World Must Not Cede Russia ‘Sphere Of Interest’

I have long self-described as an internationalist when it comes to my views about the role the United States needs to undertake around the globe in conjunction with other nations. I strongly view the footprint of the United States as a needed tool to further not only our interests but equally important the needs and desires of other people.

One of the deeper reasons for my rejection of Donald Trump was the result of his not being aware of, or showing any interest in our legitimate and needed role on the world stage. Not having been in any way engaged with international affairs as it relates to governing left him prattling nationalistic rhetoric and doing substantial damage to our national image and policy aims.

That came to mind, again, when reading the latest from Robert Kagan, someone I try to follow when new columns are published. He is an American neoconservative scholar and a leading advocate of liberal interventionism. His The Price of Hegemony in Foreign Affairs was illuminating and thought-provoking. These lines below summed up my views from 2017-until Jan 20th, 2021, relating as it did to what Trump did not know, or care to learn.

For the 70-plus years since World War II, the United States has actively worked to keep revisionists at bay. But many Americans hoped that with the end of the Cold War, this task would be finished and that their country could become a “normal” nation with normal—which was to say, limited—global interests. But the global hegemon cannot tiptoe off the stage, as much as it might wish to. It especially cannot retreat when there are still major powers that, because of their history and sense of self, cannot give up old geopolitical ambitions—unless Americans are prepared to live in a world shaped and defined by those ambitions, as it was in the 1930s.

One of the complaints I have with those who shy away from grasping the role the U.S. must continue to play around the world, is the way they lament how ‘rough’ the West was on the defeated remnant of the old U.S.S.R. The facts prove, of course, that the West did not bluster or threaten, provoke or prod Russia. Instead, the various peoples of the former Soviet Union, when given a chance to make their own way in the world, looked West.

Kagan demolishes the idea that Russia should be allowed to think they have been granted a sphere of interest, based on history. A flawed notion President Putin tries to stand upon.

The problem for Putin—and for those in the West who want to cede to both China and Russia their traditional spheres of interest—is that such spheres are not granted to one great power by other great powers; they are not inherited, nor are they created by geography or history or “tradition.” They are acquired by economic, political, and military power. They come and go as the distribution of power in the international system fluctuates. The United Kingdom’s sphere of interest once covered much of the globe, and France once enjoyed spheres of interest in Southeast Asia and much of Africa and the Middle East. Both lost them, partly due to an unfavorable shift of power at the beginning of the twentieth century, partly because their imperial subjects rebelled, and partly because they willingly traded in their spheres of interest for a stable and prosperous U.S.-dominated peace. Germany’s sphere of interest once extended far to the east. Before World War I, some Germans envisioned a vast economic Mitteleuropa, where the people of central and eastern Europe would provide the labor, resources, and markets for German industry. But this German sphere of interest overlapped with Russia’s sphere of interest in southeastern Europe, where Slavic populations looked to Moscow for protection against Teutonic expansion. These contested spheres helped produce both world wars, just as the contested spheres in East Asia had helped bring Japan and Russia to blows in 1904. 

Russians may believe they have a natural, geographic, and historical claim to a sphere of interest in eastern Europe because they had it throughout much of the past four centuries. And many Chinese feel the same way about East Asia, which they once dominated. But even the Americans learned that claiming a sphere of interest is different from having one. For the first century of the United States’ existence, the Monroe Doctrine was a mere assertion—as hollow as it was brazen. It was only toward the end of the nineteenth century, when the country was able to enforce its claim, that the other great powers were grudgingly forced to accept it. After the Cold War, Putin and other Russians may have wanted the West to grant Moscow a sphere of interest in Europe, but such a sphere simply did not reflect the true balance of power after the Soviet Union fell. China may claim the “nine-dash line”—enclosing most of the South China Sea—as marking its sphere of interest, but until Beijing can enforce it, other powers are unlikely to acquiesce. 

