How far do we go?
How far should Europe and the United States go, collectively, to blunt Vladimir Putin’s blatant aggression against Ukraine?
In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler tested the mettle of the democracies with his plan to forcefully occupy those parts of Europe he considered essential to Germany’s prosperity.
As they are today in dealing with the Ukraine crisis, the world’s democracies back then were far from agreement as to how to respond to Hitler and Naziism.
Britain, the most powerful nation standing in Hitler’s way, chose to look the other way, fearing that to do otherwise would trigger a second costly world war. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain favored appeasement and was supported by Joseph Kennedy, the American ambassador to Britain at the time.
Kennedy — whose son John would one day become president of the United States — predicted Germany would win if war were declared, and he urged Washington to let the British fight Hitler on their own.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt was sympathetic to the British but reluctant to intervene for fear that the powerful isolationist bloc in America — led by Charles Lindbergh, the popular pioneer pilot and German sympathizer — would weaken his own popularity with voters.
History tells us that Chamberlain’s embrace of appeasement cost him his job and earned him enduring scorn. He was replaced by Winston Churchill, who will be remembered for his strong leadership throughout the war that began when Germany invaded Poland.
History also tells us that Roosevelt eventually had no choice but to declare war on Germany but also on Italy and Japan (because of Pearl Harbor).
As the Ukraine situation continues to simultaneously stir up memories of appeasement and fears of a wider conflict, there will be an abundance of opinions and advice offered by politicians and pundits from all across the ideological spectrum.
But there are still important but unanswered questions to consider: How far is Putin willing to go to carry out what appears to be his determination to restore Russia to the kind of international power it was in the days of the Soviet Union (he was a KGB operative in those days) and what will the consequences be if the democracies agree to impose heavy economic sanctions on Russia?
Generally speaking, the American public cannot reliably anticipate the answers to these questions, and therefore it may appear difficult, if not downright treacherous, for our elected officials to embrace a particular strategic response.
And yet, like it or not, that is their responsibility. It took Roosevelt a long time to do what he needed to do, and his tentative approach surely cost many lives and extended the war. But he couldn’t know that beforehand.
And neither can the consequences of the west’s ultimate response to Putin be predicted with any certainty either. But if there is an emerging consensus both in Washington and Europe surely it is that Putin must not be allowed to get away with what he’s trying to do.
“I am alarmed by the worsening security situation in eastern Ukraine,” Catherine Ashton, foreign policy chief of the European Union, said last week. “The downward spiral of violence and intimidation undermines the normal functioning of the legitimate state institutions.”
In a reversal of the situation in 1939, it is the Europeans who have shown the greater reluctance to impose sanctions, largely because their businesses are more dependent on good economic relations with Russia than their American counterparts.
A carefully calibrated response from the west is essential. Failure could lead to even greater global instability and right now there’s already far too much of that.