Ukraine’s Fate and America’s Destiny

Zelensky’s address to Congress challenged us to remember America’s mission in the world.

Volodymyr Zelensky addressing Congress in Washington, DC on December 21, 2022 in from of Kamala Harris and Nancy Pelosi
Volodymyr Zelensky addressing Congress in Washington, DC on December 21, 2022 (Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty)

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The Ukrainian president came to Washington not only to seek aid in the fight against Russia but to remind Americans that there is still a “free world,” and only the United States can unite it.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

A Call to Defend Freedom

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stood before Congress last night and asked for yet more help in his fight to stop Russia from erasing his country from the map. His visit to Washington was something of a surprise, but its purpose was clear. Zelensky is facing a terrible winter, when the Russians, after terrorizing and murdering Ukrainian civilians, may well try to return to offensive operations. He came to make his case to the American people that his fight is our fight—and that the money and weapons we have sent to Ukraine are being used responsibly.

Zelensky’s address, however, was much more than a plea for assistance. The speech was brilliantly written, and the Ukrainian president delivered it in English with real emotion. He made an effort to speak both to U.S. political parties in the chamber and to the entire country watching at home. Most important, Zelensky issued a call, as the leader of a nation at war in Europe, for Americans to remember who we are, what we stand for, and why our destiny is inextricably bound to the eternal fight for freedom and democracy.

Three moments stood out as inspiration and as lessons.

In a brief allusion, Zelensky name-checked the Continental Army’s 1777 victory at the Battle of Saratoga, an excellent historical analogy for present-day Ukraine. If you’re a bit rusty on your Revolutionary War history, recall that the fledgling United States was trying to break away from one of the strongest empires on the planet, and Britain’s competitors had little interest in helping what seemed to be a doomed crusade by a bunch of colonists. At Saratoga, a British plan to divide the Colonies and thus isolate and strangle the troublemakers in New England failed, resulting instead in a stunning British defeat. At that point, the other major powers in Europe—including Britain’s avowed enemy, France—realized that the Americans could fight, and fight well. Four years after Saratoga, the British suffered a final defeat in North America at the hands of a combined French-and-American force at Yorktown.

Next, Zelensky insisted that the world cannot do without American leadership. He invoked the concept that global security is indivisible, a principle that goes all the way back to the Helsinki Accords of the mid-1970s and that was reaffirmed in the 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe, signed by most European governments as well as the U.S. and Canada—and the then-soon-to-be-extinct Soviet Union. (Whoever wrote this speech didn’t just craft the language well; they did their homework.)

“This battle,” Zelensky warned, “cannot be frozen or postponed.” He continued:

It cannot be ignored, hoping that the ocean or something else will provide a protection. From the United States to China, from Europe to Latin America, and from Africa to Australia, the world is too interconnected and interdependent to allow someone to stay aside and at the same time to feel safe when such a battle continues.

This almost sounds like a paean to globalization, but it is actually a restatement of America’s own Cold War foreign policy. (Indeed, Americans took this to an extreme in the 1950s when then–Secretary of State John Foster Dulles growled that neutrality in the Cold War was “immoral.”)  Despite being better-traveled and more aware of the rest of the world than previous generations, many Americans still think that what happens in faraway places will never touch them. The shock of 9/11 wore off long ago, and traditional American provincialism—along with its toxic by-product, isolationism—has been on the rise, especially in the Republican Party.

Finally, Zelensky reminded us that national security abroad is intrinsic to our well-being at home: “Your well-being,” he said, “is the product of your national security; the result of your struggle for independence and your many victories.” Americans once instinctively understood this reality. After World War II, the United States helped build an international system based on laws, institutions, and trade, on the free movement of human beings and the free exchange of ideas. We did this imperfectly, and sometimes we cruelly violated our own principles. But this system of global cooperation outlasted the Cold War, and it is crucial to our own security and our ever-increasing standard of living.

We have, however, become victims of our own successes. When the Cold War ended, we experienced a new era of peace and plenty. We outsourced anti-terrorist operations and other military dangers to overworked and over-deployed volunteers while the rest of us enjoyed low unemployment and ridiculously cheap credit. We could not imagine a world controlled by our enemies, because we had no real competitors. We were ill-prepared to grasp the reality of a major war raging on NATO’s borders.