A most worthy article that deserves to be read in full.

NATO Proves Why Intelligent Leadership In White House Matters

One of the driving reasons for my support of Joe Biden for president in 2020 was the requirement of our nation to again lead the world community. I was alarmed at the willful undermining of international alliances during the Donald Trump administration. Decades of work and cooperation that buttressed America’s needs and created working relationships for international order were at stake.

It has almost been a whiplash period between the narcissistic threat from Trump in 2018 about the United States withdrawing from NATO to the recent barbaric atrocities being committed by Russian President Putin in Ukraine. From Trump telling his top national security officials that he did not see the point of the military alliance, to the news this past week that Finland, which shares an 830-mile border with Russia, is “highly likely” to join NATO.

Clearly, even Trump can now see the value and purpose of the military alliance. Even if it is being used with a high degree of success against the one person he can never say a cross word about.

It is hard not to smile about Russia’s disdain for having NATO members on its borders. If they thought they were being hemmed in prior to the genocide in Ukraine, they will really feel the squeeze should Finland and Sweden pursue the option of membership in the alliance.

Given the rash actions from Russia, and utter disregard for international law and norms there is every reason to consider that Sweden’s famous political neutrality could end up being, well, not so neutral. Today, neither Finland nor Sweden is considered to be in immediate military danger. But one does not make alliances for the present conditions, but rather bonds together and looks ahead to the potential dangers of the future.

Russia has a history of addiction to conquest and savagery. The Ukraine invasion, however, has proved thus far, the limits concerning the whims of an autocrat. Putin has made a colossal mistake. Instead of weakening NATO, Putin has actually strengthened his foe.

Autocrats prattle about how democracy is not the way for nations to grow and prosper. Actions from Hungary to Brazil have left many worldwide rightly concerned about the condition of democracy. China has challenged democratic tendencies in places like Hong Kong, while we know all too well that Russia will do anything for wistful memories of an empire.

Meanwhile, many others in the world are finding a new resolve to adhere to alliances and the values of freedom. Those matters are not relics. The fact that only a few years ago some were even willing to let NATO drift and flounder is proof why having a delusional and populist-nationalist in the White House is not only bad for America, but also the world.

And so it goes.

How To Excite Students About History

Some years ago, I tutored a high school student in history for one semester. We were starting with the Articles of Confederation and the War for Independence on this side of the pond. He truly was not interested in ‘those dead men’ and looking at his textbook I could not argue that the writing was tortured and not aimed to excite a young mind.

Enter my favorite Founding Father.

I brought some copied pages from a book that told the story of the morning Alexander Hamilton and Arron Burr met for a duel that killed one and ravaged the reputation of another. I added the slice of trivia about how Dolly Madison and Hamilton’s widow, Elizabeth Hamilton, waved from carriages at the celebration when the cornerstone of the Washington Monument was put in place.

Bit by bit over the weeks I supplemented the staid textbook with the richer and more colorful aspects of the lives of the ones he was to learn about for classroom discussion. While I am sure the student did not become a history major, I know he passed that class.

Using outside sources to aid in teaching history would seem to be essential for teachers, as I can not imagine the school textbooks have improved to the point where they are engaging for students. Recently that thought came to mind when reading Russian history. (If you think teaching American history is tough—ponder Russian history from the early 1700s!)

Over the decades the caliber of historical writing has grown along with easier ways to research the past. Using the outcomes of such advancements in the classroom (even with the restriction on copyrights) can go a long way in creating the context for students to ‘see the past’, and better understand why it matters.

From The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

President Biden Said What World Knows To Be True: Democracy Matters

President Biden addressed the 800-pond gorilla sitting in the international living room this weekend. While he was talking about Russian aggression against Ukraine, and spoke most candidly (and correctly) about the future of President Putin, it was his clarion call for democracy that rightly stirred people worldwide.

The last point is one I have persistently addressed over the years. The United States must reassert itself not only with our military and economic might, but also with our ideals.

(Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

We sometimes take for granted the role of a president, regardless of which party holds the office. It seems old-fashioned, perhaps, for younger generations to see our leader stand on the world stage and preach the values of democracy. But this weekend, on every television screen around the globe our President was seen speaking about the serious worldwide battle of democracy versus dictatorship, freedom versus authoritarianism, and human rights versus oppression.

(Somewhere Allen Drury is surely smiling.)

There was no way not to be pleased and reassured over the past days as Biden traveled to Europe and proved the value of again having a truly powerful and passionate champion of democracy speaking for the global community. It does feel good, even in these truly horrible weeks as Ukraine has been invaded, to see our nation in a leadership role.

Biden made the point learned from history.

….Ten years later, the Soviet Union collapsed and Poland and Central and Eastern Europe would soon be free. Nothing about that battle for freedom was simple or easy. It was a long, painful slog. Fought over not days and months but years and decades. But we emerged anew in the great battle for freedom. A battle between democracy and autocracy. Between liberty and repression. Between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force. In this battle, we need to be clear-eyed. This battle will not be won in days or months either. We need to steel ourselves of a long fight ahead.

Autocrats prattle about how democracy is not the way for nations to grow and prosper. Actions from Hungary to Brazil have left many worldwide rightly concerned about the condition of democracy. China has challenged democratic tendencies in places like Hong Kong, while we know all too well that Russia will do anything for wistful memories of an empire.

Meanwhile, many others in the world are finding a new resolve to adhere to alliances and the values of freedom. So those matters are not relics, to be left gathering dust? Was it not only a few years ago some were even willing to let NATO drift and flounder?

The world looks at the bottom line and knows the value of free markets where the United States and Europe, combined, have $40 trillion of GDP as opposed to Russia eking out just over $1 trillion in GDP. The data shows the power of working democracies.

When watching Biden on Saturday, I will readily admit, to some goosebumps as his words struck historic themes and also again demonstrated the role I have so long wanted my country to take. I firmly believe in an internationalist mindset where we connect with other countries to foster united solutions. The firming up of our international institutions is imperative. And our resolve to demonstrate an ability to be the leader of the world is without question the first priority.

I have continually stated our nation can meet the test of democracy around the world if we meet the challenges with leadership and intellect.  We did that very thing this weekend.

In my own country, a former president named Abraham Lincoln voiced the opposing spirit to save our union in the midst of the Civil War. He said let us have faith that right makes might. Right makes might. Today, let us have that faith again. [Applause] Let us resolve to put the strength of democracies into action to thwart the designs of autocracy.

And finally, most urgently, we maintain absolute unity, we must, among the world’s democracies. It’s not enough to speak with rhetorical flourish of ennobling words of democracy, of freedom, of quality, and liberty. All of us, including here in Poland, must do the hard work of democracy each and every day — my country as well. That’s why [applause], that’s why I came to Europe again this week with a clear and determined message for NATO, for the G7, for the European Union, for all freedom-loving nations — we must commit now to be in this fight for the long haul. We must remain unified today and tomorrow and the day after. And for the years and decades to come. It will not be easy. There will be costs. But it is a price we have to pay because the darkness that drives autocracy is ultimately no match for the flame of liberty that lights the souls of free people everywhere.

And so it goes.

Coping With Weight Of World Headlines

I found myself smiling over a fond recollection of a now long forgotten newsman on Friday afternoon. With staggering headlines hourly over the past weeks of carnage depicted through news photographs and video from war-torn Ukraine, I found a smile had come over my face as I recalled an interest in the voice of a CBS broadcaster when I was about age 12.

There is no time these days, or so it seems, to talk about the impact that the Russian invasion has had on the mental health of people worldwide. While in ‘normal times’ there is a raft of bad news from regions across the globe nothing can compare to the ruthless and obscene attacks on civilians that are playing out on the news from when we first get up from sleep to the last updates we seek out before retiring from another day. The compiling of today’s horrific news upon ghastly news from the previous day and appalling news from last week does take a toll on the human soul.

