It is a dreary world, gentlemen.
The most consequential event of our time, I pray, will be the heroism of the Ukrainians. Here are men and women fighting and dying for liberal democracy. It was beginning to seem as if such a thing were no longer possible. Worse, no longer desirable. Here in the West, Jeshurun waxed fat and kicked. We have just been through years of contempt for liberal democracy, and the great disparagement is hardly over. We have been told that everything bad in our age is the fault of liberalism, or worse, neo-liberalism, whatever that is. It has been blamed for just about all the unhappiness in the world; and so the peddlers of a new happiness gloatingly call themselves post-liberal, on all sides of the rotted ideological spectrum. Sometimes one has to rub one’s eyes in disbelief at the intensity of the hatred for liberal democracy: do these fools really understand what they are saying? And then Vladimir Putin, with perfect candor about his lack of scruple and an inhuman absence of shame, attacked Ukraine. The question of his motivation is murky, like everything about this dead little man; there are those who attribute his war to strategic considerations and those who attribute it to mystical ones. Yet Putin’s objective could hardly be more plain: it is to stop the spread of liberal democracy, which in recent years has been exhilaratingly identified with the political evolution of Ukraine. Like his Soviet predecessors, Putin fears nothing more than sharing a border with freedom, which has a way of getting through barbed wire.
One of the most striking features of the discussion about the war in Ukraine is how little the anti-liberal left and the anti-liberal right have contributed to it. The left does not support Russia, of course; but it does not support American support for Ukraine either, at least not with its customary relish. What the Ukrainians can expect from the progressives is an airlift of thoughts and prayers. I suspect that what really outrages them about Putin’s invasion, even more than its war crimes, is that it might beget an increase in the American defense budget; or worse, a revival of “the Washington foreign policy establishment” and “the Washington elite,” by which they mean anybody who holds a view contrary to theirs. This is populism as national security policy. In recent decades progressives have been more fascinated by Islam’s martyrs than by liberalism’s martyrs. They certainly do not look favorably upon the new activism of American foreign policy that has been engendered by the Ukrainian war. In their view, American foreign policy should be nothing more than a commemoration of the Iraq war unto the end of time. Our disgraceful retreat from Afghanistan was celebrated as precisely such a tribute to our post-Iraq wisdom. And now Putin comes along and spoils things. Just when we thought we were out, they pull us back in! (In fact, the conjunction of events was not a coincidence: our flight from Afghanistan made the moment auspicious for the Russian aggression.) In the curious logic of left-wing isolationism, the danger of Putin’s imperialism is that it may beget American imperialism, since all American interventions are by definition imperialistic. Putin has played into LBJ’s hands, if you see what I mean. And so here is Frantz Fanon, I mean Pankaj Mishra, warning that “Putin’s atrocities in Ukraine have now given” that aforesaid establishment “an opportunity to make America seem great again.” (No, not seem; be.) And here is Glenn Greenwald solemnly reporting Noam Chomsky’s remark that “fortunately” there is “one Western statesman of stature” agitating for a diplomatic solution to the war. That saving giant of diplomacy is Donald J. Trump. The spectacle of Chomsky’s degeneration is delightful.
As for the post-liberal right, they are stuck with their admiration of Viktor Orban, who is stuck with his admiration of Vladimir Putin. They all deserve each other. In Poland, at least, even the post-liberals, including some of the prophets whom certain American reactionary intellectuals revere, have been clear about their opposition to the Russian war, but then Poland, for the obvious reason, has always been especially wakeful about Russia. Yet even as the horrors in Ukraine abound, the poisonous post-liberal vapors proliferate. A few months ago I came across a piece by Patrick Deneen, one of the most important thinkers that Hungary has produced, in which he discussed the thought of Augusto del Noce, a twentieth-century Italian Catholic philosopher who wrote probingly about modern atheism, which he interestingly called “natural irreligion.” Deneen said that “Del Noce saw further and better than most of his contemporaries that the great totalitarian threat of our age emanated not ultimately from the dictatorships of so-called communist regimes of the Soviet Union or China, but from the unfolding liberal logic of the West.” A bit of explication: Stalinist Russia and Maoist China were “so-called communist” because communism, in the teaching of the right-wing post-liberals, was at bottom liberalism. Really. Deneen posted that sentence about the totalitarian threat of the West while the Russian troops were massacring Mariupol. They were committing those atrocities, and many others, precisely in the name of the ethnonationalism and the anti-liberalism that these Western reactionaries have been urging upon us. Since the invasion of Ukraine, the writings of these Western ingrates, and for my sins I have read a lot of them, look to me like little more than a symptom of the decadence that they deplore.
