As President Joe Biden delivered the State of the Union address, a Russian convoy was approaching the outskirts of Kyiv. Earlier in the day, a TV tower was attacked and missiles had descended on the graves of thousands of Jewish citizens killed by the Nazis. Such brutal attacks not only underscore Putin’s utter contempt for Ukraine’s sovereignty and disregard for civilian immunity, but also his rejection of the European security order and determination Ukraine would not join it.
Biden’s reference to the ‘wall of strength’ Putin encountered when he ‘met the Ukrainian people’ elicited an outburst of approval in the US Congress which harked back to an era of bipartisanship in foreign policy which has since vanished.
Europe has been upset by America’s unpredictability but also by its newfound realism, not least on Afghanistan, and is uncertain about its reliability as a security partner for Europe.
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is driving a renewed transatlantic unity, most obviously manifest in joint sanctions and the export of lethal aid to Ukraine, but also on the limits of military engagement. As the invasion continues, leadership is essential to sustaining this unity as the future of Ukraine is highly uncertain, and both the European security order and the sovereignty norm enshrined in the UN Charter are being tested.
Robust and defensible case
Domestic backing for President Biden’s support for Ukraine is strong, and so far a high degree of unity has prevailed, with a majority of Americans supporting his tough measures against Russia, and 75 per cent of Americans polled supporting sanctions according to a CBS News poll. This opens the door for the president to make a robust case for defending international order, but who will anchor this order, and the role of the West relative to the rest of the world, is subject to ongoing contestation.
The current unifying moment may not last long, especially if the war is protracted or the conflict widens, and the president’s own hesitation suggests he is aware of this reality. Biden was passionate in his defence of Ukraine but he was brief. Just 12 minutes into his 60-minute speech, one of America’s most experienced foreign policy presidents pivoted quickly away from Ukraine, and towards a groundswell of divisive domestic issues.
His attempt to downplay policies mired in entrenched partisanship – from voting rights to his domestic spending plan – and highlight the centrist policies capable of producing a unifying domestic agenda – from veterans’ rights to funding the police – was both transparent and admirable.
But it also reflected the president’s acute awareness that the American public may not be prepared to pay the price of costly measures – especially in the context of rising inflation. Staying the course of costly sanctions, US troop deployments to NATO countries, and other measures designed to support Ukraine and bolster NATO’s defences requires active diplomacy in the weeks and months ahead.
Across Europe, the drive to marshal a unified response to the crisis in Ukraine is also underpinned by the sense that this unity may be short-lived and enforcement of the newest measures could be weak. Many applauded the shift in Germany’s foreign policy as its new chancellor Olaf Scholz announced halting certification of the Nordstream 2 pipeline, increasing defence spending, and allowing the export of lethal aid to Ukraine.
The European Union (EU) has also promised lethal aid to Ukraine to the tune of 500 million euros, and the international community has coalesced around an agreed package of sanctions. But for all its unity of purpose, the Western response shows a high degree of restraint as it stops short of welcoming Ukraine into either the EU or NATO. Rather than expanding its borders, the Ukraine crisis is a challenge to these institutions to restrict borders and define expectations for new entrants more clearly.
In this context, it is important to avoid antagonizing those in the firing line or alienating those on the fence. The decision to deny or delay access to regional institutions should come with a clear recognition of their limits and the potential attractiveness of an international order anchored in a more inclusive multilateral framework which can mobilize the power of numbers.
The historic vote by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) saw 141 states condemn Russia for its aggression. Equally – if not more significant – only five voted against the resolution. This creates a unity of purpose, calling out the violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, that extends far beyond the West.
Condemnation by the EU is a rebuke based on the values of just 27 members but 141 member states of the UN voting this way reflects a wider norm of an international system which respects borders and does not allow unprovoked attacks on neighbours. From Africa to Asia and the Middle East, the prospect of not respecting the rules of sovereignty is a real and present fear.
Persuading the fence sitters to take a stand
The scale of the vote in the General Assembly also far outweighs in numbers and breadth any moral or legal sanction delivered by the world’s democracies. According to Freedom House only 20 per cent of the world’s population now live in a free country. Democracy is worth defending, but when it comes to condemning aggression, what it can offer pales in comparison to the UNGA. The challenge for international diplomacy is to persuade fence sitters such as India, which abstained in the UNGA vote, to take a stand.