Vladimir Putin, Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Tommy Tuberville
Photo credit: Illustration by WhoWhoWhy from President of Russia (CC BY 4.0 DEED), US House / Wikimedia, Gage Skidmore / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED), Gage Skidmore / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED), and Gage Skidmore / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED).

A de facto end of support to Ukraine risks initiating a new world order — one in which America no longer counts.

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It sounds ridiculous to accuse Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), Matt Gaetz (R-FL), or Lauren Boebert (R-CO) of being active agents for the Kremlin. But when Vladimir Putin gave his marathon, four-hour, end-of-the-year press conference last Thursday, he had a hard time concealing his glee: the obstructionist antics of an extreme fringe element in Congress were largely responsible for Putin’s relief that he no longer has to worry about being corrected by the United States. The extremist wing of the Republican Party is no doubt the greatest gift to the Kremlin and Putin’s imperial ambitions since some unnamed chef added Caspian caviar to Russia’s blinis. 

By focusing on domestic hot-button issues such as abortion and illegal immigration, the Trump-shaped GOP has managed to trick Congress and a significant number of Americans into forgetting about the country’s larger place in the world and, even more important, about the consequences of abandoning global leadership. 

Knowing full well that funding is essential to holding off efforts to crush Ukraine’s beleaguered population, Republican congressmembers packed up their belongings and went home on vacation. From Kyiv’s point of view, GOP nonchalance over another nation’s fate was nothing less than an obscenity.

Republican fringe extremists were not the only ones to give Putin a badly needed boost. Hungary’s right-wing prime minister, Victor Orban, did his best to scuttle Ukraine’s hopes for entering the European Union and then to make sure that the EU could not step in to make up for the shortfall resulting from Republican obstruction.

Orban was hardly acting alone. The latest darling of American white supremacists, ultra-conservatives, and QAnon conspiracy theorists, Orban was guest of honor at the annual meeting of CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, in Texas in 2022. His message to right-wingers flooding into the conference was “Let’s work together.”  Work to do what? He left that to the imagination of the conference followers.   

Orban’s argument concerning Ukraine is that if the Ukrainians will just surrender to Russia, peace will return to whatever remains of the country after relentless Russian missile attacks and Putin’s “special military operation,” and the rest will be fine. Given the bitterness that has resulted from Russia’s brutal use of cruise and hypersonic missiles to blast civilian centers into a grizzly mix of rubble and carnage, not to mention his treatment of Russian citizens who dare to challenge his right to behave as a monster, it’s hard to imagine that Putin’s treatment of a defeated Ukraine would be civilized. 

Once Ukraine runs out of ammunition, because the US has lost interest and because Republicans in Congress can’t be bothered, Ukrainians are likely to face Putin’s personal version of ethnic cleansing.

Viktor Orbán, CPAC, Hungary

Viktor Orbán at CPAC Hungary in Budapest on May 19, 2022. Photo credit: Elekes Andor / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED)

The Russian dictator is clearly gloating over what he expects to turn into a slaughter that could make Gaza look like child’s play. For the rest of us, the turn of events can’t help calling to mind Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939. Europe protested, just as it is doing today, but could do nothing to save the Poles, or for that matter the terrified Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, who were subsequently transported to Nazi death camps. A year later, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg succumbed to the German blitzkrieg and were introduced to Hitler’s notion of a “final solution.” 

No one expects Vladimir Putin to turn into a replica of Hitler, or for that matter, to invade the US. He doesn’t have to. His objective, at least for the moment, is merely to discredit and eliminate America’s global leadership, which is proving to be an embarrassing irritant to his own concept of dictator-driven oligarchy. All he is really asking is for America to step out of the way while he massacres his recalcitrant, independence-seeking neighbor.

America did not set out to create an empire, but after industrializing in the latter half of the 19th century, it needed to assure a steady supply of energy and other vital raw materials from sources beyond its borders. Then the US assumed the trappings of empire almost by default, at the end of World War II, when it was effectively left as the last power standing. In working to rebuild what had been destroyed in Europe and Asia, it helped create institutions to promote its values on a global basis. Those values — especially the insistence on democracy and the rule of law, even when applied a bit selectively — are natural obstacles to the imperial ambitions of quite a few players on the global stage. 

