Events in Ukraine are happening very fast, and if I tried to predict what will happen there, my prediction would soon be overtaken by events. But one thing is certain. We need to understand the background of the crisis, and we also need to remember the basic principles that should guide American policy.
To understand the background, the best guide is Stephen Cohen, a world-renowned authority on both the Bolsheviks and contemporary Russia. He pointed out in November 2019:
For centuries and still today, Russia and large parts of Ukraine have had much in common—a long territorial border; a shared history; ethnic, linguistic, and other cultural affinities; intimate personal relations; substantial economic trade; and more. Even after the years of escalating conflict between Kiev and Moscow since 2014, many Russians and Ukrainians still think of themselves in familial ways. The United States has almost none of these commonalities with Ukraine.
Which is also to say that Ukraine is not “a vital US national interest,” as most leaders of both parties, Republican and Democrat alike, and much of the US media now declare. On the other hand, Ukraine is a vital Russian interest by any geopolitical or simply human reckoning.
Why, then, is Washington so deeply involved in Ukraine? (The proposed nearly $400 million in US military aid to Kiev would mean, of course, even more intrusive involvement.) And why is Ukraine so deeply involved in Washington, in a different way, that it has become a pretext for attempts to impeach President Donald Trump?
The short but essential answer is Washington’s decision, taken by President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, to expand NATO eastward from Germany and eventually to Ukraine itself. Ever since, both Democrats and Republicans have insisted that Ukraine is a “vital US national interest.” Those of us who opposed that folly warned it would lead to dangerous conflicts with Moscow, conceivably even war. Imagine Washington’s reaction, we pointed out, if Russian military bases began to appear on Canada’s or Mexico’s borders with America. We were not wrong: An estimated 13,000 souls have already died in the Ukrainian-Russian war in the Donbass and some 2 million people have been displaced.
The propagandists for brain-dead Biden like to say that Putin had Ukraine surrounded. But in fact, the US and its NATO satellites had Russia surrounded. In the years before the current crisis, we had ample opportunity to reach a compromise settlement. Instead, we kept the option of membership in NATO open to Ukraine and overthrew a Ukrainian president who was pro-Russian.
At the Kremlin last week, [in November 2021] Putin drew his red line:
“The threat on our western borders is … rising, as we have said multiple times…. In our dialogue with the United States and its allies, we will insist on developing concrete agreements prohibiting any further eastward expansion of NATO and the placement there of weapons systems in the immediate vicinity of Russian territory.”
That comes close to an ultimatum. And NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg backhanded the president of Russia for issuing it:
It’s only Ukraine and 30 NATO allies that decide when Ukraine is ready to join NATO…. Russia has no veto, Russia has no say, and Russia has no right to establish a sphere of influence trying to control their neighbors.
Putin is nobody’s fool, and he has decided to act decisively to free Russia from encirclement. Invasions kill people, and this is sad, but this is the way European power politics operates and has operated for hundreds of years. This was why George Washington in his Farewell Address warned us to stay out of them. “Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence therefore it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.”
Whether Russia controls Ukraine is none of our business. In particular, economic sanctions are a bad idea. They are immoral. As Mike Rozeff says,
Sanctions are wrong for the same reason that dropping a hydrogen bomb on Moscow would be wrong. They target innocent people. They are wrong for the same reason that attacking the Taliban government in Afghanistan was wrong, when bin Laden was the accused. They are wrong for the same reason that attacking Iraq was wrong when Saddam Hussein was the accused target. They are wrong for the same reason that bombing Libya was wrong when Gaddafi was the accused target.
Not only are sanctions wrong; they don’t work, they disrupt the world economy, and they reduce the chances of a peaceful settlement. Rachel Lloyd, a policy analyst at the Russian Public Affairs Committee, says,
Whether sanctions work—or not—is no great secret. Time and time again, the US has clung to sanctions as its de facto power of tough diplomacy. Yet Washington is failing to recognize the obvious reality: they simply do not work, other than perhaps as a tool to bully or with which to play to the crowds.
In fact, tough-sounding economic policies have been shown to almost never have the desired effect against America’s adversaries. Instead, all too often, sanctions bolster those in power, who use the threat of Washington’s overreaching in their domestic affairs as a way to influence national opinion and shore up their support.
