Americans occasionally indulge a certain progressive notion about world affairs: that humanity has become so enlightened and sophisticated as to have outgrown its brutal and tragic nature. The idea that we can transcend our blood-soaked past was behind the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, which sought to outlaw war altogether. Eighty-five years and millions of war dead later, it’s also behind Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent comment that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was a “19th century act in the 21st century.” Invasions, you see, belong to that buried thing called history. We’re now in something else.
Unfortunately that something else doesn’t look much better. A Russian strongman is gluing together the pieces of a smashed empire, underwriting biblical slaughter in the Middle East, and standing with a nuclear-aspirant, exterminationist regime. Doubtless, Putin took Kerry’s characterization as a supreme compliment, an indication that he’s a great man of history and a belated product of Russia’s Golden Age.
Pointing out Putin’s aspirations is becoming risky. There’s been much talk lately of conservatives who idolize the Russian leader. But aside from a handful of marginalized eccentrics, the very opposite is the case. It was the last Republican presidential candidate who called Putin’s Russia our “number-one political foe,” and it was the entire Democratic establishment that supported Obama’s five-year-long attempt to be more accommodating to Moscow. Reconciling these facts has been unpleasant for progressives who’ve only just discovered, via gay-rights activism, that Putin is an unapologetic human-rights abuser. One hopes that similar clarity on Iran is soon to follow.
As Americans reacquaint themselves with living inside history and not beyond it, they’ll head in one of two directions: They’ll either accept the challenge of making the world a safer, freer place, or they’ll decide that recommitting to the fight against brutality is too burdensome after all. I’m betting they take the challenge. For the idealism that led to post-historic fantasy cuts both ways. If we were idealistic enough to think we’ve moved beyond large-scale injustice then we’re also idealistic enough to go out into the world and do something about the bad guys. That’s why America and her allies are the planet’s first defense against tyranny and oppression.
To be sure, there is much to shake off this time round: We’re hobbled by the civilian-grade PTSD of the war on terror and by the keystroke complacency of Internet utopianism. We are also enervated by self-congratulation, first for having elected Barack Obama president and then for embracing same-sex marriage. But if the growing, non-partisan disgust with Putinism is any indication, we are already well on our way to re-engaging the world on realistic terms.
Barack Obama often reassured us that we’d moved past “a long gone Cold War,” but the world doesn’t wait on his interpretation before shaping itself. And Obama may have finally realized as much. One strong indication of renewed clarity is the Defense Department’s announcement on Wednesday that the United States will expand military cooperation with Baltic countries in light of Putin’s aggression. This doesn’t mean a “new Cold War” is upon us; it’s just an overdue acknowledgment of whose side we’re on in the continuous fight for liberty.
Contrary to most, I think Putin made an excellent point about American exceptionalism in his September 11 New York Times op-ed. He wrote, “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional.” Quite right. It’s time, once again, for us to be extremely dangerous to men like Vladimir Putin.