Opinion – Thomas L. Friedman: US Will Be Tested in Scary 2nd Year of Ukraine War


The Russian invasion of Ukraine is close to completing a year and the following question needs to be answered: how do you explain that on February 23, 2022 virtually no one in the US was arguing that it was in fundamental national interest to enter into an indirect war with Russia to prevent her from invading the country most Americans couldn’t even locate on a map?

And yet today, almost a year later, polls indicate that a solid majority of Americans (although that majority has been decreasing slightly) are in favor of Washington providing weapons and assistance to Ukraine, despite the fact that this creates the risk of a direct conflict with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

It is an astonishing change in the mood of American public opinion. It is certainly explained in part by the fact that there are no American fighting forces in Ukraine. So the impression is that the US is risking weapons and resources, while the full brunt of the war is carried by the Ukrainians.

But there is another explanation, albeit one that most Americans may not be able to articulate and to which many would only grudgingly agree.

They know that the world we live in today is the way it is because of American power. This is not to say that we have always used our power wisely, nor that we could have accomplished what we do without allies. But since 1945, while using our power prudently and in concert with our allies, we have built and protected a liberal world order that has served us tremendously, both economically and geopolitically.

Upholding this liberal order is the underlying reason why the US and its NATO allies helped Ukraine reverse Putin’s invasion – the first violent frontal attack by one country in Europe against another since the end of World War II.

Now for the bad news. The first year of this war has been relatively uneventful for the US and its allies. Washington was able to send weapons, assistance and intelligence, as well as impose sanctions on Moscow, while the Ukrainians did the rest, hitting Putin’s army badly and pushing his forces back into eastern Ukraine.

I think that the second year of the war will not be so easy.

In my book “The Lexus and the Olive Tree”, I argued that the massive explosion of commerce and local connectivity played an important role in this unusually peaceful era, but also that “the hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden clenched fist: the McDonald can’t grow without McDonnell Douglas, maker of the F-15.” Someone needs to keep order and implement the rules.

That someone has been the United States, and I think that role will be put to the test now more than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Is Washington still prepared to play that role?

There is a book that places this challenge in a broader historical context. In “The Ghost at the Feast: America and the Collapse of World Order, 1900-1941,” historian Robert Kagan argues that, whatever the possible isolationist proclivities of Americans, the truth is that most of them have been in favor of using power to shape a liberal order that kept the world leaning toward open political systems and open markets, in more places, in more ways, and for longer.

I called Kagan and asked him why he sees the War in Ukraine not as something we stumble upon by chance, but as the natural extension of this arc that American foreign policy has depicted for more than a century. Kagan’s responses will reassure some and annoy others, but it’s important to have this discussion as we enter year two of this war.

“In my book,” said Kagan, “I quote from Franklin Roosevelt’s 1939 State of the Union address. At a time when US security was not threatened in any way—Hitler had not yet invaded Poland, and would have it had been almost impossible to contemplate the fall of France—Roosevelt insisted that there are times ‘in men’s affairs when they must prepare to defend not only their homes, but also the foundations of faith and humanity on which their churches, their governments and their own civilization'”.

But why is supporting Ukraine in this war not only in our strategic interest but in line with our values?

“Americans continually struggle to reconcile contradictory interpretations of their interests – one focused on homeland security and one focused on defending the liberal world outside America,” he said.

International relations theorists, added Kagan, “have taught us to see ‘interests’ and ‘values’ as separate things, with the idea that for all countries, ‘interests’ – that is, concerns such as security and economic well-being — necessarily outweigh values.”

“But that’s not how nations really behave. Since the Cold War Russia has enjoyed greater security on its western border than at virtually any other time in history, even with the expansion of NATO. However, Putin set out to make Russia less secure to satisfy his country’s grandiose traditional ambitions for power, more about honor and identity than security.”

The same thing seems to apply to Chinese leader Xi Jinping regarding Taiwan.

But it is interesting to note that a growing number of Republicans, at least in the House and on Fox News, are not sold on this argument, while a Democratic president and his Senate are. How is this explained?

“American foreign policy debates are never just about foreign policy,” Kagan replied. “The so-called ‘isolationists’ of the 1930s were overwhelmingly Republicans. Their greatest fear, or so they said, was that Roosevelt was leading the country towards communism. fascist powers than liberal democrats”.

“Thus, it is not surprising that today so many conservative Republicans harbor a fondness for Putin, whom they see as a leader of the global anti-liberal crusade.”

There are also many voices on the left, however, who are justifiably asking: is it really worth risking World War III to drive Russia out of eastern Ukraine? Haven’t we already hurt Putin so badly that he won’t try something like War in Ukraine in the future? Isn’t it time to cut a dirty deal with him?

Because I suspect this question will be at the center of our foreign policy discussion in 2023, I asked Kagan to launch the discussion.

“Any negotiation to leave Russian forces stationed on Ukrainian soil will be nothing more than a temporary truce before Putin launches his next attempt,” he said. “Putin is in the process of completely militarizing Russian society, much like Stalin did during World War II. He is committed to this for the long term and reckons the US and the West will wear out at the prospect of a protracted conflict. “.

“That the US is flawed and sometimes uses its power recklessly is not up for debate. But if you can’t face the question of what would happen in the world if the US didn’t intervene abroad, you’re not addressing those issues. seriously difficult.”

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