A poster of Putin is used as target practice along a trench on the frontline with Russia-backed separatists in the Lugansk region. (Photo by Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images)

America Is Afraid of War. Putin Knows It.

The invasion of Ukraine and the rise of America’s isolationists.

Early Thursday morning, Russia began invading Ukraine. There have been reports of airstrikes in Kiev, the capital, and more than a dozen other cities. The 190,000 Russian troops that had been stationed around the Ukrainian border are now streaming over it. Ukraine has declared martial law.

The invasion, Putin explained just before it began, was not really an invasion but a defensive maneuver meant to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine. The West, Putin suggested, was making a lot of noise about Ukrainian independence, because it was looking for an excuse to admit Ukraine into NATO and invade Russia. “Ukraine never had a tradition of genuine statehood,” Putin said Monday. He added that, “if Ukraine were to join NATO, it would serve as a direct threat to the security of Russia.”

The Kremlin views this conflict as part of a much bigger showdown between Russia and the West. If that sounds like the Cold War, that’s because in the eyes of the former KGB agent in charge of Russia, the Soviet collapse was a catastrophe, and this is part of righting that wrong. It is a relitigation of a titanic struggle we thought was over. 

There is only one country that can bring this relitigation to an immediate end and restore order not only to Ukraine but the whole of Europe. To do that, the United States would have to convince Putin that it is willing to go to war to protect Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty. But no one believes it is. 

“Deterrence is a simple equation: capability times will,” former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster told me. “I think that many of our adversaries today think our will is about zero. I think we’re set up for a cascading crisis now in large measure because of the perception that our will is diminished.” 

The problem is not just that the United States has, over the past two decades, waged two unsuccessful wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nor is it just that Americans are tired of fighting and don’t care about the former Soviet Union, although there’s some of that. (In a poll just released by the Associated Press, just 26 percent of Americans say the U.S. should play a major role in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.) Nor is it just that Joe Biden is a weak president who lacks the energy needed to do battle with the likes of Vladimir Putin. (See, for example, the statement Biden put out shortly after the invasion was announced.)

It’s that the United States seems to have forgotten the point of waging, or threatening to wage, war. Peace is earned through strength. We can’t ask for it. We can’t talk our way into it. We can’t simply impose (or lift) sanctions. We have to achieve it by threatening—credibly—to pummel into oblivion anyone who gets in the way. 

There is a reason that Teddy Roosevelt’s famous 1901 pronouncement—“Speak softly, and carry a big stick”—has become something of a cliché. It’s because it works.  

This used to be understood, or taken for granted, not only in Washington but in London, Paris and every other NATO capital. That is no longer the case—in no small part because both left and right, while moving further apart from each other in almost every other respect, have converged on a shared neo-isolationism. Today, almost no one in any position of authority is willing to make a moral argument for going to war.

If you grew up in the second half of the 20th century, during the Cold War or immediately after, you heard often about America being the world’s policeman. During this time, Britain watched its empire collapse and the American empire, which the Americans never called an empire, rise. America promised to respect freedom, democracy and minority rights, and it backed that up with force: a sprawling conventional army, a vast navy, thousands of fighter jets, a nuclear umbrella that extended across the West.

I felt the safety of this promise keenly as a child in London. Most of my extended family had been decimated by the Third Reich, and the idea of a liberal and humane controlling authority was enormously reassuring.

Of course, America had many faults. There were plenty of Vietnamese who did not regard it as a beacon of freedom. The same was true in large pockets of Latin America and Africa. And it was haunted still by slavery. It had gotten much wrong, at home and overseas.

But still. America was the crown jewel of the West, the culmination of a 2,500-year-old evolution that stretched back to the Athenian polis. It had hurtled human progress forward, created gleaming skylines and world-renowned universities and an American Dream that—amazingly—was open to the entire world. It was an invitation to everyone. At the heart of all this was a new kind of civilization that transcended ancient bloodlines and tribal affiliations. It was rooted in the Enlightenment, and its radical promise—that all men are created equal—offered dignity and hope. It was held together by a democratic tradition, an individualism that was rugged but tempered by a sense of community and duty, and the rule of law. 

