America has been struggling to find its leadership role in faraway conflicts. Obama’s “leading from behind” suggested an elitist, puppet-master-like control of local actors, while Trump’s “not my problem” proclamations implied a U.S. retreat from the world. The Biden administration’s “Putin must go” and “Russia must be emasculated” bravado, while possibly useful for domestic support, risks escalating the Ukraine crisis and prompting Putin to gamble for resurrection using nuclear weapons.
Now, U.S. officials are taking credit for providing the intelligence that led to the deaths of Russian generals and the sinking of the warship Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Our so-called indispensable nation has become it’s-all-about-us.
Why have our leaders consistently failed to set the right tone?
Broadly speaking, there are three kinds of leaders. “WHAT” leaders do what they’re told to do. “HOW” leaders are the heroes with the master plans and all the answers. “WHY” leaders frame issues, provide guidance and support, but let their subordinates figure out the how. The United States can improve its influence by adopting a WHY leadership approach in conflicts like the one in Ukraine.
History reveals the right course of action
Sparta, a warrior society in ancient Greece, provides a historical example. Sparta faced off against Athens in the ancient Greek world’s most massive conflict, known as the Peloponnesian War (431–404 B.C.). After a decade of fighting, Sparta and Athens signed a peace agreement, which held for six years.
But Athens grew restless and looked to expand its empire into Sicily, where the Spartans had limited interests. Athens launched a massive expedition, and the people of Syracuse, the most powerful city-state in Sicily, appealed to Sparta for aid.
Sending troops to Sicily risked reigniting a wider war, so Sparta sent Gylippus, a senior military official, to train and advise the Syracusans. Sparta framed its support as helping a sovereign city defend itself against an aggressive, imperial power.
The Syracuse-led coalition defeated the Athenian expedition and Sparta wasn’t drawn prematurely into a new great power confrontation. The Spartans didn’t need to rub the Athenian noses in the defeat. Athens had done it to itself.
How WHY leadership applies today
America needs this type of WHY leadership today. Putin is a menace who knows that he’s dead if he gets deposed. When dictators feel they have nothing to lose, they tend not to go quietly but rather gamble for resurrection, which is political science jargon for trying to change the game.
Hitler’s Battle of the Bulge, launched in December 1944, was such an effort. As Hitler’s last large-scale attack—which his own commanders called “insane”—it turned into the largest and bloodiest battle American soldiers have ever fought.
Similarly, Putin’s game-changer is likely to involve nuclear weapons that could start World War III. The more the United States frames the conflict as the U.S. versus Russia and defines its interests as driving Putin from power and emasculating Russia, the more likely Putin gambles.
The better course of action is to return to the Biden administration’s original stance: America is helping a sovereign country defend itself, while avoiding the unseemly appearance of giving Putin a veto.
Some of the world’s largest democracies—India, Indonesia, Mexico, and Brazil—are watching from the sidelines. A principled stance for respecting borders and the right to self-defense will rally support from more of the world and send a message to other would-be aggressors who are gauging reactions to Russian belligerence. The alternative is a return to the strong taking what they want, and the weak suffering what they must.
Taking a WHY leadership approach enables the United States to frame the conflict in a way that gains greater international support, provides the assistance and encouragement Ukraine needs to beat back the bully, and reduces the risk of nuclear war.
Be the coach. Be the sage. Let Ukrainians be the heroes of their story.
Written by Christopher D. Kolenda, Ph.D.
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