The Ukraine War has produced an extraordinary set of poll numbers from the American people, which seems to reflect a gigantic change of mind. They have gone from not caring about Ukraine to suddenly caring a lot. At a basic level, this response reflects understandable revulsion to the horrors of war and anger at the man, Vladimir Putin, who brought it on. The public, seeing a wrong put before their face, has reacted viscerally to it. It wants to do something about it.
The ability of popular opinion to change on a dime might be put down to a change of circumstances, but it is also rather baffling. One week, the public is bitching about foreign aid, about which they have the most fanciful notions as to what it is and where it goes; the next week, they’re signing on to the flavor-of-the-day in escalatory options.
In early 2021, the high bar for U.S. military aid to Ukraine was considered to be $500 million a year, the figure set forth a year ago by the Atlantic Council as a sort of best case for what it could get through Congress. Now Congress is saying it will be $13.6 billion, apparently with full public support. That bridge in Ohio? Sorry, we’ve got priorities.
And what are our priorities in Ukraine? First, the United States is going to help Ukraine defeat Russia. Does that mean a no-fly zone? Seventy four percent of the public, with strong support in both parties, said they favored that in a poll. The pollsters didn’t ask them if they would continue to favor it if it led to war with Russia, and almost certainly they would say “no” if they really understood what it meant. Nevertheless, they said: “Yes!” Those big numbers demonstrate emphatically that the public can be roused on behalf of actions that even sober hawks (there are a few) consider way too risky.
The same poll showed that 80 percent of the public favored an embargo on imports of Russian oil. This was something of a trick question, like the one about the no-fly-zone, as direct U.S. imports of Russian oil are a fairly minor part of the mix (with estimates below 5 percent). Those being polled weren’t asked what they would think about oil embargoes if the price of oil reached $300 a barrel. What matters now is that Russian oil has the “smell of blood,” as Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba characterized it.
The reality is that Russia has an imposing position in the world oil market. For some years it contended for the rank of Number One producer; in recent years it put a hefty seven million barrels of day onto the market. Reducing that contribution, to say nothing of eliminating it, would have big implications for the price. The oil market, a Wild West of financial gunslingers, is capable of crazy gyrations. If the oil price can go negative, as it did in the spring of 2020, it can also undertake a moonshot, as nickel just did, and as oil did in the summer of 2008, a forgotten prelude to the gigantic crash in the fall. I’m not making predictions; I’m stating a rational fear. Most ordinary people, it stands to reason, will think differently about the tradeoff once they experience the consequences of American zealotry on this point.
Something about the American temper says that if you meet a thug the only thing to do is to become more thuggish in return. I can see accepting that proposition in some circumstances. But in a larger sense I think it is both wrong and imprudent. We shouldn’t make it the guiding idea of our statecraft.
The reason it is a moral transgression was beautifully expressed in a letter that John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail in the first years of the War of American Independence. Throughout “the whole Roman history,” Adams recalled,
Revenge was esteemed a generous, and an heroic passion. Nothing was too good for a friend or too bad for an enemy. Hatred and malice, without limits, against an enemy, was indulged, was justified, and no cruelty was thought unwarrantable. Our Savoir taught the immorality of revenge, and the moral duty of forgiving injuries, and even the duty of loving enemies. Nothing can show the amiable, the moral, and divine excellency of these Christian doctrines in a stronger point of light, than the characters and conduct of Marius and Sylla, Caesar, Pompey, Anthony and Augustus, among innumerable others.
You don’t have to be a Christian to see that anger and revenge are not the wellsprings of prudence or morality. No Confucian would say so, nor the true sages of Buddhism, Hinduism, et al. These are universal moral teachings that resonate among different religious and moral traditions. We all understand that different ideas of God, if there is a God, prevail among the peoples. My idea of God is that when a wise teaching comes from any of these traditions we should revere it and not inquire too deeply into its epistemological foundations or ontological status.
Acting out of anger and revenge, it should be noted, was also condemned by Realism, the more pessimistic view of human affairs that contended with Idealism down the centuries. The forerunners of that school of thought—the vast catacomb of writers on “reason of state” in the 17th and 18th centuries, especially—told the princes to cool it and to think it through. They put on exhibition kings who didn’t do that, whose experience demonstrated that letting your emotions take over doesn’t work out in the long run. Their basic counsel was a variation on what Walter Lippmann once said: you need to pay for what you want and to want only what you are willing to pay for. Don’t go off on any wild crusades. Take note of potential dangers down the road. Think through the consequences before you act.
I find a lot of wisdom in both veins of thought, from the Christian pieties of Desiderius Erasmus to the shrewd insights of Otto von Bismarck, and hate having to identify with one or the other camp. No matter. Neither Idealism nor Realism seems to describe the mindset of the American people toward Ukraine. They’re just pissed off and want something to be done about it.
It is somehow reassuring to know that we’ve been this way before and managed to survive. George Kennan wasn’t making things up when, back in 1950, he described the fickle ways of “the public.” In a lecture at the University of Chicago, he said the democracy reminded him of “one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as this room and a brain the size of a pin.” Kennan saw this creature as comfortable in his primeval mud, basically oblivious to external stimuli, but once roused capable of laying about “with such blind determination that he not only destroys his adversary but largely wrecks his native habitat.” Kennan’s warnings about NATO expansion in the 1990s, now reaping its poisonous fruit, exhibit once again the tendency.
America’s super-charged economic sanctions, its Weapons of Financial Destruction (WFD), will do some serious wrecking of our native habitat, measured in such things as a much higher cost of living and a much higher level of unemployment. What do the American people get in the bargain? Well, they can’t really alter the course of the war, unless they go to war, which they don’t want to do, so they must hope to “change Putin’s calculations” or drive him from power. And what is the percentage of “wins” when sanctions are directed against great powers? None, zilch, zero point zero. Against smaller powers? The same. See North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, Syria, etc.
America can inflict tremendous pain on Russia, as it has done, but its own endurance will soon be put to the test. It is difficult to predict who will prevail in this struggle, as the overwhelming reality is that we will all be big losers. But really, we shouldn’t be surprised: Doing awful things to other people is the traditional way to settle things in human affairs. Bloodlust, they used to call it. Our leaders, led by the neocons, call it Enlightenment.
David Hendrickson is president of the John Quincy Adams Society and the author of Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition (Oxford, 2018). His website is davidhendrickson.org.