The West has found a teacher in Volodymyr Zelensky. He is stripping the banality from the truths that we hold to be self-evident; teaching us what we already know but have demoted to cliché and the inertness of civil religion; refreshing our sense of the beauty of our dispensation, all its current grotesqueries notwithstanding. He is a new kind of contemporary hero: the fighting liberal. He has the authority of his courage. When we assist him in his fight for liberal democracy, we are returning the favor. No such figure has emerged out of Europe since Havel, though it is doubtful that Havel could have presided over the management of a war. (How is it that both of these moral leaders came from the theater? Rousseau would have been baffled.)
In 2014 I spent many hours in Maidan, the central square of Kyiv, or rather in its ruins. It was the charred scene of one of democracy’s finest battles. The place had been instantly turned into a memorial to the protestors who were murdered there. There were candles everywhere, in brightly colored holders that contradicted the bleakness of the scene. There were flowers, photographs, posters, crosses, and yellow-and-blue flags. The pavements were torn up, and tires were piled high in black towers that served as barricades. Fires caused by the government’s onslaught had blackened the surrounding buildings, which were also scarred by the bullets of police snipers. There were tents in which demonstrators from the “revolution of dignity” stubbornly lived, refusing to retreat from the scene. It was an honor to stand there. Even secular people have holy grounds. I might as well have been in the streets of Paris in 1871, or at Garibaldi’s spedizione. The impression was indelible; it melted me and steeled me. Before I went to Kyiv, I believed that I was headed for a city that aspired to be a Western city, and that I was going there to applaud its aspiration. When I arrived in Kyiv, I recognized my mistake. Kyiv already is a Western city. There is nothing aspirational about its openness, its pluralistic vitality, its reforming energy. To be sure, it was still in the middle of a struggle; the old order, authoritarian and corrupt and oligarchic, will not gently quit history’s stage. But the forces of freedom — in a place such as Maidan one learns to use those words without irony or sophistication — seemed to be winning. If they had lost, Putin would not have attacked.
Were we prepared, intellectually and operationally, for Putin’s war in Ukraine? We must consider this question carefully, because we are not headed for a halcyon age. In our conflicted country, there has been only a single consensus in recent decades. It is that the United States should shrink its station in the world, that it must no longer loom so large, that it needs to “reduce its footprint” and “play the long game,” that it must adjust its ends to its means, that for itself it must come first (and then brook no seconds), that American leadership is more of a problem for the world than a solution. All the parties, each for their own reasons, concurs in these miniaturizing propositions, which became known as “responsible statecraft.” Occasionally they would just come right out and say it, as when the despicable J. D. Vance declared that “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another.” Spoken like a true hillbilly. But there are many other foreign-policy hillbillies, alas, some of them denizens of the Acela corridor and even of Aspen, who harbor a similar indifference to the fate of countries and peoples beyond our borders. Those whose consciences do not permit them to openly express their callousness prefer to call themselves “realists.” Realists almost always advocate the same positions as isolationists, except that their op-ed pieces are longer.
The ethical phoniness of realism found its perfect avatar in Barack Obama, who draped Elie Wiesel’s language over Henry Kissinger’s policies. The war in Ukraine is substantially the consequence of the moral and strategic timidity of Obama, who opened a strategic vacuum in the Middle East that Putin quickly proceeded to fill and thereby to inaugurate the contemporary (and until then, unlikely) resurgence of Russia. It is important to recognize that the strategic vacuum was made possible by a moral vacuum: if it had been the policy of the United States that, one way or another, with force or without, with allies or without, we would not stand idly by the genocide in Syria, we would have retained a regional position that might have kept Russia at bay. Obama’s apologists refer to his timidity as a respect for complexity. As someone who is in the complexity business myself, I can testify that sometimes we abuse the idea. Realists have a condescending way of believing that people who disagree with them are unaware of the facts, that only they, the wised-up members of the panel, know the score. They like to point out that a course of action is difficult and has costs, though usually it is a course of action of which they disapprove on other grounds. Every decisive historical action is difficult and has costs. Even us bloodthirsty interventionists know that. But justice — the word never appears in the discourse of realists, except in their “to be sure” sentences — requires that we not be daunted. We may fail and we may make mistakes, but at least we can live with ourselves; and more important than whether or not we can live with ourselves, since the suffering of others is not primarily about us, other people can live.
In individuals, we regard the unwillingness to help, to come to the rescue, as a flaw of personal character. Is the same selfishness in collective action a flaw of national character? In individuals, we regard the secession from one’s surroundings, the withdrawal from effective participation in one’s world, as a personal disorder. Is the same truncated relationship to reality in the collective a national disorder? Is isolationism psychotic?
Oh, for a little American hubris.
