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The war in Ukraine and American exceptionalism

Written by Jonathan Ammons

June 3, 2022

Any views, thoughts, or opinions expressed by the author are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or any other organization or corporation with which he might be affiliated.

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“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

—Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.—

“Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” April 1963

 

On September 19, 1796, George Washington’s farewell address to the American people was published in newspapers around the country. With his characteristic humility and graciousness, Washington wrote:

My feelings do not permit me to suspend the deep acknowledgment of that debt of gratitude which I owe to my beloved country for the many honors it has conferred upon me; still more for the steadfast confidence with which it has supported me; and for the opportunities I have thence enjoyed of manifesting my inviolable attachment, by services faithful and persevering, though in usefulness unequal to my zeal.[1]

Washington would go on to leave the nation with some words of counsel. One such piece of counsel pertained to America’s involvement with the rest of the world. Washington explicitly warns that “an apostate and unnatural connection with any foreign power, must be intrinsically precarious.”[2] He further argues that America:

must derive from union an exemption from those broils and wars between themselves, which so frequently afflict neighboring countries not tied together by the same government; which their own rivalships alone would be sufficient to produce, but which opposite foreign alliances, attachments, and intrigues would stimulate and embitter.[3]

Oh, how the world – and America – has changed. While Washington’s advice in 1796 was spoken from a place of concern about the nascent nation’s fledgling and precarious position in the world, he could not have imagined the world we live in now, or the tremendous conflicts that forged it. America’s challenge now is not to avoid the world order, but to lead it.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine three months ago upended an extended period of relative peace in Europe and triggered an extraordinary, unified response by – and a surprising expansion of – NATO and the West in hardening defenses in Eastern Europe and denouncing Russian President Vladimir Putin. Yet the future remains largely uncertain as the war slogs on.

Allow me to share the following observations about the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia, and what it means for America and its citizens.

Observation 1: The war in Ukraine is a violent outgrowth of the ongoing battle of ideologies between democracy and its opponents.

The conflict in Ukraine constitutes terrifying and tragic evidence that opponents of democracy will not be satisfied until the current global order – namely, the supremacy of democratic rule and the role of America as the leader of the free world – has been weakened and eventually toppled. This conflict of ideas, which has been raging since ancient Athenians established the world’s first democracy, will continue to rage until democratic principles prevail beyond the West.

That said, such an outcome is unrealistic at best. What, then, is the solution? How can violent flare-ups in this ideological conflict be avoided or mitigated in the future? The answer lies in a strong America that understands the world and its role in it and possesses a willingness to preserve and promote peace.

This issue is far from settled in the minds of Americans, however. A poll by the data-focused website FiveThirtyEight noted that “[w]hile roughly half of U.S. adults want to impose some type of punishment on or sanction against the Russian government for waging a war on Ukraine, another chunk of the country thinks it’s best for President [Joe] Biden and others in power to stay out of European affairs.”[4]

Aside from the question of whether the U.S. should engage at all, the question of how to engage, and how much, brings its own set of challenges. In a New York Times opinion piece, nuclear nonproliferation advocate Tom Collina wrote:

Given the stakes, the United States can and should do more to end the war and help alleviate human suffering in Ukraine. … But there is a limit to how far we should go. Even as our hearts go out to the brave Ukrainian people … the consequences of a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia could be unimaginably dire. … The Soviet Union may have disappeared 30 years ago, but its nuclear weapons did not, and neither did ours.[5]

Collina’s remarks emphasize the high stakes of the conflict and the complexity in forming a strategy to successfully address it. The world is filled with such complex challenges, however, and meeting them will require not only American leaders with the courage to do so, but an American populace educated and informed enough to produce such leaders and to make sound electoral decisions to put such leaders in office.

Observation 2: A robust understanding of history and the broader world empowers us to act intelligently.

