America’s deterrence strategy can be summed up in the phrase “speak softly and carry a big stick.” By presenting a robust, technologically advanced military designed not for conquest, but as a check against those who might conquer and subdue others, America provides a bulwark against aggression and adventurism all around the world.
President Teddy Roosevelt built his “big stick diplomacy” on four tenets, all of which still apply today: Possess great military power; be willing to employ that power to full effect when necessary; never bluff—threaten force only when prepared to use it; and finally, be a good citizen of the world by respecting all nations—even adversaries in defeat or retreat.
We find ourselves today on the other side of the deterrence challenge, intimidated by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats of possible nuclear war. Putin’s willingness to break norms others take for granted are destabilizing. Targeting civilians in Ukraine, using chemical weapons in Syria, even his willingness in January to blow up a satellite in orbit, are proof he does not think like Westerners, nor will he act according to the rules-based order embraced by most of the world.
Putting his nuclear forces on alert turns a conventional regional war into a global strategic chess match. Every NATO member is on notice, since any wrong move could potentially trigger world-altering consequences. Those stakes slow NATO’s progress in offering and delivering aid and buy Putin time.
Strong doesn’t mean big. Strong is brave and ready to fight for the life of its citizens.
The Ukrainian people’s whole-of-nation defense, rallied by the inspiring leadership of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, is something too few of us can comprehend: A free people fighting with whatever they have, defying a larger army through sheer will. They understand what they’re fighting for; the average Ukrainian was 10 years old when their country declared its independence and the Soviet Union was no more. They earned their freedom and cherish it.
Contrast that with our comfort-seeking countrymen here in the United States. A recent Quinnipiac University Poll posed this provocative question to 1,324 American adults in March: “If you were in the same position as Ukrainians are now, do you think that you would stay and fight or leave the country?”
Among 18 to 35-year-olds—those most needed in a military conflict—48 percent said they would “leave the country.” Only 45 percent said they would stay and fight. (Given the poll’s margin of error—+/- 2.6 percent—that’s effectively an even split.) Their parents are a heartier crowd: 66 percent of Americans ages 50 to 64 said they would stay and fight, just 28 percent said they would leave. Is it that they have more to fight for, or that they better understand what would be at stake?
Most respondents who identified as Hispanic (61 percent) believe America is worth fighting for, more than whites (57 percent) or Blacks (38 percent). One imagines America’s newest immigrants know precisely what it took to gain freedom in the United States, and value that more highly than our native-born citizens. Life-long Americans, long used to relying on an all-volunteer military, have forgotten that national defense is everyone’s responsibility.
This is dangerous. It’s not enough to grant our military early boarding privileges on airlines, 10 percent discounts at big-box stores, and thank-yous for their service every Veterans Day. We need more Americans to participate in and contribute to our national defense, either through a modern-day national service program or mid-career opportunities that give working professionals a chance to contribute their talent and ability to the military that secures their nation. Selling such a program won’t be easy, but you can bet the payoffs would be huge.
Back to Ukraine. One thing Americans do understand is that our country can to do more to help. The majority of Quinnipiac Poll respondents called the sanctions imposed by the Biden administration “not tough enough.” Four of every five support a united NATO military response should any NATO member be attacked. Three of five believe Putin is truly willing to use nuclear weapons. And yet, most seem surprisingly undeterred by that threat.
Zelensky, clad in his trademark green T-shirt, addressed a joint session of Congress via video March 16, speaking both in his native tongue and in English. “Right now, the destiny of our country is being decided,” he said. “The destiny of our people, whether Ukrainians will be free, whether they will be able to preserve their democracy. Russia has attacked not just us, not just our land, our cities. It went on a brutal offensive against our values. Basic human values. Against our freedom. … Against our desire for happiness. Against our national dreams. Just like the same dreams you have, you Americans.”
Evoking Martin Luther King Jr., Zelensky said, he too has a dream, or perhaps more accurately, “I can say I have a need. … I need to protect our sky.”
Trying to impose a no-fly zone while war rages, however, is engagement, not peacekeeping. Neither the U.S. nor NATO are prepared to enter the war under those circumstances. NATO is willing to help, not to fight. That comes in the form of $1 billion in U.S. military aid and new NATO resolve to further reinforce its eastern flank.
Yet the White House dithers over Poland’s offer to provide Ukraine MiG fighters, alternately suggesting they would not make much difference and saying that providing them could be seen as escalation. Be serious: 40-year-old combat aircraft are no more an escalation than planeloads of Javelin and Stinger missiles. Both are needed. Both can help Ukraine defend itself. Neither will win the war alone.
Likewise, the U.S. should offer to backfill NATO partners willing and able to provide Ukraine Russian-made S-300 air defense systems. By deploying additional Patriot missile batteries in Eastern Europe, the U.S. can strengthen NATO defenses while simultaneously signaling Putin about the West’s resolve. This is what should be expected of the United States as leader of the free world, the winner of World War II, and the one victor in history that helped its worst former enemies recover to become among its closest allies.
“Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace,” Zelensky reminded Congress and the American people. “Peace in your country doesn’t depend anymore only on you and your people. It depends on those next to you and those who are strong. Strong doesn’t mean big. Strong is brave and ready to fight for the life of its citizens and citizens of the world.”
Americans can learn something from his message.