It may seem hyperbole to suggest that the fate of Ukraine will determine the fate of the US, at least in terms of its position as a world power. It seems inconceivable to those with their hands on the levers of decision-making in Congress that Ukraine – a financially, militarily and geographically smaller nation than the US – might quietly hold sway over the future of the US.

But that is the situation we are in. The reason for this is not some secret form of potency that Ukraine has over the US. It lies in the domain of soft power.

It is the perennial failure of dominant nations, and often their denouement, to underestimate the importance of their unseen influence in the authority they command. The US projects an image of a nation with a commitment to the defense of democratic nations. It’s not unusual to hear it described as the leader of the free world.

Advertisement

That image is the product of decades of work, not least forged in the fire of the post-World War II order which saw the US claim the baton of western might from the British and stride ahead in leading the assembly of new international institutions, from the UN to NATO.

This transition was not merely the product of material and military strength, but the moral courage of a nation that had provided the means to defeat the worst horrors of tyranny and had the confidence to declare its intention to shape the world anew and for the better.

That leadership has been remarkably successful. It has ring-fenced a domain within which the freedoms of accountable government have flourished and individuals themselves have been able to enjoy the benefits of peace and dignity.

Long-Awaited US Military Aid No 'Silver Bullet' For Ukraine
Other Topics of Interest

Long-Awaited US Military Aid No 'Silver Bullet' For Ukraine

As weapons and ammunition are rushed to the country, other issues such as manpower shortages in Kyiv's struggling military have come to the fore.

In the UK, I belong to a generation that neither had to go to war nor do compulsory military service – a possibility denied to my father and especially to my grandfather who was discharged after being gassed in the trenches of France. That pacific existence has in no small part rested on US strength across the West.

As with an individual, reputation takes momentous efforts to build, but it can be extinguished in an instant.

Advertisement

A defining moment for all the wrong reasons

It cannot be over-exaggerated what the consequences of the US’s decision to flee the Ukrainian battlefield in the moment of crisis will be, but it is surely to be catastrophic. On the purely reputational level, this failure to step up will be remembered as a defining moment of regress. For those who would like to believe that the US is a power in decline, morally and in terms of its capacity for captaincy, this will confirm their view.

It is likely that the hesitation of the US will embolden autocracies around the world to make moves, leading to new conflicts and confrontations from Europe to Asia and the Middle East. These challenges will not be countered by the fact of US military might and its scope, they will be caused by a mere perception of US debility.

In consequence, military alliances, safeguards, and processes will mutate and mold themselves to a world in which it is assumed that the US cannot be relied upon as a partner and friend. In the best case, it means that the US cannot expect allies to show a great deal of enthusiasm for reciprocal aid in times of need. In the worst case, nations will begin to pursue their own nuclear weapons programs as the umbrella of US friendship pulls apart at the seams. Far more worrying are the unknowable and unpredictable alliances and responses that will make themselves felt in a world lacking US leadership.

Advertisement

More specifically, the US would forfeit the near unanimous type of camaraderie that the world displayed after 9/11. Ukraine itself did not hesitate to stand by the US in that moment of calamity.

Threat to freedom itself

Perhaps the greatest danger is to the wider environment for liberty. Free societies rest on foundations of persuasive ideas rooted in concepts of justice, the dignity of the individual, the accountability of state power, not on blind force.

For these societies to prevail requires, in a real sense, much stronger leadership than dictatorships. As leaders cannot rely on militias and the power of terror, they must lead with the conviction of the ideas of freedom. This demands a much richer and principled form of personality, which is why a Pericles is more inspiring than a Spartan autocrat; and a Churchill more than a Hitler. It is not only in their deeds that we make our assessment, but in the force of their rectitude and what they stood for that defines the soft power of free states.

Advertisement

Today, Kaja Kallas is one leader who has consistently, from the beginning of this war, elaborated on the need to defend Ukraine and the consequences of inaction. The US has often been frustratingly lacking in statements of political and global principle or strategic clarity. This perceived lack of resolve encourages the corrosive elements to prevail. Under an Eisenhower or a Reagan, where would a Mike Johnson be? I suspect nowhere to be seen. The candor and force of character of these individuals would simply have evaporated Congressional indecision in its heated glare.

