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Invasion of Ukraine Revives Debate on US Role in the World

Invasion of Ukraine Revives Debate on US Role in the World

Images of Russian bombs hitting Ukrainian neighborhoods, of roads choked with fleeing families, and of some Ukrainian émigrés returning home to defend their nation injected a new urgency into the ongoing policy debate.

WASHINGTON — Addressing the American people as tens of thousands of Russian troops moved into Ukraine, and Russian air strikes targeted Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv, President Joe Biden denounced Russia’s authoritarian leader Vladimir Putin as Washington sought for ways to deter Putin without escalating the conflict into a dangerous contest between two superpowers with vast nuclear arsenals.

“Putin is the aggressor,” stated Biden in a Feb. 24 address from the White House, as his administration grappled with the direct attack on the international rules governing global peace and security. “Putin chose this war, and now he and his country will bear the consequences.”

But even as the U.S. marshalled its Western allies to impose crippling sanctions on Russia’s economy, address the unfolding security threat and isolate Putin as a moral outlier, the unprovoked attack on Ukraine also revived an often-acrimonious debate over America’s putative role as the leader of the free world.

Catholic scholars, policymakers and public intellectuals who have called for a strong response to Russian aggression say a compelling American presence on the global stage is vital for defending fundamental human rights and American interests, while countering authoritarian regimes that seek to expand their zone of influence.

George Weigel, the papal biographer who has launched a robust campaign of support for the beleaguered Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, told the Register, “If the world acquiesces in Putin’s aggression, the world will become a free-fire zone,” with “the forces of peace and freedom constantly on the defensive.”

Daniel Philpott, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, told the Register that the U.S. could only maintain its moral credibility as a global leader if it consistently upheld “universal principles of human rights, respect for national sovereignty, respect for territorial integrity.”

These principles have been endorsed by the United Nations and the Holy See, he said, and are consistent with the Catholic just-war tradition.

Philpott observed that during the heady aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” essay expressed the hope that these universal principles would define a post-Soviet global order as “the final form of human government.”

“Well, what we are seeing now is that Putin’s form of authoritarian nationalism does not respect these values,” he said, and the U.S. has no choice but to respond to that brutal reality.

Robert Royal, the author of A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century and the editor of The Catholic Thing online journal, acknowledged that the U.S. has often stumbled in its execution of its foreign-policy goals. But as he took stock of the vast economic, military and security resources at Washington’s disposal, Royal asked, “If not us, who? Do we want a jungle?”

“There has to be a sober calibration of what our reaction should be: We can’t be driven into war or just shrug off [Russian aggression]. But if you are going to be a world power with pretentions to defend liberty, then you need to be involved.”


More Skeptical

Other Catholic voices are more skeptical of America’s true motives as the world’s policeman, while pointing to the failures of its nation-building forays in Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam.

As the White House echoed U.S. intelligence warnings of a fast-approaching Russian invasion of Ukraine, Ohio GOP Senate candidate J.D. Vance, a Catholic convert, tweeted, “What’s happening in Ukraine doesn’t threaten our national security, but it does distract our leaders from the things that actually do threaten it, like the wide-open Southern border & all the fentanyl coming across killing American kids.”

Charles Camosy, a Fordham University theologian, framed his stance challenging U.S. military engagement as a “firm and aggressive pro-life ‘No’ to war.”

“For some, there is desperate talk about the U.S. and other Western countries needing to step up in a violent way in Ukraine in order to preserve our ‘global dominance’ — especially against what some see as a growing alliance between Russia and China,” wrote Camosy in a Feb. 24 column for Angelus News. “But the idea that we should send some of the most economically vulnerable citizens to kill and be killed in the name of global dominance should send shivers down the spine of everyone with a commitment to Christ.”

Biden has made clear that he will not send U.S. troops into Ukraine, which is not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), established in 1949 to counter Soviet aggression in Europe. And though Kyiv has petitioned to join the 14-member organization, Putin has strongly opposed this step, using the issue to justify his claims that Western aggression, in the form of NATO’s eastward expansion, forced his hand in Ukraine.

But once Russian troops began moving into Ukraine, Biden quickly promised to release up to an additional $350-million worth of weapons from U.S. stocks to Ukraine. That shipment reportedly includes Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, which will help Ukraine counter Russia’s superior air power, and Javelin anti-tank missiles, which Ukraine has prioritized as the most effective weapon for repulsing Russian ground forces.

