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Opinion Ukraine buries ‘America First’ for good, we hope

Refugees from Ukraine wait at the railway station on March 2 in Chelm, from where they will take a special train to Warsaw. (Bartlomiej Wojtowicz/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the cringeworthy slogan “America First” might finally and convincingly be discredited. It’s long overdue.

Republicans, even those not entirely enamored of the defeated former president, took delight over the past five years in declaring “America First." They reveled in rejecting mainstream national security experts, scoffing at international organizations and displaying contempt for allies. To a surprising extent, this faction of the GOP has modeled itself on the isolationists of the 1930s, who didn’t bother to hide their admiration for that era’s fascist aggressor.

Donald Trump and his allies (even the crowd that joined the administration by rationalizing their expertise would prevent debacles) believed, in particular, that international organizations impeded our sovereignty, sucked up our resources and helped the enemies of the United States. They told us we had been played for “suckers" and would do better when we did not need to collaborate, cooperate and coordinate with others.

This thinking was tragically flawed. Nevertheless, not even a pandemic, intensified climate change and increased cyberattacks, all elements that defy borders and require international cooperation, could convince the right that its formula made us weaker and more vulnerable. Then came Ukraine.

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Never before has the value of NATO been so apparent. The same Republicans who used to whine that NATO allies did not shoulder their obligations now appear to be peeved that Europe is “leading.” (The accusation is disingenuous, of course, because President Biden was the one to revive and energize the alliance.)

At an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 23, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Video: Reuters)

Even the United Nations has sprung to life. Putin and his accessories face investigation for war crimes by the International Criminal Court and private nongovernmental organizations. The U.N. Security Council has become a forum for criticizing Russia and debunking its propaganda. On Wednesday, the General Assembly passed a resolution (albeit nonbinding) in which 141 countries condemned the invasion and demanded the Russians leave Ukraine.

James Hohmann: Ukrainian Americans overpower the isolationist impulses of Trump-era GOP

Just four nations (Belarus, Syria, North Korea and Eritrea) joined Russia in voting no, although 35 abstained (including India, devolving into an autocracy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi). Even unreliable allies (e.g., Turkey) and countries that have moved toward authoritarianism (e.g., Poland, Hungary) voted with the United States. When 141 countries rebut Putin’s argument that Ukraine does not exist as an independent nation, you know he’ll never gain consent for a reassembled Russian empire.

Republicans’ applause at Tuesday’s State of the Union for the alliance Biden constructed is implicit recognition that “America First” is kaput. In its place we see wide bipartisan agreement that the United States, together with its allies and organizing international bodies, can advance our interests in a way America by itself cannot.

Even our adversaries understand the power of our alliances and international bodies. That’s why Putin is so intent on weakening them. In testimony before the House Oversight Committee in February, former ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul explained, “Putin aspires to first weaken and ideally destroy European multilateral institutions and continental norms about democracy and human rights." Those structures stand in the way of his grandiose vision, which is precisely why we need to enhance them. (Finland might soon join NATO; Ukraine has applied to enter the European Union.)

Only the United States has the stature, influence and economic might to forge and maintain alliances that preserve the peace, maintain international order, enhance global commerce and ultimately defend democratic values. The right-wing isolationists got it entirely wrong: America’s strength derives in large part not from going alone but from finding ways to multiply our advantages and enhance our values. Among the many positive consequences of the Ukraine crisis is the death of wrongheaded and ultimately dangerous Republican nostalgia for isolationism. Now perhaps Republicans will also discard their infatuation with authoritarianism.