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“Nations that do things out of self-interest are much stronger allies than nations that act out of sympathy”

Interview with Tamar Jacoby, the director of the Progressive Policy Institute’s New Ukraine Project. Interviewer: Iwona Reichardt.

February 28, 2024 - Iwona Reichardt Tamar Jacoby - Interviews

Tamar Jacoby. Photo: Private

IWONA REICHARDT: Looking at the near future regarding US politics and policy towards Ukraine, what can we expect in your view?

TAMAR JACOBY: I am still modestly hopeful that the US Congress will pass the aid package that has been pending since last October, although they might not pass the whole package. It has already passed the Senate by a resounding margin, bigger than anyone expected. But the House of Representatives is going to be a much tougher setting. The current belief in Washington is that military aid for Ukraine could pass but not economic aid. This might not be what Ukraine wants, but it will still be important – what Kyiv needs most from the US right now is military aid. At the same time, I fear that even if it passes, this will be the last American package for Ukraine. American support for Ukraine has been eroding for two years, since the full-scale invasion. It used to be 60, 70 or even 80 per cent; but we are now down to the 50 or 60 per cent support. If Donald Trump is re-elected, I fear that American aid will be cut off entirely. But even without a President Trump, I fear that American interest and concern and attention for the war is flagging. The good news is that Europe is stepping up to fill this gap, so the timing could be okay. We have also recently been alarmed by news about Russian nuclear weapons in space, so maybe some Americans will wake up.

How would you explain this drop off in interest in Ukraine and US support for its defence?

Indulge me while I go back a bit in history. Throughout its 200 plus years of history, the United States has been very ambivalent, very torn about what were once called foreign entanglements. From the beginning, many great figures from our history, including Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, said “Keep away from Europe”. And this attitude comes in cycles. Consider the First World War: it took us a long time, but we finally entered. The same can be said about the Second World War. It also took us a long time to join the fight. But when we did, we were the decisive factor. In the post 9/11 period, we fought important global wars in the Middle East. That is why I agree with the commentator who compared us to a sleeping dragon. One that sleeps and slumbers and doesn’t care about the world, but when he wakes up, he’s ferocious. I think that’s not a bad metaphor. And notice that throughout our history, it’s been different parties taking the lead in the world. Sometimes it was Republicans. Remember Ronald Reagan? Sometimes it was Democrats who were saying we must engage and Republicans who were hesitant. The parties switch roles from time to time, and there are many reasons for it.

What are these reasons?

Well, first of all, for Americans, Europe is far away. With the exception of 9/11 and Pearl Harbor, Americans have rarely been threatened on their own soil. I also think many Americans are naïve about global politics. They do not see the world as a dangerous place. They think the two oceans, east and west, will protect them. Plus there are always problems at home. Each party has its own flavour of isolationism. One of the biggest reasons for the declining support today is that unlike Europeans, Americans do not believe Vladimir Putin could really be a threat to them. Putin is far away. They don’t understand that if we don’t defeat Putin now, we will encourage tyrants around the world. Public opinion polls show that only 40 per cent of Americans understand that.

Nations that do things out of self-interest are much stronger allies than nations that act out of sympathy. In the beginning, there was a lot of American sympathy for Ukraine. It was such an obvious David and Goliath story. But that didn’t last long. Now, the sympathy has waned, and many Americans don’t understand that we have a national interest in stopping Putin. The elite understand this, but a lot of voters don’t. And America is a democracy.

Do you think the lack of success of the Ukrainian counter-offensive has contributed to this waning of support? Something along the lines: we are giving them weapons but they are not winning, so is it worth it?

I am sure there are feelings like that. As President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said, the world loves winners. It rarely loves losers.

Were the hopes for success too high?

Yes, they were too high. The expectations were ridiculous. And now the problem is that people don’t see a path to winning. President Joe Biden is partly at fault for this. Biden needs to get up and say, “Here’s the end goal, and here’s how were get there: steps A, B, C, D, E”. It might not persuade everyone, but it would persuade some people. Voters need to understand the rationale. And then of course there are Republicans who don’t support the war in Ukraine just because they see it as a Democratic initiative.

