Central to much of the skepticism regarding America’s involvement in the crisis in Ukraine is the question, “Who are we?”
With our long history of invading and intervening, who are we to teach Vladimir Putin about respecting international law and national sovereignty? With our history of discrimination and slavery in America, and our support for friendly dictators abroad, who are we to present ourselves as defenders of freedom and human right? After 198 years of Monroe Doctrine, who are we to stop Russia from defining its own sphere? We are apathetic and ignorant enough to be involved in faraway disputes that we do not know anything about.
Such questions are often put by people on the left, but there’s a powerful strain of the same thinking on the right. When Bill O’Reilly asked Donald Trump in 2017 how he could “respect” Putin when the Russian president is “a killer,” the president replied: “We’ve got a lot of killers. What, you think our country’s so innocent?”
Trump aside, there’s something intrinsically virtuous about this kind of thinking: Who is it who tells us to first cast out the beam in our own eye before we cast out the mote in the eye of another? People and countries are better off if they have greater self-awareness, less moral arrogance and innate respect for unintended consequences.
These virtues are not good for people or countries. Self-awareness can lead to policy paralysis or personal paralysis. Intellectual humility can lead to moral confusion. Fear of unknown risks can be a weapon against an enemy. These are some of our deeper risks in the fight with the Kremlin.
Why is Putin making this move on Ukraine at this time? As many have pointed out, Russia is an objectively weak state — “Upper Volta with nuclear weapons,” as someone once quipped — with a nominal G.D.P. Its GDP is less than that of South Korea. Outside of energy, minerals and second-rate military equipment, it produces almost nothing that outsiders want: no Russian iPhone, Lexus or “Fauda.” Putin’s problem with Ukraine, starting with the Maidan uprising of 2014, is that Ukrainians want nothing to do with him. If he were a Disney character, he’d be Rapunzel’s mother.
But Putin has advantages his opponents don’t, which go beyond the correlation of military forces in the Donbas.
One advantage is the correlation of appetites: Putin wants Ukraine under his thumb much more than the West wants to keep Ukraine in its orbit, and he’s willing to pay a higher price to get it. Another advantage is the correlation between attention spans: Putin has been steadily working towards restoring Ukraine to his control since at least 2004. Ukraine is another complicated crisis that the West will eventually tire. The third advantage is the coincidence of wills. Putin wants to alter the geopolitical order in Europe and is willing to take high-stakes to do so. The Biden administration is determined to maintain a fragile and increasingly lifeless status-quo. Fortune favors the bold.
But Putin’s greatest advantage is self-belief. Serious historians may scoff at his elaborate historical theories about Ukraine’s nonexistence as a true state. He believes it or at least makes a convincing case for it. What does the West really believe about Ukraine? Other than that it would be a shame and scary if Putin were able to swallow large amounts of it? It is certainly not worth fighting for.
While most people know that history can turn into myth, it is also possible for myths to become history. Fortune favors fervent believers.
The United States used have self-belief. Multiple generations of Americans believed that civilization represented human progress. Our political ideals — about the rule of law, human rights, individual liberties, democratic governance — were ideals for all people, including those beyond our borders. Our literature spoke to the universal human experience, and our music to the universal heart. We fought wars for grand moral purposes and not for avaricious ends. Even our worst mistakes, like the one in Vietnam were caused by defensible principals. Our sins were real, and they were numerous, but they were rectifiable flaws, and not systemic features.
It goes without saying that this self-belief — like all belief — was a mixture of truth and conceit,…