We need to overcome our appetite for futurist indignation. During the years of ISIS, one could not escape the observation, offered always with astonishment, that here was an eighth-century caliphate in the twenty-first century. Amazing! Well, no. Everything that takes place in this moment is of this moment. We must see the entirety of the world in which we live. We chose to regard ISIS as an anachronism because it comforted us. Religious violence, we needed to believe, is not typical of our times, but a relic of earlier times, a florid exception to the Whiggish linearity in which we wallowed. We denied the intractability of history, the persistence with which certain features of human experience survived past the enormous changes that we were busily exalting. We were so dazzled by the discontinuities that we belittled the continuities. History offended our futurist excitement. Obama liked to play the man from the future. He pronounced that the important foreign policy challenges for which we must now prepare ourselves are Ebola and climate change. Meanwhile the world around him was becoming more and more Hobbesian, with aggressions and savageries to match the traditional ones. As he, and a great many other mandarins, enjoyed the globalist cool, the world was turning increasingly local and increasingly Westphalian, which is to say, it was becoming more familiar to those who bother about the past. In his first campaign Obama once said, in one of his many reassurances that the Russians were too weak for us to worry about them, that “you can’t be a twenty-first century power and act like a twentieth-century dictatorship.” But you can. In significant ways the twenty-first century still is the twentieth century. (In our domestic tribulations, too.) Stephen Kotkin was right when he recently argued, and showed, that “the Cold War never ended.”
After Antonio Gutteres, the Secretary General of the United Nations, toured Bucha and its bodies, he remarked: “The war is an absurdity in the twenty-first century. The war is evil.” He was half-right. Bucha is now one of the capitals of modern barbarism, alongside Urumqi, Rakhine, Aleppo, Srebrenica, Nyarubuye, Lidice, Guernica, and the rest. But evil is not absurd, and to call it absurd is to evade its force. Absurdity is a category of logic and art. Evil is an inalienable feature of the history made by human beings. It has a logic of its own, which is why it creates its intellectuals and its mobs. If only falsehood were always absurd! The war in Ukraine is not absurd, because it is evil. One of the reasons that we were intellectually unprepared for the war in Ukraine is that we spent decades exalting newness and declaring old things obsolete. Here is another example. In 2010, the Obama administration released its defense budget, a “reform budget,” along with a new security document. Since many military appropriations were to be cut, people assumed that the cuts were driven by fiscal considerations. But the cuts were of a piece with a new conception of national security. They were driven by historical and strategic concepts. The document announced that land wars were a thing of the past, and that henceforth we could accomplish our military objectives mainly with Special Ops and drones. It was a fine document of the anti-Iraq-war ethos, and completely deluded. The new strategy was lauded for its moral superiority: fewer innocent civilians would be killed by such more precisely targeted operations. (Of course this inevitably led to the objection that the lower toll made the use of force more likely, so that limited strikes, too, lacked legitimacy, which by my lights leads directly to the brink of pacifism, or at least to a revival of the Kellogg-Briand nonsense, which anyway was already taking place.) But you cannot conquer territory, or hold territory, or expel an enemy from territory, from the air or like thieves in the night. And here is the war in Ukraine, mile after mile of it, town after town, to disprove all this advanced strategic illusion. We are sending heavy weaponry to the Ukrainians because there is no other way for them to expel the invader. History can be trite, which is how it readies us.
It was stirring to watch the reception of the Ukrainian refugees in Poland and the other Eastern European states. When was the last time that we saw refugees warmly welcomed and no controversy attached to their plight? Then I remembered my Syrian friends and the travails of their community in its own flight. I imagined how they must have felt when they saw all those hugs and smiles in Przemysl and elsewhere. In Europe, you see, Ukrainians are not exactly the other. (That is what scares Putin.) There is nothing wrong with helping people who are like oneself, but it is not the most exacting test of one’s compassion.
