Richard Drake: The American cause in Ukraine: Advancing freedom or the course of empire?

Jun 9, 2022
Ukraine map in yellow and blue colours of the flag
The panoply of American power now confronts its first direct and forthrightly stated challenge since the end of the Cold War. Image: Pixabay

The disasters of war in Ukraine have not yet found their Francisco Goya, but the reporting of journalists conveys a graphic picture of the death and destruction there. This war, like all its predecessors, is hell. Writing about the putatively good war of 1939-1945, Nicholson Baker in Human Smoke described its beginnings as the advent of civilisation’s end with the records of both sides marred by the most horrific war crimes. The reporting of Nicholas Turse in Shoot Anything that Moves about the war in Vietnam and of Vincent Bevins in The Jakarta Method about Washington-backed massacres worldwide in the Cold War showed Americans in these two cases as arch perpetrators of war crimes. Chalmers Johnson in the Blowback trilogy and Dismantling the Empire compiled long lists of American enormities in what he called our obsessive wars of empire in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Vladimir Putin record in Ukraine may be as bad as his worst enemies proclaim, but even at that it is well within the norm for war, the selective indignation about him notwithstanding. War and crimes go together. A question larger than the one about Putin’s war crimes concerns the origins of the war itself. Who or what caused the war? From that first cause ineluctable consequences of a criminal character followed.

On the principle that historical analysis requires an attempt to understand the motives of all sides in a war, the Russian argument deserves a fair hearing. Roy Medvedev, one of Russia’s most distinguished historians and long a supporter of Vladimir Putin, gave an interview on March 2, 2022, to the Corriere della Sera. The ninety-six-year-old Medvedev succinctly expressed the Kremlin view of the Ukraine crisis as a clash involving far more than Putin’s concern about NATO expansion to his country’s borders. The metastasising of NATO illustrated but did not define for Russia the fundamental issue, which had to do with the failure of America to understand that the unipolar moment of its rules-based order had ended. The time had come for a paradigm shift in international relations.

As an example of the American hegemony’s failures, Medvedev commented on the effects of Washington’s supervisory role in Russia’s transition to capitalism. He was referring to the misery befalling Russia at Cold War’s end and astringently described by the Nobel Prize-winning Columbia University economist Joseph Stiglitz in Globalisation and Its Discontents (2002). In general, Stiglitz could find nothing moral or competent in the way globalisation had been imposed upon the world by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the U.S. Treasury Department. Globalisation had turned into an enrichment scheme for international elites implementing and benefitting from the neoliberal Washington Consensus.

When Stiglitz came to discuss the Russian economy’s American-led post-Cold War reconfiguration, which evolved along lines pleasing to the Chicago School of true-believing free-market capitalists, he showed in copious detail what Medvedev was alluding to in his interview with Italy’s leading newspaper. This crash course in free market economics had produced a harrowing increase in the nation’s poverty. The Russian GDP declined by two-thirds from 1989 to 2000.The standard of living and life expectancy fell while the number of people in poverty rose. Levels of inequality grew as oligarchs took advantage of insider information to strip the country of its assets, which they invested not in Russia, but in the U.S. Stock Market. Billions of dollars poured out of the country along with a swelling emigration of talented and educated young people who could see no future for themselves there.

Revisiting the Russian experience of the 1990s, Medvedev cited the social consequences of these terrible years as the main reason for Putin’s popularity in Russia today. After ten years of Western democratic tutelage, the country had fallen apart. Medvedev credited Putin for reviving Russia and returning it to great power status. The charges made against him in the Western media, likening his government to the murderous tyranny of Stalin, Medvedev dismissed as a complete misreading of Russian history. He had lived under both these leaders. There was no comparison between them. Russia was a controlled society, to be sure, but Putin did not preside over its complex political system as a dictator.

Buoyed by high personal prestige nationwide, Putin had the support of the Russian people in the Ukraine intervention. It can be deduced from Medvedev’s interview that they had accepted Putin’s two-fold reasoning for Russia’s actions. First, for the Russians, the U.S.-NATO de facto alliance with Ukraine constituted an existential threat, made even more dangerous by the inclusion of radical right-wing anti-Russian elements in that country’s military forces. Beginning with the summit meeting of 2008 in Bucharest, the George W. Bush administration pushed for Ukraine and Georgia to become members of NATO, by definition and continued practice an anti-Russian alliance.

Thereafter, the march of events in that part of the world had been in one direction leading on November 10, 2021, to the U.S.-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership. This agreement outlined a process for that country’s integration into the European Union and NATO. Indeed, the military success of Ukraine against Russia reveals the large scope of the ceaseless NATO training program. From the Kremlin’s perspective an invasion became necessary to prevent an even more lethal threat from materialising on its doorstep.

In the aftermath of the Charter’s promulgation and America’s refusal to acknowledge Russia’s concerns, foreign minister Sergey Lavrov declared that his country had reached its “boiling point.” Even these blunt words failed to impress policy makers in Washington. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a blunt declaration of his own about Ukraine’s right to choose its own foreign policy and to apply for membership in NATO if it wanted to, disregarding the practical inapplicability of this high-minded principle to Canada or Mexico should either of those nations discover their right to enter into a military alliance with Russia or China. Russia’s subsequent mobilisation of troops on the Ukraine border prompted more bluntness from Blinken: “There is no change. There will be no change.”

