Ukraine’s Challenge – to Us

A recent Quinnipiac poll asked Americans,  “What would you do if you were in the same position as Ukrainians are now? Stay and fight or leave the country?” Disturbingly, only 55 percent said they would stay and fight. Overall, 38 percent of Americans said they would flee.

Many Americans are rooting for the Ukrainians in their battle against the Russian invasion.  And this, to my mind, seems right.  We should not miss, however, the challenge that the Ukrainian situation poses to several of our most cherished presuppositions about the nature and purposes of the state.

That view is summarized nicely in Heinrich Rommen’s magisterial work, The State in Catholic Thought.  On this view (which is not the Catholic view, by the way), the state exists exclusively for the private benefit of individuals. And what is called “the common good” is merely a distributive sum of the interests and private goods of the individuals, not an objective and qualitatively different reality.

In that skewed perspective:

The state has only a service value and is consequently a utilitarian institution exclusively for the interests of the individuals as inherently self-sufficient beings.  It is founded by the individuals merely to further their interests as individuals.  Therefore, what is called the common good is not really distinguishable from the mere sum of the particular goods of the individuals.  The individuals are the only reality.  The individual is fundamentally autonomous and self-sufficient.  Anything beyond his individual existence can be only of service character, can be only dependent means subjectively valuable for the individual.  He agrees to live in a political community only so far as his individual purposes are thereby served.

For this reason, Rommen concludes, “The typical individualist believes in the final overcoming of any form of society that demands any kind of sacrifice of his individual subjective interests and any restrictions of his liberty.”

Given this view, is it any surprise many of our fellow citizens would not deign to defend their country the way so many Ukrainians have?  As long as the state benefits them and enables their expressive individualism, it is “doing its job.”  People vote for their “interests” or the interest of their social class, not, as the Founders had hoped, for men and women of wisdom who would see the needs of all and vote for the common good.

People are so very pleased when their senator or representative “brings home the bacon” – federal money “earmarked” for special little projects in their community when what they should be doing is excoriating them for attempting to “buy votes” with taxpayer dollars.  “Don’t you realize,” such foolish politicians should be told in no uncertain terms, “if you are larding up bills with pork for us, then everyone else will do the same, and before long, the country will be bankrupt. We sent you to the capital to vote for the common good of the country, not to bring home little party favors for us.”


I give that line to my students; they just laugh.  The thought that people would vote for the common good and not their own private interest is nearly inconceivable to them, which is probably why the thought of risking their own lives, fortunes, and career success for the country is also so inconceivable to them.

I take it that when a Ukrainian stays in his country – or, more dramatically, returns from abroad – to fight a seemingly insurmountable Russian military onslaught, he or she is not merely working for his or her own “self-interest.”  I’m not sure it’s even about “freedom” or “democracy,” the two things we Americans like to talk about because they more easily fit into our picture of what the state should do:  follow my orders and allow me to do what I want.

When Ukrainians living in freedom in the West leave it to return to their country to fight, they show that their concern is not merely for their own freedom to do what they want, but for their country.

Would fewer people die if the Ukrainians simply gave up and allowed themselves to be ruled by Russia?  Perhaps.  Would they still have food, theaters, cars, houses, and vacations?  Probably.  Would their puppet government be so much more dysfunctional than their current one?  Maybe not.  But what they would not have anymore is their country.

And by this, we don’t just mean an ethnic enclave for non-Russians.  People like Hitler and Putin have been encouraged to think of nations in terms of racial, ethnic, or linguistic identity because that was a tradition bequeathed to the world in the aftermath of the First World War.  Why do Putin and other Russians think Ukraine is part of the “Russian world”?  Because there are people who speak Russian living there who share a common history and culture.

All true.  But none of that leads to the conclusion that Ukraine is not its own country, with its own proper political order and its own sovereign territory. A state is not an entity based on ethnicity or race or something that happened centuries ago.  On the Catholic view, it is a distinct political order present now with institutions ordered to the common good.

Ukrainians are willing to fight for their country because they believe the country is something worth fighting and sacrificing for.  They would not do that if they believed that their country’s only value was in the individual benefits it could provide for them.

That willingness to fight and sacrifice should challenge us to ask what we think the state is for.  Does it exist to serve our personal self-interests?  Or is it meant to be an ordered unity serving the common good?  The way most politicians run for office and the way many people vote suggests the second option rarely occurs to them.

I fear the new motto is: “Ask not what you can do for your country, ask what your country can do for you.”


*Image: A statue in Lviv, Ukraine wrapped to protect it from Russian invaders. Many museum workers and artists have stayed behind to protect the cultural heritage of the nation. [Photo by Claire Harbage/NPR]

You may also enjoy:

Robert Royal’s Ukraine, the Political and the Personal

Francis X. Maier’s Ukraine and the Western Conscience

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.