Western leaders are working hard to keep Putin’s gas cutoffs from undermining their countries’ resolve against his war on Ukraine. Their focus has been on assuring energy supply – via price caps, LNG stock-ups, and conservation campaigns. The fear is that populist politics in France, Italy, even at a muted level in the U.S. where some Republicans call for “better oversight” of aid, will cut support for Ukraine.
Affordable heat and electricity through the winter are extremely important. But leaders seem to believe that allaying their constituents’ economic fears is necessary to maintain their commitments to Ukraine. If it is necessary, do the people really share the leaders’ commitment?
What is it that the people are asked to care about? The Estonian defense minister says “it’s not Ukraine-Russia war, it’s the war of the free world and the rule-based world against the aggressor.” But what exactly requires ordinary folk to suffer the cold and high prices? Ukraine’s democracy? Ukraine is freer that Russia, but their democracy was questionable before Putin’s 2014 incursions. Peace? On whose terms and at what cost? A rules-based world order? What rules and whose order? If the answer is not clear, would price caps and LNG shipments keep the West aligned behind Ukraine? Should they?
For Americans, what is at stake is credibility, that free people will use their freedom in ways that show they value it and are capable of preserving it. This nation exists as an experiment, testing whether its founding, on premises of individual rights and government dedicated to them, will endure. Does spending hundreds of billions on arms for Ukraine and aid for Europe serve our deep stake? If so, we must know how. Regular citizens need a meaningful clarity, beyond catch phrases like “democracy” or “rules-based order,” which we suspect that the elites mouth but do not really understand. Policy by insular elites could lead us into war without popular conviction or, if we pull back, could portray us as callous to other peoples’ freedom. Either could undermine the moral viability of a nation of rights. And if we do see the connection, we should understand how much further we might or might not go.
The connection between the Ukraine war and our founding creed starts with the premise that force is illegitimate as a tool to secure interests of any kind. In international relations, the world has, since 1945, seen very few unilateral cross-border invasions launched simply to take what the aggressor wants. Such us of armed force had been a universal norm right up until World War II. Since then almost all wars have been civil wars, have been started in response to discernable threats or fears of aggression, have involved populations that straddled borders, or have been limited to specific objectives reflecting recognized political disputes. The biggest prior violator of the new norm, Saddam Hussein, was repelled in his attack on Kuwait, by a broad global coalition, and eventually eliminated. Putin’s attack on Ukraine qualifies as just such an aggression, and cannot be allowed any degree of success.
This deep premise is our basic reason to support Ukraine. And we should not confuse it with supporting “democracy,” which is still relatively new and not fully complete in Ukraine. Still, Putin’s intention to impose his dictatorship on a country growing in its democracy means that anyone who values rights and freedom either supports Ukraine, or only supports rights and freedom conditionally, when it’s convenient. This does not necessarily mean that we must go to war with Russia, but it might – how do we draw lines? We are probably obligated to go to war with China over Taiwan – in contrast to Ukraine Taiwan has had full-fledged democracy for many years, and has been an actual ally. But support for Ukraine, in some strong form, is necessary. Supporting Ukraine also calls us to untangle other issues. Should we be begging Saudi Arabia’s ever-more oppressive MBS to help us hedge against Russian energy restrictions? Exactly what measures of support we give will require thought and calculation. But we must not let convenience, comfort, or unclarity obscure our moral purpose.
Finally, we cannot know if any given policy will succeed. The possibility of failure and possibly dire consequences means that we need to act for our best motives, clearly and steadily by our deepest values. If we fail we must know that we gave our best efforts, for our highest motives. Failure, then, would show free people’s dedication to freedom. Success, on the other hand, shows free people validating the concept of freedom that they enjoy, shows that free societies can maintain themselves, and proves that the unalienable rights are a true quality of human nature.