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Russia's invasion of Ukraine is a test for America: John Dickerson

Russia's invasion of Ukraine is a test for America
Russia's invasion of Ukraine is a test for America 03:23

President John Kennedy listed the challenges of the presidency this way: "Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us." President Joe Biden faces both unpleasant presidential truths.  

But Russia's invasion of Ukraine isn't just a test of Joe Biden. It's a test of America, once a global champion of freedom and self-determination, whose presidents could rattle the Russians by merely testifying to those ideas out loud.

On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan, speaking near the Berlin Wall, said, "We believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. … Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

Now, those ideas are being crushed by Russian tanks.

How America and the American president respond will affect not just Ukraine but the health of those ideas around the globe.

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At the start of the Cold War, it was so important to show American solidarity for liberty against Communist tyranny, political parties called a truce. Democrat Harry Truman and Republican Arthur Vandenberg, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, agreed that politics should stop at the water's edge.

During the First World War, Teddy Roosevelt articulated a different standard: "To announce that there must be no criticism of the President … is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public."

Because presidents have more control over foreign affairs than domestic affairs, there should be vigorous debate. It reminds us of what we believe, and if we must sacrifice, it helps us understand why.

But this moment has a new twist.

In an interview after the start of the Russian invasion, former President Trump said: "This is genius. Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine, of Ukraine, Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that's wonderful!"

Praising Putin's power – at the moment he is crushing human liberty – is the perfect negative image of the American ideal. Under this view, Reagan would not have called on Premier Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, but praised him for the wall's sturdy construction.  

During the pandemic, many have opposed public safety orders saying they trample liberty. In Ukraine, liberty is threatened not by masks but missiles.

The lowest possible bar should be that the ideas of self-determination and freedom have support from the populations who benefit from living under them. History shows that when the signal is clear, it inspires.

On Wednesday Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky told the Russians, "When you will be attacking us, you will see our faces, not our backs."

Whatever the United States and its allies will do, it should show Ukrainians that they see their faces, too.

Story produced by Young Kim. Editor: Joseph Frandino. 

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