Ukrainian President Zelensky is due in Washington today, Wednesday. Barring a surprise revelation of some sort, his mission is clearly to cement support for continued US aid to Ukraine.
News analysis also points out his interest in heading off some hints of political sentiment to reduce support for Ukraine’s fight. Whatever the substance behind that speculation, the question arises as to how much America should contribute, and for how long. The question is legitimate, and any answer must start with clarity on America’s interest in the war’s outcome.
Before our discourse veers into our own opinions about how the war should end, Americans should acknowledge that only Ukraine has the right to make that call. By any moral concept, they are the victims of clear and unprovoked cross border aggression. Any concept of justice entitles them to full restitution of damages from Russia plus some punitive loss for Putin. This stands independently of any issue of democracy, liberalism, or human rights. Putin’s invasion in and of itself is a crime, which is and must remain inadmissible in the world. The other case of such naked aggression since World War Two was Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. That crime was fully rolled back, and led ultimately, in overly-delayed justice that we did cite in 2003, to his death. Ukraine likely cannot impose that ending on Putin, but is under no moral obligation to accept anything less.
Our discourse is entitled only to consider how far we wish to support Ukraine. Of course, if they choose to end the war by capitulation or by negotiation for lesser compensation, they answer our question for us. But we have no standing to judge, advise, or pontificate over how far they aim in their objectives. If they pursue full entitlement of victory, restitution, and punishment, no one can justly call for them to curb their intentions.
What is at stake for America?
To start, every nation has an interest in keeping unjust war unacceptable. If the world ends up acquiescing to Putin’s aggression, we all take a step back toward the days when any sovereign could try to take anything by force, with only the force of opposing interests to deny them. Principled justice in international affairs is a recent invention, barely conceived of at the turn of the 20th Century. That century proved the criminality of starting a modern war. Wars since 1945 have almost always pursued some claim for justice, whether in intra-national disputes, contested frontiers, even perverted idealisms. Saddam Hussein’s invasion was a clear exception, which the whole world fought. The ethic under that unity must endure.
To be clear, the Ukraine War is not quite a fight for democracy – Ukraine has been developing in that direction but remains less than “fully free.” Yes, it is a freer nation than Russia and the clear will of its people is Putin’s target. So Ukrainian victory will support democracy. But justice, not democracy, is what’s really at stake.
Economic interests should be irrelevant, except that Putin aims to destroy Ukraine’s economy, and to use economic pain to dilute Western support for Ukraine. Support for justice calls Ukraine’s supporters to shoulder economic burdens. America is less vulnerable to Russia than Europe. To the extent that the European democracies need energy to reduce their pain and keep up their support, it is in America’s interest to help them.
America also has an intangible stake in the war’s outcome, through our values. But we must frame that stake in absolute clarity. It is not a matter of “they violated value X so we fight them,” or “they have fair reasons so we can’t oppose them.” This is true whether X is human rights, sovereignty, democracy, or equality.
But America is founded on a principle. Our national identity rests not only on our belief and progress in that principle. We also need ongoing proof that it is feasible for nations to live by it, even in a nasty and brutish world. If our founding creed, of personal rights and government subordinated to them, is not sustainable, then our nation rests on an illusory faith.
The idea of international justice, and the continuance of its sway in international affairs, forms a vital support for our creed. Personal rights need social order to develop, and social order includes an international environment where at least a minimal rule of rules holds sway.
Free people need to show that they value their freedom and are competent to protect it, as well as to use it constructively. If the freest societies on earth buckle to a Putin over economic hardship, if they cannot elect representatives who will take necessary steps to preserve basic rules, that valuation and competence are in doubt.
For America, there is a call for well formed judgement. We cannot treat just any threat to our creed’s viability as a cause for crusade or intervention. We should heed John Quincy Adams’ injunction against going abroad in search of monsters to destroy. But we must also recognize the point he made in the same speech, just before his injunction: ”wherever the standard for freedom and independence, has been or shall be unfurled, there will (America’s) heart, her benedictions and her prayers be.” In a time where America has means to support those prayers – we did not in Adams’ time – measures like monetary and material support to Ukraine fill the role of benedictions, and show the commitment of our heart.
Our interest in Ukraine is about defeating Russia, to be sure. It is also about showing our commitment to justice, as a vital support for the idea that defines our own nation. That commitment takes the form of support for a heroic people who have unfurled the banner of freedom and are fighting for their independence. Will we show the competence to stay in our lane and to keep faith with to our values?