This is why I actually stopped reading a book in which reporter George Herman was mentioned and my eyes lifted up from the pages and landed on the furniture and mementos assembled in the room. My grandmother’s treadle sewing machine and her handmade afghan placed over an old rocker held my attention as I just let the ‘yesterdays’ take hold.

For the purpose of this post, I will be brief about why Herman hit a chord within. Our home did not have a television until I was in the 6th grade, but one of the first faces I came to know each weekend was a rather serious sounding and low-key newsman who had the most important people in the nation stop by for a conversation. Face The Nation started off as a weekly stop mainly due to the sound of his voice.

Then on Friday, the recollections passed and the real world took hold again.

The enormity of the international crisis–and yes it is both international in scope and very much a crisis–can not be escaped. There are even experts in children’s mental health who are advising parents on how to talk about the images that kids doubtless see, and hear about from social media.

While it seems like there are always new stress stories to contend with such as a new variety of spiders expected in the East and the next variant of COVID to spread, the Ukraine war poses a real need for coping mechanisms. While I am certainly no expert on how to find that center place to calm the roiling seas, I can attest to the need for such a place and the solace it provides when found.

For just a few minutes a newsman many have forgotten and even more never knew was the comfort zone for me. Perhaps for my readers, it might be the scent from the oven that carries them back to a place and time of joy, perhaps an article of clothing found in the closet this spring that transports them to a place of lighter thoughts and smiles.

The weight of the word is real. And it is too heavy to carry about without the needed mental escapes so to wake up tomorrow and start again.

I wish my readers to find those moments and embrace them as this chapter of history will be long and harsh.

And so it goes.

Unity Among Americans Due To War Poses Larger Questions About Us

It is a rather sad fact. It has taken a complete breakdown in humanity due to Russian aggression against Ukraine to bring some comity to a deeply divided America.

This morning The New York Times reported above the fold a story that at first read makes for a smile. That is due to the absolute need to stand resolute with Ukraine, and also uplifting given the deeply divided nation in which we live. But if we take some time to ponder why it takes utter barbarity to bring a nation together the story is less satisfying.

After two years of political divisions and economic disruptions bolstered by an unending pandemic, many Americans say they are coming together around a common cause: support for Ukraine, a country under daily siege by Russian forces.

The rare moment of solidarity is driven, in part, by the perception of America as a steadfast global defender of freedom and democracy. Many Americans say they see a lopsided fight pitting a great power against a weaker neighbor. They see relentless images of dead families and collapsed cities. They see Ukraine’s president pleading for help.

In polls and interviews since the attack, Americans across the political spectrum said the nation had a duty to respond to President Vladimir V. Putin’s brazen invasion — even if that means feeling, at least in the short term, the pinch of high gas prices and inflation.

It is not hard to grasp why a tyrant on the loose, such as with Russian President Putin, causes such fear and loathing that it unites people in places near and far. But our entire global community has endured over two years of a deadly pandemic, and the required logic and caring nature of too many people were rejected for selfishness and utter stupidity.

This larger question about how humans act in times of high drama and crisis is one that I enjoy reading about and discussing with others. Some of the odd and harmful human reactions to current issues are the result of leaders who misuse the power of their office. When Donald Trump downplayed the impact of COVID 19, and undermined scientific avenues to forcefully address it, many of his followers forgot their role to the larger community and instead turned totally tribal.

With autocratic moves to stem the freedom of information to Russian citizens, Putin has controlled to a large degree the mindset of his nation. For now. As a result, civilians are being purposely bombed in Ukraine and Russian citizens are being fed fascist messages about purifying the human race.

These are just two headline-making stories to underscore that neglecting science and universal human values are very much a part of our lives in the 21st century. Societal wisdom, it can be correctly argued has a very long way to go to reach our collective ideals.