As Sutherland’s own Derek Monson wrote last month:

An understanding of history offers students and observers of current events the necessary foundation for understanding the present… Current events, such as the Russian war on Ukraine, regularly offer us the opportunity to reflect and gain insights into the importance of history and civics. History lets us understand the present and ensures that our discussions of current events will be substantive and fruitful.[6]

Unfortunately, the present state of history and civics education is quite dismal. In his 2019 book, The World: A Brief Introduction, Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass notes:

A search of graduation requirements at most American institutions of higher learning revealed it is possible to graduate from nearly any two- or four-year college or university in the United States, be it a community college or an Ivy League institution, without gaining even a rudimentary understanding of the world.[7]

Haass further writes that:

[A] recent survey of over eleven hundred American colleges and universities found that only 17 percent require students to take courses in U.S. government and history, while only 3 percent require them to take coursework in economics… One survey of the top American colleges and universities showed less than a third required history majors to take a single course in U.S. history or government![8]

If America is to continue to lead the free world and define the global order, we must dramatically increase and improve the teaching of history and civics in our education systems, otherwise we run the risk of no longer being able to produce leaders and citizens capable of handling the increasingly complex challenges our world produces.

Observation 3: Our individual and collective response to the crisis in Ukraine is a measurement of our individual and collective character.

While I believe most Americans have recoiled at Russia’s ruthless invasion of Ukraine, there are some, perhaps even many, who shrugged and chalked it up to just another conflict in another distant country that has no bearing on our personal lives. Perhaps we’ve even been desensitized to such violence through exposure and access to extensive media and amateur coverage of global conflict and exposure to increasingly realistic and equally violent content in entertainment. Yet we’ve seen how such a conflict can strike even those otherwise not involved – through rising inflation, skyrocketing fuel prices, a plummeting stock market, and fears of a looming global recession.

If we do not feel compassion and concern for people suffering in Ukraine and elsewhere (one need not look far to find equally heartrending conflicts affecting millions throughout the world), we ought to ask ourselves why.

When France gifted the statue of liberty to the United States, the words of Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus” were immortalized on the pedestal of the iconic landmark:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
[9]

Though Lazarus’ words do not find themselves in any of America’s founding charters, the spirit of her words are undeniably present. Indeed, even in America’s domestic policies do we find strong echoes of Lazarus’ words. The United Nations International Organization for Migration reports that the United States is home to more than 50 million immigrants, constituting 18 percent of all the world’s migrant people.[10] Surely our personal character should match – and will undoubtedly eventually determine – our national character. And surely such character, whether personal or national, is incomplete if compassion is not its beating heart.

At the conclusion of his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln appealed to the principles of love, charity, empathy, and compassion:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up this nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.[11]

We should care about events in the world around us and strive to understand them, because if we don’t, we will eventually forfeit our place as leaders of the world. Such a forfeiture of global leadership will leave voids to be filled by Russia and China and other authoritarian states as eager to promote oppressive ideologies as Americans should be to spread the blessings and prosperity of democracy.

Most important of all, however, we should care about the events and people in the world around us, because if we don’t – if we are not motivated by love of freedom and love for one another – our individual and our collective character will be a hollow husk of both its glorious past and its lofty potential.

 

[1] George Washington, “Washington’s Farewell Address to the People of the United States,” 3, https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/resources/pdf/Washingtons_Farewell_Address.pdf.

[2] Washington, 7.

[3] Washington, 8.

[4] FiveThirtyEight, “Americans Are Still Unsure How The U.S. Should Respond To The Invasion Of Ukraine,” https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/americans-are-still-unsure-how-the-u-s-should-respond-to-the-invasion-of-ukraine/.

[5] Tom Collina, “Why America Should Not Deepen Its Military Involvement in Ukraine,” The New York Times, March 18, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/18/opinion/america-military-ukraine.html.

[6] Derek Monson, “Ukraine and the Importance of Learning History,” https://sutherlandinstitute.org/ukraine-and-the-importance-of-learning-history/.

[7] Richard Haass, The World: A Brief Introduction, xv.

[8] Ibid., xvi.

[9] Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus,” https://www.nps.gov/stli/learn/historyculture/colossus.htm.

[10] World Migration Report 2022, International Organization for Migration, https://worldmigrationreport.iom.int/wmr-2022-interactive/.

[11] Abraham Lincoln, “Second Inaugural Address,” What So Proudly We Hail, 457.

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