“Don’t forget about Ukraine,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said last Sunday at the end of an interview with CBS. “We have the same values, we have the same color of blood, and we are fighting for freedom and we will win.”
Less than two months ago, democracy in America and elsewhere seemed to be drifting toward its own expiration. Then the Russian invasion and unbending Ukrainian resistance delivered a shock to the democratic world that restored its heartbeat. Writers and politicians celebrated a sudden revival of liberal values, as if the global rise of autocracy might be stopped in the suburbs of Kyiv and on the Black Sea coast. Ordinary Americans, Europeans, and citizens of other democracies—often out ahead of their governments—rallied to Ukraine’s cause, sending money, taking in refugees, renting empty Ukrainian houses to support their displaced owners, filling the websites of restaurants in Russia with reviews that told the grim facts of the war. Thousands of people answered Zelensky’s call to volunteer for a Ukrainian foreign legion, like the International Brigades that defended the Spanish Republic against fascism in the 1930s.
In this country, Ukraine has done what nothing else—no election or insurrection, no pandemic, no environmental catastrophe—could do: shown the difference between right and wrong, heroism and barbarism, truth and lies, with such clarity that most Americans are in agreement.
When Zelensky spoke to Congress last month, Kevin McCarthy and Maxine Waters, who detest each other, sat side by side in the Capitol auditorium as if the bipartisanship of the Cold War were back. Members of Congress who routinely ignore one another’s speeches listened raptly to Zelensky, did not look away from a video with terrible scenes of obliteration and death, then rose to give the Ukrainian president a standing ovation. Congress has voted overwhelmingly to send more than $1 billion in military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine; to call for the suspension of trade relations with Russia and Belarus; to declare Vladimir Putin a war criminal. By large majorities, Americans support the administration’s policies of imposing sanctions and providing arms (though Republicans don’t think President Joe Biden has carried them out well). Even the American media has been transformed by the war: Turn on CNN, and you’ll be reminded that the network has excellent reporters.
Yet I worry that we’ll soon forget about Ukraine. It’s far away, and Americans have famously short attention spans.
In the days after Zelensky’s speech to Congress, you could sense American life returning to its natural state. Republican senators accused Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson of being soft on pedophilia, then checked their phones for their mentions. Meta Platforms announced that CEO Mark Zuckerberg will spend more time working remotely from his 1,500-acre Hawaiian estate and other homes. Kylie Jenner told her 325 million Instagram followers that her newborn son will no longer go by the name of Wolf. An online horde of journalists attacked The New York Times for publishing an editorial in defense of free speech. For 72 hours, Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars was bigger than the war in Ukraine. The endless self-regard, triviality, and cynicism of American culture in the age of digital polarization seeped back, amid images of Ukrainians filling sandbags on the Odesa beaches or risking Russian shelling to bring shelter dogs to safety.
Even when the cause is just, people inevitably lose interest in far-off calamities that happen to people they don’t know. Against the will, a numb indifference sets in, and life goes relentlessly on:
In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure.
W. H. Auden wrote the poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” in December 1938, a month after Kristallnacht. The Spanish Civil War, in which he had briefly taken part, was in its third (and final) year; the fascists were winning; and the Spanish Republic’s hold on the sympathetic imagination of liberals and leftists around the world was slipping. Everything happens much faster today.
“It’s been a month of this horrific war already,” a photographer in Ukraine named Yana Morozova tweeted on March 24, “and one of my biggest fears is that the world will grow used to it, and stop caring.”
“It won’t happen,” a follower in the United Kingdom assured her. “For some reason—that I’m glad about but can’t understand—this particular war has changed everything.”
Can the war change anything in this country? Ukrainians, in their struggle to build a democracy out of an autocratic past, have looked to the American example. What will it take for us to be worthy of them?