Putin clearly wants to restore Russia to the prominence that he believes it enjoyed under the czars — or if not the czars, at least the influence it had as the Soviet Union. China still smarts as a result of what it calls “The Great Humiliation,” the colonial period in which Western European powers, notably Britain and France, carved up a once great empire. As for Iran, it still remembers the CIA-led coup in 1953 that overthrew its democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, and replaced him with Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, as the Shah of Iran — all to have unimpeded access to Iranian oil after Mossadegh nationalized the Anglo-Persian oil company. 

The bottom line is that a lot of rising powers have grudges to settle. The US’s status as a global superpower has managed to keep much of that in check. It doesn’t take too many foreign policy stumbles for that protection to vanish.

Marjorie Taylor Greene’s absurdist rhetoric, or Alabama’s Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s antics in attempting to paralyze the Pentagon in order to promote his ideas on abortion, may seem an unserious sideshow to anyone who routinely follows international affairs. But from Putin’s point of view, the distractions that extremist Republicans cause while effectively sabotaging the government and undermining traditional American institutions may be all that any would-be plutocrat really needs. 

What we are really talking about here, after all, is a fundamental realignment of global power, and even more important, a realignment of global values.

If Tuberville can paralyze Pentagon promotions for several months just to make sure that women in the military are denied the right to have an abortion, from Moscow’s point of view Tuberville and his ideological compeers counts not only as an unwitting ally, he has effectively become an improvised explosive device planted in the heart of American government. 

All the Kremlin has to do is nudge a few hot-button issues and a misguided, not-overly-bright American legislator will do the rest of the work, especially if it is all part of a complex coordinated strategy aimed at one of democracy’s vital organs.

In retrospect, historians pointed out that in its early stages, Hitler’s National Socialists, aka Nazis, could have been stopped relatively easily. The problem was that no one was paying attention, and those who did found themselves unable to make decisive decisions.

Combined with other resources, these tactics can prove extremely effective — at least from the perspective of those who would like to see America taken down a peg or two. Mix a few renegade legislators with social media and you have a potent cocktail. For instance, it was recently discovered that TikTok has enrolled thousands of automated Russian bots that pretend to be Americans and have been flooding social media channels promoting outlandish conspiracy theories along with pernicious stereotypes — a kind of automated strategy encouraging the average American to “follow the leader” toward ultimate destruction. 

The Russians don’t need to kill Americans physically; they just need to confuse us to death.

But does any of this really make any difference to most Americans? The new brand of Republican extremist argues that we need to think “America First,” and forget about the rest of the world. The real threat to our security, they say, are those thousands of illiterate and unclean refugees waiting to cross our southern border. That, they say, is the real threat, not the Russian slaughter-machine in the Ukraine.

The truth is that we have been here before. Early in the last century, World War I began with the German kaiser threatening Britain and France. In the spirit of George Washington’s often repeated warning against foreign entanglements, US President Woodrow Wilson pledged to keep the country out of that war. He succeeded until German submarines sinking American ships made it obvious that we were eventually going to be involved whether we liked it or not. US involvement tipped the balance then and helped save Western Europe, but it also cost more than 53,000 lives of American soldiers in combat.

The two decades that followed that war were characterized by isolationism. World War I, it was argued, was proof that the US should think about America first and ignore the rest of the world.  Sen. Gerald P. Nye, a Republican from North Dakota, argued — much like Republicans today — that US involvement in World War I had been spurred by bankers and arms merchants angling for profits. A popular pamphlet, “War is a Racket” by Smedley Butler, a decorated Marine, and a book, Merchants of Death by H.C. Englebrecht, reinforced the argument. 

When Western Europe tried to form the League of Nations, a precursor to the United Nations, Republicans in Congress refused to ratify the treaty that would have led to American participation.