Would you say that Ukraine will become the topic of the oncoming presidential campaign?

No, I don’t see that.

It will not serve as a decisive factor of who will win or lose?

Foreign policy is almost never a decisive factor in American presidential elections. The economy always comes first. The border is much more likely to be a decisive issue. Some recent polling asked Americans about their support for engagement in a number of places worldwide – Taiwan, Ukraine, the Middle East, civilians in Gaza – but also how they feel about the border [southern border of the US]. Engaging on first four issues got about 55 to 45 per cent support, while the border got 75 per cent. The first four are seen as faraway problems, while the border is seen as a key issue. People are very emotional about the border, and for understandable reasons.

It is close to home.

It’s close to home, and it is going to determine who we are as a country tomorrow. I believe the war against Putin is an equally important issue, but not all Americans understand that.

Here in Europe we can hear some concern that a small group of American voters will determine the future of the European continent, or maybe even the future of the world. What lies behind these words is fear that if Donald Trump wins the election he may fulfil his promise of ending the war fast and in that case we all will lose. Do you think this fear is recognized in the US?

That’s a good question, I am not sure. The first thing I would stress is that if Trump is elected president, it won’t be by a small group of American voters. It would be by the majority of American voters, unfortunately. I also question if he’ll be able to end the war in 24 hours. How would that work? Besides, he doesn’t believe in anything except himself – he is driven by his ego. So recently, for example, Putin insulted him by saying he preferred Biden. That could have some impact on Trump. We will see. Bottom line, I think the notion that things will end badly just because Trump is president may be too simple. Even Ukrainians say that. I think it’s possible that by the time Trump is president, Europe may be stepping up enough that Trump may not be so disastrous. I am trying to be hopeful.

Can Ukraine win without the US support?

Wars are very unpredictable. We are about to go into the third year of this war – most wars in history lasted much longer than that. There is a long road ahead. But I find it hard to see that the West will allow Russia to win completely.

But it could allow it to gain control over a part of Ukraine?

But this control over part of Ukraine might not last forever. I hate to even hypothesize about this. But let’s say in the worst case, Trump could get Putin to the negotiating table, and Ukrainians, for whatever reason, had to come to the table and agree to a truce. Then, in two years, Russia would invade again, and then what happens? The war won’t be over, and then, the second time, perhaps the American dragon will wake up. Of course, I hope this is not how it plays out.

We have mentioned Putin’s name a few times already, have you seen the interview with Tucker Carlson?


Who was it intended for?

Republicans, clearly. On any political issue, 15 per cent of the public have clear, decisive views on the one end of the political spectrum and 15 per cent of people have decisive views on the other end, while 60 per cent is usually in the middle. They have mixed views, and they’re persuadable, and what they have just heard often influences whether they vote for one side or another. There are a lot of Americans who are tired of the war, they don’t think it is their problem, they’re worried about America’s challenges at home. Making it appear as if Putin had some sort of rational argument for the invasion, that it is reasonable to have a peace negotiation and he is sincerely open to negotiating, all of that may be important for these people in the middle. The Tucker Carlson interview was aimed at people like that in that middle of the political spectrum who are tired of the war in Ukraine but haven’t yet taken a decisive stance.

Do you think they have been persuaded after this interview?

I wonder about that a lot. It was certainly debunked by the American elite as being completely tendentious and not serious journalism. One of the best analyses I read pointed out that for Putin, lying isn’t even a bad thing. Putin is a spy, and spies lie.

Right before our conversation today, we heard that Alexei Navalny had died in prison. I hope this news will shock some Americans, like the news about Russian nuclear weapons in space, and maybe it will be enough to wake the sleeping dragon. But again, I feel that Biden could have made a better case over the years. There was never a resounding Biden speech about why this war is important for American interests.