That which would not change in essence concerned the Wolfowitz Doctrine. The American cause in Ukraine descends from this doctrine. Its proclaimed purpose is the focal point in the second part of Putin’s reasoning about Ukraine.

As Undersecretary of Defense for Policy in the George Herbert Walker Bush administration, Paul Wolfowitz authored the 1992 Defense Policy Guidance memorandum. This seminal foreign policy document called for the maintenance of American supremacy in the post-Cold War era. No rival superpower would be permitted to emerge. The unipolar domination of the United States would be maintained in perpetuity. The Democrats did not demur. During the Clinton administration, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced that the United States enjoyed a unique status in the world as the indispensable nation. Preserving U.S. economic and military primacy would enjoy bipartisan favour.

That Putin had uppermost in mind concerns about the credo of American supremacism became evident on February 4, 2022, when he and China’s President Xi Jinping issued their Joint Statement on New Era International Relations and Sustainable Development. They declared that instead of the U.S. hegemony, the U.N. Charter would be a better foundation for international relations. In short, the unipolar moment of which Medvedev would speak a month later, should pass into history.

The danger of the present crisis with Russia in Ukraine and the one to come with China in Taiwan involves the way all the principal powers envisage themselves facing existential threats. For the Russians and the Chinese, the immediate issues at stake are territorial, for the Americans, their global hegemony. The rules-based order of which the Biden administration speaks in defense of its Ukraine policy is the one we have devised and defended since the Bretton Woods financial conference of July 1944. The Wolfowitz Doctrine takes its place as one of the many appendices and codicils of the American Century mentality that assumed tangible institutional form with the creation of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank along with the investment and military support systems of the Marshall Plan and NATO.

All that panoply of American power now confronts its first direct and forthrightly stated challenge since the end of the Cold War. How to face it? We could continue to stoke the war in Ukraine with money, arms, and economic sanctions while hoping that our direct involvement can be avoided. Given our multifarious involvement already, the fog of war greatly reduces the chances of success in keeping ourselves clear of the actual fighting. In the protracted war now envisaged, clear-eyed restraint holding out for long on either side would be an unsafe bet. A negotiated settlement would be a rational step, but powers imagining themselves to be in dubious battle on the plains of Heaven seldom think of compromise until all the alternatives are exhausted. These alternatives include nuclear weapons exchanges.

With the perpetuation of the American hegemony as our core issue in Ukraine and the fundamental motive for the Biden administration’s four-alarm-fire response to the Putin challenge, it behooves us as a nation to look candidly at the policy we are defending. We are not there to save the Ukrainian people from death or Ukraine from destruction, two objectives most effectively reached by our working to end the war as quickly as possible, instead of by perpetuating it as we are doing. As a nice bonus for our side, profits are up for the defense corporations, which must feel ennobled by their assistance to a Ukrainian cause all but universally blessed by the mass media system.

Outside the United States, however, the international reaction to the Washington-inspired economic sanctions against Russia provides a glimpse of the division in the world over the rule we are defending. Even in the NATO countries beneath the level of officialdom, resistance to the sanctions mounts over fears of economic hardship for European populations. Prices for gas and food are rising while incomes remain stagnant or decline, with much worse trends envisaged for the near term as the sanctions take full effect. For a growing number of Europeans, the full cost of membership in NATO is already too high.

Beyond Europe, the reaction to the Ukraine crisis favours Putin partly because the nations of the Global South know that they will be the most vulnerable to the ill effects of the sanctions levelled against Russia. Moreover, vivid recollections of Western imperialism in the non-white nations have a deadening effect on their reception of the NATO narrative about its irenic and philanthropic purposes. The NATO wars recently fought in Serbia, Iraq, and Libya have the same effect.

That Africa, Latin America, and Asia generally have not signed on to the economic sanctions suggests that the war in Ukraine has become a litmus test for the thesis of Pankaj Mishra in The Age of Anger: A History of the Present.He portrays a world seething with resentment and hatred due to the humiliation of peoples and cultures deprived of power-elite protections. The most visible evidence of the global emergency that he describes consists of worsening income inequality and environmental degradation. The rules-based order for which we are fighting as arms-supplying proxies in Ukraine lacks a moral basis and requires a thorough overhaul.

By persisting with our current Ukraine policy, we can hope that this time, unlike all the other times since Woodrow Wilson set the United States on the path to make the world safe for democracy, a savage war will be something other than a slaughtering pen put to the service of what Thorstein Veblen liked to call “the good old plan.” He meant the securing, maintaining, and extending of home country control over the territories, markets, and resources of the world. This root-and-branch criticism of American foreign policy comes in its most developed form from two of our greatest historians, Charles Austin Beard and William Appleman Williams whose work merits reconsideration today as we try to wean ourselves from empire as a way of life.

Richard Drake holds the Lucile Speer Research Chair in Politics and History at the University of Montana. Among his publications are Charles Austin Beard: The Return of the Master Historian of American Imperialism and The Education of an Anti-Imperialist: Robert La Follette and U.S. Expansion.

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