America can’t, and mustn’t, go to war with Russia over Ukraine. President Joe Biden stated this truth this day last week – and sent foreign policy hawks into a sputtering rage. Their reaction says more about the hawks’ mindless rigidity than it does about Biden’s oft-questioned mental acuity.
He made clear that the US response should be proportional to the magnitude of Moscow’s aggression; that the US can’t guard Europe’s frontiers if the major European powers themselves are divided; and that the Kremlin has concerns about Ukraine joining Nato.
The reactions are revealing. Left and right agree on very little these days, but they share a sense that something has gone profoundly wrong with America – internally. The two camps disagree over the diagnosis, whether it’s structural racism or elite liberalism that’s to blame, but the symptoms are apparent to both: the decrepit infrastructure, the loneliness that haunted young Americans long before social distancing, widespread job and health precarity, addiction and homelessness.
Then there’s the cultural incohesion, an inability to agree on the most basic facts about US history and identity. Yet the hawks’ always-escalate reflex continues to distort national priorities.
The work-from-home MacArthurs blew a predictable gasket. “Much of that performance was profoundly disturbing,” tweeted National Review’s Rich Lowry, “especially on Russia.” Senator Ted Cruz said the president had “shocked the world by giving Putin a green light to invade Ukraine”. The Wall Street Journal editorial page linked the West’s failure to deter Vladimir Putin to Biden’s earlier decision to abandon the Afghan war after two fruitless decades. Meanwhile, Biden’s usual defenders railed at him for inadvertently revealing fundamental truths they would prefer to remain obscure.
The outrage over Biden’s indiscretions – including in Kiev and other European capitals – prompted the White House to issue a statement vowing a “swift, severe and united response” in case of a “renewed invasion”. It’s too bad. Biden’s posture was perfectly sensible, given the political mood in Europe and especially its pivotal power, Germany. It also reflected a deeper wisdom, in continuity with his two immediate predecessors, that US power is over-stretched, exhausted and battered by domestic polarisation and decay.
The hawks are in essence asking Team Biden to be more zealous for European security than are Europeans themselves. The fact is that a majority of Europeans are ambivalent, at best, when it comes to America, Nato and the Russian threat. A 2020 Pew Research Centre survey of populations in 16 key Nato states found a majority opposes using force to defend a fellow member state in a conflict with Russia.
In France, 53pc oppose fulfilling the Western Alliance’s Article 5 obligations under such a scenario, compared with 41pc who would back military action. More startling still, 60pc of Germans oppose using force to defend a fellow member state. Ukraine isn’t even a Nato member. Its territorial claims inspire even less resolve in Europe’s core.
Biden’s statements triggered much grumbling across the Atlantic, but western Europe’s sentiments about Ukraine’s inviolable territorial integrity are just that: misty sentiments. This is a bitter reality, but it’s a reality reflected in western Europe’s response to the Ukrainian question going back to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and stealth invasion of the eastern Donbas region.
At various points since, Paris and Berlin resisted economic sanctions against Moscow, on occasion even calling for existing sanctions to be lifted. Meanwhile, Germany has remained determined to push ahead with Nord Stream 2, a natural gas pipeline running from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea, thus bypassing Ukraine and Poland and tightening Moscow’s energy stranglehold on the continent.
Successive US administrations of both parties begged for a rethink, to no avail, until Biden dropped the issue last year. Lately, Berlin has signalled it might abandon the project if Russia invades Ukraine – maybe. So is it really that crazy for Biden to groan at a supposed duty to police Europe’s borders when Europeans have been this indifferent, this long?
No, it’s the height of sanity. What, exactly, does deeply divided America stand for abroad? Will a potentially catastrophic confrontation with Russia over Europe’s miserable peripheries address any of America’s deeper internal crises? By saying no to the hawks, Biden gave the right answers to these questions.
© Washington Post