The people will share the baby
The Ukraine war has produced an extraordinary array of poll numbers from the American people that appear to reflect a gigantic shift in heart. They no longer cared about Ukraine, but suddenly cared a lot about her. At a fundamental level, this reaction reflects an understandable distaste for the horrors of war and anger at the man, Vladimir Putin, who caused it. The public, seeing a mistake before their eyes, has reacted violently. It wants to do something about it.
The ability of popular opinion to change on a dime could be attributed to a change in circumstances, but it is also quite confusing. In a week, the public will be bitching about foreign aid, which they have the most imaginative notions of what it is and where it is going; Over the next week, they sign up for Flavor of the Day in escalating options.
As of early 2021, the benchmark for US military aid to Ukraine was $500 million a year, the number set a year ago by the Atlantic Council as a sort of best case for what it could get through Congress. Now Congress says it will be $13.6 billion, apparently with full public support. That bridge in Ohio? Sorry, we have priorities.
And what are our priorities in Ukraine? First, the United States will help Ukraine defeat Russia. Does that mean a no fly zone? 74 percent of the public, with strong bipartisan support, said they supported it in the poll mentioned above. Pollsters didn’t ask them if they would continue to support it if it led to war with Russia, and they would almost certainly say no if they really understood what it meant. Still, they said, “Yes!” These large numbers strongly demonstrate that the public can be roused to actions that even sober hawks (there are some) consider far too risky.
The same poll showed that 80 percent of the public supported an embargo on Russian oil imports. This was something of a trick question, like the no-fly zone one, since direct US imports of Russian oil make up a fairly small part of the mix (with press estimates ranging from 3 percent to 8 percent). Respondents were not asked how they would feel about oil embargoes if the price of oil reached $300 a barrel. What matters now is that Russian oil “smells of blood,” as Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba put it.
The reality is that Russia occupies an imposing position in the world oil market. For a number of years it vied for the rank of number one producer; in recent years it has brought a whopping seven million barrels a day onto the market. Reducing this contribution, let alone eliminating it, would have a big impact on the price. A wild west of financial gunslingers, the oil market is capable of crazy twists and turns. If oil prices can go negative, as it did in spring 2020, it can also moonshot, as Nickel just did, and as oil did in summer 2008, a forgotten prelude to fall’s gargantuan crash. I don’t make predictions; I claim a rational fear. It stands to reason that most ordinary people would think differently about the compromise when they experienced the consequences of American zeal on the issue.
Something about the American temperament says that the only thing you can do when you hit a bat is make it batter in return. I can imagine accepting this proposal under certain circumstances. But in a broader sense, I think it’s both wrong and unwise. We should not make it the guiding principle of our statecraft.
The reason for this being a moral transgression was beautifully expressed in a letter John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, in the early years of the American Revolutionary War. Throughout “Roman history,” Adams recalled,
Revenge was considered generous and a heroic passion. Nothing was too good for a friend or too bad for an enemy. Hatred and malice without bounds against an enemy were condoned, justified, and no cruelty was deemed unjustified. Our savoir taught the immorality of revenge and the moral duty to forgive injuries and even the duty to love enemies. Nothing can show the amiable, moral, and divine excellence of these Christian teachings in a stronger point of light than the characters and conduct of Marius and Sylla, Caesar, Pompey, Antony, and Augustus, among innumerable others.
One does not have to be a Christian to see that anger and revenge are not the sources of wisdom or morality. No Confucian would say that, nor would the true sages of Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. These are universal moral teachings that oscillate between different religious and moral traditions. We all understand that there are different conceptions of God, if there is a God, among peoples. My idea of God is that when a wise teaching comes from one of these traditions, we should revere it and not inquire too deeply into its epistemological foundations or its ontological status.
Acting out of anger and revenge should be noted was also condemned by realism, the more pessimistic view of human affairs that struggled with idealism over the centuries. The forerunners of this school of thought – the huge catacomb of writers on “reasons of state” especially in the 17th and 18th centuries – called on the princes to cool them down and think them through to the end. They’ve staged exhibition kings who haven’t, whose experience has shown that letting your emotions take over doesn’t work in the long run. Her basic advice was a variation on what Walter Lippmann once said: Pay what you want and only want what you are willing to pay for. Don’t go on wild crusades. Be aware of potential hazards on the road. Think about the consequences before you act.
I find much wisdom in both schools of thought, from the Christian piety of Desiderius Erasmus to the astute insights of Otto von Bismarck, and I hate having to identify with one camp or the other. Does not matter. Neither idealism nor realism seems to describe the attitude of the American people towards Ukraine. They’re just pissed off and want something done about it.
It’s kind of comforting to know we’ve been like this before and managed to survive. George Kennan was not making things up when he described the fickle ways of the “public” in 1950. Speaking at the University of Chicago, he said democracy reminded him of “one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as this room and a brain the size of a pin.” Kennan saw this creature as comfortable in its primeval mud, essentially blind to external stimuli, but once awakened, capable of “lying about with such blind determination that it not only destroys its opponent but largely destroys its native habitat as well.” . Kennan’s warnings about NATO expansion in the 1990s, which is now reaping its poisonous fruits, show once again the trend.
America’s supercharged economic sanctions, its Weapons of Financial Destruction (WFD), will seriously destroy our native habitat, judging by things like a much higher cost of living and much higher unemployment. What do the American people get in trade? Well, they can’t really change the course of the war unless they go to war, which they don’t want to do, so they must hope to “change Putin’s calculations” or oust him from power. And what is the percentage of “gains” when sanctions are directed at major powers? None, zilch, zero point zero. Against lesser powers? There were some successes in the interwar period, but none against recent US adversaries. See North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, Syria, etc.
America can inflict tremendous pain on Russia, as it has done, but its own endurance will soon be tested. It is difficult to predict who will prevail in this fight as the overwhelming reality is that we will all be big losers. But we really shouldn’t be surprised: doing terrible things to other people is the traditional way of dealing with human affairs. They used to call it bloodthirst. Our leaders, led by the neoconservatives, call it Enlightenment.
David Hendrickson is President of the John Quincy Adams Society and author of Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition (Oxford, 2018). His website is davidhendrickson.org.