We wasted so much time in the long prelude to the Russian invasion. While Putin was amassing a vast force near the Ukrainian border, we argued with ourselves about the likelihood of war. Those who contended that war was coming, based on the incontrovertible evidence of Putin’s massive preparations for it, were regarded as the hawks, when in fact they were the realists. The doves, though these terms are coarse in these circumstances, insisted upon more diplomacy. They thought that pushing the elevator button again would make it come faster. Diplomacy became a kind of placebo for people who were not in the mood for another conflict that would in some way, hot or cold, involve us. American officials protested that a diplomatic solution was possible even as Putin’s tanks started rolling. One of my favorite errors of the Obama administration made its appearance in the Biden administration: the off-ramp. Remember, we have been here before. Putin’s current invasion is the third act of his protracted war on Ukraine: in 2014 he stole Crimea, and soon afterward he launched a separatist rebellion in Donetsk and Luzhansk, which in the aftermath of his recent failure to take Kyiv he is now attempting to complete with his own troops. During the Crimean crisis, which strictly speaking was not a crisis at all, since Putin stole it with impunity, Obama kept talking about the need to find Putin an off-ramp, a way out, as if the role of the United States was to be sagaciously helpful to Russia so that it could learn from its mistakes. (I was reminded of this misplaced magnanimity when a Democratic congresswoman recently said that the American task now is “to craft a win for Putin.”) But Putin was not looking for the off-ramp. He was, quite plainly, looking for the on-ramp. He found it and he took it. He has been taking the on-ramp in Ukraine for most of a decade. And anyone who knows that there is an on-ramp knows that there is an off-ramp. If they do not avail themselves of it, it is because they have a different itinerary in mind. Anyway, the option of turning around and going home is always there: other, equally proud states have done so, such as France and the United States. Putin is in Ukraine because he believes that Ukraine is his, Russia’s, its “near abroad,” or Novorussiya; and that therefore he need not restrain himself from destroying its democratic experiment. “We’ve sought to provide possible off-ramps to President Putin,” Secretary Blinken said in March. “He’s the only one who can decide whether or not to take them.” But then he added, immediately, and with an admirable alteration in tone: “So far, every time there’s been an opportunity to do just that, he’s pressed the accelerator and continued down this horrific road that he’s been pursuing.” Meanwhile the Ukrainians themselves have not bothered about the ramps. They have been courageously attacking the highways.
Re Putin and religion: I was reading a Hebrew poem, published in 1940, about the “Winter War,” the Russian invasion of Finland in the previous year, which in some respects reminds one of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The poet referred to a strange incident that was reported by a newspaper in Stockholm. It appears that Finnish pilots flew sorties over Leningrad in which they dropped hundreds of little Bibles on the city, “because they believed it would have a decisive influence on the spirit of the Red Army.” Imagine! Putin, meanwhile, has a Patriarch in his pocket. “We have entered into a struggle that has not a physical, but a metaphysical significance,” Kirill has cravenly intoned. The religious heroes of the war in Ukraine are the Ukrainian clerics in the Orthodox Church who have turned against their Muscovitepontiff for being a slaughterer’s stooge.
The United States responded slowly to Putin’s “special operation” because we were not mentally ready for it. We have caught up, certainly, but it always feels like catch-up. A great power — and we are one, whether we delight in it or not — cannot be always reactive. For a long time now, too much of American foreign policy has consisted in crisis management. In a world accelerated past the point of reflection, this was somewhat inevitable; but still resistance must be offered. The name of that resistance is strategy, or geo-strategy, or grand strategy. A few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union I was sitting with Walter Laqueur, a wise and erudite man, and one of the first analysts to write books about “Putinism” and the rise of the new Russian right, and he remarked that it had been a long time since he had heard the word “strategy” in Washington. “Geo-strategy,” he said, “has been replaced by geo-economics.” This was certainly true of the booming 1990s, but he was alarmed by more than the economicist interpretation of foreign affairs. His words have haunted me. The meaning of strategy is an infamously complicated subject, and the co-existence within it of empirical and moral elements, of facts and purposes, the integration within a single “intellectual architecture” of all the dimensions of warfare, is hard to pin down. What I mean by it here is only this: a prior understanding of what we want, and why. This understanding must be developed quite consciously as a historical plan, as a program for action and a standard for readiness. It should not be confused with the intellectual frameworks that we possess before events happen. It is, in fact, a challenge to those frameworks, which usually are little more than attitudes or moods or prejudices drawn from recent experience. A strategist is not indifferent to circumstances, but he is not a slave of circumstances either. He has a calling to shape and mold and alter a reprehensible or disadvantageous order, and an intense sensation of agency, and a certain pleasure in the exertion of intelligent will. He is comfortable with the proposition that power exists to be used. He recognizes the difference between flexibility and reactiveness; he is not rigid, but he is also not winging it. The problem, of course, is that a historical plan is a blueprint for time, but time does not stand still. There will be contingencies and emergencies that will allow no delay, if a response is to be effective, and they will require