While Putin unites the United States and NATO with a sense of outrage and dread, I have to ask why existential risks, be they climate change, poverty, and gross inequality are often met with a mere shrug, and worse, crude and partisan tirades?

This problem of uniting people towards solutions is not just one needing attention in our nation. Multilateral institutions and leaders around the world committed to reforms provide guidance and sound policy options, but the masses never seem to consolidate in thought as we currently see as a result of Putin’s absurd militarism. With ever-deadly weapons and easier transmission of viruses, it would seem most obvious as to why we must collectively work together.

If we can only find a sense of unity when ruthless behavior and crisis land about us, it does not speak well for the pressing issues that demand a resolution to be found.

And so it goes.

What Next After Tears And Standing Ovation For President Zelensky In War-Time Speech To Congress?

It was something our nation has not seen in a very long time. A powerful, moving, emotional, and dramatic presentation about the need for good to overcome evil in this world.

This morning Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in a most unusual and need I say rare wartime virtual speech urged Congress to stand more fully with his nation. After giving his thanks for the support from the United States thus far, he spoke for military items that have been urged for on this blog in recent weeks as the Russian military pounds and kills in Ukraine.

Zelensky urged for aid so to help close the sky over his country to Moscow’s weapons, asked that his defiant and strong-willed nation be provided more effective surface-to-air defenses, and made it known all American companies should quit doing business in Russia at once.

His words could not have been more plain and direct.

“In the darkest time for our country, for the whole of Europe, I call on you to do more.”

The address was heard by the entire Congress on a large screen in a theater-style auditorium under the Capitol. With the gravity of the hour upon the shoulders of freedom-loving people worldwide, Zelensky stated “we need you right now.”

The powerful words and image of a brave Churchillian-type figure brought tears to the eyes of some lawmakers and a resounding standing ovation. He concluded his historic address by speaking in English.

“To be the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace.”

It was an address loaded with precision about the United States and this moment in time. We absolutely need to be mindful of not only what he said, but who we are.

Our nation remains a world leader, as our mission is clear and our strength undeniable. Our might comes not only with military hardware and trained members of the services but also with a firm set of principles and ideals that have global appeal.

With a dictator invading, killing, threatening, and blustering on the world stage it then demands that the standard-bearers for democracy and freedom do the part that history demands. Our ideals call us to stand up. We simply need to intervene in a far more powerful and effective manner with this madness in Ukraine.

So what happens now after the members of Congress head back to their offices?

“My hope is that what comes out of today’s discussion with President Zelensky and all of us working together in a bipartisan basis is to tighten the sanctions immediately, is to provide more armaments that they actually need to defend themselves … and give them a fighting chance to protect themselves,” said Sen. Rob Portman who is the co-chair of the Senate Ukraine Caucus. 

This blog stands with the use of the warplanes from Poland for use in Ukraine. The rather sad spectacle of the Biden Administration rebuffing Poland’s offer to send MiG-29 jets to Ukraine via a U.S. military base in Germany was not this nation’s finest moment over the past weeks. Referring to the planes Zelensky today said, “You know they exist. You have them, but they are on earth, not in the Ukrainian sky.”

After the address, Biden correctly announced new military assistance for Ukraine that will include anti-aircraft defenses, drones, and other weaponry. The new aid will help provide 800 anti-aircraft systems to combat Russian planes; 9,000 anti-armor systems to help destroy Russian tanks and armored vehicles; 7,000 small arms such as machine guns and shotguns; and a total of 20 million rounds that includes artillery and mortar. 

While I strongly support President Biden, and find him an honorable leader, I am concerned about some reticence and foot-dragging with some aspects to Putin’s war of aggression. I want more resolve and impactful decisions that will hit hard on the ground in Ukraine.

I read a column this month in The New York Times which ended with a theme I have thought to be essential when talking about Ukraine.

