Back in February, the West impressed the world with its resolute rally behind Ukraine in the face of Russia’s brutal aggression. From Washington to Warsaw, leaders from across the political spectrum seemed to be singing in rare harmony.
Four months later, what’s striking is how quickly divisions have resurfaced — both among countries and within them.
Biden’s task in the next week will be to revive the spirit of February. If allowed to fester, emerging disagreements could undercut the effort to support Ukraine while feeding Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sense that time is on his side.
As inflation surges, Covid-19 mutates and economies teeter on the edge of recession, Western leaders hardly look up to the task of defending the free world.
This picture of divisions and disarray is all the more worrying as Putin is almost certainly reading too much into it.
Like his friend, Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Russian leader has believed for years that the West is in decline, dysfunctional, and self-obsessed. Domestic political fights, electoral upsets and quarrels among allies all strike such autocrats as signs of weakness.
What such leaders do not realize is that democracy’s strength lies in its ability to process disagreements rather than sweep them under the carpet. Attempts to impose unity by fiat create a fragile simulacrum of order. They also blind the leader to the true state of public opinion.
To succeed, countries need to forge unity rather than fake it. But that doesn’t happen automatically. And it takes time. If the characteristic weakness of dictatorships is the tendency of leaders to lose touch with reality, the corresponding defect of democracies is that they take too long to rouse.
When they act, democracies can mobilize far greater energy and innovation than their foes. But they often begin so late that costs have already risen to unnerving levels.
That’s where leadership comes in. The top challenge for any statesman is to counteract his system’s failings. A dictator who remains informed and critical is more likely to survive. A democratic leader who inspires his people — and allies — to tackle looming problems early on deserves particular historical recognition.
Biden displayed resolve in his rapid response to Putin’s aggression. In preparing sanctions and rallying the West early on, his team showed glimmers of greatness. Now, as splits reemerge, he needs to do more of this — explaining what’s at stake, shaping opinion at home and abroad, and maintaining the coalition to keep aid flowing to Kyiv.
The danger in the next few months is that, distracted and diverted, the West will not get Ukraine the weapons it needs fast enough to defeat Russia.
We cannot let that happen. Our advantage in this contest is that we do not need to fear divisions. In the end, they are our strength. But they have to be bridged by able and energetic leadership. That’s what democracies — and their great statesmen — do. E pluribus unum.