In addition to leading his nation’s valiant fight for survival, Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky has rescued President Joe Biden’s stalled agenda in Washington. Biden came into office last year eager to lessen America’s poisonous partisanship at home, and to strengthen the bonds between the world’s democracies overseas, reinvigorating the bulwarks of the postwar neoliberal order that had been so battered during the Trump years – the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the web of Bretton Woods-era financial multilateral organizations. It wasn’t going so well for Biden, until Zelensky (ok, and Putin) stepped in. The Ukraine crisis has even helped advance the Democrats’ narrative that we need to urgently move away from fossil fuels.
Our political culture is still damaged, but in the last month we have seen signs of restoration, and of rationality, a reminder of how in times of existential threat – and the Cold War provided an unnaturally prolonged period of such existential threat – the stakes become too high to turn everything into a cynical political game. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has provided a reset both inside and outside the United States, reintroducing political leaders to core principles and fundamentals. Look at how Poland has suddenly rediscovered why it appreciates being a part of the European Union, or how many Republican senators are rethinking their crush on Putin.
Ukraine’s plight has reintroduced the West to its own values, and the unexpectedly swift and strong reaction to Putin’s invasion – the military aid from countries like Germany that were once wary of antagonizing Moscow, the generous outreach to refugees, the sweeping economic sanctions on the Kremlin, the pullout from Russia of so many Western firms, global sport’s red card to Russia expelling it from any and all competitions, and so on – all have a strong whiff of atonement about them. We are making up for our past lapses, of which there had been so many of late.
Zelensky deserves a great amount of credit for reinvigorating Western democracies. He is an Everyman Churchill, simultaneously shaming and inspiring Western nations witnessing his country’s struggle. His people, too, have produced such compelling testimony. I can’t watch 10 minutes of news without a reporter stumbling on an incredibly eloquent, courageous ordinary Ukrainian citizen, who breaks my heart in fluent English. It is like the entire country underwent intense media training on the eve of the invasion.
This is a fraught moment for the West. We are reinvigorated, yes, and rightly helping the embattled people of Ukraine in their heroic fight against the odious dictator in Moscow, who has defied every civilized norm with his invasion. But President Biden and other Western leaders need to walk a fine line that is hard to navigate in this age of social media and empathetic immediacy. It is hard to imagine a more sympathetic and admirable victim to the aggression of Russian bullying than Zelensky and his people – a victim more deserving of our full support, or a victim more adept at pressing us for that support. And yet Biden and other NATO leaders can’t go all in, deploying military force on humanitarian grounds as we did in the Balkans in the 1990s. The alliance has denied Zelensky his requests for a no-fly zone and other actions that would amount to a direct conflict between the world’s two nuclear superpowers. This is a tough modulation to pull off in an emotionally charged atmosphere, when the clamor to do more mounts with every day, with every horrendous image of Ukrainian suffering and every impassioned plea for NATO to put a stop to it.
If you haven’t already, check out the Servant of the People series that launched Zelensky’s political campaign, and is currently available on Netflix. A comedic actor, Zelensky was cast as a high school teacher who becomes Ukraine’s improbable president. In my favorite scene in the pilot, when he is still teaching history in school, he rails against the school’s administrators for always prioritizing math over history, saying the country is screwed up because it is led by people who were not encouraged enough to study history.
That hit close to home, because Western leaders’ historical illiteracy is partly to blame for Ukraine’s predicament. The cynical pursuit of NATO expansion in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War helped destroy Russia’s fledgling liberalism, created Putinist irredentism, and left Ukraine exposed, alone on the other side of a line separating it from the likes of Poland and the Baltic states. Any wise high school teacher like the one Zelensky plays on Servant of the People can enumerate all the reasons Ukraine should never have been considered for NATO membership, and yet we have long engaged with this dangerous flirtation which made the Ukrainian people more vulnerable to attack. For decades, the NATO expansionist lobby in Washington has existed in a kind of symbiotic relationship with Putin, not unlike the longstanding symbiotic relationship between the Cuban-American exile community in Florida and the Castro regime in Havana. They have been dependent on each other.
That history is important to understand and learn from, but it doesn’t excuse Putin’s evil (there really is no word for it) behavior or mean that it is too late for us to avoid doing the right thing. And so, while the West has to modulate its military response to avoid a potentially nuclear world war, the unequivocal support for Ukraine and condemnation of Russia’s invasion, and all the sanctions to make Russia pay for its behavior, are not only necessary and appropriate, but heartening.
Sadly, though, this response has not been universal. If Russia’s invasion has reminded many countries of their commitment to democracy and human rights, and the importance of collective action in pursuit of these values, plenty of other countries, Mexico among them, seem to be rediscovering their Cold War fetishization of non-alignment, above all other principles. This week Mexicans celebrate Benito Juárez, the 19th Century liberal reformer whose axiom that a respect for the rights of others equals peace provides the guiding light of Mexican foreign policy. But it is an axiom that has been twisted beyond its moral moorings, as evidenced by Mexico’s reluctance to join the United States and Europe in imposing sanctions on Moscow. I would love it if Zelensky and Juárez could be linked via Zoom, and I am guessing that if they were, Juárez might convey that Ukrainians’ right to live in peace and not be bombed by Russian forces trumps Russia’s right to bomb its neighboring country. Non-alignment is nonsense in such a scenario, and for the vital US-Mexico relationship, the re-adoption of Cold War mindsets could be further collateral damage of Putin’s invasion, if Mexico’s government doesn’t reverse course soon.
* Andrés Martínez is a professor of practice in the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and the editorial director of Future Tense, a Washington, D.C.-based ideas journalism partnership between ASU, Slate magazine, and New America. Twitter: @AndresDCmtz