By Andreas Kluth / Bloomberg Opinion
More than a year into Russia’s genocidal aggression against Ukraine, ask yourself two simple questions. How might events have unfolded if Donald Trump had still been U.S. president, instead of Joe Biden? And, if the war drags on, what would happen if the White House is recaptured in next year’s election by either Trump or his likely Republican challenger, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis?
The best answer to the first question is that “Ukraine would no longer exist and the Kremlin would have moved on to its next victim.” That’s how Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki put it this week to a German audience at Heidelberg University.
Morawiecki didn’t mention Biden, Trump or DeSantis by name. Instead, in a speech devoted to the future of the European Union, Morawiecki was simply pointing out the obvious: The continent couldn’t and wouldn’t have resisted Russian President Vladimir Putin without American power at its back.
Biden, no matter whether you like him, has indeed had Europe’s back. He’s not only supported Kyiv from the start but also held together NATO and the wider “West.” With this resolve, he’s given the Europeans the cover they need to take their own risks on behalf of Kyiv. When Germany sends battle tanks to Ukraine, for example, it’s only on condition that America does too.
It’s inconceivable that Trump would have done the same. While in office, the 45th American president instead panicked his NATO partners by calling into question the alliance and its mutual-defense clause, and simultaneously carried on a strange political bromance with Putin. Supporting Ukraine and antagonizing Russia is not in America’s national interests, he recently told Tucker Carlson, a right-wing host on Fox News who often channels the Kremlin’s narratives. Trump has instead called Putin’s invasion “genius” and “savvy.”
DeSantis also answered Carlson’s survey; and came off sounding like a mini-Trump. Calling Putin’s imperialist attack and crimes against humanity a “territorial dispute,” DeSantis thinks the U.S. mustn’t become “further entangled”; and, anyway, has other priorities, including drug smuggling across the Mexican border.
Other Republicans’ mouths were agape. They include presidential hopefuls such as Mike Pence, Nikki Haley and Chris Christie, as well as senators such as Mitch McConnell and Tim Scott. Most of them would rather attack Biden for not doing even more to help Ukraine.
Lining up against this pro-Kyiv faction, however, are other Congressional Republicans, much of the party’s pro-Trump MAGA base, and of course its Tucker Carlson fringe. It’s fair to say that the Grand Old Party is split on the issue, and may become more so in the primary season, depending on how the war proceeds.
Traditional Republicans and conservatives will be forgiven for thinking that the universe has flipped upside down. During the Cold War, one of their own, Ronald Reagan, framed the stakes in the struggle against Moscow. Beware, the 40th president said, “the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire.”
It’s that kind of moral purpose and strategic clarity about America’s indispensable global leadership role that Ukrainians, Poles and Balts desperately want to see in Washington, now and beyond 2024. So do many Taiwanese, Japanese, South Koreans and other Asians with a view to China.
Secretly, even Western leaders like France’s Emmanuel Macron are hoping for continued American leadership. Before Putin’s all-out invasion of Ukraine, the French president, like his predecessors in the Elysee Palace, often talked up notions of “European autonomy,” which is code for geopolitical independence from America. But Putin’s atrocities have made clear to everybody that no “European Army” will ever ride to anybody’s defense.
As America’s Republicans get ready for their primaries, they may be tempted to base their preferences on domestic issues, rivalries and resentments. The same happens in other countries.
But the U.S. is not other countries. Few people worry which way Slovenia and Slovakia go. Nor does Kyiv panic when, say, Italy experiments with a right-wing prime minister who governs with two populists who used to make googly eyes at Putin. Yet everybody who believes in democracy takes fright when the West’s only superpower goes wobbly.
Americans in either party or neither must remember this special responsibility. Early in the Cold War, Arthur Vandenberg — a Republican senator working with a Democrat, Harry Truman, in the White House — said that politics must “stop at the water’s edge.” That’s just as pertinent today.
Republicans and Democrats must understand what Europeans like Morawiecki grasp instinctively. The prospects for world order and peace will be decided in large part in Washington, no matter which party is in power. This also means that Ukraine’s survival as an independent nation could hinge on whom the GOP nominates for president.
Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist, he is author of “Hannibal and Me.”
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