The questions aren’t idle. Ukraine’s survival requires the sustained support of its most important ally, the United States. Time will not be on Ukraine’s side. If the war drags on for months, it will grow murkier to Americans watching at a distance; its moral clarity will start to blur. Ukrainians’ justifiable rage at all things Russian will produce images that foreigners will find less easy to love than the picture of a string quintet performing in the ruins of a Kharkiv metro station. We’ll see more reports of Ukrainian atrocities that are not the inventions of the Kremlin, Fox News, or Glenn Greenwald. Some Americans will conclude that distinguishing propaganda from truth isn’t worth the effort, that it’s all the same (which is the goal of Russian propaganda). They’ll start to wonder why they have to pay $5 or $6 a gallon for gas with no relief in sight. Going into the midterms, Republicans will be happy to highlight these troubles and hang them around the neck of the party in power.
So the fate of Ukrainian democracy depends in part on American staying power. And in turn, the health of American democracy depends in part on Ukraine. If Vladimir Putin succeeds in demolishing Ukraine, converting its fragments into the vassal states of a new Russian empire, then strongmen and wannabes around the world will be emboldened. Putin will have won his bet that what matters in global affairs is raw power, that oil and gas are more important to Europe than freedom and justice, that the West is too tired and comfortable to sacrifice for its supposed values—that, as he said last summer, “the liberal idea has become obsolete.”
In the U.S., a Russian victory will free Donald Trump, his clan, his followers in the Republican Party, and the right-wing media of any need to pretend that they ever objected to Putin’s war. Trump will strengthen his grip on the party, compelling other Republicans to go along or be tagged as accomplices of woke Democrats, weak Europeans, and corrupt Ukrainians.
If, however, Putin’s regime of militarized kleptocracy—fascism without the inspiration—suffers an unmistakable defeat, it will diminish American authoritarians of all types. Ukraine’s win might start to clear out some of the reflexive cynicism that corrodes our politics. The current position of most Republicans—denouncing Russia and criticizing Biden for not doing more to help Ukraine, yet saying nothing when Trump calls Putin a “genius” or openly asks him for political favors while Russia commits war crimes—will become less tenable. Russian aggression will be harder to explain away than American insurrection, and Putin will be harder to defend than Trump. Republican anti-Trump voices will gain numbers and strength. The party will have to decide whether it wants to enter the 2024 elections still infected with the homegrown strain of an utterly discredited Putinism. That can’t be opposed abroad while it’s being stoked at home.
To win, Ukraine needs the stakes of the war to be clear to Americans. If the conflict comes to be seen as an impenetrable European mess, a war over spheres of influence and natural gas, or proof of the West’s hypocrisy, the American public will stop caring. Americans care because a tyrannical Goliath has assaulted a democratic David. Biden began to spell out the stakes in his address in Warsaw. Unfortunately, no one will remember anything from that speech except the nine improvised words at its end that expressed a simple wish for Putin to be out of power. That Biden can’t give a speech without ruining it by saying something unscripted is not a minor fault. The world is going through one of those crises in which political rhetoric shapes events, but not even Zelensky’s brilliant performances can tell an American audience why the outcome matters to this country—only a U.S. president can. Biden’s inability to mobilize the English language on behalf of liberal democracy is one reason he gets so little credit from the public for carrying out a Ukraine policy that has bipartisan support.
The lines in Biden’s speech that mattered most, and were quickly forgotten, came earlier: “And now in the perennial struggle for democracy and freedom, Ukraine and its people are in the front lines, fighting to save their nation. And their brave resistance is part of a larger fight for essential democratic principles that unite all free people. The rule of law, fair and free elections. The freedom to speak, to write, and to assemble. The freedom to worship as one chooses. The freedom of the press. These principles are essential in a free society. But they have always been under siege.”
Go through each of Biden’s “essential democratic principles”: Today, almost all are actively contested, if not endangered, here in the United States. And this isn’t a contest of equals. While some progressives don’t see freedom of expression as an essential principle, nearly the whole of the Republican Party, along with its conservative donors and mouthpieces, has embraced or declined to challenge Trump’s ongoing campaign to destroy the legitimacy of the independent press, the right to vote, fair elections, and democratic rules. There’s nothing rhetorical or abstract about Biden’s appeal to a “perennial struggle.” If Ukraine is the front line, America is also a battlefield.
