“Please don’t wish,” I heard a woman say. That was her retort to some wishful thinking about life, her answer to hearing someone express hope that things could be different. I look at Putin today and his barbaric attacks on Ukraine, and I wish we could just wish him away. When you feel powerless to change something, it’s easy to slip into wistful expressions. “Please don’t wish,” the woman said, and it’s hard to argue with that view, especially when it comes to complex global politics and the human condition — lust for power, greed, cynicism and cruelty. You can’t just wish those things away.
In 1989, when the Soviet Union collapsed, we all held the hope that the threat of nuclear destruction had ended, that there would suddenly be less oppression in the world, that free states would emerge from the old Evil Empire. There was a distinct feeling of amazing when the Berlin Wall came down. The president at the time, George H.W. Bush, spoke of a “peace dividend” from the end of the arms race. Remember all that?
There was plenty of wishful thinking at the time, and it sprung from the hope that liberal democracy would spread through Eastern Europe. There were struggles and even wars in some fledgling republics. But, in the aftermath, most Americans — pardon the nostalgia — could see people in the old U.S.S.R. achieving a higher standard of living. Once out from under communist oppression, the quality of their lives would improve along with the quality of their citizenship. Dictatorship bad, Democracy good. It was pretty easy to understand.
But here we are, in 2022, with Putin behaving as the worst kind of criminal, a dictator with access to weapons of mass destruction, taking what he wants and doing it with his military, murdering Ukrainian civilians in the process. I wish we could just wish him away.
“Please don’t wish” means it’s not constructive, not practical and fully naive. Even as an exercise in imagining an ideal world, wishing Putin away does us no good. Better just to send a donation for refugee relief. This matter is in the hands of the people we elected, and they appointed, to come up with the best strategy for saving Ukraine and stopping Putin.
In that regard, it’s too late for wishing. The current horror points up the need for people in the U.S. and in our allied countries — for that matter, in all the countries aligned against Russia right now — to have picked good leaders. It points up the importance of free elections and the need to have competence in government, particularly when it comes to foreign relations. You can’t just wish for a better president. You have to vote for one. That may seem obvious at the moment — the need to have strong and smart leadership at all levels of government — but it’s obviously not obvious to millions of Americans who vote know-nothings and divisive loud-mouths into office to “own the libs.”
That the U.S. elected Trump runs totally against this. That we recovered and elected Joe Biden represents a return to some kind of normalcy. But still, incredibly, there are Americans who admire Putin over Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky; they admire the powerful strongman form of government (see Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland) and they find affinity in Putin’s nationalism. “When Russia invaded Ukraine, large parts of the far right were supportive,” Jared Holt, a domestic extremism researcher with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, told The Guardian. “The common thread is this idea that, because of western European and US influence on Ukraine, Ukraine was a place where the same perceived downfalls of western society existed and Putin embodying a strong man authoritarian-type figure stepping in and inflicting suffering on Ukraine was viewed in a positive light.”
I wish life in the modern, wired world meant constant progress. But it doesn’t. Humans have the ability to ascend, to repair the problems created in the past and prepare for the future. To be sure, there are plenty of people around the world who do all that. They are in science, education, technology, medicine and public service. And yet, here we are, 21 years into the 21st Century, with Putin 2022 playing Hitler 1939. Just as it’s tempting to wish Putin away, it’s tempting to give up and conclude that the human race is hopeless. But I don’t think we should go there, either. Not yet.