more than impulsiveness and improvisation. If you tarry in response to a genocide, for example, you have not understood the nature of the challenge. Surprise is inevitable, but shock is unforgivable. Our preparedness starts in our imagination. (Obama was a peculiar case: he was good at strategizing, whatever the merits of his strategy, but bad at reacting.) Does the United States have a grand strategy? In the culture of endless repeal in which our politics now takes place, our partisan seesaws of doing and undoing, can the United States have a grand strategy? One of the primary conditions of strategy is constancy. But is anything that we do any longer durable? The problem is not, as George Kennan and Henry Kissinger liked to insist, democracy, or the impact of domestic opinion upon planning. It is, rather, the debasement of our democracy into what seems to be a permanent condition of unsettledness, our hot-headed unreliability about precedents, our infernal volatility. If we need to reduce the erratic nature of our public life, it is not least because the era is rapidly approaching in which we will find ourselves in great power rivalries of unclear but significant duration. Indeed, the era has already begun. Strategically speaking, the resurgence of Russia may be a sideshow to the ascendancy of China, but sideshows can last generations. The Soviet Union lasted seventy years — a blip in the arc of history, but not in the fate of many millions of people. I am not convinced that we are yet up to the task. The proof is in our platitudes. Until our withdrawal from Afghanistan, we spoke constantly of “the forever war.” Of course there was nothing interminable about it, as we eventually demonstrated. The important question was not its length but its wisdom. If a particular use of American force is morally and strategically justified, and there were ferociously different views about Afghanistan, then we must develop a new talent for patience and learn to think (as the economists say) secularly, or else we will condemn our actions to futility from the start. One of the lessons of our retreat from Afghanistan was that America can be waited out. (There is also the matter of costs, but the number of dead Ukrainians and Russians in only the first few months of combat should provide some context for the human costs that we suffered in Afghanistan, which was 2,401 dead in twenty years.) In any event, “the forever war” was swiftly replaced by a new platitude, which is that we must beware of getting into “a new cold war.” It is past time to put some intellectual pressure on this slogan. For a start, a cold war is preferable to a hot war. More importantly, our destiny is not entirely up to us: if Russia or China behave towards us (or our allies) in a hostile manner, then we are in a cold war with Russia or China. And so we already find ourselves in two cold wars. We can choose, of course, not to fight them, and hide between our oceans; but thankfully we have not made that choice, even if we are still profoundly uncomfortable with the accurate description of these global realities. Anyway, there is nothing to trouble our sleep about being the most powerful adversary of the most powerful tyrannies. Except that we must not sleep! The term “cold war” has become a term of imprecation, a dystopian word, because the Cold War, I mean the one that took place between 1946 and 1991, is erroneously remembered as an unprincipled contest between two deranged nuclear powers who went around the world committing crimes and abuses. It was nothing like that, though we did commit our share of crimes and abuses. It was an honorable struggle against totalitarianism that over many decades was conducted more or less firmly and more or less rationally and in stirring consonance with our principles; and every decent man and woman should tremble at the thought of what life everywhere would have been like if we had lost.
Biden is ringingly correct when he says that the future will be characterized by a struggle between democrats and autocrats. But is this a worldview or a strategy? It all depends on what he does about it.
In The Atlantic, where everything can be found, an American historian argues that World War II does not look the same when seen from an Asian standpoint. I do not doubt that this is so. In Asia, quite obviously, the anti-fascist powers were also imperialist powers. The implication of this colossal fact, according to the author of the article, is that we must retire our moral understanding of the war. It was not a war between good and evil. It was “a lethal collision of self-interested rivals.” The author even writes admiringly of a notorious Indian nationalist who escaped to Germany and raised an Indian force to fight alongside the Wehrmacht and later alongside Japan against British India. For him, “this wasn’t an invasion but a liberation.” Good for him. But why should the enlargement of our understanding about the Asian theater distort our understanding of the European theater? The Indian viewpoint about the war in South Asia does not refute the European viewpoint about the war in Europe, or the Jewish viewpoint, or the viewpoint of the resistance fighters across Europe who, even in societies rife with collaboration, were animated by the certainty that their enemy was evil. If the experience of Indians was different from the experience of Europeans and Americans, then the experience of Europeans and Americans was different from the experience of Indians. The rule of particularity and partiality applies to all, and the one cannot be used to discredit the other. (And Japan did not exactly fight the war with the impeccability of just war theory.) Yet the moral delegitimation of World War II, like the moral delegitimation of the Cold War, is attempted not only for the sake of a sounder historiography. It has also a policy purpose. The ultimate warrant for the principle of American interventionism, the decisive historical prooftext for the view that American power can be a force for good in the world, is World War II. Take it down and the withdrawalist program for American foreign policy is complete. Persuade people that even “the good war” was a bad war and they can serenely repair to their gardens, where most of them already are.
