Iraq and the Pathologies of Primacy
The Flawed Logic That Produced the War Is Alive and Well
Ever since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, many analysts have worried about the durability of Western support for Kyiv. Not a week goes by without new reports of weakening resolve, war fatigue, or cracks in the coalition. Yet a year into the conflict, the West’s commitment to Ukraine is undiminished—and, measured by aid delivered, stronger than ever.
This unity is unprecedented and underappreciated, and it far surpasses the strongest periods of transatlantic cohesion during the Cold War. It runs across states, societies, and companies. Every EU and NATO member state except Hungary has rallied behind Ukraine, despite deep divisions that preceded the war—over Poland’s authoritarian drift, for instance, and the United Kingdom’s ill-tempered exit from the European Union. Troubled economies roiled by war-fueled inflation have not led any major political party to argue that the costs of backing Ukraine are too high or that it is time to accommodate Russia’s demands. Pro-Ukraine policies have passed electoral tests in Italy and Sweden, where governments have turned over but support for Kyiv has endured. French President Emmanuel Macron beat off a challenge from far-right opposition leader Marine Le Pen, who came to see her long-standing ties to the Kremlin as a liability and destroyed thousands of leaflets picturing her with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
This overwhelming official support for Ukraine reflects widespread popular sympathy across Western society, visible in the Ukrainian flags, stickers, and badges displayed in homes and businesses. Many retail outlets now invite customers to donate in support of Ukraine. Thousands of families have taken in refugees. The war has produced almost none of the polarization, conspiracies, or willful disregard for evidence that have beset other major events, such as the outbreak of COVID-19 or the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Russia’s narratives about the war have gained no real purchase. Among the wider public, empirical truth and moral clarity have returned to political discourse.
Most remarkable of all, Western support for Ukraine has spread across the private sector. Companies from industries as varied as oil and tech began to withdraw from Russia within days of its invasion. In the past, the private sector complied with sanctions regimes but privately argued for their easing. Now they voluntarily reinforce such restrictions. Those companies that remain in Russia face growing pressure to follow suit.
The extraordinary breadth and depth of Western unity is a product of a rare alignment of threats: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine challenges the West’s security and sense of morality in equal measure, something that no conflict has done since World War II. This alignment has enabled Western countries to act faster and take greater risks in defense of Ukraine—and offers hints about how such cohesion and resolve can be maintained.
Throughout the Cold War, divisions within and between NATO countries strained the alliance. At no point did Western states, societies, and companies share a common view of the Soviet threat or the appropriate response to it. This was true even in the Cold War’s most dangerous phase in the early 1980s. Initiatives such as the Reagan administration’s antimissile defense program openly alarmed Western Europe. Even Washington’s closest ally, the United Kingdom, resisted U.S. extraterritorial sanctions to prevent the building of the Siberian gas pipeline to Europe. Millions of Europeans marched against the deployment of U.S. intermediate-range nuclear weapons in their backyard. Major European political parties adopted antinuclear policies. And many observers worried that these divisions could decouple Western Europe from the United States, splitting the Atlantic alliance.
Intra-Western divisions since February 2022 pale by comparison. They are spats, not splits—mostly disagreements over tactics, timing, and rhetoric—that are amplified by social media but quickly resolved. The controversy over whether to send tanks to Ukraine is a good example. In January 2023 Germany refused to provide Leopard 2s but changed its mind within days. Several other states have committed heavy materiel to Kyiv. In a pattern repeated since the start of the war, the unthinkable became doable.
The West has stayed unified even as it has radically hardened its position. It has escalated military support to Ukraine and economic coercion of Russia and has devised new policy instruments, such as a price cap on Russian oil, to do so. The EU is weaning itself off Russian energy. In December 2022, Germany announced that it would stop buying oil from Russia in 2023—an astonishing about-face for a country that had made gas imports from Russia a central part of its economic strategy.
The West is also locking in its hardened position by permanently changing its institutions. Finland and Sweden are set to join NATO, which has adopted a new Strategic Concept that will increase the alliance’s rapid-reaction force from 40,000 to 300,000 troops. The EU has accepted Ukraine’s candidacy for membership and is arming Ukrainian troops through the European Peace Facility fund. In addition, Western countries are preparing major new demands on Russia, including accountability for war crimes, reparations for Ukraine’s reconstruction, and the return of millions of abducted Ukrainians. Any postwar settlement will have to go far beyond answering the question of how lines are drawn on the map.
