World War III, yes or no?

Someone at the gym last week asked me what I thought about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and I said, “I’m firmly on the side of those against World War III.”

Yes, that was a pretty glib answer, but it was a defensive response masking my uncertainties.

Just the week before, I’d scoffed at the idea of the governor and the General Assembly expounding on the conflict —Indiana now presumes to have a role in foreign policy? But I should be more empathetic — it’s one of those issues of such global concern that everyone feels compelled to weigh in, whether or not having anything meaningful to contribute.

My particular two cents of opinion — and it’s certainly worth no more — is that: 1) Ukraine is not now nor ever likely to be a threat to the United States, 2) Russia has long been and long will be a threat to us, so, 3) it is in this country’s interests to support Ukraine, especially given that the invading country’s leader is a brutal thug in control of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.

Interestingly, opposition to that support seems to be a position that some elements of both the extreme right and left can embrace.

Some on the right are getting downright isolationist, arguing America First means to hell with the rest of the world. Some on the left have taken the deplorable position that Americans care about Ukraine only because its victims are “white like us.”

But most people here — liberals, conservatives, middle-of-the-roaders — see Russia as the bully and Ukrainians as the heroic underdogs. If there is anything that can unite Americans, it is rooting for the underdog.

It would be nice — unlikely but nice — if that newfound unity could be galvanized into an appreciation of this country’s exceptionalism, not only its role in supplying material support for the cause of freedom around the world, but its standing as the moral beacon for the very idea of freedom.

It would be even more gratifying if our unity helped us remember how fragile was the moment of our founding, how perilously close we were to not becoming the most remarkable democratic experiment in history.

There were more supporters of Britain in the colonies than there are supporters of Russia in Ukraine. About a third were advocates of independence, a third were sympathetic to the Crown and a third didn’t really care one way or the other. After the first burst of patriotic fervor, volunteers were scarce, so both bribery and conscription had to be brought to bear. George Washington was not a brilliant strategist, and there were several battles that could have spelled our doom.

It wasn’t until France went all in on our side that the scales were tipped, and it’s fair to say America might never have come about without that country’s aid. Of course, France had its own reason for supporting us — a to-the-death struggle with Britain. We were in a sense the proxy in a war of superpowers.

As Ukraine is today in the clash between freedom and oppression that has always raged and is still with us. Now, as then, the world is more interconnected than most suppose or wish. So many countries are involved, providing support for Ukraine of one kind or another, because they know the stakes are high for them. As France was with us, they might be allies for their own reasons, but that doesn’t make their support unimportant.

As bullies do, Vladimir Putin is drawing lines and daring us to cross them, taunting us with his deliberate unpredictability.

Which lines do we cross and which ones do we avoid? Can the world bog him down and thus discourage other bullies with expansionist appetites? Or do we risk giving him an excuse to go nuclear? Is this all giving China and North Korea ideas? What about Iran, for God’s sake?

I don’t envy the leaders of the free world right now. I wish they were smarter. But I suppose that is another lesson of our founding — we must do with the leaders we have.

On second thought, maybe my remark about World War III wasn’t so glib after all.