Biden Needs to Frame Ukraine Goal as Securing Sovereignty, not DemocracyRoundup
tags: NATO, Russia, Ukraine, international relations
Stephen Wertheim is a senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy.
In World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt rallied what he dubbed the “United Nations,” among them Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, to keep the Axis powers from eliminating whole countries across Europe and Asia. After the Cold War, George H. W. Bush likewise assembled a 35-nation coalition to beat back Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. America’s partners lined up behind a principle they all had a stake in defending—that Saddam Hussein had no right to trample out of existence another country’s sovereignty, not even that of a small Persian Gulf emirate.
Today, President Joe Biden is missing an opportunity that these leaders once seized. In a series of major speeches, including his latest State of the Union, Biden has repeatedly framed the war as “a great battle for freedom: a battle between democracy and autocracy.” The observation that the dictator in the Kremlin seeks to subdue Ukrainian democracy is, of course, true and important. But it would be better to elevate what is Russia’s most fundamental offense: its armed aggression against a sovereign state. To stand on that principle could enable the United States to assemble a larger coalition in support of Ukraine, and at a minimum, it would make Vladimir Putin’s efforts to justify his “special military operation” more difficult.
The assault on Ukraine strikes at the core right of states to preserve their sovereign independence. This is an axiom that countries on all continents hold dear. Many nations in the global South remember colonial rule and continue to fear great-power exploitation. Even the government of India, which has drawn criticism in the West for opposing sanctions on Moscow and buying up discounted Russian oil, has shown its disapproval of Putin’s breaches of international law.
The Biden administration also has condemned Russia for violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and for using force in breach of the UN Charter. But the United States does itself no favors when it appears to cast its cause first and foremost as a defense of democracy. The implication is that the United States places greater value on democracy than on sovereignty. This leaves potential partners to ponder whether Biden regards the sovereignty of other nations as conditional, worthy of support only if they qualify as democratic in the eyes of the West. Instead of uniting more states around universal values, Biden risks repelling them.
Supporting Ukraine for being a democracy has another liability: It makes the West’s moral affiliations look arbitrary and exclusive. Before the Russian invasion of February 24, Ukraine was widely viewed as corrupt. The nonpartisan research and monitoring group Freedom House classified the country as a “transitional or hybrid regime,” scoring Ukraine lower on freedom and democracy than Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. As Biden himself put it as recently as January, Ukraine’s prospects of joining NATO in the near term were “not very likely, based on much more work they have to do in terms of democracy.”
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