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Ukrainian Lessons for an American President

Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images

There is the question of how to respond practically to Putin’s aggression and there is the question of how to respond intellectually. The latter is no less important than the former, because the Ukrainian crisis is not a transient event but a lasting circumstance with which we will be wrestling for a long time. We must mentally arm ourselves against a reality about which we only recently disarmed ourselves: the reality of protracted conflict. The lack of preparedness at the White House was not merely a weakness of policy but also a weakness of worldview. The president is too often caught off guard by enmity, and by the nastiness of things. There really is no excuse for being surprised by evil. There is also no excuse for projecting one’s good intentions, one’s commitment to reason, one’s optimism about history, upon other individuals and other societies and other countries: narcissism is the enemy of empiricism, and we must perceive differences and threats empirically, lucidly, not with disbelief but with resolve. “Our opinions do not coincide,” Putin said after meeting with Obama last year. The sentence reverberates. That lack of coincidence is now a fact of enormous geopolitical significance. Putin is “in another world,” Merkel recently remarked after a conversation with Putin. But the world is composed of all the worlds, and reality of all the realities. Our minds must make room for them all, not least for purposes of resistance. Rather like Jimmy Carter in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, it is time for Barack Obama to consider revisions and corrections—a reset—of some of his assumptions about history and human behavior, insofar as any assumptions can be clearly imputed to him after these years of lurching from idealism to realism and back.

There is, again, the assumption of pervasive rationality, according to which there may always be devised some program of arguments and incentives that will bring malefactors to their senses and restore the halcyon economicist arrangement of cooperation for the sake of interests. Why does Obama believe that Putin is not willing to endure economic punishments for his military provocations? (Also, the same conspicuous consumption that makes Russia vulnerable to Europe makes Europe vulnerable to Russia. Do not expect the fleshpots of the EU to make sacrifices for Ukrainian independence.) The economic notion of rationality should sometimes yield to the anthropological notion of rationality. Putin is acting on the basis of a belief system. I would not flatter him with references to Solovyov: he is too thuggish for mysticism. (Though here is Solovyov, in 1883: “A nation has interests, and it also has a conscience. And if that conscience manifests itself but feebly in politics and does little to restrain the expressions of national egoism, this is unhealthy and abnormal, and everyone must admit that it is not right.”) Yet the traditions of Great Russian nationalism, and of Russian exceptionalism (he had the temerity to lecture us about American exceptionalism in The New York Times!), and of the civilizational difference between Russia and the West: those are Putin’s Slavophile reasons, along with the “logic” of power that all tyrants enact. The wild homophobia of Putin’s regime is his shorthand for his civilizational war. He gives masculinity a bad name.

Putin, you might say, has a decision architecture of his own. It may offend our values and contradict our platitudes, but it is no less actual for being unacceptable to us. Against it the administration is wanly deploying more of those platitudes—the “interdependent world,” for example. “What we see here,” a senior administration official told reporters, “are distinctly nineteenth- and twentieth-century decisions made by President Putin to address problems. ... What he needs to understand is that, in terms of his economy, he lives in the twenty-first century world, an interdependent world.” It makes no sense to run a civilizational conflict in an interdependent world, does it? But that is precisely what Putin is doing; and he is hardly alone in this allegedly impossible enterprise.

The legend of the interdependent world is always attended by the legend of the twenty-first century. Obama, the ambassador from the future, long ago decided that the twentieth century was over, and almost recreationally likes to dismiss its relevance to contemporary vexations. We live in a time that prefers the discontinuities of history to its continuities. We cannot get over how unprecedented we are. In this, of course, we resemble the unprecedented generations who came before us and the unprecedented generations who will come after us. This is always a mistake. The past is not dead, it is merely forgotten; and this forgetfulness, this distraction by the shiny and the new, poorly equips us to confront challenges that have been experienced before, and not too long ago. The Russian outrage in Ukraine is a state-of-the-art twentieth-century crisis. As Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot observes in this magazine, “Russia is repeating 1968.” (A millennial with a historical memory!)

All historical analogies are imprecise, of course. The one that most rattles Obama is with the cold war. “Our approach as the United States,” he said last month, “is not to see this as some cold war chessboard in which we’re in competition with Russia.” I leave aside the glory of the cold war, the courage and the justice of the struggle against the Soviet Union. I note only that the borderlands of Russia, and some places beyond, are looking increasingly like black squares and white squares to me. The imperfection of the chessboard metaphor consists only in that the game cannot be played when one side does not play by the rules; but insofar as Russia has emerged as a global rival with fantasies of historical enlargement and regional hegemony founded upon ideological and theological dogmas who commits acts of political intimidation and military invasion against democratic states that are our allies and supports despotic states that are our enemies—insofar as all this is the case, we are indeed “in competition with Russia.” Obama exhaled too soon. History is playing another trick on him. It is testing, and hopefully thwarting, his centripetal inclinations. He may yet have to lead an alliance, I mean strongly. He may yet have to talk about freedom, I mean ringingly.

Leon Wieseltier is literary editor of The New Republic.