Volodymyr Zelenskyy traveled 5,000 miles wanting Congress to give him $45 billion but more so wanting not to ask for it.
The charismatic Ukrainian leader insisted, “Your money is not charity.” Who called truth the first casualty of war?
The aid package requested amounts to 30 percent of Ukraine’s prewar gross domestic product and likely all of its 2023 military expenditures. It roughly equals the entire annual economy of Vermont or Wyoming. Zelenskyy wants to transfer a lot of money from the U.S. economy to the Ukrainian economy, and he does not even need to fire the prosecutor to make it happen.
The suggested contribution, uncharitably called charitable contributions, bills every American an average of $135. For those who actually pay income taxes, that number increases dramatically to a figure larger than the amount you spend on your kid for Christmas.
Maybe Zelenskyy is right. This looks like something other than charity, which, of course, relies on choice. The $45 billion wealth transfer requires compulsion. Congress wants to force us to pay for a war (yes, we would pay for one side of someone else’s war) halfway around the world and far from our clear interests.
Zelenskyy’s patriotism loses something in translation when American well-wishers regurgitate his stated needs as ours.
Ukraine ranks as our 67th-largest trading partner, with our exports amounting to about 0.1 percent of our total, and imports adding up to an even smaller percentage. Eyes that see Ukraine as crucial to the national interest necessarily see just about every country in this way. Know a fight? They want to jump in — or, more accurately, nudge others into doing so.
One cannot blame Zelenskyy for his panhandling pitch. He continuously proves himself a courageous leader and a Ukrainian patriot. His “put in” and “Putin” wordplay also shows him as funny and clever and unconventional. He knew his audience on Wednesday in namedropping the Battle of the Bulge and Saratoga. His comment about Christmas with the lights off pulled at the heartstrings. He did right by his nation, which by any clearheaded analysis appears in the right in this fight. Russia, after all, invaded a sovereign nation with pretense but without provocation.
But Zelenskyy’s patriotism loses something in translation when American well-wishers regurgitate his stated needs as ours. To blindly imagine Ukraine’s interests as neatly meshing with our own looks like something far from love of country, at least love of this country. Provoking the keeper of a majority of the world’s nuclear weapons and raiding a U.S. treasury already $31 trillion in the red to fund a war in a place known by Americans if known at all because of its successful boxers does not look like advancing our crucial interests even if it looks like aiding the cause of justice. Did anyone even know how to properly pronounce Kiev before all this started?
At least one prominent conservative intellectual perhaps agrees, in one sense, with Zelenskyy in characterizing fulfilling his demands as something other than charity. Thomas Fleming wrote one of the few truly great conservative books of the new millennium in The Morality of Everyday Life. Therein he writes:
Telescopic philanthropy is not charity. Call it social justice or anything else you like, but not charity, a virtue that springs from the loving character of the giver. Where the cause is guilt or national self-hatred or only a formal duty learned by rote in catechism, the impulse springs from sources quite distinct from charitable love, and while we may admire the cold sense of duty that calls people to send checks in to telethons, we cannot, in most cases, attribute their zeal to charity.
The “little platoons” gist of the book holds that charity begins at home, and people who cry at the breakfast table while reading distant stories of suffering often coldly ignore the problems requiring a fix in their families and communities. In other words, the humanitarians lack humanity for the humans in front of them. Performing charity by remote, then, reminds them of their good-person status when the humans in their orbit do not.
That fits here. Americans increasingly see America as means rather than end. We exist not for ourselves but for others. Citizens of the Altruistic States of America decry patriotism here as they embrace it (and nationalism) from those abroad. The same folks complaining about the abundance of American flags after 9/11 now display, as a sign of their moral superiority, the blue-over-gold banner.
Zelenskyy presented Joe Biden a medal and Nancy Pelosi a flag. Should not he receive something of equal or greater value in return? One senses he expects the “greater value” option.
Glory to Ukraine? Sure. Forty-five-billion dollars to Ukraine? That feels excessive.
A nation that actively suppresses attempts to defend its own border but sends tens of billions to a country halfway around the globe to defend its borders is not a nation. It’s a philanthropy, albeit a misanthropic philanthropic enterprise.
Your money is not charity, indeed. Your country, however, is a charity.