The US’s effort to throttle the economy of any country or government that stands against Congress’ vision for how the world should work has brought it into conflict with a number of nations. This has been seen in Iran, where the sanctions put in place after the 1979 revolution fueled the Shia-majority country’s aggressive policies in the Middle East. Likewise, in Cuba, where sanctions have existed for over 60 years, and yet the nation is still dominated by an authoritarian regime…. Businesspeople will point to the fact that the effects of sanctions can go beyond the targeted sector and the individual, hurting Americans well outside the original sanctioned sphere. While the United States may have aimed to restrict business and trade with a particular company or individual, all too often the effects of the sanction seep into other facets of the economy and diplomacy as the targeted country modifies its policies and approaches so as to keep itself afloat.
For Americans, this means reduced revenues for US companies and those who work for them, as well as forfeited opportunities that statistics alone cannot measure. It also puts unnecessary pressure on Americans living abroad, as well as tourists and exchange students, who then have to jump through hoops to complete even the most basic tasks related to banking, finance, and visas.
And for Americans hoping to follow the American dream, starting or expanding businesses, or working abroad, sanctions become a barrier to that dream. The moment a business account has a connection to Russia or another sanctioned country, banks stop wanting to have anything to do with it. When this pinnacle of American entrepreneurism is put under strain due to policies proven to be ineffective at best, there is a glaring problem.
The history of failure, coupled with the factual and potential harm of sanctions to American citizens makes one thing clear: it is disingenuous to say that sanctions are done in the best interest of US national security and the international community. In truth, all they do is set up further barriers to democracy and economic prosperity. Even for Americans.
Some people, including many so-called libertarians reject this message. Don’t we have a duty, they say, to protect “democracy” and resist “aggression”? Murray Rothbard had the best answer to this, and we should heed his wisdom today. We need it.
The collective-security concept that so enchanted the old (pre-1965) left sounded pretty good: Each nation-state was viewed as if it were an individual, so that when one state “aggressed against” another, it became the duty of the governments of the world to step in and punish the “aggressor.” In that way, the bitter and lengthy war in Korea became, in President Truman’s famous phrase, a “police action,” needing no declaration of war but simply an executive decision by the world’s chief cop—the president of the United States—to be set into motion. All other “law-abiding” nations and responsible organs of opinion were supposed to join in.
The “isolationist” right saw several grave flaws in this notion of collective security and the analogy between states and individuals. One, of course, is that there is no world government or world cop, as there are national governments and police. Each state has its own war-making machine, many of which are quite awesome. When gangs of states wade into a conflict, they inexorably widen it. Every tinpot controversy, the latest and most blatant being the fracas in the Falkland Islands, invites other nations to decide which of the states is “the aggressor’ and then leap in on the virtuous side. Every local squabble thus threatens to escalate into a global conflagration.
And since, according to collective security enthusiasts, the United States has apparently been divinely appointed to be the chief world policeman, it is thereby justified in throwing its massive weight into every controversy on the face of the globe.
The other big problem with the collective-security analogy is that, in contrast to spotting thieves and muggers, it is generally difficult or even impossible to single out uniquely guilty parties in conflicts between states. For although individuals have well-defined property rights that make someone else’s invasion of that property a culpable act of aggression, the boundary lines of each state have scarcely been arrived at by just and proper means. Every state is born in, and exists by, coercion and aggression over its citizens and subjects, and its boundaries invariably have been determined by conquest and violence. But in automatically condemning one state for crossing the borders of another, we are implicitly recognizing the validity of existing boundaries. Why should the boundaries of a state in 1982 be any more or less just than they were in 1972, 1932, or 1872? Why must they be automatically enshrined as sacred, so much so that a mere boundary crossing should lead every state in the world to force their citizens to kill or die?
No, far better and wiser is the old classical liberal foreign policy of neutrality and nonintervention, a foreign policy set forth with great eloquence by Richard Cobden, John Bright, the Manchester school and other “little Englanders” of the nineteenth century, by the Anti-Imperialist classical liberals of the turn of the twentieth century in Britain and the United States, and by the old right from the 1930s to the 1950s. Neutrality limits conflicts instead of escalating them. Neutral states cannot swell their power through war and militarism, or murder and plunder the citizens of other states.