George F. Will

September 6, 2023

The Washington Post


Like stones pitched into ponds, wars cause radiating ripples. Russia’s war of attempted annihilation of Ukraine — the largest European war since World War II, and the most important world event since the end of the Cold War — is causing waves, political and intellectual, that should cleanse a current American argument.

Some conservatives oppose continuing U.S. assistance to Ukraine. They should recognize how their actions contradict one of their core principles.

The wilder shores of today’s conservatism are inhabited by those of the “New Right” who embrace a root-and-branch rejection of the classical liberal project, which includes the premises of the American founding: an elemental focus on the individual possessing natural rights that precede government, including the right to define the happiness he or she will pursue in an open society lightly regulated by a limited government. New Right rejectionists regard this as a recipe for a political community reduced to a dust of individuals — deracinated, lonely and without social attachments.

Some New Rightists have succumbed to progressive envy: They crave the excitement progressives derive from trying to wield government power to hammer society into new configurations. But the most unseemly New Right temptation is to abandon Ukraine. Partly this is petulance with a patina of principle (“America First”): President Biden supports Ukraine, so we won’t.

The New Right should learn from a more nuanced recent addition to post-1945 conservatism, National Conservatism. And some National Conservatives — those who support Ukraine tepidly, if at all — should take their professed principles more seriously.

National Conservatism, like the New Right, is eager to use government policies to protect social solidarity against the solvents of global economic forces and domestic cultural entropy.

Cosmopolitanism has its virtues. But so does nationalism, because the nation-state is essential for protecting self-government, and pride in one’s cultural inheritance impedes the blandness of cultural homogenization.

Majorities of both factions likely properly dislike what many celebrators of European integration have hoped the European Union would become. So, they should read Michael Kimmage on “Ukraine and the Future of the European Project” in Foreign Affairs.

Kimmage, a Catholic University historian, writes that many people — including the architects and advocates of European integration, and conservatives with forebodings about that — have “underestimated the salience of the nation-state and the endurance of nationalism.”

Ukraine’s ferocious resistance to Russian aggression — and the empathetic response of other European nations — is testimony to what Kimmage calls “the pull of national belonging.” Made vivid and noble by Ukraine’s tenacious self-defense, this pull is not just continuing; it is intensifying. And it is infectious for other nations that admire what they are watching.

Today’s war is between two fragments of that rickety artifice, the Soviet Union. Russia and Ukraine are demonstrating, in diametrically different ways, that Europe has not become what many hoped, and others feared, that it would be what Kimmage calls “a postnational paradise.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression is an assertion of an imperial entitlement to possession of Ukraine as a satrapy. Ukraine’s incandescent rejection of Russia’s asserted right to extinguish Ukraine’s sovereignty has compelled the world to see Russia’s war on the idea of nationhood. Kimmage: “As much as Europe has changed Ukraine since 1991, drawing it away from its Soviet past, Ukraine will shape Europe. The nature of its postwar nationhood will change the idea of Europe.”

The E.U., Kimmage writes, was “created to tame European nationalism” and, if Ukraine survives, will struggle “to reconcile Ukraine’s national strength with the postnational spirit of the EU.” This is why all conservatives, but especially those who affirm National Conservatism’s “statement of principles,” should rally around Ukraine. The statement, a ringing rejection of cosmopolitanism’s disparagement of nationality, says: “We see the tradition of independent, self-governed nations as the foundation for restoring a proper orientation toward patriotism and courage, honor and loyalty; we see a world of independent nations upholding national traditions that are its own — as the only genuine alternative to a homogenizing, locality-destroying imperium.”

This vocabulary echoes that of Edmund Burke’s 1790 book “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” one of conservatism’s foundational texts. It is the proper vocabulary for reflecting on Ukraine’s counterrevolution against the exhausted idea of a “post-national” future — a watery, unnourishing gruel.

U.S. conservatism is a political faith with several denominations. Without minimizing the differences, conservatives should be able to plant their several flags on the common ground of support for Ukraine’s nationhood.