Other European nations, including Germany, are also sending weapons to bolster Ukraine’s defenses, increasing the likelihood that the battle could widen beyond its borders.


Values Questioned

But critics of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment are not only worried about a repeat of its flawed military operations in past crises.

They also oppose Washington’s global promotion of liberal and progressive values, symbolized by the flying of the “pride” flag on the same pole as the American flag at many U.S. embassies last June, as “LGBT” activists back home celebrated “Pride Month.”

Those who oppose the advancement of such values contend that the U.S. has drifted into cultural decadence and thus has little to offer struggling democracies like Ukraine.

The values at the heart of the American liberal worldview “are antithetical to everything conservatives claim to cherish: a ruthless market ideology that puts short-term shareholder gains and the whims of big finance above the demands of the national community; a virulent cultural libertinism that dissolves bonds of family and tradition,” wrote Sohrab Ahmari, a visiting fellow at Franciscan University of Steubenville; Patrick Deneen, professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame; and Gladden Pappin, an associate professor of politics at the University of Dallas, in a Feb. 5 essay for the opinion page of The New York Times.

However, Jakub Grygiel, a Polish-born professor of politics at The Catholic University of America who previously served as a senior adviser in the Office of Policy Planning at the U.S. Department of State, suggested there was another way to approach the policy questions posed by Ukraine’s plight.

“Where we should stand and where people [in Ukraine] are standing is not for some global ideal, it is much simpler,” Grygiel told the Register. “Here is an independent nation that has been invaded by Russia and wants to maintain its sovereignty and liberty.”

Ukraine has stood up against this aggression, “supported by both its political and religious leaders in a way that has been astounding and positive.”

“We have lost the simplicity of the desire to be independent. It is a great reminder of the power of nations,” he said.


Urgent Debate

The first images of Russian bombs hitting Ukrainian neighborhoods, of roads choked with fleeing families, and of some Ukrainian  émigrés returning home to defend their nation injected a new urgency into the ongoing policy debate.

Days before Russia’s assault, Putin outlined his grievances against the West and called for a new bilateral U.S.-Russia pact that would agree to his most-pressing demands: that Ukraine be barred from joining NATO and that the U.S. nuclear arsenal be removed from Europe. Washington is unlikely to accept such conditions, say experts, though there is little chance NATO will agree to Ukraine’s petition for membership.

But even as Western nations coordinate military support for Ukraine and consider additional economic sanctions, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has also become a war of information. And that means Ukrainian-Catholic leaders are not only calling for prayers and aid for the nation, they are also trying to shape the U.S. policy debate.

One immediate goal is to counter Putin’s efforts to present himself as a messianic figure from a more religious age, a defender of Christianity, with Ukraine as an extension of the Russian empire — not a “real country.” The real truth is the opposite, Ukrainian Catholic leaders contend: Putin doesn’t seek to advance Christian values; he wants to upend Ukraine’s effort to build a stable democracy that respects religious and political freedoms because it offers a compelling alternative to his autocratic rule.

During a March 3 interview with Dr. Grazie Christie of The Catholic Association on EWTN, Metropolitan-Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia directly challenged what he viewed as misguided support for Putin from some U.S. Catholics.

“A lot of faithful conservative Catholics think [Russia] is a defender of traditional values, not realizing that Russia has the highest abortion rate in the world,” as well as a high incidence of “alcoholism, suicide,” said Archbishop Gudziak.

Putin, a former agent of the KGB, the notorious foreign intelligence and domestic security agency of the Soviet Union, has “held power for 22 years,” he said, while noting that the Kremlin has long been accused of ordering the  assassination of his political foes, an allegation Moscow strongly disputes. “And people say this guy’s a defender of traditional values? He’s a killer. He’s a sociopath.”

Weigel has joined the campaign to dispel confusion about Putin and encourage support for Ukraine.

“There is an awful lot of confusion in America about these questions, with some saying that our own faults as a society and culture mean that we’re in no position to condemn aggression,” said Weigel.

“I’m sorry, but if you can’t tell the difference between a deluded public library holding a trans-friendly reading hour for children and a full-scale, lethal invasion of another country, you are far gone in ideology and detached from reality,” he concluded.

“[M]ature citizens ought to be able to see there is no contradiction between working for a deep reform of American public culture and working to defend our friends when they are under attack.”

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