“Throughout our history, whenever free societies have been under assault, the Democratic party has rallied the world to liberty’s defense.” – Daniel Patrick Moynihan
In the year since Russia launched its unprovoked war in Ukraine, President Biden has acquitted himself better than some of his staunch critics would have imagined. By mobilizing and managing a unified Western coalition against Russian aggression, he has supplied Ukraine with the tools it needed to push back the invaders. This bravura performance comports with the finest traditions of global leadership that the Democratic party used to exemplify before the Vietnam War led the party to discard this noble inheritance.
In light of the heroism of the Ukrainians, the mere supply of arms may look comparably modest. But, if the truth be told, this decision has been momentous. Nonetheless, Biden’s task is far from complete. Though his decisive leadership has prevented Vladimir Putin from achieving his strategic objectives in Ukraine, the war––in case you hadn’t noticed––isn’t over. In the coming months, Biden will struggle to sustain public support for Ukraine’s campaign even (or perhaps especially) if it claims further military success. Putin, for his part, will seek to actively subvert the Western coalition and thereby expose Ukraine’s acute vulnerability. Only by these means can Russia seize the initiative on and off the battlefield.
The danger at home lies in plain sight. As Russia’s ghastly war has dragged on, the cost of the U.S. commitment to Ukraine has swelled. Opposition to Biden’s policy has gained momentum, and pressure is building in Washington to force a settlement to end the war. Beyond the parochial quarters of the right and the near-pacifist sections of the left, the public seems to be losing interest in the fight raging at the edge of Europe, and perhaps even in the people fighting. The tone and tenor of Americans’ initial response to the war were fully aligned with Ukraine and convinced of the nobility of its struggle. But the public mood has gradually soured, yielding to a more nuanced position equally alert to the dangers stemming from excessive intervention as to those stemming from inadequate intervention.
It isn’t premature to note that the bipartisan consensus in favor of aiding Ukraine is eroding. The number of House Republicans who opposed funding for Ukraine has risen sharply since last March, when only three voted against the first tranche of aid. According to the Pew Research Center, 32% of Republicans believe the U.S. is providing too much support for the war, up from 9% in March. Kevin McCarthy, the new Speaker of the House, is on the record that his party is unwilling to “write a blank check” to Ukraine. To make matters worse, he has already cut a deal with the House Freedom Caucus to put the U.S. military on the budget block.
McCarthy has never been mistaken for being a conviction politician, and so his stance pungently indicates that the abandonment of Ukraine has become popular among elected Republicans. One further proof of the new influence of America-First-style populist conservatism has been the rise of J.D. Vance, who confessed after Russia’s invasion that he didn’t care what happens to Ukraine “one way or another.” Today, Senator Vance is demanding an audit of U.S. aid to Ukraine. This maneuver aims quite transparently to associate waste and malfeasance not only with the federal government but particularly with the Ukrainian cause.
The forces in the ascendency on the Republican right show a trifling concern for the responsibilities of power. Their arguments against an ambitious and activist foreign policy appear to be having an effect, even if it’s too early to pronounce a fundamental shift in Republican attitudes about the U.S. role in the world. Not so long ago, a defining feature of American conservatism was its belief in the application of power to secure national interests and resist hostile regimes. After carrying the mantle of national strength for decades (from Ronald Reagan’s rollback of communism to George W. Bush’s militancy against jihadists after September 11), the GOP has grown astonishingly indifferent to the American-led world order and demonstrates little willingness to invest to deter or defeat the forces that menace it.
If the rising dissent from U.S. policy was confined to the fever swamps of the right, it would not augur much of a challenge to the Biden White House. But on the left, too, the pendulum appears to be swinging away from what historian Stephen Sestanovich has called “maximalism” in foreign policy. Back in October, 30 members of the House Progressive Caucus released a letter urging President Biden to pursue a negotiated settlement to the war, including direct talks with Moscow. After an intraparty uproar, the caucus formally withdrew the letter. Still, there’s little reason to think that Democratic support for the administration’s policy can be taken for granted.
Opposition from the Democratic elite and the party’s rank-and-file can be expected to follow, as the night the day, mounting public weariness for this protracted campaign to arm and underwrite Ukraine in its struggle against Russian imperialism. To head off this looming rebellion in his own party––and to exploit the electoral liability that inheres in Republicans’ bizarre softness toward Russia––Biden ought to be reminding his fellow Democrats and the nation, loudly and repeatedly, of his and their internationalist roots. Biden’s great deeds––to help protect Ukraine but also to enhance democracy’s prestige and position against autocracy––have not been performed on behalf of a new idea, but rather an old one. Though the moral and political principle that Biden is defending is not new, it is contested––not only by the Old Right but by what was once called the New Left.
In the early years of WWII, most Republicans (like most Americans) eschewed internationalism on the reasonable––or at any rate, not unreasonable––premise that the oceans would guarantee American security against any conceivable threat. Against this commitment to “normalcy” in foreign policy, FDR staked out a different and somewhat radical position. Claiming that U.S. security was more precarious than it seemed, the Democratic standard-bearer argued that aggression by wicked dictatorships, even far removed from the American mainland, threatened the international order that in turn sustained the American way of life.
Back then, American strength and global leadership, far from being a unifying cause, was almost the exclusive conviction of the Democratic Party. But during the Cold War, Democrats who firmly embraced America’s international responsibilities found themselves overthrown. For years now, that old guard was presumed to be dormant, if not extinct. But the war in Ukraine has revealed its continued existence. For those with the nerve and wit to recognize it, a unique opportunity has been presented to Democrats: the chance to rediscover the virtues of muscular liberalism and reclaim the mantle of the party of national defense.
What has made Biden’s achievement in Ukraine so impressive is not only the fact that he consolidated a fissiparous Democratic party. Rather, it’s that he consolidated a party that has great difficulty in discerning the relation of power to principle in U.S. foreign policy. When FDR first uttered that phrase and made it a strategic principle of the United States during WWII, free societies around the world were under assault. But in the midst of fierce Axis aggression, the Democratic party rallied the world to liberty’s defense. In our era, with Ukraine’s survival and the peace of Europe at stake, it can do so again.