Who Are We?

Bret Stephens is a conservative columnist for the New York Times. There are policy positions he takes with which I disagree, but he’s an old-fashioned conservative–that is to say, sane–and on occasion he writes something with which I emphatically do agree.

He recently wrote a column about the Russian assault on Ukraine, arguing that this is a moment for America to believe in itself again. 

Being true to ourselves doesn’t require pretending that our history has been an unblemished story of righteousness. 

Who are we, with our long history of invasions and interventions, to lecture Vladimir Putin about respecting national sovereignty and international law? Who are we, with our domestic record of slavery and discrimination, our foreign record of supporting friendly dictators, and the ongoing injustices of American life, to hold ourselves up as paragons of freedom and human rights? Who are we, after 198 years of the Monroe Doctrine, to try to stop Russia from delineating its own sphere of influence? Who are we, with our habitual ignorance, to meddle in faraway disputes about which we know so little?

Such questions are often put by people on the left, but there’s a powerful strain of the same thinking on the right. When Bill O’Reilly asked Donald Trump in 2017 how he could “respect” Putin when the Russian president is “a killer,” the president replied: “We’ve got a lot of killers. What, you think our country’s so innocent?”

As Stephens reminds us, countries are better–and better off– when they proceed with “more self-awareness, less moral arrogance, greater intellectual humility and an innate respect for the reality of unintended consequences.”

But neither people nor countries are well served by the defects of those virtues: self-awareness that becomes a recipe for personal or policy paralysis, intellectual humility that leads to moral confusion, a fear of unknown risks that becomes an asset to an enemy. These are some of the deeper risks we now face in the contest with the Kremlin.

Stephens analyzes the reasons for Putin’s fixation on Ukraine, and the self-deceptions that have motivated his decision to “re-unify” at least this part of the old USSR. But then he turns to the United States–and what we want to believe about ourselves.

The United States used to have self-belief. Our civilization, multiple generations of Americans believed, represented human progress. Our political ideals — about the rule of law, human rights, individual liberties, democratic governance — were ideals for all people, including those beyond our borders. Our literature spoke to the universal human experience; our music to the universal soul. When we fought wars, it was for grand moral purposes, not avaricious aims. Even our worst blunders, as in Vietnam, stemmed from defensible principles. Our sins were real and numerous, but they were correctable flaws, not systemic features.

It goes without saying that this self-belief — like all belief — was a mixture of truth and conceit, idealism and hubris, vision and blindness. It led us to make all sorts of errors, the acute awareness of which has become the dominant strain of our intellectual life. But it also led us to our great triumphs: Yorktown and Appomattox; the 13th and 19th Amendments; the Berlin Airlift and the fall of the Berlin Wall; the Marshall Plan and PEPFAR.

The only place I departed from Stephens’ analysis was with his concluding paragraph:

These victories were not the result of asking, “Who are we?” They came about by asking, “Who but us?” In the crisis of Ukraine, which is really a crisis of the West, we might start asking the second question a little more often than the first.

My own conclusion is that “who but us?” reeks of self-aggrandizement. What has so impressed me about the way President Biden has managed this crisis is that he hasn’t pontificated about America’s obligation as the only country that can stop aggression. Instead, he has taken to heart that old management axiom that you can get a lot done if you don’t worry about who gets the credit. Biden has re-invigorated NATO and forged agreement among democratic countries (and even some that aren’t so democratic) to employ carefully targeted sanctions likely to destroy Russia’s economy and ensure that the oligarchs around Putin experience a world of hurt.

The pertinent question is the one Stephens first identified: who are we? And the answer is, we are a country with sound and valuable ideals–granted, a country that often falls short of those ideals–a country with a majority of citizens who are devoted to those ideals, but who are currently demoralized by a loud and angry tribal minority that is working to abandon the principles the rest of us struggle to achieve.

Ukraine is fighting Russia. We are fighting the enemy within.


  1. Yes, who are we. And who do we want to be? Where are we going? How are we going to deal with those who created the Jan 6th events? The Architects as well as the foot soldiers. What do we do with the 30% of America that LIKED it? How about the elected officials that minimize it? I wonder.

