LONDON — Here’s a surprising fact: At a time when Americans can’t agree on virtually anything, there’s been a consistent majority in favor of giving generous economic and military aid to Ukraine in its fight against Vladimir Putin’s effort to wipe it off the map. It’s doubly surprising when you consider that most Americans couldn’t find Ukraine on a map just a few months ago, as it’s a country with which we’ve never had a special relationship.
Sustaining that support through this summer, though, will be doubly important as the Ukraine war settles into a kind of “sumo” phase — two giant wrestlers, each trying to throw the other out of the ring, but neither willing to quit or able to win.
While I expect some erosion as people grasp how much this war is driving up global energy and food prices, I’m still hopeful that a majority of Americans will hang in there until Ukraine can recover its sovereignty militarily or strike a decent peace deal with Putin. My near-term optimism doesn’t derive from reading polls, but reading history — in particular, Michael Mandelbaum’s new book, “The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower.”
Mandelbaum, professor emeritus of U.S. foreign policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (we co-wrote a book in 2011), argues that while U.S. attitudes toward Ukraine may seem utterly unexpected and novel, they are not. Looked at through the sweep of U.S. foreign policy — which his book compellingly chronicles through the lens of the four different power relationships America has had with the world — they’re actually quite familiar and foreseeable. Indeed, so much so that both Putin and China’s president, Xi Jinping, would both benefit from reading this book.
Throughout U.S. history, our nation has oscillated between two broad approaches to foreign policy, Mandelbaum explained in an interview, echoing a key theme in his book: “One emphasizes power, national interest and security and is associated with Theodore Roosevelt. The other stresses the promotion of American values and is identified with Woodrow Wilson.”
While these two world views were often in competition, that was not always the case. And when a foreign policy challenge came along that was in harmony with both our interests and our values, it hit the sweet spot and could command broad, deep and lasting public support.
“This happened in World War II and the Cold War,” Mandelbaum noted, “and it appears to be happening again with Ukraine.”
But the big, big question is: For how long? Nobody knows, because wars follow both predictable and unpredictable paths.
The predictable one regarding Ukraine is that as the costs rise there will be rising dissent — either in America or among our European allies — arguing that our interests and values have gotten out of balance in Ukraine. They will argue that we can neither economically afford to support Ukraine to the point of total victory — i.e., evicting Putin’s army from every inch of Ukraine — nor strategically afford to go for total victory, because faced with total defeat Putin could unleash a nuclear weapon.
One can already see signs of this in the statement by President Emmanuel Macron of France on Saturday that the Western alliance must “not humiliate Russia” — a statement that elicited howls of protest from Ukraine.
“Every war in American history has provoked dissent, including the Revolutionary War, when those who were opposed moved to Canada,” explained Mandelbaum. “What our three greatest commanders in chief — Washington, Lincoln and F.D.R. — all had in common as wartime presidents was their ability to keep the country committed to winning the war, despite the dissent.”
That will be President Biden’s challenge, too, especially when there is no consensus among the allies or with Ukraine on what “winning” there looks like: Is it the achievement of Kyiv’s currently stated goal of recovering every inch of its territory occupied by Russia? Is it enabling Ukraine, with the help of NATO, to deliver such a blow to the Russian Army that Putin is forced into a compromise deal that still leaves him holding some territory? And what if Putin decides he never wants any compromise — and instead wants Ukraine to endure a slow and painful death?
In two of the most important wars in our history, the Civil War and World War II, Mandelbaum said, “our goal was total victory over the enemy. The problem for Biden and our allies is that we cannot aim for total victory over Putin’s Russia, because that could trigger a nuclear war — yet something like total victory may be the only way to stop Putin from just bleeding Ukraine forever.”
Which brings us to the unpredictable: After more than 100 days of fighting, no one can tell you how this war ends. It was started in Putin’s head, and it will likely end only when Putin says he wants it to end. Putin probably feels that he’s calling all the shots and that time is on his side, because he can take more pain than Western democracies. But big wars are strange things. However they start, they can end in totally unpredicted ways.
Let me offer an example via one of Mandelbaum’s favorite quotes. It is from Winston Churchill’s biography of his great ancestor the Duke of Marlborough, published in the 1930s: “Great battles, won or lost, change the entire course of events, create new standards of values, new moods, new atmospheres, in armies and in nations, to which all must conform.”
Churchill’s point, Mandelbaum has argued, was that “wars can change the course of history and great battles often decide wars. The battle between Russia and Ukraine for control of the area in eastern Ukraine known as the Donbas has the potential to be such a battle.”
In more ways than one. The 27 nations of the European Union, our key ally, are actually