"If the U.S. and NATO aren't willing to put troops on the line to defend Ukraine, and American allies can't agree on a sanctions package, hasn't the U.S. and the West lost nearly all of its leverage over [Russian President] Vladimir Putin?" asked a reporter of President Biden at his press conference Wednesday before lamenting the ineffectiveness of sanctions.
Translation: The United States has no power to influence events except through military intervention, and if we truly care about something, we'll put our troops on the line. Biden's response didn't much challenge that thinking; he mainly equivocated on how big of a Russian incursion it could take to merit a unified allied reaction.
The question and answer alike illustrate how much of our thinking remains mired in World War II and the Cold War. Every tinpot dictator is compared to Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin, every op-ed analogy involves Neville Chamberlain or unchecked Soviet expansionism. The fights against Nazism and communism were as close as one gets in the real world to black-and-white, good vs. evil conflicts, and we still tend to shove our foreign policy debates into their frameworks decades later.
But even in those battles, there were nuances and complexities — the fireboming of Dresden, the debate over dropping atomic bombs on Japan, the My Lai massacare, and a good bit of Cold War foreign policy in Africa and Central America all come to mind. And, of course, we had to ally with Stalin to defeat Hitler.
The simplified stories we more often tell do little to prepare us for conflicts in which there are no true good guys. This muddled thinking cost the United States much blood and treasure in the Middle East over the past two decades and may lead us to overstate the degree to which Ukraine is a liberal democracy that deserves NATO defense. Putin is certainly a bad guy, but any discussion of the costs and benefits associated with NATO membership for a flawed Ukranian regime should not be dismissed as Russian disinformation.
The United States faces many challenges that cannot be solved by forever wars or clarified by World War II or Cold War analogies. Rediscovering soft power and discarding simple morality tales may be the first steps in meeting them.