Long before Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt understood that America could not be indifferent to Britain’s fate, even with the odds so overwhelmingly against it. At a meeting in Britain in January 1941, his closest adviser, Harry Hopkins, used the words of the Book of Ruth to convey to Churchill the feelings the two Americans shared:

“Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” Then he added, “Even to the end.”

That is precisely how I feel today.

And so it goes.

GOP Senators Correct: MiG-29 Fighter Jets Required For Ukraine

Wednesday night while driving home NPR reported one of those ominous news stories, which sadly, is the kind we are coming to expect multiple times a day since Ukraine was attacked. In a throw-everything-at-the-wall moment, the Kremlin had accused Ukraine of planning to use chemical weapons. It did not take many rotations of my fast-moving car before I knew what this meant.

Russia is plotting their PR move, so to have a false claim to justify their own perverse use of these weapons which are banned under international law. Not that Russian President Putin, mind you, is at this point worried about international law.

It is due to the next steps that Putin is obviously considering that require Western governments to reevaluate the steps which need to be taken to stop Putin.

As akin to many of my readers, I thought the pandemic was the worst thing to befall the world in a very long time. With it ebbing globally there was a collective hope there might be a reprieve of sorts. For everyone. But I sit in front of the television with tears filling my eyes due to what is happening to children in Ukraine. Or the grandmother who was crying as she lost sight of the child she was helping flee their country.

Many arguments have been presented as to why a military reaction from NATO–overt or covert–needs to be measured or limited or not taken at all. Funneling anti-tank weapons to Ukraine is not a secret to anyone. That is acceptable by Western leaders. But the use of Polish jets in the hands of Ukraine, who have pleaded for the aircraft, is deemed a step too far.

There are analysts describing Putin as in a corner, and it now is the requirement of the West to find a way to let him see a way out of the carnage he created. That sounds nice if this were all some theoretical scenario being played out at a war college. But this is reality, and tough responses are required. After all, we are not dealing with fostering dialogue and a working compromise with a rational person. Putin is a madman wedded to delusional visions of conquest.

I have not been reticent about the need for taking a tougher stance following the first missile launched into Ukraine or the first tank that invaded that sovereign nation. As such, I align with professionals who work in international relations such as former United States Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, and experts in foreign affairs within our government.

As such, I watched and listened today as Senate Republicans urged President Biden to support Poland’s proposal to transfer MiG fighter jets to Ukraine to defend against Russia. And I fully concur with their reasoning and logic. (This also is a good lesson as to how our country should work. We need not be of the same party to find common ground.)

“The administration claims the reason they blocked this transfer is a concern about escalation. Really? Vladimir Putin is aware that American-provided stingers are killing Russians today. And our president knows that, too.” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) said.
 
“America should be doing everything we can, short of boots on the ground or in the air, to protect Ukraine. Our message today to the president: Send the MiGs, arm our Ukrainian friends right now.”

The senator I truly gravitated towards today was Mitt Romney as his argument is where I have been from the start of this crisis.
 
“We’re not going to stop the killing in Ukraine until we in NATO fear Putin less than he fears us,” added Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT).
 
“It’s time for him to fear what we might do because, frankly, his military is bogged down in Ukraine, and if NATO were to get activated in some way by his provocation, obviously, he’d be in a very weak position.”
 
Strength is not a provocation,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said. “They need this assistance and they need it right now.”

In no way am I being light or flippant about the risks associated with action, but without a doubt taking anything softer than a full-out resolve to stop Putin will only increase the deaths in Ukraine, and add more possible threats to Western Europe.

The world is watching. And history will judge us. I can argue why letting Putin’s army grind deeper into a hole it can not win while Ukrainian lives are lost and depravity is let loose by Russians must not be allowed to continue. The threat of an expansion of the war with chemical agents by Russia must never be allowed to begin.

It simply has to end…and that will only be achieved if Putin is stopped.

And so it goes.