What is the outcome that we seek in Ukraine? An end to the conflict is not a sufficient objective. The most urgent thing about a conflict is not always to end it as soon as you can. (I am not speaking about a nuclear conflict, but the anxiety about nuclear war was skillfully stimulated by Putin to disrupt Western enthusiasm for Ukraine, and in some quarters it worked like a charm.) A “sovereign, independent Ukraine,” as Blinken put it, looks to me like the proper goal, though it is finally the Ukrainians who will formulate the acceptable terms for the cessation of hostilities. If I were them, I would not rest until the removal of every Russian soldier from their soil. When Secretary of Defense Austin declared that “we want to see Russia weakened to the degree it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine,” I cheered. Putin started a vicious and unprovoked war against the civilians of a sovereign state that poses no threat to him except insofar as it seeks to join the community of liberal democratic nations, and thereby he showed himself to be a menace whose capacity for cruelty and recklessness we need no longer speculate about — an active and genuine enemy. In the years prior to his resort to his army, he was tireless in his intrigues and interventions in the democratic processes of the West, which we tolerated. His invasion of Ukraine has also exposed the startling mediocrity of the Russian military. And so Austin was right to suggest that a weak Russia is within our interest and within our grasp, and that we are not ourselves in search of the off-ramp. But Austin’s statement disturbed people who regard every expression of American toughness as a slippery slope to Baghdad. In the New Yorker, for example, a jittery reporter noted that “U.S. officials now frame America’s role in more ambitious terms that border on aggressive.” Aggressive! We have vowed not to send a single American soldier to Ukraine. Biden repeated this promise over and over long before the war began. (I wondered why, as a tactical matter, he would make such a promise to Putin. But he was not making it to Putin, he was making it to the progressive wing of his party.) What the Biden administration has splendidly done — with extraordinary quantities of heavy weaponry, and with intelligence, and with increasingly pitiless sanctions, and with its “ambitious” rhetoric — is display seriousness and steadfastness in its support of a just cause. Given the lameness of American foreign policy in the Obama and Trump years, this should be a reason for rejoicing. We are not only reacting, we are also acting. It is finally time for an adversary to be nervous about us.
The professionals call the problem “escalation control.” I do not mean to make light of it. There are risks that we must beware. But surely escalation control cannot mean that we never respond with greater strength, especially in response to an escalation on the other side. There are escalations of degree and escalations of kind, a great many instruments with which to change the course of a conflict or determine its outcome. Not all of them are crazy, and not all of them lead directly to armageddon. We must be prudent, but we must not be played. Even Raymond Aron, the most powerful advocate of prudence in modern times, once remarked that “prudence does not always require either moderation or peace by compromise, or negotiations, or indifference to the internal regimes of enemy states or allies.” Aron’s variety of prudence, as he demonstrated in his long life of political philosophy and political engagement, was decidedly vertebrate. Too often in recent years American prudence decayed into American passivity. I miss the days when we were feared. They overlapped with the days when we were trusted.
When bad actors anywhere in the world gather to plan an invasion or a repression or an expulsion or a genocide, does anyone at the table intervene with the question, “But wait — how will the Americans respond?” Does the prospect of American power any longer stay any villain’s hand?
As a matter of historical record, America has “projected” its power abroad for many reasons, not all of them laudable; but the only state in the modern world that made dictators and murderers think twice, or go slow, or surrender, was the United States. (I exclude the Soviet Union in World War II, because it was a murderous dictatorship that helped to defeat a murderous dictatorship.) If there are to be obstacles or impediments, they will have to come from us.
Closely related to the question of escalating is the question of being “provocative.” In the run-up to the war, while we were arguing among ourselves about its likelihood and Putin was gathering his forces, we should have been sending arms to the Ukrainians — sophisticated arms, lethal arms. The realists among us warned that this would provoke Putin. It turned out soon afterward that he required no provocation; he was pre-provoked. The Ukrainians knew this. In truth, any close student of Putin’s behavior could have known this. The same hesitation had been expressed in the persistent opposition about the expansion of NATO since the 1990s, which came down to the view that in the name of our national security we need to respect Putin’s “perceptions.” People used to say the same thing about the Soviet Union — that we needed to understand the subjective roots of its foreign adventures, since it was “expanding because it felt encircled.” In a famous sentence of the Long Telegram in 1946, George Kennan suggested that “at bottom of [the] Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is [the] traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity.” But who was intending then — who is intending now — to attack Russia? Surely there are limits to the therapeutic approach to states and statesmen. How mistaken do “perceptions” have to be before we cease to respect them in our planning? And if the “perceptions” are fantasies of aggression and domination and extermination, then conflict is more likely, and we must have less forbearance about them. NATO is a purely defensive alliance that was formed when the nations of Western Europe had good reason to organize for their own defense. They still do: it is not a trivial point that none of the countries that Putin has attacked were in NATO. Ukraine poses no military threat to Russia. Neither do Poland and the Baltic states. Meanwhile Putin, by military and cyber and other means, has been attacking countries large and small. Many people have lost their lives to Putin’s paranoia, which is a clinical term for “perception.” This same hesitation about active American measures in Ukraine was advocated during the debate about American military support for the besieged state in the 2010s. Those of us who argued for the dispatch of lethal weaponry to the Ukrainians were not dreaming that they would march triumphantly into Moscow. (We also had no idea that they would perform as brilliantly on the battlefield as they now have done.) We wished only to raise the costs on Putin’s aggressions and to prepare the ground for a political process. We were accused of irresponsibly poking the bear. But the bear poked us. The unfortunate consequence of such prevarications is that we are often tardy in our operational thinking.A story about escalation control: Two men have been condemned to death. They are lined up against the wall as the firing squad gets into position. Their hands are bound. Before they are blindfolded, the captain of the firing squad approaches them and asks if they have a last request. One of them asks for a cigarette. The other turns to him angrily and says, “Don’t make waves!”