All of this is blindingly obvious but has become almost embarrassing to say out loud. That’s because we no longer know who we are or why it matters.

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Instead, we have become consumed by a simple-minded dichotomy: fix America or fix the world. Repair America’s infrastructure, broken schools, heroin addicts and disappearing shorelines, or step in, with force, to protect countries, often ailing democracies, that look to us for security. 

“Today, the United States is spending over $300 billion on defense,” Bernie Sanders, then mayor of Burlington, Vermont, said in 1988—giving voice to a worldview that has since become mainstream. “At the same time, the federal government this year will have a deficit of $150 billion, three million Americans will be sleeping out on the streets, tens of millions of Americans are unable to afford health insurance, and higher education is becoming an unobtainable dream.”  

Tulsi Gabbard, running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2019, echoed Sanders. “We have spent trillions of your taxpayer dollars to pay for these wars, taking those dollars away from our communities and our people who need them right here at home,” she said in her campaign launch video.

Blake Masters, who is running for Senate in Arizona and is a prominent member of a rising generation of pro-Trump, America-first Republicans, says on his campaign website: “The American people have made clear that we need to end our pointless interventions abroad and focus on our problems at home.”

In a recent opinion piece, Republican Senator Josh Hawley echoed this sentiment: “The Washington elite have shelled out trillions on nation-building abroad while families and towns in this nation have languished, denied industry and good-paying jobs.”

On the right, neo-isolationism seems to spring from a desire to make America great again and a conviction that the country cannot be repaired—that it has already been swallowed up by a woke cabal that controls every important institution in American life. This is not just true of the base, but of right-wing intellectuals like Richard Hanania, the president of the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology. 

“We went to Iraq and Afghanistan, left after 20 years, and the same people are in charge,” Hanania told me. He was critical of a foreign-policy establishment determined to portray Ukraine as a critical ally and Russia as an implacable foe of the United States. After the Cold War, he said, “the Russians, they did something that was historic and unprecedented. They basically gave up their empire. They woke up one day and said, ‘It’s not there anymore.’ And what the U.S. did was it started moving eastward, and it started making alliances with countries closer and closer to Russia’s borders.” In an interview with Tucker Carlson last week, Hanania said: “Who cares what happens in Eastern Europe? That’s none of our business.”

The left, meanwhile, has succumbed, once and for all, to a long-percolating moral relativism. This started in the late 1960s on campus, where the post-structuralists, and, later, the post-modernists, deconstructed traditional notions of truth and morality. In the ambit of this ascendent intellectual ecology, making assertions like “the West is a force for good” or “America is exceptional” betrays, at best, naiveté, or, more likely, a jingoistic and dangerous stupidity. In this view of the world, we are no better—and perhaps worse—than everyone else. 

“Every war America has fought in our lifetimes has made the world worse,” Samuel Moyn, a professor of history and law at Yale University, said in an email. Moyn mocked the war on terrorism. “More people die slipping in the bathtub than from terrorism, and far more on the roads,” he said. “Now, we can add that orders of magnitude more perish when a pandemic reveals how little has been done to offer protection from harm in our unequal society and world.”

It took a long time to arrive at this cul de sac. 

There have always been two poles in the American foreign-policy universe: the isolationists and the interventionists. After the Soviet collapse, the United States was free to wage war whenever and wherever it saw fit. Maybe a bit too free. After the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush launched the war in Afghanistan, which made sense to most Americans, and then the war in Iraq, which did not. 

Then came Barack Obama, who ran against those wars, especially Iraq. Trump codified Obama’s foreign policy, transforming his predecessor’s opposition to these particular wars into all war. “America first will be the overriding theme of my administration,” Trump said in 2016, while laying out his thoughts about foreign policy in a speech in Washington, D.C. “Under a Trump administration, no American citizen will ever again feel that their needs come second to the citizens of foreign countries.” He went on: “I will never send our finest into battle unless necessary, and I mean absolutely necessary, and will only do so if we have a plan for victory, with a capital V.”

That’s how we arrived at our current guns-versus-butter dichotomy, which posits that if you’re for a robust defense that seeks to preempt violence and authoritarianism, then you’re against doing anything about, say, America’s shrinking manufacturing sector. 