Zelensky knows what a world without American leadership looks like: It is a world, as my colleague Anne Applebaum wrote today, in which he and his family are dead, and the Russians are preparing their assault on Poland and the Baltic states. China, seeing Ukraine subjugated and NATO in disarray, might have moved against Taiwan; Iran would likely complete its dash to nuclear status; and every dictatorship on the planet would almost certainly think their day had finally arrived, while from “Washington to London, from Tokyo to Canberra, the democratic world would be grimly facing up to its obsolescence.” Anne’s depiction of what could have happened, and what could still happen if Russia rallies to defeat Ukraine, should be a bracing blast of cold reality to anyone who thinks that America can simply pull up the drawbridges and ignore the global assault on democracy.

In the end, Zelensky made the case that Ukraine is the main front in a global fight. He’s right. Vladimir Putin is counting on America and NATO to tire and to falter. It is up to us to prove him wrong, and to warn the other dictators on the planet that they will never extinguish human liberty while America and its allies in this great battle—including Ukraine—are still standing.


Today’s News
  1. The Senate passed a $1.7 trillion spending bill to avert a partial government shutdown and allocate further aid to Ukraine. The bill now goes to the House for a final vote.
  2. The former FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried was released from custody on a $250 million bond and under the condition that he will remain at home with his parents in California.
  3. This week’s powerful winter storms are causing flight cancellations and delays across the country.


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Evening Read
A family photo split in two. Half is on top of a picture of Caracas. The other half is on top of a solid background.
(Photo Courtesy of Gisela Salim-Peyer; Getty / The Atlantic)

Why I Left Venezuela

By Gisela Salim-Peyer

Migration, I like to tell myself, is the opposite of inertia. I left Venezuela on August 28, 2014. President Hugo Chávez had died the year before, bequeathing power over his dictatorship to his hand-picked successor, Nicolás Maduro. Around this time, supermarket shelves were emptying and resourceful Venezuelans were creating WhatsApp groups to tell one another where to find medicine, toilet paper, flour. Street violence was so common that seemingly everyone knew somebody who had been abducted, if only for a few hours, usually for ransom. (For me, this person was my older sister.) One morning, as I drove to a memorial service for a classmate who had been killed by the police the day before, I realized that I had to leave the country. This student had died in a protest that I had also attended, but it was not fear of death that motivated me. It was the feeling that these protests would subside and accomplish nothing.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break
Television in the center of a room with scenes from "Andor," "The Rings of Power," and "House of the Dragon" flashing onscreen
(Joanne Imperio / The Atlantic; Amazon Studios; Disney+; HBO)

Read. If you could use a change of scenery this holiday season, pick up one of these seven books where the setting exposes the characters.

Watch. Andor, on Disney+, is part of a new generation of bleak fantasy TV—but it also expands into a satisfying symphony of emotions and characters.

Play our daily crossword.


Many of you had some, shall we say, dissenting opinions about my recent views on Christmas music. Mark R., among others, chastised me for neglecting “Fairytale of New York” by the Pogues. (I’m sorry, folks. I might be too old or too stodgy, but I just never liked that one.) A few of you—looking at you, Frank S.—unwisely tried to advocate for “Wonderful Christmastime,” and all I can say is that I dare you to watch the video 50 times on Christmas Eve. Sarah G. asked me how I could exclude the soundtrack of A Charlie Brown Christmas. I didn’t exclude it, Sarah; some art is timeless and needn’t be included in a “best of” list. I want to thank Edmund B. for agreeing with me that the George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol is the best one—and, in fact, it is Charles Dickens I want to talk about before I leave you for the holiday. (This is my last Daily before Christmas; my colleagues will be with you tomorrow, and then we’ll all be back next Tuesday.)

I have come to love A Christmas Carol more over the years because, in its way, it scares me more as I get older. I no longer respond very much to the parts about Scrooge’s lost youth, his failed romance, or his casual cruelty. Instead, I shiver a bit more now at the appearance of Jacob Marley’s ghost (“Business? Mankind was my business!”) and Scrooge’s final plea to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, because they are about sin and a life’s redemption. Marley failed to repent and is doomed to walk the earth. Scrooge finally sees his name on a snowy tombstone and realizes that he, too, is damned. And yet, there is a chance. “Why show me this,” Scrooge cries out, “if I am past all hope?” Looking at the grave, he pleads with the specter before him. “Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”

It is an article of my faith as a Christian that we can all, through repentance and, as Scrooge vows, “an altered life” erase the record before us that seems set in stone. When I was young, that reckoning seemed far away. Now, like Scrooge himself, I am an older man, and the question seems a bit more pressing. And so, on Christmas Eve, I watch the scenes of Scrooge’s salvation with gratitude, rejoicing that we can all share in that same promise of renewal. I have not become “as good a man as the good old city knew,” but every year—every day, really—we all get the chance to try again. May your holiday, if you celebrate, be joyful and blessed, and I’ll see you next week.

— Tom

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.