I was in Paris during the first week of the war. It was the most important week in European history since that delirious week in the autumn of 1989, when the Berlin Wall was brought down. It was, indeed, a kind of mirror image of that week — the antithesis of delirium, which is sobriety. The very air was sober. (In Montparnasse such a change registers rather sharply.) I could feel the European shudder. In conversations with friends and strangers, there was a sudden gravity, a somber acknowledgment that the holiday may be over. A struggle was at hand. In Robert Kagan’s terms, Venetians were talking like Martians. The salient emotion was not fear; it was anger, and then determination. The intensity of popular solidarity with Ukraine was palpable. Extraordinary things began to happen. Germany brought to a close the entirety of its post-war national security policy and raised its defense budget. I never believed that anything could morally offend the International Olympic Committee, but even it sought a way to punish Russia. Almost nobody looked back regretfully on the expansion of NATO. NATO acquired a new pride, as people to the east were now sacrificing their lives for their dream of belonging to it. It also acquired a new salience: in the first months of the war it was impossible to avoid the impression that Europe was leading America. This was in part the result of the loss of European confidence in America during the Obama and Trump years, but it was nonetheless wonderful. And even more wonderful was to watch us, the Americans, finally get up to speed. Eventually the Biden administration began to act with a magnificent decisiveness. The magnitude of our assistance to Ukraine, and its spirit, has been historic. (I wish that we had worked out a transfer of aircraft as well. Maybe we will.) As Stephen Kotkin concluded, “the West has rediscovered its manifold power.” At last! And American popular support for our government’s efforts has so far been running high in the polls. Who cares about the “performativity” of all the Ukrainian flags one sees in the windows and on the internet? “Performativity” is an important element of culture, and for now American culture is championing the good fight. But for how long? It is never safe to bet on American attention. Still, whereas no society can, or should, be maintained in a permanent condition of apocalyptic excitation, perhaps we will come out of this crisis with a more lasting tension about the enduring realities of the world.
Whenever I visit Ukraine, I mourn, and not only for Ukrainians. My origins are there, and they are bloody. In the summer of 1941, in a forest near Boryslav, in western Ukraine, or Galicia, where my mother’s family lived and owned oil wells, a pogrom was committed by local Ukrainians against local Jews, and she, at the age of twenty-two, was among the Jews tasked with collecting the mutilated corpses and arranging for their proper burial. They included her uncle Elimelech. I drove by the forest and past “our” rusted derricks on my way to Schodnica, the small town where her large clan lived, and where, in a makeshift room dug out beneath a barn, she survived the last year or so of the war, under the protection of Poles who had worked for her father in the oil fields. After I satisfied myself that I had located the gentle slope on which her house once stood, and completed my inner convulsions, I went back to Lemberg, or Lviv, where I sought out the high school that she attended. (In Lemberg she saw Josephine Baker!) It took me two days to realize that I was using an outdated Hapsburg-era map, and that Zygmuntowska Street was now Gogolsa Street. The head of the school welcomed me warmly and took me to a room where some physical remains of my mother’s gymnasium — pennants, stationery, and so on — were framed and respectfully exhibited. At a nearby synagogue, once renowned for its murals, I prayed like a good son and then kicked around in the trash — the place was being renovated, I’m not sure for whom. In the trash I discovered a book. When I dusted it off, I was thunderstruck: it was Job — an edition of the Book of Job, two hundred and some pages, published not too far away in Zhitomir in 1872. Its end-pages were covered in Hebrew and Polish scribbles in a beautiful hand, and it came with the commentaries of Rashi and a certain late nineteenth-century rabbi named Shmuel Sternberg from the nearby town of Vinitsiya, who prefaced his commentary with a remarkable introductory essay in which he quarreled with modern non-Jewish Biblical critics as well as medieval Jewish Aristotelians, and displayed enormous literary sensitivity to the sacred text. The hounded volume also came with fire stains and water stains. I rescued it. It is now my Ukrainian Job.
