With barely more than one-fifth of the 21st century gone, we Americans have endured four crises—three of our own and one global—each of which have changed the course of history. 9/11, the Great Recession, the Trump presidency, and the Covid-19 pandemic were highly damaging events after years of relative calm. Now, we face a fifth crisis—Putin’s invasion of Ukraine—which could tip from regional conflict to world war.
Interesting—way too interesting—times.
Crises, however, present opportunities to change our ways, much more than periods of stability. Periods of stability naturally tend to protect and preserve the status quo. However, positive change depends upon how we respond to each crisis. As the Stoics remind us: it’s not what happens to you that is important, it is how you respond to it.
After 9/11, we responded in a manner that cost us trillions of dollars, thousands of lives, and much of our credibility as the steward of pax Americana around the world. We did somewhat better in addressing the Great Recession, but still made plenty of mistakes (although some of those lessons were applied during the pandemic). The Trump presidency was little more than a self-inflicted wound. The fourth crisis—the pandemic—was an outlier crisis inasmuch as it offered little opportunity for positive change as we were, in effect, frozen in place like a doe in the headlights. Lockdowns and isolation are simply not conducive to positive change. Alas, today’s crisis—Putin’s War—offers an array of opportunities for America.
My sense of Putin’s War is that both he and his Russia will be the biggest losers after Ukraine. It will be a long painful slog for all. The only question is how much more damage will be done to Ukraine before Putin and Russia implode. There remains an extraordinarily high risk of nuclear confrontation and an expanding war including other areas in Eastern Europe, but I do not think Putin will receive meaningful support from other nations, most especially China. Yes, Xi will buy Russian oil and alleviate some of the effects of sanctions, but I expect he sees this as an opportunity to subsume Russia as a quasi-client state rather than elevate Putin and enable him to succeed in his empire fantasies. And, Xi needs his military to enforce the edicts of his regime in-country and to pursue his own ambitions in Asia. His preference will be to have Putin under his thumb much in the same manner as is North Korea’s Kim.
Meanwhile, President Biden is doing a masterful job of threading a very difficult needle of containing Putin and preventing that war from becoming a world war. All presidents prefer foreign policy to domestic as it is where their greatest power lies. Few presidents, however, come into office with foreign policy experience. Biden is a fortunate (for us) exception. The escalation maps (a tool used by national security analysts to model multiple-round effects of military actions) all point to an expanded conflict if his efforts and those of European allies fail, or if Putin decides to unilaterally launch a nuclear weapon. To me, the most remarkable thing has been to watch the sanctions gain immediate support across the free world and for self-sanctioning by the private sector to take off like Omicron in a crowded bar. Apparently, there are severe consequences when you kill innocent women and children in broad daylight. So, besides the opportunity to rescue the Biden presidency from rather awful poll numbers, what are the opportunities for the rest of us, and what should we do to bring them to fruition?
The first opportunity comes in the form of a wake-up call to reinvigorating the values that made America great. If I were king, I would have one more inoculation waiting for the arm of every American: inject each of us with the spirit of responsibility and patriotism shown by the Ukrainian people. But here is the uncomfortable truth: the Ukrainians are just behaving the way we used to behave when we upheld the value of responsible individualism. Hopefully, the images of Ukrainians protecting their homeland can be a model for all Americans.
Second, let’s take a lesson from the Poles on how to treat refugees and immigrants. For some reason, we lost our value of being a beacon of hope for the rest of the world; of being an exemplar as a caretaker of human dignity. Our disdain for refugees and immigrants, while most pronounced during the Trump presidency, actually began many years before in the now very blue state of California—aimed at Mexican immigrants. It then became a lever of political attraction across the south—spreading west to east—until we looked like a nation of fearful cruel zealots. The most powerful nation in the world should never behave like a scared bully.
Next, the world, but especially Americans, need to realize that unity and democracies matter. America may, once again, be the world’s “last best hope for earth.” As Americans, our immediate obligation is to drop the petty grievances that have animated our domestic political lives since the inauguration of Trump and realize that we are all on a more important team than mask lovers or mask haters. We must realize that our unity is essential to protecting the world from disaster. Quit shaking fists and start shaking hands. Our enemies are not our neighbors—regardless of political party. They are people like Putin and Xi and Kim and Khamenei. Got it?
To punctuate the value of unity further, we must also actively put down those politicians intent on stoking division within our country. Trump and his clown-like jesters including Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Green, Lauren Boebert, Paul Gosar, Jim Jordan, et al, have had their day, but that day must end. As for Trump, who has been and continues to be Putin’s apologist and cheerleader, and who advocates defunding NATO, he must never see the inside of the Oval Office again. Since his campaign in 2015-16, I have called him a wannabe fascist. Let’s make sure his status remains: wannabe.
In addition, so-called news networks like FOX and MSNBC who prefer animus-driven ratings to unity (or journalistic integrity), must be confronted for their contributions to misinformation and malice toward their obligation to serve the public interest—an historical obligation of every broadcast journalist in America. What can you do? Tune them out. Your attention is their life-blood. Starve them into compliance with their obligations to our country. Their First Amendment rights do not extend to the destruction of our unity—of our democracy. It is time they stopped yelling “Fire!” in the proverbial crowded movie theatre.
Finally, if we were unconvinced prior to the Putin War crisis, perhaps $6, or $8, or $10 per gallon gas will convince us that fossil fuels are dangerous beyond their impact on climate change; they are now the currency of war. For all the right reasons, it is time to reduce, then eliminate, our use of fossil fuels. This realization—this silver lining—may be just what we need to unify and accelerate our efforts toward a clean-green existence. If high-dollar gas will get Bubba to move to the Ford F-150 Lightning EV, maybe we can also get Patty Prius drivers to drop their intransigent orthodoxy of “nature is good and man is bad” and form a peaceful coexistence between the two that supports clean energy, commerce, and independence from absolutist dictums that have proven completely ineffective in addressing the issue of climate change. The only way we solve this and our many other challenges is together.
Putin’s War, our fifth crisis this century, is a golden opportunity for Americans to be Americans again. To set an example that the free world wants to follow. To make the Statue of Liberty mean something again. To assure every fascist and wannabe fascist that they, too, will receive the Putin punishment.
Let’s not mess this crisis up.