Zelenskyy and the Case for Internationalism
The Ukrainian president's Rooseveltian address to Congress shows American political leaders and policymakers how to talk about foreign policy
Shortly before the Christmas holiday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy left his country for the first time since Russia invaded it last February to travel to Washington and deliver an address to a joint session of Congress. But Zelenskyy’s speech was more than just an expression of thanks to the American people and its elected representatives or a request for more military assistance – it was a reminder of the power of political rhetoric. Zelenskyy harked back to a previous generation of American political leaders like President Franklin D. Roosevelt who were able to explain complex foreign policy issues in simple and easy-to-understand terms.
Indeed, President Zelenskyy made a stronger and more compelling case for internationalism than any American political leader or policymaker has in recent memory. Most of America’s present-day political leaders and technocratic-minded foreign policy experts prefer to deploy jargon and talk of abstractions like the “rules-based international order” that few people could explain or even define. No wonder these rationales fail to resonate with an American public that remains instinctively internationalist and generally supports active American involvement in the world.
Accordingly, it's worth taking a look at President Zelenskyy’s rhetoric and understanding why it works so well – and seeing what American political leaders can learn from it.
It’s unlikely that any American political leader will ever have the same opportunity to repeatedly demonstrate personal physical courage in the same ways Zelenskyy has since the start of the war. He famously refused to leave Kyiv during the opening days of the war, and visited the frontlines at Bakhmut just a day before he addressed Congress. All the same, Zelenskyy’s willingness to assume the same personal risks as his countrymen and -women lends his rhetoric inherent credibility; listeners know it’s not mere talk when he speaks about defending freedom in Ukraine and around the world.
More to the point, however, Zelenskyy uses clear and simple language to convey complicated ideas about world politics and armed conflict. Take his address to Congress: the closest Zelenskyy comes to invoking the “rules-based international order” is a reference to the importance of international law – not a hard concept to for many people to understand. Zelenskyy also talks about freedom and democracy in ways that many cynics who call themselves realists would ridicule or dismiss out of hand. Unlike many American political leaders and commentators, Zelenskyy speaks about values and principles without irony or a trace of apology.
Zelenskyy also presents an optimistic but realistic take on the state of the war itself, connecting events on the battlefield to the bigger geopolitical picture and explaining how it all fits together. The battle for Bakhmut, in his telling, has much wider implications than whether a Moscow or Kyiv controls the town; a Ukrainian military success in Bakhmut equals victory not just for Ukraine but for freedom and security around the world. American military and financial aid to Ukraine isn’t charity, Zelenskyy reminds us, but “an investment in the global security and democracy” against predatory dictatorships like Russia and Iran. This line of argument also amounts to a powerful if implicit brief for internationalism, one that speaks to shared values and common interests at the same time.
It’s also a direct and explicit argument for internationalism, one Zelenskyy makes early on. This war, he asserts,
will define in what world our children and grandchildren will live, and then their children and grandchildren… This battle cannot be frozen or postponed. It cannot be ignored, hoping that the ocean or something else will provide a protection. From the United States to China, from Europe to Latin America, and from Africa to Australia, the world is too interconnected and interdependent to allow someone to stay aside and at the same time to feel safe when such a battle continues.
That’s virtually identical to the case FDR made in his famous “Arsenal of Democracy” fireside chat back in December 1940, where he explained that increasingly rapid advances in shipbuilding and aviation, among other technologies, meant that “the width of those oceans [the Atlantic and Pacific] is not what it was in the days of clipper ships.”
Finally – and most importantly – Zelenskyy connected the war and its consequences to the lives of ordinary Americans and Ukrainians. Thanks to Russian attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, he noted, many Ukrainians would celebrate the upcoming Christmas holiday without electricity, heat, or running water. It would be a candlelit Christmas out of necessity, but Zelenskyy vowed that Ukrainians would celebrate regardless because “the light of our faith in ourselves will not be put out.” He went on to “thank every American family which cherishes the warmth of its home and wishes the same warmth to other people,” instantly establishing a sense of solidarity between Americans enjoying the winter holidays in the comfort of their own national security and Ukrainians seeing theirs through amidst the constant threat of Russian attack and deprivation of basic services.
So what can American political leaders – and indeed all Americans supportive of an active U.S. role in global affairs – learn from Zelenskyy’s rhetoric?
First, speak sincerely and in plain language about foreign policy. That means keeping the jargon and the abstractions to a minimum. Phrases like the “rules-based international order” need to go; even people who use the term regularly have only the vaguest idea what it actually means. Certain acronyms that refer to long-established organizations – think NATO or the UN here – are likely fine. But it’s much more important for political leaders and policymakers to describe things as they are, with realism and honesty but also a sense of possibility and a modicum of optimism rather than an inveterate and unrealistic pessimism that tells us things will go badly no matter what we do.
Second, use history judiciously but without apology. In his address to Congress, President Zelenskyy invoked examples from American history like the Battle of Saratoga during the American Revolution and the Battle of the Bulge during World War II to help put Ukraine’s war effort into perspective. But he also raised these episodes to cultivate a sense that difficult challenges can be met and overcome. That’s where history has a role to play in our foreign policy debates – not to map the past onto the present one-for-one, but to give us perspective on our present problems and faith that we can tackle them effectively as a nation. America should remember its best, most constructive self – not wallow in memories of its faults and failures.
Finally, connect the little and big pictures in personal ways. In many ways, that means getting back to the geopolitical basics articulated by FDR in the run-up to World War II: geography can’t protect us and the fate of freedom around the world directly concerns the United States. But it also means linking this wider strategic picture to the everyday lives of ordinary Americans and their families. That’s what President Zelenskyy did when he brought up Ukrainian and American families celebrating Christmas in his address to Congress. It’s also what FDR did in his Arsenal of Democracy fireside chat, when he made clear his stated goal to “convey to the great mass of the American people” what the global conflagration “meant to them in their daily lives.” Nor should America’s contemporary political leaders shy away from powerful words like “freedom” and “democracy” or lace them with irony. As President Zelenskyy reminded Congress, “life, freedom, and security” are the ultimate ends of every democratic nation’s foreign policy. As he put it, America’s “well-being is the product of your national security; the result of your struggle for independence and your many victories.”
Constant comparisons to FDR’s wartime ally Winston Churchill notwithstanding, Zelenskyy’s address to Congress was very Rooseveltian in rhetoric and substance. He spoke in clear, plain language about the local and global stakes involved in Ukraine’s war, connecting the bigger strategic picture with the everyday lives of individuals and families both in the United States and Ukraine. It’s an example America’s own political leaders would do well to study – and emulate.
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