Sitting in my comfortable suburban Philadelphia home, watching horrific events unfold half a world away in Ukraine while protected by the most powerful military the world has ever known, I feel overwhelmed with sadness. Yes, of course, for the suffering and shattered aspirations of the Ukrainian people. But even more so for the sense that nothing significant can be done about it.
Sure, we've imposed some sanctions, and we're bound to impose some more. But does anyone really believe this will make a meaningful difference to Vladimir Putin's decision-making? Since Europeans are currently debating whether to grant Italy's request for a sanctions carve-out for luxury goods, forgive me for considering it unlikely.
Others propose to send weapons to Ukraine so they can wage an insurgency against what is bound to be either a Russian occupation or puppet regime installed in Kyiv. But I have questions. Like whether Putin will consider such an effort an act of war by NATO. (He certainly will.) And whether this would prompt him to attack military supply routes within a NATO country (most likely Poland), leading to a vastly broader war. (He just might.) And whether the European Union will have the stomach for setting in motion anything remotely like such a sequence of events. (They definitely won't.)
And anyway, should we even be encouraging a Ukrainian insurgency against Russia? Would it have any chance of success? Wouldn't it be more likely to provoke a truly brutal Russian response? I don't know about you, but I feel a little squeamish about advocating such a living hell for other people from the comfort of my American home office. As Thucydides put it millennia ago, "the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must." Russia is strong and Ukraine is weak. Denying that reality isn't going to change it. It might actually increase the sum total of human misery.
And that leaves me feeling more than a little demoralized.
The fact of the matter is that what we are living through is the brutal end of the unipolar moment — that blink of an eye in the scheme of world history when the collapse of the Soviet Union left the United States as the world's most powerful nation bar none. Analysts have talked for years about the coming of a multipolar moment in which regional powers would challenge our primacy, and that moment has now arrived in Russia's near abroad. It will soon be extended in the South China Sea.
It will take a long time to gauge precisely what this geopolitical shift will mean for us and for the rest of the world. But we can already sense what it implies for those Americans who desperately, and understandably, long to fight the unfolding injustice in Ukraine. It implies a future of demoralized frustration as the world is forced to stand back and behold a searing demonstration of the limits of American power.