Here follows the US Republican line on the present crisis. Joe Biden has been a slow and half-hearted friend of Ukraine. A better president would neither have waited for outright war to raise sanctions on Russia, nor spelt out quite so clearly what America won’t do for the besieged republic. The Kremlin was already emboldened by a pattern of Democratic weakness that is at least as old as Barack Obama’s underreaction to the 2014 seizure of Crimea. Call it coincidence, but Donald Trump is the only US leader elected this century who hasn’t presided over a Russian incursion into a neighbouring state.
It is possible to reject the substance of these views, marvel at the brass neck on show and still feel relief verging on delight at the overall thrust of the criticism. After all, it suggests there is no meaningful disagreement in Washington about whether to confront Russia, only how. A party that was thought to be ambivalent about the democratic West in recent years is, if anything, recklessly bellicose in its defence. Better a headstrong GOP than a hedging one.
A lot has been said about Russia’s accidental unification of a once-squabbling or at least meandering West. Almost as large a question is whether the war is having the same effect within the US itself. The early signs are far from conclusive but they are promising.
They can’t be written off as features of the Beltway alone. A new YouGov poll for CBS shows that voters who backed Trump in 2020 are only slightly less keen than Democrats on providing military hardware to Ukraine. A large majority of them even say they would back sanctions that “made the price of gas in the US higher”.
No one should take that claim at its word. No one should expect a new age of bipartisanship. (Republicans have not rallied at all to Biden, whose approval rating remains dire.) It is too much to even count on the party to renounce the fast-and-loose approach to democratic norms that climaxed in the Capitol siege.
But we have to find consolations where we can, and the ongoing toughness of Republicans on the Ukraine issue is one that is underrated. If the goal of Russian subversion of US public life was to make a fifth column out of the GOP, perhaps with a view to splitting the nation over such a war as this, a bureau somewhere in Moscow has to be questioning the value for money. Just 12 per cent of voters who identify as Republican think Biden’s response to the war has been “too strong”. Seventy-five per cent are willing him to be tougher. This seems more or less of a piece with the spread of opinion on Capitol Hill.
What the former vice-president Mike Pence calls “apologists for Putin” are rife online; the theory that secret US “biolabs” dot the Ukrainian landscape does a roaring trade there. But those sentiments are not seeping into frontline politics or the wider public as much as might have been expected. More even than the rapid fiscal relief during the pandemic, passed two years ago by a divided and gummed-up Washington, this stands out as the biggest surprise of this columnist’s time in the US.
And this (relative) cohesion has been achieved after three weeks of a war that is 5,000 miles away. How a wider global struggle might transform domestic US politics is tasteless, but I am afraid also essential, to consider.
A second cold war, between the democratic West and some autocratic axis, would be terrible for the world. Even if it never turned “hot”, the loss to trade, human contact and non-defence claims on the public purse would be vast. People caught on the wrong side of a border (liberals in Russia, say) would suffer. It is only the passage of time since the squalid reality of the cold war that has allowed “cold” to be reinterpreted as “soft” or “civilised”.
Equally, it is hard to avoid the thought that just such a showdown, with its immense stakes, its external discipline, is what America has lacked for 30 years. And that domestic partisanship, which began to hit a new pitch of intensity with the congressional elections of 1994, has been the result. Al-Qaeda was always too diffuse a threat to concentrate American minds. As for China, it has so far rattled its sabre more often than it has plunged it into another country.
This crisis might be different. The animus between Democrats and Republicans is no less strong today than it was a few months ago. But each side is at least conscious now of a mutual and vastly more serious opponent. The democratic world must hope this sense of perspective lasts. The unity of the West is only worth so much without the cohesion of its most important member. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022.