Madison Square Garden, Nazi, Rally

German American Bund rally in Madison Square Garden in New York, NY, February 1939; from the film “The Nazis Strike” 1943. Photo credit: DOD / Wikimedia

When Imperial Japanese army troops slaughtered 200,000 Chinese civilians in Nanking in less than six weeks, and raped 80,000 women in the process, the US voiced displeasure, much as it does about similar atrocities now; but in the end we did nothing. When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 and began deporting thousands of Polish Jews to extermination camps, the US likewise did nothing. 

At that time many Americans couldn’t decide if they supported Hitler or opposed him. Time magazine, in fact, had just named Hitler “Man of the Year” and written a somewhat ambivalent cover story marveling at the Fuhrer’s impact in Europe. In New York, 20,000 American Nazi sympathizers crowded into Madison Square Garden to hear speeches praising Nazi efficiency. A gigantic picture of George Washington was erected at the front of the hall, and the rally was billed as “pro-American.” 

The US would very likely have stayed out of World War II if the Japanese hadn’t launched their “surprise” attack against Pearl Harbor and sunk much of the US Navy’s Pacific fleet. When that attack took place, America suddenly realized that it did not really have a functional army capable of standing up to Hitler. President Franklin Roosevelt asked Gen. George C. Marshall to rebuild the army virtually from scratch. Marshall found Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, and George S. Patton, all lowly majors who were suddenly promoted to general and told to pull together a capable fighting force. 

The US emerged victorious from World War II but, despite a tsunami of wartime propaganda, victory was really by the skin of our teeth and thanks to an extraordinary amount of luck. The cost to the country was more than 400,000 GI’s killed in action — eight times the number of American servicemen and women killed in World War I. 

Isolationism hadn’t saved anyone. In fact, it had cost American lives, not to mention the destruction of Europe.

In retrospect, historians pointed out that in the early stages, Hitler’s National Socialists, aka Nazis, could have been stopped relatively easily. The problem was that no one was paying attention, and those who did found themselves indecisive.

Totalitarianism, fascism, authoritarianism, and inequality all behave a lot like viruses. For a limited time, an antiviral drug can create the impression that the problem has been eliminated, but a few infectious cells are always hovering in the background, hibernating and waiting for the opening they need to start another epidemic. The relapse started with the Supreme Court decision that fully equated money with speech and allowed Citizens United — and by extension every deep pocket with an agenda — to use dark money and advanced data-processing to win local elections and gerrymander the elections for state legislatures. 

Trump and his Machiavellian strategist, Steve Bannon, pushed the process further by purchasing big-data player Cambridge Analytica in order to have an edge in spotting voter proclivities and vulnerabilities, and targeting information and disinformation accordingly. Bannon eventually left Trump to launch a campaign encouraging various fascist nations in Europe. Trump learned frustratingly that in any real democracy, voters can change their allegiances. Refusing to accept the fact that he had lost an election, he may have thought that a riot overwhelming the US Capitol would initiate a national uprising that could put him back in office. The US clearly wasn’t ready for that, at least not then. 

The ancient Romans said, when their empire began to fray at the edges, that the barbarians were at the gates. Migrants collecting on our southern border, pleading to be let in, right-to-lifers who are ready to kill in order to promote their point of view, and QAnoners who prefer an alternate reality to the one that is really there may occupy our attention, but over-concentration on a single issue  can keep one from seeing a greater danger.  

The world and human society are currently at a pivot point. The American notion of democracy, Western ideals concerning human rights, and the right of the ordinary citizen to choose his or her own destiny are all being challenged. Do we really believe that the authoritarian approach in Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China, or Iran’s notion of a theocratic dictatorship, are superior to what we until now have had in the United States? 

If we cannot bring ourselves to make our values and real interests understood globally — if we cannot understand them ourselves — they will soon be replaced by someone else’s vision. The world will head in a new direction, and that direction is unlikely to be to our liking.


  • William Dowell

    William Dowell is WhoWhatWhy's editor for international coverage. He previously worked for NBC and ABC News in Paris before signing on as a staff correspondent for TIME Magazine based in Cairo, Egypt. He has reported from five continents--most notably the War in Vietnam, The Revolution in Iran, the Civil War in Beirut, Operation Desert Storm, and Afghanistan. He also taught a seminar on the Literature of Journalism at New York University.

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