If there was one thing that predictably united the usually squabbling Roman elite, it was the emergence of a perceived threat to Rome’s Mediterranean and near-continental hegemony. To some degree, however difficult to calculate, it is impossible to deny that the dissolution of the Soviet Union has been responsible for the increasing polarization of American politics. Mikhail Gorbachev predicted as much as the Cold War neared its end, saying, “Our major secret weapon is to deprive you of an enemy.” Sure enough, their mortal foe vanquished, Republicans and Democrats set about fighting for position and privilege with an unconstrained vigor that over the course of thirty years led to the violation of many of the Republic’s so-called democratic norms long before Donald Trump became the 2016 Republican nominee for president.
It should be no surprise, then, to find Republicans and Democrats trying to recapture some of that once celebrated bipartisanship by once again uniting to battle the next round of challengers to liberal capitalist hegemony. However, in this refight of the Cold War, now cast as “democracy versus authoritarianism,” the United States is starting from a far weaker relative position than it did in, say, 1950. In 1950, for example, its industrial output constituted half the world total. Also weighing in its favor, Europe at that time was completely dependent on the Americans, both economically and militarily, and so allowed Washington to, more or less, dictate a joint foreign policy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union at its discretion.
Both of these conditions now fail to hold, and as military, economic, and diplomatic resources become scarcer for an America fighting obvious decline, avoiding unnecessary conflicts will be crucial to preserving the country’s existing status and prosperity. While transitional friction is bound to occur, and indeed there may be things worth fighting for, Ukraine isn’t one of them
To highlight some of the various reasons why Ukraine represents a bad investment for the American people, it is helpful to compare it with another territorial question fraught with similar peril: Taiwan. This is particularly apropos given the joint statement issued by Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chinese president Xi Jinping this past week, which more or less formalized what had to that point been a tacit assumption: they will support one another’s desired adjustments to existing territorial bounds and geopolitical institutions.
Setting aside the fact that Taiwan is party to a still ongoing, seventy-year civil war against mainland control and that America’s act of arming the separatist province is highly provocative and injudicious, the case for doing so, in realpolitik terms, is fairly coherent from the liberal imperialist and neoconservative perspectives: Taiwan forms part of a tight chain of islands penning in the Chinese navy and threatening its maritime supply chains; it is an ethnolinguistically homogeneous, high-performing democracy, and its high-tech exports form a critical component in Western supply chains; it hasn’t been ruled by the mainland in over a century and is buttressed by a ring of allies committed to maintaining its status quo independence.
This last point is crucial, for whereas Europe has faltered over how to handle Russian revanchism, there is no such uncertainty among the leadership of Japan, South Korea, India, the Philippines, Australia, and a host of others that China needs to be contained.
Turning to the case of Ukraine, apart from relative European ambivalence Ukraine’s own comparative deficiencies throw the likely returns of defending it further into doubt: producing nothing the US needs, it is a corrupt and ethnolinguistically divided state, and shares a long and open border with Russia; it was part of the Soviet empire and for at least two hundred years before that had been acknowledged by various Western powers as the Russian Empire’s sphere of influence.
While it is regular to hear those such as former US ambassador and Stanford professor Michael McFaul say that no Russian leader had ever raised any objection to North American Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion, this is verifiably false. Of course the Russians objected—that they often did so mutedly or ineffectively, as in the Balkans, was merely a function of Russia’s then relatively enfeebled state. But as early as 1995 then Russian president Boris Yeltsin issued a statement reaffirming Russia’s traditional right to a sphere of influence over its near abroad; and in 2007, following another round of NATO expansion eastward, Putin issued a memorable denunciation of the action at the Munich Security Conference, the meaning of which could not be mistaken—“Against whom is this expansion intended?” he rhetorically fulminated.
Though the US and Russia jointly committed to observing and protecting Ukraine’s sovereignty in 1994 in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons, the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations subsequently ignored Yeltsin’s warnings of Russian prerogatives in the region and violated what many had taken to be an agreement that NATO would not expand “one inch to the east.” Following two full rounds of NATO enlargement, in 2008 the Bush administration twisted the arms of German and French leaders to get a soft public commitment about Ukraine’s future NATO membership. When the Obama administration subsequently supported the ouster of Russian ally Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, the Kremlin responded by annexing Crimea—thus safeguarding the naval base it had leased from Ukraine since the country’s independence and preventing the Kremlin’s further loss of influence in Ukraine’s domestic politics.
Since the 2012 elections that returned Putin to power, but especially since 2014 and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Western audiences have been inundated with a litany of articles and books devoted to explaining the inevitability of an aggressive Putin on the march. The truth is that just like the arming of Taiwan, NATO expansion and support for the unconstitutional overthrow of Ukraine’s Russian-aligned president were reckless and injudicious acts that ignore likely long-term security implications in favor of short-term geopolitical and domestic gains. Further, it is evident that the apparently looming conflict between democracy and authoritarianism is a pretense, a rhetorical construction of Western military, security, academic, media, and political elites determined to maintain Western hegemony in the face of surging challengers. For instance, one can hardly fail to note that the theocratic and patriarchal dictatorship governing Saudi Arabia continues to count itself among America’s allies—this even as it continues to wage a brutal and illegal war on neighboring Yemen. So too does support continue to flow to Egypt, Jordan, Israel—et cetera.
Liberalism as domestic policy is great, but as a foreign policy it is arguably the worst, for it implies that only democratically elected governments are truly legitimate, thereby serving as a pretense or temptation for conflict with otherwise distant great powers, while at the same time the blatant double standard that America applies when considering its strategic partnerships, and indeed many of its own actions, erodes American credibility as a purported moral force.
Though the Biden administration has already ordered the deployment of US troops to Eastern Europe because of the potential for war between NATO and Russia over Ukraine, and has done little else otherwise to diffuse the conflict, what US policymakers should do in the interest of the American people is obvious: stay home, save lives.