Maybe morally it is difficult, because arguing that we are making money on the war and therefore it is in our economic interest is not an easy argument…

The war is in our self-interest for that reason too, but it’s not the main reason. The main reason is global security, maintaining a world order that is secure and democratic. What’s important now is that a tyrant is threatening that order, a tyrant of the scale and power of Putin.

Would you then say that Biden’s ”whatever it takes” rhetoric was too vague?

Yes, it was too vague. Unfortunately, Biden is not Churchill, and what we need now is Churchill. 

Could you yet explain to our readers what has recently gone wrong with the Republican Party? This issue is especially relevant to people in our region where this party and its prominent figures like Ronald Reagan or John McCain were always seen as anti-Soviet, anti-Russian and pro-independence of nations such as Ukrainians, Georgians, etc. That is why even Donald Trump was given a chance during his first term. Even now some people are turning a blind eye to what is happening in the US and close their ears to Trump’s criticism in Western Europe, but yet they have some questions and concerns about their own future if he gets elected president.

You have to understand that in America, as everywhere, political parties are coalitions. There are many factions in the Republican Party. For example, there used to be what we called the Wall Street faction and the Main Street faction, the country club faction and the small business faction. And that GOP used to be the champion of engagement abroad, the champion of free trade and immigration. But the party has shifted dramatically in the last 20 years as Trump has reshaped the coalition by reaching out to white voters without a college education – what some people call the working class, who have different views on all these issues. It’s not that different in many ways from other countries with populist governments, as we saw in Poland before the last elections. Since the 1990s, the elite has benefited from globalization, and in the case of Eastern Europe from the demise of the Soviet Union and communist system. But there were lots of people, less educated and less wealthy, who did not benefit as much. They felt left out by the progress, and they were angry, and Trump was brilliant at appealing to them. He reached them by channelling their resentment at being left out and left behind.

Did the Tea Party prepare this ground for Trump?

In some ways. It too appealed to people who felt they had been left behind, but before Trump, no one knew how to push these voters’ buttons so effectively. It’s very ironic that a billionaire from New York who is married to an Eastern European should be the one who figured out how to push their buttons. But he did, and he has drawn a lot of these voters away from the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party is also shifting dramatically. It too was once a centrist coalition, and it was the party of the working class. But since the 1960s, it has become the party of social liberalism and minorities focused on identity issues.

Would you say that at the moment the support for Ukraine within the Republican Party could still be found in this more “old school group” of McCain-likes?

Sure, some people still believe in the McCain worldview. The trouble is that there are not that many of us left. I call myself a McCain Republican, but we can meet in a phone booth – that is how few of us there are. And the ones that are left in Washington are retiring very quickly in the face of Trump. Take Mitt Romney, for example. What he has been saying recently about Ukraine is worthy of McCain. But he’s retiring. Thom Tillis, a senator from North Carolina, has also been strong, but he is also retiring. There is about a dozen House Republicans who are retiring this year because they are tired of the polarization in Washington. They don’t feel part of their party anymore, and they’re tired of fighting.

Let us try to finish our talk on a more positive note: what’s the ground for your optimism?

I think there are a few things. One is my experience of living in Ukraine. I see very clearly there that this is an existential war for Ukrainians. They are not going to give up. They can’t give up. They can’t lie down and say, “Let the bear eat me for lunch”. Second, I believe that Europeans are waking up – waking up to the threat and the need for Europe to defend itself. We’ve been seeing a gradual awakening for several years, but I see the curve going sharply up now. And let’s hope this will galvanize some Americans – that there will be some wise people in America who will manage to continue to help in some way so we do not leave Ukraine entirely.

Tamar Jacoby is the Kyiv-based director of the Progressive Policy Institute’s New Ukraine Project. A former journalist and author, she was a senior writer and justice editor at Newsweek and, before that, the deputy editor of the New York Times op-ed page. She is the author of “Someone Else’s House: America’s Unfinished Struggle for Integration” and “Displaced: The Ukrainian Refugee Experience.”

Iwona Reichardt is the deputy editor in chief of New Eastern Europe.

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