Will (Charles) Atlas Shrug?


An opinion piece in Berlingske Tidende on Sunday raises some interesting questions about the future of the war in Ukraine, some of which are stated directly and some of which are merely implied.

Will we still say “Slava Ukraini” if the US pulls the plug?
Adam Holm, Berlingske.dk, May 21

The subhead or lede of the piece says it all:

If Trump manages to recapture the White House, there will be cause for deep frowns in Kyiv. Most Danes, and for that matter, Europeans continue to support Ukraine. But do we also do that when the American safety net under Ukraine is pulled away?

Easy answer: no.

If America stops supporting Ukraine, Europe can’t possibly pick up the slack.  As Holm notes, the sum of all support to Ukraine from the EU as a bloc and from each of its individual member states is still only about half what America’s providing.

If Europe wanted to fill the gap left behind by America, it would therefore have to triple its contributions.  So would every individual member state.

That’s obviously not going to happen because that obviously can’t happen.  The money’s not there.

A poll for the Brookings Institute in connection with the one-year anniversary of Russia’s attack on Ukraine shows that a majority of Americans prefer a more isolationist course and that (Trump) influences the Republican voter base’s perception of the United States’ role on the international stage.

Unlike President Joe Biden, Trump is not so intransigent towards Putin’s Russia, and he believes—subject to his eternal contradictions—that Ukraine is predominantly a European affair.

I’m not sure Trump is less intransigent toward Russia than Biden.  European journalists and commentators would do well to remember that aggressive Russian expansion took place during the administrations before and after Trump’s, but not during his presidency. That has to be a significant marker in any discussion of American presidents’ impact on Russian behavior.

What’s more, we’re talking about a European nation that borders four member states of the European Union being invaded by a Eurasian nation that only withdrew from Eastern Europe a few decades ago.  How is that not a European affair? If the nations of Europe had the will and the power to repel Russia from Ukraine, Putin probably never would have invaded in the first place—and would certainly have been pushed back by now.

The problem here, as elsewhere, isn’t fickle American foreign policy, but European military weakness.  “This war must be won!” come the cries from Brussels and the European capitals: “it must be won at any cost… to the Americans.”

As a Dane I certainly want to see Russia pushed entirely out of Ukraine; I want to see Russia chastised, even humbled, for this unprovoked aggression.

As an American, I’m tired of the 97-pound-weakling Europe demanding America provide the muscle for its own foreign policy.

I like to think that maybe the the invasion of Ukraine could be “the INSULT That Made a MAN Out of Europe.”  For those of who didn’t read American comic books back in the day, here’s what I’m talking about:

It was a full-page ad in all the comic books back in the 70s—I’m pretty sure it was even in Boy’s Life, alongside the ads for DIY hovercraft kits (“powered by an ordinary vacuum cleaner motor!”), x-ray specs, and sea monkeys.

The comic strip portion of the ad is a powerufl parable, so let’s go through it frame by frame.

The bully (Russia) has kicked sand in the face of the weakling Mac (Europe) and his female companion.

The bully doesn’t like their back-talk, so he threatens Mac and humiliates him in front of his lady friend.

Mac impotently vows to get back at the bully while the woman issues patronizing reassurances and tidies her hair. She also thrusts her breasts out in the direction of the bully—an obvious signal of availability.

Now Mac is pissed. He’s tired of being a weakling. He sees an ad for Charles Atlas—like the one we’re reading right now—in a magazine and decides to get some help toughening up.

“Later”—maybe weeks, maybe months, maybe years—Mac has toughened up by following the advice of Charles Atlas.

He takes his lady friend back to the beach and doesn’t wait for sand to be kicked in his face again—it’s time for a good old-fashioned pre-emptive ass whoopin’:

Right on the chin—and that’s that!

Mac is the hero of the beach. No one’s gonna kick sand in his face again, and it looks like he may finally score with the hot chick (after which he will hopefully dump the shallow creature by the most humiliating means possible).

This advertising was targeted to boys.  Children.  And it was expected they understood the very obvious messages:  no one respects weakness and the only way you stop a bully is by kicking his ass.

(Also, hot chicks don’t put out for weaklings unless they’re very, very rich, and a guy who considers the cost of a postage stamp a “gamble” obviously isn’t rich.)

Apparently American boys were quicker on the uptake than the last seven decades of European statesmen.

My point is: Europe doesn’t need Charles Atlas himself to come defend it from bullies: it just needs to follow the Charles Atlas program so it can defend itself from bullies—better still, deter bullies through the sheer fact of its rippling muscles—and its sneering, go-ahead-and-try smile.

Holm’s point, on the other hand, is that Europe needs Charles Atlas by its side on the beach, now and forever, and if Charles Atlas should ever tire of playing bodyguard to weaklings on the beach—should Charles Atlas ever shrug—it would therefore be calamitous.

He’s making that point while a large subset of the European diplomatic and chattering class is insisting that Europe needs to triangulate between America and China rather than going along with America all the time.

Why not just make the obvious point: Europe needs to triple its defense spending and get aggressive with its manufacture of arms and recruitment of soldiers so it can be master of its own destiny regardless of whom America elects president in 2024?

The Russian invasion of Ukraine will stand forever as a proof against the idea that economic power is sufficient to overcome military power. Western sanctions did not prevent the invasion and have had virtually no effect at all on Russian policy since the invasion. “Soft power” is a real thing and can exert tremendous influence, but only when it’s undergirded by the hard power of blood and iron.

If Europe doesn’t get very serious about hardening its military capabilities very, very fast, then it may as well get comfortable as America’s bitch. Not its partner: its bitch.

In other words, do we want this:

Or this:

Adolescent boys, even in Europe, have always known the answer.

It’s high time European leaders caught on.