  2. Our moral commitment to fellow human beings is immediate and contemporary. Our moral commitment to treat fellow human beings fairly, to put it simply, is not dependent on our past, no matter how moral or immoral.

  3. You’d have to be living in a log cabin without cable for the past forty years to not see NATO for what it is in Europe – an outpost of US militarism and a security problem for Russia.

    What’s hilarious is the use of this phrase which many journalists on Twitter are also picking up on, “Putin and the oligarchs surrounding him.”

    Let me ask, “How are Putin’s oligarchs any different than Biden’s oligarchs?”

    Let’s be realistic and cut the crap about the false identity we’ve created (propaganda media) for ourselves. It’s bullshit. All Ego wrapped up in delusion and magical thinking.

    I would have thought Afghanistan’s epic failure would have snapped some Washingtonians out of the decades-old stupor. Still, the quick pivot to China was averted by Russia so that we couldn’t assess our failures properly in the media and right-size ourselves. All the failures of our MIC and IC were stalled.

    As gas hits $4.00 a gallon and heading for $5.00 for Spring Break, we’ve got a convenient distraction not to look at ourselves. But, of course, we always have a distraction, and that’s the role of the oligarchy-controlled media. “Distraction, divide, and delusion.”


    The truth isn’t pretty.

  4. Boo hoo, gas is almost 5 bucks a gallon. It’s 7.10 a gallon here in Europe and none of you are in the radiation zone if Putin gets really stupid. I think Biden has rallied the NATO countries and even those not members against Putin. So, Todd, I’m going to go there…Shut Up!

  5. The world today is so much smaller than we ever could have imagined at the end of WWII, when both NATO and the United Nations were born. The problems we face will require cooperation of every nation to resolve. We need to start acting like we understand that, even if we don’t really want to. If we fail to find the path forward, we will kill our planet and, with it, our civilization.

  6. Todd, while I largely agree with your observations, your conclusions, not so much.

    I feel the world is currently caught up in an abusive spiral of division, corruption, and misinformation. It is not just Russia and as Todd has pointed out, somewhat accurately, the USA. I believe it is not just Russia and the USA but to some degree, Todd’s statements apply to, every nation, culture, tribe, and family. We are all afflicted with the same human flaw.

    I have had some reoccurring thoughts. I believe as do many others, that Hitler’s rise was due to the mishandling of the terms that ended WWl. Putin’s rise or that of a Putinesque figure seems, in retrospect, like a variant of the same disease.

    Just my opinion for, what it’s worth, but these are my thoughts.

    1.) We should have had a Marshall Plan and had a person like W.E Deming to help rebuild a citizen-led democratic economic stabilization program in Russia after the fall of The Iron Curtain, similar to our efforts in Europe and Japan after WWll. It is no accident that Japan and Germany developed into peaceful and democratic societies. It is necessary to allow the Russian people time and help to recover from decades of programming by Putin and his News Network. Russian Media would be like having Donald Trump’s “Truth Social” as your only news network. No facts, any time, just conspiracy theories and stoking of anger, alienation, division, and hate.

    2.) It is also my belief we should actively facilitate the change away from Putin. We need to plan for a Post-Putin, transition of Russia. Plan to develop and educate the people of Russia by using the full powers of the West to actively disseminate the truth about Putin and the facts of the current state of the rest of the largely free, developed nations of the World.

    Change is something even a casual observer of America has seen a lot of since 2014. It can happen, as we are all aware, in a heartbeat as it had 100 years earlier to light the fuse that became WWl.

    Putin is another Hitler. No matter how much land and rights we cede he will never be satiated. Before yesterday he was the leader of a Government that possessed nuclear weapons. Today he is also a nuclear blackmailing terrorist.

    This is a game of Chicken. Pluck Putin!

  7. AgingLGirl,

    Todd is just pointing out that NATO has also invaded sovereign countries to topple democratically elected leaders and DELIBERATELY killed civilians in that invasion. Oh, wait, NATO hasn’t done that. But you know who has done that? Russia.

