Zelensky in Washington… Looking for the US
Zelensky in Washington… Looking for the US
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s trip to Washington and his historic speech in Congress have rekindled hope in an alliance of democracies. To the centrist American elites from both parties who share this aspiration, his visit indicates that such an alliance is possible and that faith in cooperation among democracies has not waned, at least not to the extent that the facts on the ground seemed to suggest.
In his speech, Zelensky sought to simultaneously draw the sympathy of the United States and incite it to action, especially when he told a US representative that “so much in the world depends on you.”
Political writer David Fromm, a senior editor at “The Atlantic” who used to be a speechwriter for former US President George W. Bush, has suggested this was the most significant and compelling statement in his speech. Indeed, it comes at a time when it is evident that the idea of cooperation between democracies is declining and when confidence in democracies within the democratic world could well be declining even more steeply.
Zelensky’s speech was a call to arms and a reminder of past US commitments more than it was an objective reading of the degree of American unity regarding Ukraine and the degree to which this is a matter of consensus. There are fears that support for Ukraine could remain open-ended chronological and limitless financially, making it impossible for those supporting Ukraine to meet the country’s needs. This is the outcome Zelensky dreads and Russian President Vladimir Putin is betting on.
Zelensky’s speech reminded me of what Henry Kissinger wrote about French President Charles de Gaulle in his latest book, “Leadership.”
In the summer of 1940, de Gaulle was a mere Under Secretary of State for War and National Defense when he fled from Bordeaux to London after the French prime minister resigned, the government withdrew from the capital, and it became apparent that an armistice agreement with Hitler announcing France’s surrender had been imminent.
In London, this little-known officer and junior minister would speak to the spirit of the French nation, calling on his people to form a French resistance movement. And he only did so after seeking the permission of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Kissinger claims that de Gaulle’s strategy was to use his word to create an alternative reality, hoping to arouse the desire to put his words into action shared by his listeners. In a speech he gave on June 14, 1944, in the French town of Bayeux, which the British had seized from the French authorities collaborating with Hitler a week prior, de Gaulle addressed the crowd as though it was the French resistance movement that had liberated the town, deliberately avoiding mention of the British and American forces, who had in fact liberated it.
This strategy peaked a few weeks later when de Gaulle gave his victory speech in Paris. Once again, he did mention the role that the Allies had played in liberating France, not out of ingratitude but out of the new French president’s desire to give his nation its self-confidence back by turning what had largely been an Anglo-American victory into a French one.
Like de Gaulle, Zelensky tried to create an alternative with his words about the united stance of the liberal and democratic world. He also framed his country’s war as a global conflict, which aligns with US President Biden’s view on the matter. Indeed, Biden expressed this view in his National Security Strategy, which asserted that the struggle currently underway in the world is between democracies and dictatorships.
Zelensky spoke to the American ideological spirit. Many people seem to overlook the fact that the American people are ideological deep down. They have embraced the creed of freedom, which is fundamental to their national identity.
However, will the war in Ukraine and the reactions to it be enough to rebuild confidence in the project for an alliance of democracies? Will Zelensky’s speech be enough to erase the effects of nationalist slogans like “America first” and others that the Democrats are putting into action verbatim today, just as the Republicans had in the past, albeit under different pretenses?
Answering this question is not easy. The world is currently in the early stages of a course whose trajectory is currently extremely premature to predict. However, there are many serious indications that the world, which needs America to play its traditional leadership role in defending freedom and global security, does not trust the US. Indeed, there is reason to believe that perhaps America does not trust itself with these responsibilities.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who has become the European leader most critical of the US, recently called on European countries to play a more decisive and robust role within NATO and reduce their security dependence on the United States. He claimed that a stronger Europe would allow the continent to become more autonomous within the military alliance, acting “inside NATO, with NATO but also not depending on NATO,” adding that “Europe needs to gain more autonomy on technology and defense capabilities, including from the US.”
The French president has previously complained that the costs of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict were not being shared fairly, as Europe has suffered heavy losses while the US has profited. A few weeks ago, Macron criticized US climate policies, saying that the subsidies they offer are “super aggressive” toward European companies, and he also complained that US measures to combat inflation harmed European companies.
Britain joined the chorus of European criticism of US environmental subsidies, warning that these protectionist measures will undermine electric car and battery manufacturers and other renewable energy sources in the UK.
Washington’s allies in the Middle East mistrust the US just as much as its European allies. The so-called “liberal free world” needs Washington because of their shared interest in safeguarding the values they share, while its allies in the Middle East need it because of their shared interest in safeguarding regional security and stability, which, in turn, contributes to ensuring global security.
In the best of cases, Zelensky’s visit, his speech, the reactions to it, and the nostalgia for the global role of the US speak to the desire of various factions to see Washington assume its responsibilities in leading the world. It seems that the US is on its own path as it looks for new structures to underpin its economy, society, and politics, as well as to contain the clash of identities. These take precedence over foreign policy and thus its role on the world stage since the First World War.
America is on one course, and the world is on another. The conflict between Russia and Ukraine is just one test facing humanity in its entirety as new rules, relationships, and interests take form.