You may say that the United States has enough problems of its own. In recent decades, we have intervened in a variety of conflicts around the world, not all of them successfully resolved, not all of them widely deemed legitimate causes. We are facing plenty of challenges at home and on the global scale. Why should we care about what happens to Ukraine, a borderland between the EU and Russia?
Some people in the West seem to be asking this question, whether directly or indirectly. In the face of what has been happening since the forceful annexation of Crimea, the occupation of parts of the Ukrainian Donbas, and now the full-out war against Ukraine, such a question can be answered with an appeal to morality and duty, but that does not always work.
Let’s try a pragmatic answer, which could be as follows: A country’s strength does not only come from within, but also from the allies and friends it has. Joseph Nye has called this “soft power.” The term can sometimes be misleading, because nothing about this kind of power is necessarily soft. Soft power is similar to credit: we exert influence others not (only) because of military or economic hard power coercion, but through the attractiveness of what we have to offer. When appreciated and used correctly, this kind of influence can be stronger than anything historically seen as more substantial.
Putin thinks in classical hard power categories: territory, military, money. None of these are unimportant, and yet, they are fleeting. Every single European country knows this: Only since the dual establishment of both NATO and the European Union and its predecessor has there been lasting peace, and with it, control over national fates within its member states. Trusting others, relying on others, being closely tied to and allied with others creates more security and long-term stability – all important for prosperity and happiness – than traditional demands for national self-reliance and strict national sovereignty. As EU president Ursula von der Leyen explained it a bit more than a year ago, sovereignty in the 21st century looks different than in the past.
All the talk about a lack of unity in the west has proven superficial now. Putin has united NATO and the EU. He has revealed the core weakness of his hard power approach: He may be able to conquer Ukraine. But he will lose most of the credit he may have gained for Russia in the last years. With soft power credit you get influence, you get a force multiplier also of hard power. The United States alone is powerful. Together with its allied nations, within the united West – including member states of all its agreements, including NATO, USMCA, AUKUS and the QUAD, American influence, and the influence of all member states within these associations, is multiplied and easily outpaces all our strategic competitors. It is our alliances, our interdependencies that make us strong. This even applies to our economic interdependence with China: The more connected we are, the more credit we have with each other, the more we benefit. This is important for business, for peace, for each of our lives.
The West’s mistake in the recent decades is that we have lost a lot of credit with failed policies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Vietnam, and many other cases – as well as domestically. We lost because we were not able to live up to our self-proclaimed values. We still have credit with our allies, but we need to restore it. We can still easily make the case that no matter our faults – and there are many – we continue to be the best offer on the planet for peaceful cooperation. Democracy and the free market are success stories, no matter its dictatorial detractors. We may squabble and disagree with each other, but we always come together when it matters.
I grew up in former Communist East Germany. Without the promise of freedom and democracy granted by the United States, our future would have been bleak. After the fall of Soviet Communism, Central and Eastern European were attracted to join the Western alliance and cooperation systems because of their attractiveness. The Ukrainian people have been sharing that hope, and so do many other people around the world, including many Russians.
Supporting Ukraine means, in effect, supporting our belief in the strength of our values. Whether you are a conservative or a liberal, this is a cause for unity. If we stand together now, we demonstrate that we are still a reliable ally for those still believing in democracy and freedom. No matter how complicated our reality is, no matter how flawed we are, the alternative is worse. Do we want to live in a world that sees our values as meaningful, or do you believe we would be better of under someone like Putin? This is the choice. It is not about Ukraine only. It is about us.