Beyond the US, the decisions of allies are enfeebled. Germany applauded in 1987 when Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate next to that infamous wall and demanded that Gorbachev “tear down this wall!”

It is noteworthy that many of Reagan’s advisors suggested he remove his invocation in case it inflamed or escalated tensions with the Soviet Union. He declined the suggestion. The speech is now a memorable flag on the road to Eastern European freedom. Today, Germany vacillates over Ukraine partly because the US is reticent to lead from the front.

It is galling that Republicans, the heirs of the great traditions of American democracy, individualism and economic liberty, are now the ones who assail the global implications of these values. Watching them from outside the US debating Ukraine is like observing a group of schoolchildren standing next to a burning ice cream truck arguing about what flavor of popsicle to buy. The spectacle would be depressing if it wasn’t for the fact that it strays into incompetence and cowardice when the fate of a nation and her people is at stake.

Advertisement

The US isn’t obligated to provide this leadership. There is no international agreement that insists that the US must be the pinnacle of the free world. The point is, rather. whether the US wants to retain this position of responsibility or whether the baton of freedom must be passed on once more.

The problem right now is that there is no strong hand to seize the baton, although Europe seems finally, after two years of war, to be waking to the menace. The reality is that the free world needs the US, and, if the US wishes to remain a presence to be taken seriously, it needs to stand with the free world.

US lawmakers and politicians should not underestimate the portent and significance of Ukraine. In her lands, the future of the US as a world power must surely be decided. In its turn, the destiny of the soft power of the US will determine whether the idea of a free world survives intact at all, or whether we must return to a world of unpredictable chaos from which new arrangements of autocracy and discord emerge.

Advertisement

Charles Cockell is Professor of Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh.

The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.

To suggest a correction or clarification, write to us here
You can also highlight the text and press Ctrl + Enter

Comments (4)

https://www.kyivpost.com/assets/images/author.png
Incredulousiconoclast
This comment contains spoilers. Click here if you want to read.

From each according to our ability, right Comrade?

Thomas
This comment contains spoilers. Click here if you want to read.

@Incredulousiconoclast, thank you for pointing out what should be obvious, John from Canada is a scumbag troll.

https://www.kyivpost.com/assets/images/author.png
https://www.kyivpost.com/assets/images/author.png
Incredulousiconoclast
This comment contains spoilers. Click here if you want to read.

"The US isn’t obligated to provide this leadership. There is no international agreement that insists that the US must be the pinnacle of the free world."

Damn straight, limey. Yet how convenient for you, to feel such a sense of entitlement to American largesse: I suppose this means you'll be paying off the trillions in national debt run up by these occupiers in DC, who never asked anyone for the power to build a global empire in our name, just went ahead and did it and then tried to stick ordinary Americans with the bill?

Guard your own freedoms, free world. America has done more than enough, and it is leading our own country and people to the brink of catastrophic failure. But of course you don't give a damn about us, ordinary Americans, do you? Why should you, when all you're after is the strong arm of the same gangsters who have nearly run my country aground? The benefits to Americans of this 'leadership' you so pathetically require add up to precisely ZERO, and it has to stop.

John
This comment contains spoilers. Click here if you want to read.

@Incredulousiconoclast,

Did you you know the USA arms sales to their allies were up 56% last year to a record breaking $238 billion? In its WWII role as the arsenal of democracy the USA actually raised its GDP overall by 0.73%. Economically a profit, but never a justification for loss of life.

So far the USA has donated about $42.2 billion in its mostly old stock weapons to Ukraine. The remainder of its total 67.7 billion support is primarily financial (bonds, loans, donations) to keep Ukraine's afloat and relieve humanitarian strain. Its all greatly appreciated. In total based on its GDP % contribution the USA's aid ranks it in 32nd place. The UK is ranked in 21st place by the way. That data is only current though to January 15th and since then the donations of the USA's allies has outpaced their own.

For the amount it has invested the ROI, in derisking its own russian threat has been phenomenal. The USA has been under hybrid war attack by putin's regime these last 2 decades. Since WWII, russia has always been at war with the USA. The allied support of Ukraine has been a huge allied success story from a threat derisking standpoint. If Russian assets are used to finance Ukraines' need, our costs might actually drop to zero. Ukraine's loss off life (had russia not attacked, or our response been firmer) can never be made whole though.

