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.