In a recent tweet, Republican presidential primary contender Vivek Ramaswamy wrote that “if the Framers were alive today, they’d say it’s time for a second American Revolution.” Elaborating on this theme in an interview with The Free Press, Ramaswamy explained that he views lack of “purpose and meaning and identity” as the central problem in American society. Thus, for Ramaswamy, “(revolution) does not mean bloodshed and violence…but it means a revival of the ideals that set this nation into motion in 1776.” I believe that his diagnosis and his call for an ideals-based “revolution” are exactly right, which is why I find his stance on Ukraine so surprising.
Ramaswamy has referred to the Russia-Ukraine war as “two thugs sorting out differences in Eastern Europe,” and dismissed any moral case for American military aid to Ukraine, in addition to denigrating claims of Ukraine’s moral superiority in the conflict. Most recently, he has suggested that US military aid to Ukraine is “repayment for a private bribe that a family member of the United States received, $5 million from Burisma,” referencing the Hunter Biden scandal. Ramaswamy’s plan for “peace” in Ukraine sounds more like a plan for Eastern Europe’s permanent vulnerability and abandonment by the international community, as it involves withdrawing all US support for Ukraine and allowing Russia to keep the territory it has taken.
In light of his insightful critiques of our own nation, Ramaswamy’s apparent hostility toward Ukraine is baffling. Through their courageous resistance to Russia’s imperial ambitions over the past decade, Ukrainians have given Americans a reminder of the need to renew our own democratic values and an example of how to do so. Russia’s current onslaught in Ukraine has many causes; however, the most direct is probably the Maidan Revolution, also known as the Revolution of Dignity. From November 2013 through February 2014, tens of thousands of Ukrainians demonstrated in Kyiv’s main square, protesting a corrupt government that had reneged on its commitment to join an association agreement with the European Union in return for a multi-billion-dollar incentive from Vladimir Putin. Despite government violence against the protesters that resulted in dozens of deaths, the protesters persevered, resulting in the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his regime. This did not sit well with Putin, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea and not-so-covert operation in eastern Ukraine followed. The rest, sadly, is still-unfolding history.
In theory, the Maidan protests were about European integration, but at their heart they were about “the moral and cultural renewal of Ukraine” that is “essential to free politics and free economics in the future.” The term “Revolution of Dignity” originated within the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, but it was soon adopted broadly by Ukrainian society and the international community. This reference to human dignity – the innate, inalienable worth of every human being – was not a top-down imposition on Ukrainian society; rather, it was an attempt to interpret the aspirations of the people and give them a philosophical grounding that would transcend differences in language, ethnicity, and creed. It gave Ukrainians a “why” that went beyond a particular political agenda and articulated their profound desire for a government that respected and reflected the truth about the human person. Today, Ukrainians continue to fight for this basic recognition of their worth. They fight for freedom, democracy, and the opportunity to be part of a “West” that has been profoundly shaped by American values. Clearly, the foundation the Revolution of Dignity laid has contributed to this sense of moral conviction.
The “American Revolution” that Ramaswamy calls for is, in fact, an American “Revolution of Dignity.” Ramaswamy is right to note that “the real cancer” in American society is “that void, that black hole of purpose and meaning and identity.” He identifies “self-governance, free speech…the idea that you get ahead through unbridled meritocracy, the unbridled pursuit of excellence, the steadfast commitment to the rule of law rather than the whims of men” as “the American ideals.” He puts it succinctly and beautifully when he says that these ideals “are our last best chance for national unity, because that is what actually binds us together across our diverse attributes.” Implicit in these ideals is an assertion of the fundamental dignity of each human person, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” If we are to reclaim human dignity as the foundation for American “purpose and meaning and identity,” we must do it in our own distinctly American way; however, there is a strong parallel between the task of national renewal before us and the task of national renewal that began on Ukraine’s Maidan in 2014.
Let me be clear: the American cultural and political context differs radically from that of Ukraine. I am not advocating for a political movement that results in a sitting president fleeing the country and a constitutional overhaul, as did Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity. This outcome was the necessary result of a democratic, moral awakening in a society that had never fully shaken free of its Soviet shackles. The US is not such a society. However, I believe Ramaswamy is correct in his assessment that we need a revolution in ideas, and in this sense there is much that we can learn from the Ukrainian experience.
I am also not suggesting that Ukraine is a perfect society; neither is the United States, and we have nearly 250 years of experience as an independent, free nation. Ukraine is still a fledgling democracy, struggling to dislodge corruption and heal the wounds incurred under centuries of totalitarian repression. Under the circumstances, it is doing an impressive job.
As I have written elsewhere, “the ability to view the Ukraine crisis with moral clarity is essential, not just for crafting a successful foreign policy, but for reaffirming America’s own principles.” Ramaswamy’s fundamental misunderstanding of the history and motivations behind the war in Ukraine blind him to the fact that, measured by the ideals he wishes to revive in our own nation, Ukraine does indeed stand on moral high ground.
Ramaswamy’s vision for the United States has much to recommend itself to conservatives, but unless he gains a clear-eyed understanding of the moral dimension of the Ukraine conflict, I question his ability to craft a foreign policy that reflects any meaningful sense of American purpose. Americans fought against impossible odds in 1776 in order to throw off the yoke of an imperial power and claim their God-given dignity. A sound American policy on Ukraine must begin with an acknowledgment that Ukrainians are doing the same and end with a just peace for the Ukrainian people.