The Russian government’s invasion of Ukraine has provoked strong reactions across the world, from empathetic solidarity with the Ukrainian people to crass anti-Russian bigotry. Looking to ride the wave of both sentiments is a domestic foreign policy establishment that is eager to restore the U.S.’s global standing and sense of historic purpose — and perhaps their own soiled reputations after two decades of a disastrous “global war on terror.”
“The post-9/11 war on terror period of American hubris, and decline, is now behind us,” declared the Obama administration’s former deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes. “We’ve been trying to get to a new era for a long time. And now I think Putin’s invasion has necessitated an American return to the moral high ground.”
For the veteran foreign affairs reporter George Packer, Vladimir Putin’s war should jolt Americans out of the melancholy “realism” of a declining superpower and remind us of “a truth we didn’t want to see: that our core interests lie in the defense of [democratic and liberal] values.”
Then there is former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who revealed more than he intended when he declared that “Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has ended Americans’ 30-year holiday from history.”
Only a Pentagon bureaucrat could so easily dismiss the epochal events of recent years: a pandemic, an economic meltdown, an uprising for Black lives, and the acceleration of rising temperatures that threaten to destroy this era of human civilization. Sure, you can picture Gates saying, that stuff is kind of important, but a land war in Eurasia? Now that’s real history.
But there’s a common and depressing framework shared by Gates, Packer and even Rhodes, who once memorably described the Beltway foreign relations officialdom as “the Blob” which the rest of the Obama administration was trying to disrupt.
The U.S. has had ample opportunities in recent years, under Democratic and Republican administrations, to lead the way in defending liberal values and taking the moral high ground on such pivotal issues around the world as vaccine access, migrant rights and renewable energy conversion. Yet these centrist Democrats only seem to envision U.S. global leadership in the 21st century being restored through a revived 20th-century Cold War with Russia — and probably China.
Foreign policy elites might be especially eager to restore the U.S. to its former position of global strength because they are the ones who did so much to destroy it. Gates, Packer, and almost every other Washington insider initially supported the 2003 Iraq War, another shockingly brazen invasion that rested on legal fictions and false delusions of instant success.
The failures of that war, along with the Afghanistan war and “counterterror activities” in 83 other countries, have drained the U.S. treasury of an astounding $8 trillion, mortally wounded Washington’s global credibility, and contributed to the rising authoritarianism at home that helped Donald Trump win the presidency in 2016. Now “the Blob” is saying we can undo America’s decline … through another endless war.
Far from marking a break with the mistakes of its imperial adventures 20 years ago, this sudden consensus that we are in a new Cold War echoes the post-9/11 talk from the Bush administration about a “generational conflict” that would last decades and extend the fight against “terrorism” into countries across the globe.
Unlike ordinary people around the world, foreign policy elites are not thinking primarily about the immediate needs of the Ukrainian people. If they were, the U.S. would be doing more to aid peace talks, cancel Ukraine’s onerous debt repayments to global banks and stop the denial of entry to Ukrainian refugees at the U.S. border.
Instead, the primary form of U.S. assistance has been an “unprecedented” flow of weaponry into the country. That’s because the Blob is looking to make Ukraine a costly and bloody battlefield for its Russian invaders.
Hillary Clinton was typically clumsy when she cited U.S. aid to Afghan militants fighting Russia in the 1980s as a potential model for what to do now in Ukraine. But while most American officials have the savvy to avoid proposing a repeat of the course of actions that ultimately led to the formation of al-Qaeda and the September 11 attacks, Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic points out that many U.S. officials share Clinton’s interest in turning Ukraine into a Russian quagmire.
Fortunately, the Biden administration (for now) has clearly ruled out imposing a no-fly zone that could lead to a catastrophic and possibly nuclear U.S.-Russia war (despite the protestations of an alarmingly hawkish White House press corps). But we should be clear that Washington regards Ukrainians as a propaganda tool for restoring the U.S.’s reputation, rather than 40 million people whose lives will be further devastated if their country becomes the site of a protracted war.
To be clear, the surge of enthusiasm for confronting Russia is being driven by the Putin government’s belligerent actions, which have already caused thousands of deaths, created 3 million refugees, and unraveled what were already frayed relations among the U.S., Russia, China and Western Europe.
People around the world should oppose the invasion and build solidarity with Ukraine, not through a new Cold War but by echoing the demands coming from Ukrainian and global activists to welcome refugees, abolish Ukraine’s debt, revive global disarmament talks and negotiate an immediate end to the war.
For anyone concerned that these measures don’t do enough to punish Vladimir Putin, there is an obvious and globally beneficial strategy for countering an autocratic government whose economy rests on oil exports. If wealthy governments had spent the last decade converting their economies to renewable energy sources, writes Naomi Klein, “Putin would not be able to flout international law and opinion as he has been doing so flagrantly, secure in the belief that he will still have customers for his increasingly profitable hydrocarbons.”
Instead, the Biden administration is looking to counter the loss of Russian fossil fuels by increasing global and domestic oil production. Like Russia, U.S. politics is a declining empire that has been captured by oil companies and other oligarchs; our democracy is so broken that a single West Virginia coal baron has held his entire party’s program hostage for the past year.
More generally, the U.S. has been on a slow-motion path (OK, maybe a little faster during the Trump years) toward the same trends of autocracy, oligarchy and hyper-nationalism that more greatly afflict Russia. Liberal foreign policy hawks like George Packer and Ben Rhodes see these trends and think they can be reversed through a new generational conflict that revives the country’s national spirit.
That sounds a bit like an American version of Putin’s logic, which only shows how much both countries were commonly shaped (and misshaped) by 50 years of the original Cold War. As the deadline for decisive climate action gets closer, the world can’t afford to waste another half-century on a new one.