    Todd has to know NATO is a defensive alliance formed in 1949 to counter the threat from a continually expanding Soviet Union. NATO was and is never going to invade Russia. And NATO wasn’t about to admit Ukraine as a member. So why is Russia in Ukraine? Well, it sure isn’t because Putin has “security concerns” and is worried about NATO setting up shop there to attack Russia. Putin is in Ukraine because he’s trying to rebuild the old Soviet empire. Putin has been extremely open that that is ultimately his goal. The “security concerns” claim is just a pretext. And besides, didn’t he say at the outset he was just going into a couple provinces of Ukraine which had declared themselves independent? But then suddenly Putin is invading the entire country. Putin lied? So hard to believe. (That was sarcasm.)

    Todd is just spouting Russian propaganda. Turn on Russian government run media and you’ll find they are saying the exact same thing that Todd is.

  8. I posted just the other day that my cable provider shut off RT the other day. I don’t pay extra for Faux Spews so don’t have easy access to Russian propaganda and why would I want to bother refuting his claims anyway. Todd is a crank spouting nonsense and today he just lit a fire in me. Until Putin targeted that nuclear power plant, I felt far enough away from this “war.” Not anymore and whining about gas prices is just stupid when you’re not within the radiation zone should Putin blow up one of those reactors. Hey Todd, why not put your money where your mouth is and join those Americans that came over to join the fight against a dictator!

  9. Bret Stephens asks; ” Who are we, with our habitual ignorance, to meddle in faraway disputes about which we know so little?”

    “For everything there is a season…” Ecclesiastes 3:1

    “The time has come,” the Walrus said,
    “To talk of many things;
    of shoes–and ships–and sealing wax–
    Of cabbages –and kings–” Lewis Carroll

    Today the world, including this great nation, is speaking of everything but the elephant in the room; Vladimer Putin and “his” war in Ukraine. The joint decision to NOT chance starting WWIII by actively going against Russia; Putin has opening announced he has readied this nuclear weapons, has fired upon and now occupies the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. WWII was not declared a “war” when Hitler’s Fascists invaded and occupied Poland as all of Europe left Poland to fight Germany alone. What other country will Russia invade before we recognize the start of WWIII with the small military, the government administration, businessmen and private citizens are fighting to stop WWIII before it spreads further than Georgia, Crimea and Putin’s step 3 “war” against Ukraine. Please stop telling us about Putin’s failed attempted occupation of Ukraine as he destroys the country and murders it’s citizens with his scorched earth tactics. Can that 40 miles of Russian military vehicles and weaponry actually not move faster to end the invasion?

    Stop pissing in our ears and telling us it is raining. I am anti-war but I am also anti-protection once a war has already begun.

    “Ukraine is fighting Russia. We are fighting the enemy within.” Who are we, indeed, and how much more do we need to know and watch as it happens before we “meddle” to urge NATO and EU to end this start of WWIII in Ukraine?

  10. Mea culpa; that should read I am “AGAINST anti-protection”.

    AgingLGirl; KUDOS!!! You are living in the nuclear danger zone but with the advanced nuclear weapons in the hands of Russia, Iran, North Korea, et al, none of us are out of range.

  11. NATO, defensive?

    Do readers know the background on the 2011 NATO invasion of Libya — arguably the most prosperous nation in Africa — had very high quality of life for its citizens.

    Gaddafi had accumulated sufficient gold reserves to launch the Gold Dinar currency alternative to the Dollar. As a threat to the hegemony of the Dollar, Gaddafi had to be assassinated and his government destroyed.

    The gold reserve disappeared, and Libya was thrown into anarchy, from which it is slowly recovering.

    NATO 2001 invasion of Afghanistan had similar destructive effect. Pre-invasion, Afghans grew sufficient food to feed their population, plus export surplus.

    During US 20-yr occupation, the majority of arable land was converted to heroin poppy production, which has now in 2022, left Afghanistan unable to feed itself.

    Russia’s attack on Ukraine was the most telegraphed military strike in our lifetimes. After 14 nations joined NATO and surrounded Russia, after Putin’s written demand that Ukraine not join and arm as a NATO member, it’s clear there was a diplomatic off-ramp to avoid the Ukraine invasion.

    The written diplomatic response never came because a war was needed by the MIC to replace the largesse of the 20-year Afghanistan revenue stream.

    Raytheon stock is up.

