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A man drives his motorcycle past a destroyed car in the retaken village of Velyka Oleksandrivka, Ukraine, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)
A man drives his motorcycle past a destroyed car in the retaken village of Velyka Oleksandrivka, Ukraine, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

In the aftermath of World War II, Americans across the political spectrum agreed on one overarching principle: that maintaining engaged U.S. leadership globally was necessary in order to uphold the rules-based liberal international order and prevent the brutality that defined the 19th and 20th centuries. 

While America’s foreign policy has not always embodied this ideal – especially under the former president, who championed a more isolationist approach – it is still the standard that we must strive for, now more than ever.

Today’s axis of evil – Russia, China, and Iran – poses an existential threat to global peace, security, and freedoms. These despotic and autocratic rulers silence free expression, punish opposition, and personify the antithesis of the values that America was founded on.

Unfortunately, as with most other matters in the U.S. today, America’s role in leading the defense against global autocracy has become politicized – even at this most crucial time, when Russia is committing war crimes against a sovereign nation.

Curiously, the far-right and progressive wings have joined together under the banner of rejecting American international leadership. This small but increasingly vocal minority is calling for the U.S. to step aside and essentially allow Vladimir Putin to walk away from Ukraine with everything he wants.

A recent opinion in these pages, entitled, “Vote for Peace, Not Perpetual War on Election Day,” argues that the West should cave to Russia’s demands under the guise of making “peace” with Putin, a murderous dictator, because the war is too costly, unpredictable, and dangerous.

America doing so would essentially legitimize everything Putin has done up until this point: killing innocent civilians, extorting the international community with treats of nuclear warfare, using energy as a weapon, and most of all, attempting to violently subjugate a sovereign nation.

Further, it would send a clear message to other autocratic rulers – specifically those in Beijing and Tehran – that the United States will bend to the will of foreign powers that go to such horrific lengths, putting sovereign states and nations around the world, like Taiwan, at risk.

Moreover, we can be sure that the buck doesn’t stop with Ukraine for Putin. This is one battle in his grander quest to restore Russia to Soviet-era dominance, and if we hand him this victory, there is no telling what he might do next.

The author essentially makes the case for appeasement, based on the assertion that Americans “have no deep concern over what flag flies in the Donbas” and that the fate of eastern Ukraine is “not a hill to die on.” 

The piece also argues that J.D. Vance – the far-right Republican running in Ohio’s Senate race – is the type of leader voters should elect if they want “peace” in Ukraine. It’s worth noting that, when asked about the war, Vance recently : “I don’t really care what happens in Ukraine, one way or another.”

While Vance – and others like him – may not care about Ukraine, Americans overwhelmingly do.

Americans widely agree that “The United States must support democratic countries when they are attacked by non-democratic countries” (70%) per recent .

Moreover, nearly three-quarters (73%) believe that the U.S. should continue supporting Ukraine, despite Russia’s threats of using nuclear weapons. And by a factor of more than 2-to-1 (69% to 31%), Americans would be more likely – rather than less likely – to support a candidate in the midterms who pledges to continue supporting Ukraine with military aid. 

Americans clearly do not see the war in Ukraine as a far-off European conflict that does not concern us. The public recognizes that it is not just Ukraine being attacked, it is the very ideals of freedom, democracy, and human rights. 

As a pollster for more than forty years, seeing such broad-based support for anything in today’s political climate – let alone for a war in Europe that has already had demonstrable economic consequences, and could have potential nuclear consequences – is rare and cannot be ignored. 

An important note: this is not to say that the United States should act recklessly. Russia possesses the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, and there is no telling what Putin may do if he feels cornered. We should take his threats seriously, but not cower in front of them.

Towing this fine line is critical. The Biden Administration, in addition to avoiding escalatory rhetoric and actions, must prioritize keeping NATO as united as possible – a challenging task, in light of the real possibility that Europe may be forced to survive winter without Russian energy – while making it clear that any use of nuclear weapons will be met with a devastating response.

For his part, President Biden has so far largely displayed the type of leadership that this crisis demands. He has commendably provided billions of dollars in aid – humanitarian, economic, and military – and has rallied the West around Ukraine’s cause, avoided putting U.S. troops in harm’s way, and kept Europe largely united against Russia in spite of a looming energy crisis. 

Right now, the world finds itself at one of the most perilous moments since World War II – and perhaps in history, given the strength of today’s weapons. A nuclear-armed dictator is threatening catastrophic violence if he is unable to subjugate a sovereign state. Other autocrats are watching closely, gauging the free world’s response, wondering if nuclear blackmail could be successful in their future conquests.

Undoubtedly, there are risks in standing up to dictators, especially when nuclear weapons are involved. But we must remember what Ronald Reagan said almost 58 years ago to this day: “The greater risk lies in appeasement.” 

Douglas Schoen is a longtime Democratic political consultant.

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