There had been other voices who had bought into this—mostly peaceniks, like Sanders—but it wasn’t mainstreamed until Trump ran and won on it. (See, for example, his September 2016 debate with Hillary Clinton, in which he asserted that he was against the Iraq War—a dubious claim—because he cared more about the economy.) 

“I think this has to do with the collapse of confidence on the part of our leadership as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Matthew Continetti, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of the forthcoming book The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism. “Iraq and Afghanistan broke the back of the Republican establishment. And it hasn’t recovered from that.” 

By the time Joe Biden sleep-walked into the White House, the argument against interventionism had been fully digested and integrated into the political establishment. Hence, the Americans’ mindless, unstrategic withdrawal from Afghanistan and, of course, their inability or unwillingness to stand firm against the Russians.

“Putin is a much bigger threat than most Americans believe, because his anti-freedom agenda transcends ideology,” Garry Kasparov, the political activist and chess grandmaster, said. “He will support anyone and anything that can disrupt the liberal world order that has allowed the U.S. and other free nations to thrive.” In the absence of American hegemony, Kasparov said, we can expect the Russians or Chinese to step into the void: “The U.S. cannot afford to be isolationist, because American global leadership is a prerequisite for American democracy.”

But leadership demands knowing who we are, what our values are, and how those values distinguish us from others. That ability to recall why the West matters seems to have vanished. Recall what Trump told Joe Scarborough in 2015, when pressed to take a tougher line against Putin: “Well, I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe.” This week, Tucker Carlson, arguably the most influential conservative in the country, suggested that all the Putin hate was misplaced. “Has Putin ever called me racist?” Carlson said. “Did he manufacture a worldwide pandemic that wrecked my business and kept me indoors for two years? Is he teaching my children to embrace racial discrimination? Is he making fentanyl? Is he trying to snuff out Christianity? Does he eat dogs?”

It’s easy to understand the impulse to underplay the severity of what is happening right now in Ukraine. No one decent or humane wants war. War means death, destruction and brutality. The idea that we might end it once and for all is understandable. It just happens to ignore history and human nature. Recall that Woodrow Wilson predicted, after the end of World War I, that his League of Nations would bring an end to war forever. Instead, that war was just a preamble to a much worse one. The longer we pursue policies of retrenchment and withdrawal, on either humane or self-interested grounds, the more ground we cede to our enemies—and the more blood that will be ultimately spilled.

When Putin announced that the war was starting in a televised address Thursday, he emphasized that any countries that interfered would face “consequences they have never seen.” 

The question is: Will anyone test that threat? Will anyone interfere?

The Latvians, the Lithuanians, the Estonians—they’re wondering: What happens if Russian troops steamroll over us, too? If one of those countries was invaded by the Russians, it would, no doubt, invoke Article Five of the NATO treaty, which would compel all other NATO members, including the United States, to come to their defense. But would they? Or would they retreat and cower? Would they say what so many myopic and inward-looking voices have been saying for years: The Soviet Union is dead. Or, Putin just wants to control his sphere of influence, just as we do ours. Or, Who needs NATO?

What about China? The Chinese are watching the showdown between Russia and Ukraine, and they are thinking, If the Americans won’t defend Kiev, will they defend Taiwan? Will they?

“What we do now, these days, is we don’t project power and strength,” Gen. McMaster said. “What we are really good at these days is projecting weakness. We will only do something militarily after you invade.”

Not long ago, I had a conversation about all this with M, a former platoon commander in the British Army who did tours in Afghanistan and Africa and is now an analyst at a security agency. For professional reasons, he said, it was important that he remain anonymous. 

M said the current mess reminded him of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, which the artist painted in 1642. “When I look at it, I just see pure confidence and assuredness of a place in the world,” he said. “These people—they’re showing their wealth and their professional confidence. It’s a portrait that suggests success at all levels.” Then, he pivoted. “Everything that we don’t have, I would say, in the West is this kind of strength of belief in ourselves and our values. You can make adjustments and whatever, but it’s not going to do anything because that’s not the problem. The problem is way, way deeper, at a spiritual level.”

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