The One Key Word Biden Needs to Invoke on Ukraine

He should call it a fight not for democracy but for sovereignty.

An illustration showing a brick wall outlined by a map of Ukraine
The Atlantic

In World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt rallied what he dubbed the “United Nations,” among them Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, to keep the Axis powers from eliminating whole countries across Europe and Asia. After the Cold War, George H. W. Bush likewise assembled a 35-nation coalition to beat back Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. America’s partners lined up behind a principle they all had a stake in defending—that Saddam Hussein had no right to trample out of existence another country’s sovereignty, not even that of a small Persian Gulf emirate.

Today, President Joe Biden is missing an opportunity that these leaders once seized. In a series of major speeches, including his latest State of the Union, Biden has repeatedly framed the war as “a great battle for freedom: a battle between democracy and autocracy.” The observation that the dictator in the Kremlin seeks to subdue Ukrainian democracy is, of course, true and important. But it would be better to elevate what is Russia’s most fundamental offense: its armed aggression against a sovereign state. To stand on that principle could enable the United States to assemble a larger coalition in support of Ukraine, and at a minimum, it would make Vladimir Putin’s efforts to justify his “special military operation” more difficult.

The assault on Ukraine strikes at the core right of states to preserve their sovereign independence. This is an axiom that countries on all continents hold dear. Many nations in the global South remember colonial rule and continue to fear great-power exploitation. Even the government of India, which has drawn criticism in the West for opposing sanctions on Moscow and buying up discounted Russian oil, has shown its disapproval of Putin’s breaches of international law.

The Biden administration also has condemned Russia for violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and for using force in breach of the UN Charter. But the United States does itself no favors when it appears to cast its cause first and foremost as a defense of democracy. The implication is that the United States places greater value on democracy than on sovereignty. This leaves potential partners to ponder whether Biden regards the sovereignty of other nations as conditional, worthy of support only if they qualify as democratic in the eyes of the West. Instead of uniting more states around universal values, Biden risks repelling them.

Supporting Ukraine for being a democracy has another liability: It makes the West’s moral affiliations look arbitrary and exclusive. Before the Russian invasion of February 24, Ukraine was widely viewed as corrupt. The nonpartisan research and monitoring group Freedom House classified the country as a “transitional or hybrid regime,” scoring Ukraine lower on freedom and democracy than Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. As Biden himself put it as recently as January, Ukraine’s prospects of joining NATO in the near term were “not very likely, based on much more work they have to do in terms of democracy.”

Since then, Ukraine has been recast as a democratic bulwark. The “Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act” was how Congress titled its law providing military aid to Ukraine. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pitched the bill as an effort to “support democracy in Ukraine and, therefore, democracy in the world.”

Without doubt, Ukraine’s competitive elections, dynamic civil society, and free media make it much more of a democracy than Putin’s Russia. And Ukraine may tame corruption and strengthen the rule of law once it turns from fighting the war to rebuilding the country. Yet the about-face in Western depictions of Ukraine illustrates a troubling bias in the West’s reflexive humanitarian sympathy and military support for a white, European country. The rapid rebranding of the country as an exemplary democracy when objective measures say otherwise appears instrumental and self-serving.

By putting liberal democracy at the center of support for Ukraine, the West makes all the more glaring the illiberalism exposed in the racist discrimination encountered by international students from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean as they attempted to flee Ukraine and take refuge in Eastern Europe. Countries outside Europe and with nonwhite, non-majority-Christian populations might well conclude that if this is what democratic solidarity looks like, they cannot count on Western support if their land is invaded.

Pitching U.S. action as a crusade for democracy also reminds too many observers, especially in the Middle East, of past American violations of other countries’ sovereignty in the name of democracy, including the invasion of Iraq. And much as the War on Terror became never-ending, so could a battle for democracy against autocracy metastasize across the globe for years to come. International campaigns to oppose specific violations of sovereignty do not suffer from this problem. In the first Gulf War, for example, the rationale of the coalition determined its restricted military objective: Once coalition forces had ejected Iraqi forces from Kuwait, they stopped there, declining to advance to Baghdad to oust Hussein (although the United States went on to intervene in Iraq throughout the ’90s).

If anything, the objective in Ukraine’s war should be more limited, given the diminishing prospect of pushing Russian forces completely out of all territory they have entered since February 24. A sovereign Ukraine could decide, on the basis of its own interest, to make painful concessions to stop the bloodshed. But if the war in Ukraine is part of the free world’s confrontation with autocracy, how the conflict could acceptably end in any way but total victory is hard to envision.

Loose rhetoric from senior U.S. officials has contributed to this impression of a long-term campaign with maximalist goals. Biden exclaimed that Putin “cannot remain in power”; Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stated that a goal of the war was to “see Russia weakened.” The White House has since tried to walk back those remarks, but it has persisted with the black-and-white message that the world is divided into democratic and authoritarian blocs, locked in an epochal struggle.

This is a vision of the world that many nations do not accept. Although they might back sovereign rights against flagrant aggression, they will not sign up to a permanent geopolitical rivalry. Already, they see the West prepared to maintain severe economic and financial sanctions on Russia long into the future. As global food and energy prices surge, the prospect of open-ended military and economic warfare is exactly what many countries seek to avoid. Russia is more responsible for these problems than the West is, but other countries may not see it this way unless the West offers a better future.

The Biden administration is aware that its pro-Ukraine coalition may fracture in the coming months as the economic and social costs of the campaign mount. Biden still has time to modulate his message—but only if he does not make the situation worse. One option the White House is reportedly considering is whether to impose secondary sanctions, a major escalation that would force foreign entities to stop doing business with the United States if they maintain prohibited economic ties to Russia. Having failed to build sufficient international support by appealing to democratic values, the United States is weighing whether to resort to compulsion.

The administration should try attraction instead. It should stress its support for sovereignty and send the “battle for democracy” into the background. Scrapping permanent-war rhetoric, the United States can stand for a future that respects sovereignty and covets peace—a more reassuring vision to many countries than what now emanates from Moscow and Beijing. Otherwise, no one should complain when more countries refuse to join the coalition as the war drags on. At present, the United States is not truly trying to lead the world so much as one faction against another.