The crisis provoked by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine begs fundamental questions about the future of the United States’ global leadership.
U.S. President Joe Biden has been making laudable efforts to help Ukraine resist the Russian invasion and consolidate the Atlantic alliance in the face of the threat that looms over the old continent.
On the military front, he has done well so far, thanks to the fighting spirit of the Ukrainian people and the remarkable solidarity of European allies. On the political front, things are trickier, and the challenges over the long term are considerable.
Why Is Ukraine Resisting?
It is not difficult to understand why the Ukrainians are so fiercely resisting the Russian invasion. It is not because they wish to swap enslavement to Russian military dominance for its Yankee equivalent.
It is not because they wish to become a franchise of the capitalist American empire. It is because they want to remain masters in their own homes and establish their own democratic rule of law.
If the Ukrainians, like the other Europeans (and Canadians), are willing to follow the leadership of the all-powerful American giant, it is not merely out of strategic or economic opportunism. Politics are a big part of it.
The Pillars of Leadership
What are the foundations of the United States’ international political leadership? Obviously, military strength and economic power are essential, for in the absence of a world government to enforce the rules of the system, one must have the means to back up one’s ambitions.
Since the end of World War II, the two political pillars of the U.S.’s global leadership have been its support for multilateralism and the example it provides through its own attachment to democracy and the rule of law.
And in a country where one of the two big political parties is still in the grip of Trumpism, that is where the issue lies.
The Real Challenge
The difficulties encountered by America and its allies in bringing the rest of the world to condemn the Russian aggression are an indicator of this deficit in political leadership.
Can the world believe the appeals to defend multilateralism coming from a country that has entrenched itself into unilateralism during the Donald Trump years? Can we believe in the appeals to enforce international criminal law from a country that refuses to submit itself to it?
Can the world believe in the democratic exemplarity of a country where one of the two major parties refuses to accept the legitimacy of the election of a president from the opposing party and strives to restrict the voting rights of those social groups that are not automatically won to its cause?
For the Ukrainians, the ideal of democracy is tied to a European vision of identity, but the endurance of democratic values in Europe is not guaranteed. One only has to note how the populist authoritarian far-right has settled into power in Hungary and is now knocking on the door of the French Elysee Palace … with Vladimir Putin’s blessing.
The Ukrainians are making the ultimate sacrifice for these ideals because the alternative is the Russian boot resting on their necks. As for the Americans, things are not so clear.
In the elections of 2022 and 2024, they will be more preoccupied with the cost of a full tank of gas for their trucks than with the stability of America’s global status and the democratic model that previous generations have bequeathed to them. Therein lies the real challenge to the United States’ global leadership.