Certainly there were more urgent matters - Stingers and anti-aircraft weapons systems, aka some version of the Iron Dome - but anyone paying attention to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky as he made his appeal to the U.S. Congress on Wednesday must have noticed the most unexpected part of his speech: Zelensky’s call for a new international body to step in when a humanitarian crisis requires a rapid response.
“We need to create new tools to respond quickly and stop the war, the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, which began on February 24,” Zelensky said. “And it would be fair if it ended in a day, in 24 hours, that evil would be punished immediately. Today, the world does not have such tools. A war of their past have prompted our predecessors to create institutions that should protect us from war. But they unfortunately don't work. We see it, you see it.”
When Zelensky told us outright that the United Nations isn’t working, he articulated something we’ve all known for such a long time it didn’t bear discussing, like a tree growing in the forest or the color blue. This war, though. This war is changing everything.
It’s a truism that the post-World War II era, is defined by globalization and fragmentation. If globalization was the central issue of the 1990s, it’s fragmentation we feel now. The hard left natters on about the U.S. provoking the war (NATO expansion! Oil!) and the right is divided between Putin groupies and weathervanes.
But this war. It is changing things. The majority of Americans, whatever their party, support Ukraine. President Biden is threading the needle expertly, giving us a way to feel good about our role in the world, the way we did in World War II but without U.S. casualties, at least so far.
Amid the rah rah (which I share, to my mild embarrassment) a long-term divide is appearing that cannot be so easily bridged. If China supports Russia in its attempt to control Eastern Europe, we are looking at a bipolar world again: Axis and the Allies, except this time Russia is Germany and China is Japan.
That standoff is a grim Back to the Future scenario, and a dangerous one, with far more nations armed with nuclear weapons this time. (Nine, to be exact, including North Korea and Pakistan.)
The other day I was arguing with a writer who grew up as a State Department brat. This man talked about George Kennan warning against Ukraine joining NATO, and suggested that the best-of-all-possible worlds outcome is Zelensky forming a government in exile.
“He’s more likely to be killed,” I told him.
He said many perspicacious things but too much sounded like yesterday's news. While the Biden administration is doing an extraordinary job of strengthening the rule of law internationally - and not a nanosecond too soon - a new set of rules are coming into view. Zelensky drew the outlines in his speech.
What are the grounds for military action in a globalized and, at the same time, fragmented 21st century world? Put the question another way: What is the contemporary definition of a just war? In the traditional world that Biden and his advisors are striving to preserve, there are the rules set down in alliances, analogous to the male shibboleth of a sports team. The whole system is, in fact, very male: one up, one down. It’s either NATO or Putin.
But Putin, as we’ve seen, doesn’t follow the rules. He’s been called “a street fighter” and he is, of course, a KGB man. And we are living in a different era. After the Cold War ended (although this now seems to have been an interregnum rather than an ending) small-scale, genocidal wars became the norm.
What happens in the future, in an age of weakened civil societies and proliferating nuclear weapons, when there are more leaders who are as ruthless as Putin? How do Western democracies and their allies act more quickly, more effectively to stop war? We haven't done very well in Afghanistan, Syria, or Iraq, not to mention Yemen. It's been noted that we've been implicated in the odd war crime ourselves. (Oh, that.)
I’ve always been skeptical of the idea that the world would be flowers and unicorns if women ruled it. But there really is a different model, and dare I say it: it’s female. It's also the way younger men think. This is what Zelensky is suggesting.
In an age of regional and genocidal conflict, we need a different threshold for military intervention: crimes against humanity, specifically the deliberate killing of civilians on a mass scale.
The central value in a globalizing world should not be the neocolonial imposition of “democracy,” and its mercantile interests, which led to the ill-fated and mendacious U.S. invasion of Iraq, but defense and preservation of a single value: our common humanity. This was what Zelensky meant when he spoke of a body that could mobilize action in a 24-hour period, not only in the case of an invasion, but also to confront pandemics. The motivation is protecting people, not “winning.”
Walter Shapiro, political columnist for The New Republic and friend of this magazine, invoked the historical context:
What was impressive is that the Zelenskiy speech was more than just an emotional plea for NATO weapons and protection. The Ukrainian president floated the idea of a global association that he called “U-24, United for Peace.” Designed to supplant the spineless and usually ineffective United Nations, Zelenskiy envisioned “a union of responsible countries that have the strength and consciousness to stop conflicts immediately.”
This is how the idealistic founders of the United Nations in the late 1940s believed that an international organization should act when confronted with aggression. But as Joseph Stalin (who seems, more and more, like Putin’s role model) soon made clear, such a global peace force was impossible as long as the Soviet Union had a veto in the Security Council. Periodically since then, there have been proposals for an international organization of democratic nations that would extend beyond NATO and the European Union.
Shapiro called this question, "an issue for another day" but noted that Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine offers a template for the future, and an alarming one. I would argue that the response of the Biden administration and its allies is also a template for how national leaders of conscience can react, not just to an invasion by a nuclear power, but to a genocide.
While not sufficiently rapid in an ideal world, the response of the U.S. and its allies has been both fast and intelligently conceived, far more so than the U.S. response to genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans. Practice makes nearly perfect, or at least better. Despite echoes of World War II, the war in Ukraine is, in some respects, very much a war of our time. While it may turn into a world war, it is a regional conflict where the rules of war are flouted, and according to some definitions, it could be considered genocidal. That is war now.
While the idea of generational differences is too often used as reductive shorthand by journalists, Zelensky’s age is important. He is 44. He possesses a contemporary vision of the world. As Shapiro says, the creation of a more effective international organization is a task for another day. But seeing international relations through a different lens is something we can do now. I believe the mental shift is already underway. It’s evident in the brilliant social media propagated by Ukraine and its allies, formal and informal, which shows the human face of conflict. This is very different war propaganda, if you will, emphasizing compassion rather than dehumanizing the enemy.
Subtle signs are appearing in other areas, too. On Feb. 28, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced that he was investigating Putin for war crimes. Prosecution of the Russian president would be a benchmark for the court, which has an unfortunate and rather charged history of focusing on the crimes of African leaders.
The U.S. signed the treaty establishing the ICC under the administration of president Bill Clinton, but the treaty was never submitted to congress, where it would have failed to pass. Later, the Bush administration opposed the court, fearing that Americans would be prosecuted for war crimes in Iraq. The Biden administration has been moving closer to support for the ICC.
A vigorous prosecution of Putin would strengthen the court internationally, rendering it more immune to criticism by African leaders. Yet it remains unlikely, especially if Republicans gain traction in 2024, that the U.S. will pass the treaty, making its national subject to prosecution.
So Zelensky is right. We need a new international effort with a clear humanitarian purpose, and the ability to act quickly to save civilians, whether from pandemics or cluster bombs.
The 44-year-old Ukrainian comic will be remembered for many things. In the best of all possible worlds, this step into the future what people in future generations will associate with his name. Say it now: Zelensky.
Zelensky's speech included a short video of war scenes and for some reason, YouTube is restricting it. See:
Putin's speech. Dueling versions of reality.
Putin's coat. Friday rally.
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