Trump went to Warsaw as well, in 2017. In his speech—written, by Stephen Miller, as if for a European strongman decked out in a white uniform with gold braids—Trump warned against bureaucrats and Muslims, the enemies of civilization coming “from inside or out, from the South or the East … to erase the bonds of culture, faith, and tradition.” He never used the word democracy, never mentioned free elections or free expression. The speech must have pleased Putin.
The difference between Trump’s words and Biden’s shows why Americans cannot afford to forget about Ukraine. When Zelensky says that Ukraine is fighting for us and our values too, we had better believe him. Liberal values don’t revive spontaneously or vicariously. They have to be defended, practiced, empowered, and criticized. The weeks since February 24 recall the period after September 11—the sense of crisis and unity at a historic turning point—but there’s this difference: Two decades ago, at the height of the unipolar era, America was blind with hubris. The sense of unity soon took the form of a fearful triumphalism. The Bush administration’s National Security Strategy of 2002 declared: “The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise.” America, the paragon of this model, would lead the world—with us or against us—in a new struggle for liberty.
Twenty years later, with the failures of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the War on Terror; with the rise of new powers abroad; with rampant economic inequality and entrenched political hatred at home, the 9/11 fever is gone. We suffer from its opposite: exhaustion, disbelief. Ukrainians are right to worry that we’ll soon lose interest and lapse back into our solipsistic dysfunction. The Biden administration can keep Americans engaged with Ukraine by encouraging generous support for the refugees coming here. The administration can better explain the sacrifices that the war is imposing on Americans, and prevent windfall oil profits from turning a war for democracy abroad into a sense of injustice over unequal burdens at home. Civic organizations can sustain interest in Ukraine by creating outlets for acts of solidarity between individuals and groups. News organizations can maintain the public’s focus by pursuing their basic mission of reporting. American overreach is a perpetual danger, but the thing to fear most now is indifference.
To be worthy of Ukraine, we’ll need to start to cure what ails our democracy—to rid ourselves of our own incipient Russification. Many of its elements are already here.
We have a class of immensely rich business oligarchs that exercises great political and economic power with minimum accountability or responsibility. Some of them control information platforms whose purpose is to set Americans at one another’s throats and make us unfit to judge truth from lies. Others back legislation keeping America stuck in a hydrocarbon economy that entrenches dictators while the planet melts. We have a population that’s deeply divided by generation and region, between outward-looking cosmopolitans and backward-looking traditionalists, mutually fearful and contemptuous. Our stagnant, money-driven politics exercises a constant pull away from civic participation into passivity.
But the most immediate threat to Ukraine’s support in the U.S. is an American political party with a strong attraction to autocracy—even to Putin’s Russia. Because of the war, some Republican leaders might now hope, like Charles Lindbergh after Pearl Harbor, that the country will forget their recent romance with authoritarianism—their acquiescence in Trump’s Putinist dreams, including his campaign of blackmail to corrupt Ukrainian democracy for his own dirty ends. But the attraction remains. The U.S. will never be a worthy friend to Ukraine unless the Republican Party purges itself of the poisonous influence of its Tucker Carlsons and Marjorie Taylor Greenes, and above all of Trump. This work might be assisted by Democrats and independents who force the issue with voters, but only Republicans can do it.
In early 1939, a few months before the start of World War II, Auden moved to America, where he published an essay on Voltaire titled “A Great Democrat.” “It is only by removing the obvious causes of misery, poverty, and social injustice,” Auden wrote, “that a democracy like the United States can protect itself against the specious appeals of the enemies of freedom.” Today, reversing America’s Russification will mean defeating our own authoritarians, reducing the power of our oligarchs, ridding our politics of its endemic corruption, and giving Americans on the losing end of 40 years of globalization a sense of security and identity that binds them to our democracy. If we’re true to our own ideals, then we might be worthy of Ukraine.