I keep worrying that we’re going to get sucked into a war with Russia. We should all worry about that. Why? Because let’s face it, there is every possibility that Russia is going to win this war—at least in the short term. Russia has the troops, the tanks, the firepower. God bless the Ukrainians. Their courage is a beautiful thing to see. I’m grateful to be alive to witness it. But Putin seems willing to escalate until the country comes under his control.
Russia will probably overpower Ukraine—and if it does, it will commit horrid war crimes doing so; just ask the people of Aleppo, Syria, what Russian aggression is like. It would literally be one of the great moments in human history if somehow Ukraine won and Putin were deposed. But alas, we can’t count on that. Those of us in the United States of America will have to sit here and watch. And as hard as that will be, it will be the right thing to do. We can’t go to war for Ukraine. We just can’t. The American people wouldn’t stand for it. A war with the world’s top nuclear power (yes—they have more nukes than we do!), governed by a madman who might use them?
In other words: The day is probably going to come, and maybe fairly soon, when we watch the heroic Volodymyr Zelenskiy being deposed and Vladimir Putin installing some contemptible puppet in Kyiv and declaring victory. I want to be wrong about this. I want the Ukrainians to fight the Russians off and for Zelenskiy to retain his presidency. All of us do. But the reality of the situation is stark.
But here’s the point, and it is important: Even if Russia takes over Ukraine, the liberal world order has won. We have made a bold statement. Joe Biden—and thank God that he and not Donald Trump is the president of the United States right now—has led the West in a way that is about as close to perfect as one could imagine. It’s not all his doing, obviously. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has provided miraculous leadership when it mattered. But the West has, for what might actually be the first time in history, lived up to its stated principles.
Those principles were laid out in 1947, in the Truman Doctrine, and in 1949, in the creation of NATO. They said that we defended freedom and that we were all in the fight together. But we haven’t always defended freedom. We know that. In what was then called the Third World, we opposed freedom—for the Vietnamese, for South Africans, and others. In Europe, our track record is less lamentable, because the Soviet Union was the great oppressor of the East, but we weren’t so great in Greece, where we backed the fascist junta that took over in 1967. And remember, Greece (and Turkey) was what the Truman Doctrine was all about.
We said, in sum, that we were for freedom. But we rarely actually stood up for that. Now we have found our way.
Bill Clinton quasi-apologized for Greece, and it’s worth reprinting his quote from the time, from a speech he delivered in Athens in 1999: “When the junta took over in 1967 here, the United States allowed its interests in prosecuting the Cold War to prevail over its interests—I should say its obligation—to support democracy, which was, after all, the cause for which we fought the Cold War. It is important that we acknowledge that.”
Clinton was correct then, and Biden is correct today. Our obligation is to democracy. But: We are not obliged to go to war for democracy. We are obliged to state its principles, and we are obliged to scorn and punish and isolate its enemies.
Biden has done a great job in leading the coalition of the West. All of his years of experience have formed this moment; his instincts, which for example led to the release of intelligence information when it normally would have been kept secret, have been sterling and have helped to keep Putin on an awkward footing.
But Biden is going to be pressured to do more. If it’s starting to look like Kyiv is going to fall, he will come under intense pressure to send troops in, from sympathetic voices. He must refrain. We have done, and are doing, what we need to do. We can’t institute a no-fly zone. That’s in essence a declaration of war. We cannot get bogged down in a war with Russia. That is playing into Putin’s hands. Dictators want chaos, unpredictability, war. Democracies need stability.
We are doing all we can for Ukraine. Biden has rallied the West in an unprecedented way. Switzerland is punishing the oligarchs. Putin may win this in the short term; there will be despair when he does. But he will lose in the end, if Western leaders maintain their values and rally the public.
And we will gain something: the knowledge that we held to our stated principles. We have a history of stating them and then violating them. But this time, so far anyway, we are standing by them. Putin, even if he “wins,” will be isolated. We are finally standing for what we say we stand for.