These historic shifts, accomplished in a matter of months, reflect the fact that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is both a potent security threat and a compelling moral cause. Not since World War II have these forces pulled so strongly in the same direction. One or the other has dominated—until now.
The West fought the Cold War principally to contain the security threat from the Soviet Union. The moral struggle between free and totalitarian systems reinforced the West’s conviction but was always secondary. When security needs came into conflict with ethical principles, security usually prevailed. The West cooperated with authoritarian states, including communist China, and occasionally undermined democratic ones to advance its security interests—for instance, by backing a coup against Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953. Western businesses were keen to sell to Soviet bloc markets, and many people were unnerved by the moral certitude of U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s characterization of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” When the Soviet Union used force in Eastern Europe, strategic stability, balances of interest, and management of superpower relations took priority over human rights, albeit never fully eclipsing them.
After the Cold War came Western humanitarian interventions, and the balance of security and morality reversed. Civilian suffering in other parts of the world presented a strong ethical case but a weak or nonexistent security one, making for costly commitments. The moral compulsion to act was constrained by reluctance to commit significant resources—and in particular, to incur or inflict major casualties. The U.S. withdrawal from Somalia in 1993, Western prevarications in the Bosnian war of the mid-1990s, and NATO’s high-altitude bombing of Serbia in 1999 all illustrated this tension.
The war in Afghanistan is the exception that proves the rule. Throughout the 1990s, the West paid little attention to the Taliban’s brutal regime. But after the 9/11 attacks highlighted the Taliban’s role in facilitating international terrorism, a U.S.-led coalition quickly intervened to remove the group from power. The rationale for the U.S. occupation then gradually shifted from security to reconstruction: the operation became in essence a humanitarian one. When the West ceased to see the return of the Taliban as a threat to its security, it withdrew. It was no longer willing to bear the costs of an indefinite moral commitment.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created a new reality. Security and morality unambiguously reinforce each other, without the tradeoffs that marked the Cold War and the humanitarian interventions that followed. Political leaders understand that a Russian victory would present a dire security threat, and the U.S. and European publics are appalled by Russia’s indiscriminate attacks on civilians and systematic war crimes. This blend of security imperatives that mobilize state resources and moral outrage that energizes popular support fuels the West’s remarkable resolve.
The resilience of transatlantic unity has discredited defeatist assumptions that the West will weaken before Russia does. Putin still believes that it will; his theory of victory depends on this outcome. Western unity must not be taken for granted, therefore, but rather sustained in four ways.
First, the United States and its allies must remind one another that any end to the war that leaves Russia in a position to renew its campaign against Ukraine poses a long-term threat to vital Western interests. It is even more important to ensure Moscow’s failure today than it was at the start of the war. If Russia had succeeded in its initial operation last year, the West would have suffered a severe setback. If Russia succeeds now, after Western nations have mounted an enormous effort to prevent such an outcome, it would shatter Western credibility around the world.
Putin still believes the West will weaken before Russia does.
Second, the West must reinforce the moral case for unity by meticulously documenting and publicizing Russia’s abuses—primarily those committed against Ukrainians but also those committed against its own citizens. Reinforcing the ethical stakes of the war will help sustain Western cohesion and resolve.
Third, the United States and its allies must develop domestic policies to sustain their commitment to Ukraine—in particular, targeted welfare policies to ensure that poorer citizens are protected from the economic fallout of the war. Security begins on the home front.
Finally, Western governments must remain vigilant about Russia’s efforts to sow doubt and division. Moscow is skilled in disinformation and deception. Russia is certain to intensify its efforts at manipulation over the coming year.
During the Cold War, the combined wealth of North America and Western Europe was more than double that of the Soviet bloc. Today, the West is at least 12 times richer than Russia in terms of purchasing power parity (the comparison most favorable to Russia). Qualitative advantages compound this vast gulf. If the West commits to giving Ukraine whatever it takes to prevail, it can outstrip Russia’s war effort at far lower proportionate cost to its economy—and the quicker, the better. The richer side always wins in a long war. Unity is thus a vital strategic asset. If the West can win the contest for resolve on the home front, Ukraine can win on the battlefield.