Given the above what % GDP do you thing would be a fair contribution for the USA to make?

Incredulousiconoclast
This comment contains spoilers. Click here if you want to read.

@John, tell ya what: when power is seized from the governor of Texas and a new contested international border slices my home town clean in half in the OK/TX panhandles, you and your meaningless little statistics can come to town and explain how Article Five now means that troops from North Macedonia and Portugal will be along any day now to defend American territorial integrity. Only commensurate with their GDP, mind you. Maybe Sweden and Finland can lend a hand too. From each according to their ability and all that.

John
This comment contains spoilers. Click here if you want to read.

@Incredulousiconoclast,

Sounds like the type of tremendously unrealistic, overblown fear mongering MRGA trolls use. The USA is not going to lose any territory because of its refugee surge.

So tell us how you feel about putin's hybrid war against the USA?Besides directly stealing or shutting down USA resources and sowing dissent over the internet / media, they intentionally create social chaos in Africa, Asia, South and Central America that funnels refugees towards westerns allied borders......Italy, Poland, Estonia, Finland, USA, Turkey and a slew of other allied countries have faced similar destabilizing refugee surges. Putin knows he can get away with this type of war without repercussion......the bill is all ours.

So now we finally have a chance give his regime the military failure it would take to topple his foul leadership. He can;;t rule without a strong military. Do you not see the advantage of sharing the cost in taking out the cause of the apparent border issues you seem most concerned with?

Also the only time article 5 was triggered was after 9/11 by the USA government for taking out Al Quaeda in Afghanistan and all allies fulfilled their NATO obligations by militarily supporting the USA's war there.

Are you actually okay with what putin has done or just don't think it's your concern?

Incredulousiconoclast
This comment contains spoilers. Click here if you want to read.

@John, speaking of trolling, it seems what this 'John' persona is programmed to do is monitor all of the comments on 'Ukraine's Global Voice' (which speaks in an unmistakably American dialect) in order to swoop down on any posts contradicting The Slava-Ukraine/Pentagon Party Line and try to drown them in stats and US foreign-policy talking points in the assumption that commenters will get discouraged and desist. Well done, your programmers have designed you well. Thanks to them, like with most comments sections of late, this one is not worth contributing to either, not if I'm to be accosted by some smartass robot working for NSA every time I try.

John
This comment contains spoilers. Click here if you want to read.

@Incredulousiconoclast, Well I'm flattered.

I never imagined a modest Canadian volunteer, in solely their spare time, could have such impact while supporting such a great cause. Your words are invigorating!

Thank goodness for unlimited high speed internet and free access to its easily referenced wealth of knowledge.

Now that I know the impact on MRGA trolls trying to dismantle allied democracies, I will do more to continue my support of Ukraine.

Take note Ukraine supporters....your work here and elsewhere is impactful!

https://www.kyivpost.com/assets/images/author.png
https://www.kyivpost.com/assets/images/author.png
https://www.kyivpost.com/assets/images/author.png
https://www.kyivpost.com/assets/images/author.png
John
This comment contains spoilers. Click here if you want to read.

I like the point made that while a dictator rules by spreading hate, fear and violence; democractic leader must inspire and unite under a legal model of personal freedom. This demands a much more ethical and principled form of personality.

The author also raises a fair question if under stronger democratic leadership, in an era of increased threat from foreign autocracy, would house speakers like Mike Johnson exist? I'd extend that why the question of would any MRGA member be allowed to hold positions of power in the USA?

I also agree with the risk raised as the reliability of the leading democratic nuclear power wains. As the author predicts "nations will begin to pursue their own nuclear weapons programs ".

Ukraine is not controlling any country other than its own. However it's courageous fight to protect its own democracy, should be awakening fellow democracies of the importance of what they once fought to gain. The threats against democracy have never been greater. We must stand united.

https://www.kyivpost.com/assets/images/author.png
jepsap
This comment contains spoilers. Click here if you want to read.

I agree with all said except "Ukraine – ... might quietly hold sway over the future of the US."

It is selfish US politicians that are the cause of disgraceful US inaction NOT Ukraine.

https://www.kyivpost.com/assets/images/author.png