Years later, when I went to Kyiv, the same shadows accompanied me. Around the corner from my hotel was a huge equestrian statue of Bogdan Khmelnitsky, the seventeenth-century father of Ukrainian nationalism and one of the most reviled figures in Jewish history. His successful war against the Poles included some of the most hideous atrocities in the annals of anti-Semitic violence. This is from a Hebrew chronicle of 1648, about what befell Jews in the region of the Dnieper River: “Some of them were flayed and their bodies were thrown to the dogs. Some of them had their arms and legs cut off and they were thrown onto the roads, where wagons rode over them and horses trampled them. Some of them were buried alive. Children were slaughtered in the arms of their mothers, and many children were torn into pieces like fish. Pregnant women were cut open and watched their fetuses crushed. Other pregnant women were cut open and a live cat was placed in their bellies, which were then sewn back up, and their hands were cut off so that they couldn’t remove the cats from their bellies.” When I was growing up I knew Jews for whom “Khmielnitsky” was still a common curse word. And here was the hetman on a pedestal, in monumental bronze. To further upset my Jewish heart, I was told that the nineteenth-century building before which the statue stood, painted oddly in pink, was the courthouse in which Mendel Beilis was tried for ritual murder in 1913. Passing the statue and the courthouse, I walked down a steep cobbled street toward the old city, and along the way, directly across from the house where Bulgakov was born, I encountered a stall selling antiques from the Great War, including Nazi helmets and a slightly tattered waistcoat with a yellow star pinned to it. I could have had the yellow star for three hundred dollars. I was more inclined to spit.
Yet I was there, along with some like-minded friends and comrades, to offer my support — I gave a few speeches and press conferences — to the noble struggle of the Ukrainians for liberal democracy. There was Khmielnitsky, but here was Maidan. There were moments when it was too much for my mind to hold. The plurality of loyalties can sometimes hurt. I knew all the arguments against the tyranny of collective memory, and against collective responsibility, and against historical inevitability; and the history of my own people vividly demonstrated the benevolent effects of liberal democracy and its Torah of rights. How can a Jew not support democracy? Yet how can a Jew surrender his skepticism about historical metamorphosis? I made a point of meeting many Ukrainian Jews, old and young, from all walks of Ukrainian life, and asking them for their assessment of their situation. Every one of them, including officials of the community who knew both the government and the democracy movement, responded with unalloyed confidence about the future. They knew the same history that I did, and they lived there. Who was I to contradict them? I had always believed in the possibility of progress, as every member of every minority must, or else they may fulfill their own fatalism. For Jews, there were always only two paths out of the persecuting world: democracy and Zionism. They are the two epic experiments in Jewish emancipation, the two great historical alternatives to the European bargain, which was autocracy punctuated by magnanimity and helplessness punctuated by happiness. I had yahrzeit for my father in Kiev, and I found myself reciting the kaddish with an unexpected élan. During this war, the embrace of the Ukrainian struggle by American Jews has been thrilling to behold (even the Israeli government, which never misses a chance to seem small, finally got it right); it represents, among other things, a poignant overcoming of memory by morality. The past always provides reasons for ethical relaxation, especially the past of once-oppressed groups, which is rich in occasions for anger; but they are wise who refuse to mistake the betterment of their conditions for a betrayal of their traditions.
Hope, because it is premised on uncertainty, is perfectly compatible with vigilance; but there is a certain kind of vigilance, an expectation of the worst that crosses the line into morbidity, a prior weariness that is not so much an inference from reality as it is an interpretation of it, that destroys hope. The first requirement for political leadership, and for political participation, is an immunity to despair.
This morning the Director of National Intelligence told Congress that “we assess President Putin is preparing for a prolonged conflict in Ukraine during which he still intends to achieve goals beyond the Donbas.” She added, “Putin most likely also judges that Russia has a greater ability and willingness to endure challenges than his adversaries.” About this he may not be wrong, at least as regards us. The Ukrainians can give us lessons in how not to relent. The important reckoning now must be with the history of our credulity, with the poverty of our geopolitical imagination, with our national lassitude about what lies out there. The war has happened. Those words, la guerre a eu lieu, gave the title to an essay that Merleau-Ponty published in Les Temps Modernes in October, 1945. Its subject, in the aftermath of the victory, was the mentality of the French on the eve of the conflict, which in his view left them ill-equipped for the perils of their time. “Events kept making it less and less probable that peace could be maintained,” he wrote. “How could we have waited so long to decide to go to war? The reason was that we were not guided by the facts. We had secretly resolved to know nothing of violence and unhappiness as elements of history because we were living in a country too happy and too weak to envisage them. Distrusting the facts had even become a duty for us. We had been taught that wars grow out of misunderstandings which can be cleared up and accidents which can be averted through patience and courage. We lived in a certain area of peace, experience, and freedom, formed by a combination of exceptional circumstances. We did not know that this was a soil to be defended but thought it the natural lot of men. From our youth we had been used to handling freedom and to living an individual life. How could we have learned to commit our freedom in order to preserve it?” There is pain in the philosopher’s words. He is not scoring political points. When he writes that “our standards were still those of peacetime,” he is a little elegiac, and he certainly is not mocking happiness and peace. But he is also insisting that a society has cognitive responsibilities. Nothing will determine its fate more than its ability to see clearly, and then not to flinch at what it sees if what it sees is really there. The first readiness is mental readiness.