We are nearing the one-year anniversary of the unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine. While there is room for all kinds of criticism in the timing and scope of Western support for Ukraine, the overall conclusion must be that the West, led by the United States, has risen to the occasion and resisted isolationist tendencies that come from the right and the left.
The West’s response has been important for itself in helping the brave people of Ukraine stand up against the most extensive and vicious assault on the peace of Europe since the end of World War II. While it is true that the civilian casualties and the damage to the infrastructure of the country have been immense and more weaponry could have been advanced, the West has enabled Ukraine not only to prevent a Russian takeover but has led to gains by the Ukrainian forces that makes it more than a fantasy to anticipate a Ukrainian victory at some point.
Beyond the obvious moral imperative of supporting the targets of unprovoked aggression, it was vital, and not a sure thing, that the United States would take the lead in organizing assistance to Ukraine.
Let us remember that there is a long history of isolationism in the United States, most disturbingly between World War I and World War II, in which U.S. withdrawal from the world played a major role in the demise of the League of Nations and in creating a vacuum filled by Adolf Hitler. The world paid a price for that – and the Jewish people paid the ultimate price.
After the war, partly because of a quirk in history, we had a new enemy — not right-wing Nazis but left-wing Communists – and many of the former isolationists joined with others to create a bipartisan foreign policy that embodied American leadership in the world. In the end, this policy opposed and eventually triumphed over the Soviet Union. With the fall of the Berlin Wall signs of that old isolationism re-emerged and have appeared in certain right-wing circles in opposition to American support for Ukraine and even in rationalization of Russian aggression. Fortunately, however, that isolationism remains a minority view in right-wing circles.
Meanwhile, there also has been some equivocating on the left. It appears in the usual combination of questioning the expenditure of huge funds to aid Ukraine: we have huge needs at home, the U.S. is so morally impure that it has no place in telling other people what to do, and the U.S. invariably makes things worse when it gets involved militarily.
In a country with a long history of pride in being far away from the evils of Europe, one can never ignore the potential power of the isolationist argument. Fortunately, there remains a solid understanding that the world is a dangerous place left unattended that American leadership still matters, and that despite the hopes of the 1990s, that the end of the Cold War meant the end of historic enmities, ideological aggressions such as Russia’s in Ukraine remain a threat to world peace.
What faces our policymakers going forward, and may pose political challenges as we approach the 2024 presidential election, is whether we will have the stamina to continue supporting Ukraine for as long as necessary. With all the legitimate criticisms of the Russian military performance to date, they still have an overwhelming military advantage and Russian President Vladimir Putin undoubtedly will expand his aggression as the only way to save face and keep power in Russia. All of which means that despite the courage of the Ukrainian people in the face of brutal warfare, assistance and support from the West, led by the United States, will be more important than ever
The longer this conflict, the more appealing to some will be those isolationist tendencies we’ve been discussing, as the public wearies of the whole thing. And even the remarkable symbol of the valor of the Ukrainian underdog, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, may lose some of his ability to rouse the international community.
In sum, the original argument for why we needed to make sure that Russian aggression does not pay off remains as powerful today as one year ago – even more so as signs of confrontation with China emerge and the need for Western strength and unity in the face of authoritarian rivals takes on even greater meaning.