For those who decry Western support for Ukraine, everything is a precursor to World War III. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.
If you’ve been around the internet at all over the past year and a half of war in Ukraine, you’ve likely seen breathless claims that Western aid is pushing us to the brink of a third world war. These terrified statements are the bread and butter of those who wish to see military aid to Ukraine reduced or stopped entirely. Some are pure isolationists, others are useful idiots for Russia, more are skeptics of American military power, and yet others are more vituperative Asia-firsters. Regardless of their personal ideological predilections, these commentators are aligned in their fearmongering over drastic, rapid escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian War into a broad-based, global, nuclear-tinged Armageddon. Despite differences in motive, the Ukraine doves all sing from the same hymnal. The refrain is simple. Every Ukrainian advance: World War III. Every new weapons system delivered to Kyiv: World War III. Every response to Russian aggression: World War III. Every revelation of Western support – intelligence, economic, or otherwise: World War III.
They’re certainly consistent, but are they correct? That answer is a resounding nyet. This argument is merely a brickbat with which to attack Ukraine hawks; it has no relation to either the current day or the historical reality. This bedwetter caucus not only misrepresents the escalation dynamics of the Ukraine war, but also of both World Wars. On top of that, they fail to understand the significant differences between the present conflict and those of the past. In short, their argument is fatally flawed. Let us count the ways.
Despite its recent expansion, the BRICS ‘alliance’ is nothing more than vaporware. Claims of the death of the American-led world order have been greatly exaggerated.
In geopolitical commentary circles, much has been made of the recent expansion of the Global South-centered multilateral association known as BRICS. This grouping of developing world nations is named after its early members – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – and has long been touted as the future pivot of geopolitics, economics, and world organization, displacing the regnant Western-led order. Now that the loose partnership has grown beyond its acronymic members to include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Argentina, the usual skeptics and opponents of the postwar system – isolationists, the horseshoe of far-right and far-left, self-proclaimed ‘anti-imperialists’ (merely anti-American), useful idiots – have gone into overdrive.
The use of atom bombs to end war with Japan in 1945 was not only defensible, but actively good. The critics who ignore the historical record and embrace presentist analysis fail to deal in reality.
Around this time each year, the Internet is flooded with hot takes about how the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were indefensible, unnecessary, and downright evil. These critics label the bombings as one of the prime atrocities of American imperialism and use them as fodder for their argument that the United States is uniquely bad for the world. This year, the hot take machine has been supercharged by the release of director Christopher Nolan’s latest historical film, Oppenheimer. That movie, released on July 21, is a biopic following the career of nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the key scientists running the Manhattan Project and the man often called the father of the atomic bomb.
The film, which has received plaudits from reviewers and moviegoers, struck a nerve on Twitter, where it was accused of glorifying an act of devastating brutality. These critiques of the atomic bombings ranged from “it was unnecessary” and “Japan was already surrendering” to “Imperial Japan wasn’t that bad” and “the US was the real bad guy in the war.” And these indictments of the American actions in 1945 came from a true plethora of online communities: actual communists, anti-imperialist and anti-war activists (read: anti-American activists), Japanophiles and anime lovers, right-wing Catholics (for some reason), general contrarians, and assorted too-online weirdos.
The problem with this perpetual narrative is that it’s completely, unabashedly wrong. The use of nuclear weapons in Japan in 1945 was not only justifiable, it was at root correct. The decision to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved millions of lives, including an order of magnitude more Japanese lives than it took. This is proven by the historical record and is eminently easy to understand if one actually decides to do good history. With that, let’s engage in some good history, shall we?
Magical thinking will not end the war in Ukraine, no matter how many times you click your heels.
The war in Ukraine has been raging for a considerable duration now – 500 days if you date it back to the full-scale Russian invasion of February 2022, or nearly a decade if you start with attacks on Crimea and the Donbas in 2014. Tens, if not hundreds of thousands, have been killed on the battlefields; civilian and solider, Russian and Ukrainian alike. Ukraine has been devastated economically, both by military attrition and deliberate, targeted Russian assaults on key civilian infrastructure. Genocidal massacres have been carried out by Russian forces, cementing names like Bucha in the historical record. Nations around the world have aided the Ukrainians in their brave resistance to Muscovite domination. Others have supported Russia’s revanchist claims. Suffice it to say, this war is as real as it gets.
Still, far too many distant observers of the conflict – politicians and commentators both – tend to engage with it on a purely fictionalized level. They do not conceive of the Russo-Ukrainian War as a real event impacting millions of lives every day, but as an abstract concept to be argued over on the internet. This abstraction from the ground level paints a flawed picture of reality and leads to magical thinking, an approach that is highly imaginative, yet entirely untethered from the realm of the possible or probable. This magical thinking is the antithesis of level-headed analysis and prompts the errors of bad strategy, foolish rhetoric, and visions of the war’s end that fail to take into account the realities of the conflict.
Love of country must not depend on partisan politics.
As always on July 4, I’ve been thinking a lot about how truly lucky I am to have been born in the greatest country on Earth. I have a deep and abiding love for this place and cannot imagine it any other way. I have great admiration for and interest in other countries – I do write about foreign policy and European history, after all – but nothing compares to America in my heart. Patriotism matters to me and always will. But this seems not to be the case among a growing proportion of our citizenry.
Increasing partisan rancor over the past 15 years has made basic love of country a tricky thing, on both sides of the political divide. Since 2013, polling on patriotism has shown a consistently downward trajectory, with the percentage of respondents saying that they are “extremely” or “very” proud of being American decreasing by 20 points over the decade. The meager 38% of people expressing extreme pride is the lowest in Gallup’s polling history by four points. The partisan split on patriotic feeling – polling shows that Republicans are, on average, prouder of being American than are Democrats – remains, but both sets of voters have seen their patriotism decline markedly. (Similar trends have held true for independents.) These shifts in patriotic feeling tend to correlate with the party in power in Washington. Democrats saw their extreme pride rise under Obama to a peak of 56% in 2013, hit rock bottom under Trump at 22% in 2019, and increase mildly to 26% under Biden in 2022. Over the same period, Republican extreme pride stood at 78% in 2009 to start Obama’s term, dropped to a low of 68% at the end of his stint in office, shot up to 76% in 2019 under Trump, and totally collapsed under Biden to a trough of 58% in 2022. Note the vast differences in similar years, especially 2019 and 2022.
Why this stunning general decline in patriotism? It varies by partisan affiliation, but events and ideology have both played important roles.