The War in Ukraine is Many Things, and One of Them is a Consequence of American Imperialism
parking troops and ordnance at the doorstep of other powers ensures future aggression
I want to draw out a theme from a recent post on America’s projection of military force a little more. For a moment let’s set aside Ukraine and consider Iran.
Iran’s pursuit of advanced nuclear technology is a storyline that’s percolated along for more than a decade. They may genuinely merely want access to nuclear power, but it’s certainly reasonable to believe that they’re pursuing a bomb. I think it benefits everyone's analysis to step outside of the question of whether it’s good for them to have one from an American (or Israeli) perspective; of whether they “should” have one or deserve the right to have one; or of the moral status of Iran’s regime. I think we almost always develop greater wisdom about foreign policy by considering it mechanistically.
Say you’re the Iranians. Each of those red dots above probably seems like a good argument for getting the bomb, to the Iranian regime. You saw the United States invade Iraq on the flimsiest of pretexts. You saw the United States decapitate the Libyan government and leave the country to chaos and civil war. Your country’s government has already gone through a violent coup in the past thanks to American whim. And you notice that American troops and equipment are stationed all around you. If you would like to remain in power, knowing that you can’t possibly ever match the United States in terms of sheer conventional military firepower, what recourse do you have? Only nuclear power moves the needle. If you would like to prevent them from developing that capability, on the sensible reasoning that the last thing the world needs is more nukes, then we could try yet another round of sanctions that will inevitably harm the poorest Iranians and potentially even strengthen the regime. Or we could ask whether the American sword of Damocles hanging forever over their heads makes them feel they have no other choice, and pursue a more sensible policy by drawing down our military presence in the greater Middle East. It would have the salutary benefit of saving us billions.
Now, this is essential: the preceding analysis does not depend upon favorable opinions towards the Iranian regime. It doesn’t require any particular attitude towards them at all, or any moral stances in general. It only depends upon a belief that there are causes and effects in the competition between nations. And this is before we even get to the question of whether some countries have a right to imperial ambitions or not, as becomes salient when we look at China, its plans for the Pacific, and America’s troops in Japan, Korea, Australia, and more.
And so with Ukraine and Russia. Much like Iran, Russia has no desire to live with American troops parked next door, as it must do with much of its western border. Letting Ukraine join NATO - which absolutely was a live question at times in the past decade, at least in the minds of the Ukrainian government - could have resulted in American troops stationed right on Russia’s porch. This is not a condition the United States would ever tolerate for itself; Russia does have bases, but they are all found within close proximity of the country itself. There is no universe in which the United States tolerates a Russian garrison in Cuba, to pick an obvious example. Why the United States has the right to cozy its military up to Russia’s doorstep where Russia does not have the right to do the reverse is a question that has still not been coherently answered, certainly not by the many new liberal hawks who have come out of the closet in recent days.
But forget about rights and forget about the hypocrisy: Russia was not going to allow Ukraine to join NATO and open the door to American troops and ordnance stationed even closer to Moscow. That simply was not going to happen without Russian military intervention. The difference between Russia and Iran is that Russia has a far more capable military and, crucially, already has the bomb. (More than anybody, as it happens.) Iran could not go into Iraq to try and force out the 2,500 American troops who remain there and probably will in perpetuity. But Russia has the capability to forcefully prevent deeper American incursion into its immediate space. That Putin is a corrupt autocrat does not change that, nor does babbling about “the international order” and the rule of law when both are presided over by a hegemon that stumbles around drunkenly causing chaos the world over and forgiving itself because its intentions are good. In foreign policy there is not ought, only is, and it is the case that Russia is willing to risk it all to keep NATO from continuing to push into its space.
When a liberal like Michelle Goldberg writes a paean to the courage of Ukraine, the first thing I wonder is whether she’s equally enamored of the brave people of Yemen, who her own country is currently devastating in support of one of the most brutal and corrupt authoritarian government on planet earth. (I must have missed that column.) But what I also wonder is whether these liberals ever spend a spare moment thinking not in terms of purely emotional politics and in the idiom of simplistic moralizing, but rather in terms of simple cause and effect. Does it occur to all of them that this conflict could have perhaps been avoided if American civilian leadership and NATO had declared from the outset that Ukraine would never be accepted as a member state? Do they even think in those terms? Do they understand that the dogged insistence that we must repel the Chinese in the South China Sea will inevitably lead to future conflicts? That it’s totally impracticable that we fight “the War on Terror” in MENA, to preserve self-determination in Eastern Europe, and to save Taiwan in the Pacific?
At some point, we all have to reckon with this fact: the relative decline of the United States is not a choice. The rest of the world is catching up, economically and militarily. We cannot project power forever. And right now, we’re investing hideous amounts of treasure to maintain an order that we can’t afford and that no one really believes we can maintain. Perhaps the Ukrainians will beat back the Russians and they’ll be welcomed into NATO and we can all cheer that the good guys won. But hegemony does not last forever, and sooner or later you’re going to have to ask more adult, more useful questions than, “who’s the goodie, and who’s the baddie?” Otherwise the superpower eventually goes down the hard way.
I find myself considering this quote from a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
“When the U.S. drove five waves of NATO expansion eastward all the way to Russia’s doorstep and deployed advanced offensive strategic weapons in breach of its assurances to Russia, did it ever think about the consequences of pushing a big country to the wall?”
It doesn’t take sympathy for Putin to see that this is a very good question.