  12. Todd,
    Good morning, you sure know how to stir the pot, lol!

    With the Russian capabilities in the field of cyber warfare, they do not have to hit this country with missiles, they just have to shut off the safety systems and the cooling pumps on the myriads of nuclear stations here!

    Chernobyl? Three mile island? Something like that would effectively cripple this country and any country that has nuclear power stations. And, cause a lot of death in the process. What if his minions hacking and shut off air traffic control radars across the country? Or shuts down the rail systems? Planes would run out of fuel before they could land, produce would not be able to get where it needs to be to prevent folks from starving. If anything, the panic would be catastrophic!

    I think that’s the fear holding back the flood waters so to speak. I would venture to say that before there is any sort of action taken, the United States should disconnect from the internet and use site specific control to prevent unlimited hacking potential. Certain things might slow down but some inconvenience is better than an unmitigated disaster, one that can’t be controlled.

    Sheila brought up 1st Corinthians 13:12 a couple of posts back, and that applies not only to self-reflection, but, what you see in others. A reflection in a metal mirror is hazy at best, and it’s difficult to garner the full picture. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of faith for that matter, that you will actually see the clear picture.

  13. The battle between good and evil exists not only among we, collectively, but within each of us.

    The Era of Enlightenment, the foster parent of our Constitution, reasoned that there were ways to govern without excessive power given to any participant in governing. It did so as a means to organize society in such a way that we individually had as much freedom as possible, consistent with our neighbors freedom too, to contribute each of us according to our own talents and tools.

    What has changed about that thinking? Do we really wonder if we are functionally or morally less capable than Russia under Putin’s authoritarianism? Really?

    Where did the enlightenment go?

  14. Good morning, John!

    Americans are not self-reflective nor do they take group inventories well. That’s because our media is all propaganda as opposed to being a free press or Fourth Estate. Holding the government accountable is NOT telling the community or the world how great it is.

    Private enterprises have marketing and public relations departments for that; the government doesn’t need a public relations department to tell people how great they are doing. Let’s see, for how many decades has trust in our government been in the mid-teens?

    Red flag, red flag, red flag. We have imprisoned and broken international human rights how many times in the past several decades? Look at what we’ve done to Julian Assange!

    As a group, Americans are the most deluded population on the planet. The gap between who we are in reality versus who we believe we are is a gigantic gulf.

    If we had serious media and serious lecturers, they’d be asking, “How can we close this gap from our grandiose image to reality?”

    Meanwhile, if you don’t like the truth, there is always a sandy beach somewhere to bury your heads. 😉

  15. Frontline will be doing a retrospective on President Putin on March 15th. In their prelude to this upcoming program. They have a linked review on their news page covering much of their broadcasting of his history over the years. It is like sitting in a Russian History class. For me so much background information of which I was unaware.

    I feel slammed when I realize I have made broad assumptions without researching and considering background which was available to me all along.

  16. “As a group, Americans are the most deluded population on the planet. The gap between who we are in reality versus who we believe we are is a gigantic gulf.”….yep.

  17. MoJo,

    I fear you misunderstand the rest of the planet. Most people on the planet are deluded in some way.

    What is different in America is the utter confidence and arrogance we have about our superiority over other cultures. I am not sure that is not the same in many other countries I just have an awareness of America based on my own limited experiences.

    Every culture seems to view itself based on its best intentions and others’ motives to be demonstrated in their culture’s worst behaviors.

  18. Todd and MoJo; read the news media – or I should say anti-media – law Putin put into effect today ending free speech to all journalists and social media from using the word “war” regarding his “military occupation” in Ukraine. Violation of that terminology will result in 15 years in a Russian prison.

    All European countries bordering on Russia are now on “high alert”; if Putin’s war is only with and in Ukraine; why is that necessary?

    We have not been watching propaganda or “M.A.S.H.” and “Hogan’s Heroes” reruns for TEN DAYS; we are watching real war in real time.

  19. Pete,

    The enlightenment meant “lighting up for us”. Where we are is doing anything, saying anything, wearing anything that “lights up ME”….

