-armed switchblade. And Putin invaded a peaceable neighbor—something unheard of, at least in Europe.

No other actor, and no other act, could have so effectively galvanized the West. Putin has defined himself against the norms and the institutions of the post-World War II order—against NATO; against the United Nations, whose charter is founded on respect for sovereignty; against Europe, whose boundaries he seeks to redraw; and against the rule of law, which he cites when it serves his purpose and tramples when it doesn’t. He makes the case for Biden’s framing of democracy versus autocracy in a way that Chinese President Xi Jinping, who wants to benefit from the world order while changing its rules, has not. It’s telling that only other rogue nations—Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea, Syria—joined Russia in voting against the recent U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning the invasion.

This has been—or at least should be—a clarifying moment for the many critics of Biden’s democracy policy. Realists have blamed the West for Putin’s aggression, arguing that NATO expansion encroached on what Russia rightly regards as its own sphere of influence. Yet even leaving aside the legitimacy of this 19th-century concept that reduces small countries to satrapies of big ones, Putin has revealed that he is not the realist the realists thought he was. If he were, he would have blackmailed Ukraine into forswearing NATO membership, which he almost certainly could have done, and then gone home. But he’s not—his goals are ultimately civilizational rather than geopolitical.

Critics on the left find Biden’s moral vocabulary risible. (See Noam Chomsky’s discussion of the Russia crisis.) What gives the United States, perpetrator of atrocities in Iraq and murderer of civilians in drone warfare, the moral standing to call for a democratic crusade against Russian aggression? This kind of moral equivalence has a long history, stretching back to progressive “doughfaces,” as the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called them, who defended Joseph Stalin and to the left-wingers whom George Orwell inveighed against for insisting on the equivalence of capitalism and Nazism.

Yet one does not have to minimize any of the horror to repudiate the moral equivalence argument. Americans have been paralyzed by a sense of shame over their country’s misdeeds, whether in Vietnam or Iraq, and then groped their way to conduct more in keeping with their values, as evidenced in the peaceful ending of the Cold War and the humanitarian interventions, albeit belated, in the Balkans. Here, too, Putin may do the democratic world a perverse favor: It will be very hard to make the argument for moral equivalence by the time he has finished slaughtering Ukrainian civilians.

Let us, then, get over our paralysis. Let us recognize that there is a West and that there is a (not entirely Western) liberal order worth defending. What then? What are we called to do beyond tightening the screws on Russia? First, we need to recognize that Ukraine matters not only as a victim of Russian aggression but as a fellow democracy. Ukraine is a very corrupt and deeply impoverished country—but the Ukrainian people chose their president, Volodymyr Zelensky, in a free and fair election, and they are now demonstrating to the world the self-respect that belongs to free people.

Zelensky has asked for Ukraine to join the EU. Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the EU, which entered into force in 2017, already allows Ukrainians to enjoy enhanced access to the EU’s single market, and citizens have been able to travel visa-free throughout the Schengen Area since 2017. Nevertheless, it could take decades before the country meets the EU’s exacting standards. But Europe could send a message to Ukraine, to Russia, and to the world by immediately accepting Ukraine as a candidate for membership—if, that is, it survives as an independent state.

But Ukraine may live on only as a government in exile or as a rump state confined to the western part of the country while Russia rules from Kyiv. The United States and major European powers will have to supply that entity with diplomatic, economic, and military support. The center of crisis will then shift from Ukraine to the Baltic states as well as to Poland and the other nations that will constitute the new border of the West. It’s hard to believe that Putin would invade, rather than destabilize, a NATO member state, but not long ago it was hard to believe that Putin would invade Ukraine. The United States and its NATO allies will have to send more troops and more equipment to those front-line countries.

But Biden will also have to do something harder: He will have to explain to the American people why the United States should be prepared to fight for a tiny country—say, Lithuania—that few of them could find on a map. Why does Lithuania matter so much that U.S. soldiers should be prepared to fight and die to protect its independence? Why should the United States risk the kind of confrontation with Russia that it avoided throughout the Cold War?

This will not be easy, and it probably will not be popular. Most voters, who pay only fleeting attention to foreign affairs, will not be deeply moved by appeals to preserve the liberal world order. And Americans are in no mood to fight anyone save one another. Yet Biden will have to find the language that expresses what it is that Putin has put at risk. He will have to talk not about treaty obligations and NATO’s Article 5 but about America’s role in protecting free people from tyranny. And Putin needs to hear him do it so that he reckons with the cost of attacking a NATO member state. Biden certainly made a good start by declaring in his State of the Union speech that the United States would not yield a “single inch” of NATO territory.

The weak link in the democratic order is the United States. Among the major Western democracies, only the United States elected a leader openly hostile to liberal democracy; it just might elect him again in 2024. Biden has to talk to his own citizens about democracy at home as well as abroad. It’s not a popular subject. Polls show that voters don’t want to hear about the problems with U.S. democracy, and pundits have implored Biden to stop harping on the subject.

Maybe they’re right. Biden is hardly an inspiring speaker, but he has the gift for telling home truths. He needs to find the language to remind Americans of values they have always held dear. He may learn that no such language exists in 2022. But he has to try.

This article appears in the Spring 2022 print issue. Subscribe now to support our journalism and get unlimited access to FP.

James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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