  20. Who are we? Absolutely gullible,arrogant,stupid and committed to the wrong things.

  21. Barb George…positive constructive post. Thank you. I look forward to the Frontline special on Putin.

  22. “As a group, Americans are the most deluded population on the planet.” I do believe that that is true. And, if so,
    are we a virtually schizophrenic place, or people? As a culture, we like to believe that we are a devout nation, living under
    the rubric of “In God We Trust,” but we have done some very ungodly things to others, and to ourselves. Some of the
    most righteous of us think that having a cruel, misogynistic, perpetually gaslighting president, narcissistic…president
    is the way to go, others think that anyone who does not look like themselves cannot be a True American, and on, and on.
    We have toppled peaceful governments, and installed dictators. We are the most entertained people in the world, some of
    us giving a damn about what the heck some Kardashian thing just spent on a yacht.
    Oligarchs? Yes, we have some home grown ones, taking delight in perpetually sabotaging efforts by others of us to rebuild
    a middle class, move people out of poverty, because of the fear that that might force them to, sadly, remain in the millionaire lass,
    when all they want is Rocko’s “More, yeah, more. What’s wrong with that?” Their Sermon on the Mount, was Reagan’s “You can
    have it all!”

    We have been so damned full of ourselves that “In 2002, a senior Bush adviser told a reporter for the New York Times that journalists ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality’ but that’s ‘not the way the world works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.’” pg. 743-744 of “These Truths,” by Jill Lepore

  23. Meanwhile, back at the ranch . . . .
    They estimate that more than 1 million species will be lost by 2050. Including . . .
    Emperor Penguins
    Polar Bears
    Vaquita Dolphin
    Bornean Orangutan
    Sumatran Tigers
    Mountain Gorillas
    and that’s just the large , celebrity -status animals. Not enough room here to list the incredibly large number of corals, amphibians, reptiles, insects, etc. do to the humans ruining the planet.
    The pictures of the Ukraine moms and babies fleeing breaks my heart — so do pictures of animals who are going extinct. EXTINCT — means we will NEVER see them again.
    Right, who are we again?

  24. Who we AREN’T is obviously among those who make decisions regarding our skies and who can fly where; Putin is giving threats so evidently he is the “go-to” person for permission.

    And this still isn’t our war.

  25. I won’t get into the “we did something bad, so anyone can do anything” meme, nor the “Russia (or the USSR) has the right to have an autocratic empire” meme

    I will say that this may be the ONLY time I have agreed with Bret Stephens, so thank you for bringing this to our attention, Sheila.

    Here is my dilemma – yes, NATO is a defensive pact to protect member states and Ukraine is not a member. Yes, Putin has nukes, but where does that leave us?

    Sanctions, IF we can sustain them, are a long term solution. Tens of thousands of dead Ukrainians and over a million refugees, and we will salute their bravery and feel sorry for them, after they starve and freeze to death – and do nothing? A dead Zelensky as a symbol of Ukraine is a sad thought (and an ironic one).

    Our arguments about not “pushing Putin into war” sound too much like the “let the ‘adults’ keep Trump in line” arguments on steroids, or we can’t prosecute Trumpsters because it will look partisan. If Putin is crazy enough to use nukes, he is crazy enough to not need an excuse. Remember, Germany attacked our ships because we were sending arms and food to England during both World Wars, even when we were “neutral”.

    True, given Rabbinic advice and that of Sun Tzu, we should leave Putin an “out”, but he has no intention of taking one, nor will sanctions ever cause him to do so. Which leaves us where?

    If NATO wanted to, they could extend “emergency, temporary membership” to Ukraine and create a no-fly zone (the UN is useless here – Russia can violate International Law and veto any UN repercussions). Otherwise, we should be sending as much food and arms as possible and pray hard.

    On another, if you live long enough moment – There is my current/former? Representative, Victoria Spartz, who was born in Ukraine and constantly sends constituent newsletters on how she is fighting against the destruction of America by the Socialist Biden administration. Now, for the only time, I agree with her on one issue. Republican Putin apologists and Trump be damned, she is for the Ukrainian people.

  26. Put yourselves in the place of the Ukrainian citizens. What would you do? Do we not have a moral obligation to help our neighbors? Biden did the best thing by not fighting back but by sending weapons and money. Also troops to the NATO Nations. WE CAN NOT AFFORD A NUCLEAR WAR.

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