Is America ready to see it through?
In any new conflict the generals begin by fighting the previous war. The same seems true for anyone trying to think their way through the conflict, whether pro or con. The realities on the ground are obscured, sometimes by nostalgia and aspiration, other times by recrimination and self-flagellation.
Take as exhibit A an article in Harper’s Magazine, “Why are We in Ukraine?” by Benjamin Shwarz and Christopher Layne—very much in the “con” pile, as its subtitle reveals: “The dangers of American hubris.” (Hubris was the title of one of the many scorching accounts of the Iraq War.) The authors might as well have titled their article “Here we go again, throwing our weight around in Eastern Europe just as we did in the Middle East.”
In case you thought Putin was the one upsetting the balance of power, it is in fact Washington that’s the destabilizing “force in world politics,” say Schwarz and Layne. America needs to “renounce the pursuit of global hegemony.” Putin is behaving no more irrationally than President Kennedy did when faced with the Soviets in Cuba; America is being hypocritical by refusing to acknowledge Russia’s need for a sphere of influence; the U.S. is in no position to condemn Putin’s intervention on his border when the U.S. has done the same in far-flung places such as Kosovo and Libya; and President Biden is foolishly following “the false lessons” of the Cold War that “have informed a host of Washington’s interventions and regime-change wars ever since.”
We need know nothing, apparently, about Ukraine to know exactly what the conflict in Ukraine is about. It’s about America.
A look at the “pro” arguments also reveal some well-worn ideas.
In exhibit B I have three items.
One: President Biden tells us that after “Putin, and his craven lust for land and power, unleashed his brutal war on Ukraine” the U.S. saw a challenge “to the peace and stability of the world, to democratic values we hold dear, to freedom itself,” and did what it always does: It “stepped up.”
Stability, democracy, freedom—are we just following a Cold War script in Ukraine? Biden sounds much like John Kennedy promising to pay prices and bear burdens in the defense of liberty.
Two: General Mark Milley sees Vadimir Putin challenging the principles behind the liberal world order, chief among them respect for borders. “We the Americans are the primary authors of the basic rules of the road,” he writes. Putin “is making a direct frontal assault on the rules that were written in 1945.” If Putin’s attacking the rules, he’s also attacking their author. Again, what’s really at issue in Ukraine is America.
Three: Journalist George Packer beholds an even darker mirror. Putin’s criminality is of an order not “seen in Europe since Hitler and Stalin.” Unless we stop him, Putin will take “more of Ukraine, and then the region,” and the autocrats “in Ankara and Tehran and Beijing will understand” that might makes right after all. Amidst this civilizational collapse, America “will no longer stand for anything,” says Packer, “not even hypocrisy.” Packer doesn’t explicitly mention Munich or Neville Chamberlain—he doesn’t have to. The war in Ukraine is, at bottom, a test of America’s character. Will we fulfill the obligations history has laid upon us? Or will we join the ranks of the appeasers?
In the patriotic imaginary, too, the war is less about the fate of Ukraine than the state of the American spirit.
What are we to make of all this? One side detects hubris and hegemony while the other espies Hitler and the end of civilization. How does one think clearly amidst these dueling apocalypticisms? Supporting U.S. aid to Ukraine is enabling imperialism; reducing it risks the twilight of our basic values. One prospect is repellent, the other terrifying.
The “cons” are correct that the U.S. has a blemished record when it comes to interventions over the past sixty years. Claims that we’re defending liberty, democracy, and a sane global order have papered over misguided fiascoes from Saigon to Kabul. Yet equating Washington’s effort to aid Ukraine in repelling an invasion with the U.S. invading Iraq is perverse. Whose tanks are going which way matters.
Schwarz and Layne are right when they say Russia believes it has a legitimate claim to a sphere of influence on its western border. Our most clear-eyed, rational president—Barack Obama—agrees. The Russians will always care more about Ukraine than America does, he says, and Ukraine will always “be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.”
But Russia’s belief that it deserves a sphere of influence doesn’t justify every act it takes to establish one.
The U.S. has claimed an interest in the western hemisphere since 1823. But for all its often shameful meddling in Latin America it has never embarked on an all-out war against any of those societies. (Neither the Grenada nor Panama operations rise to the level of all-out war. Cuba to the U.S. is the closest analogy to what Ukraine is to Russia; despite much interference on our part, we’ve never unleashed the full might of our military on it. It’s estimated about 75,000 Ukrainians have been killed so far since 2022.)
When U.S. administrations have sponsored coups or supported insurgencies in the region, they have typically done so covertly—because they knew the American people (including Congress) would have objections. Our government was worried it couldn’t answer those objections in an honest and principled way. It was right.
That Washington has gone rogue on occasion and contradicted its own professed values doesn’t mean we—the American people—must abandon those values. In a representative democracy the people possess a tool to drag its government back towards honorable behavior. This does not guarantee that the government won’t stray, of course, or that the dragging will be easy.
Russia believes it has a real interest in who governs in Eastern Europe. We would be foolish not to recognize that. But we don’t need to ignore the evil of its industrial-scale warfare—against civilians—as it pursues that interest. Distinguishing means from ends is the beginning of morality.
What about the “pros,” who insist the entire post-war international order hangs on our support for Ukraine? This rhetoric is hardly new. We’ve heard it during almost every conflict America has entered the past seventy years. Many of those conflicts America lost.
Consider these words of President Truman in 1950. At the time America was aiming to win the entire Korean peninsula; Truman even hinted he was ready to use nuclear weapons to do so. At stake in Korea, he said, are “all human hopes of peace and justice.” The cause of a “just and peaceful world order” depends on what happens in Korea, he insisted. Yet while we soon settled for a divided Korea, which endures till this day, hopes for peace and justice didn’t, in fact, disappear from the world.
Did Truman really believe “all human hopes of peace and justice” were at stake in the Far East in 1950? Earlier that very year his Secretary of State had identified Korea as lying outside the sphere of American concerns.
America was born of fabulations. (Did Thomas Jefferson really believe George III was intent on establishing an “absolute tyranny” over the colonies?) Nothing is more on-brand for Americans than expecting the apocalypse should our aims not be realized. It’s one of our ways of avoiding the reality of tragedy.
Tragedies, however, are common. Think of North Korea, Vietnam, the Congo, Syria—or, for that matter, Afghanistan at this very moment. Tyranny—real tyranny—sometimes wins. After hundreds of thousands of deaths spent trying to prevent it, millions will slip into its grip. There they live and die, as do their children.
“This country is the keystone of the hopes of mankind for peace and justice,” insisted President Truman. But that keystone has failed to hold on too many occasions to count. Such rhetoric is really just America muttering to itself. We—and even more, any nations hoping for our help—need to recognize that.
Battlefield assessments indicate the war in Ukraine is settling into a stalemate, and it will take a lot of western aid just for Ukraine to hold its own. It’s uncertain the U.S. will continue its support without clear military progress. If a Republican gains the White House next year, all bets are obviously off.
I do not wish Russian tyranny on the people of Ukraine. They don’t deserve it. Tyranny’s victims never deserve it. That is why it’s always a tragedy.
But should it happen, in whole or in part, the U.S. will not go to war with Russia. We don’t actually believe our own safety and security—or the rules-based world order or the hope for freedom—depends on any one nation’s success. If we did, we would be far more involved in Ukraine already. No, in the event of Russia’s ongoing prosecuting of the war, we will watch Ukraine slip into darkness, or into a long protracted war, or into the severance of some part of the nation. Should it happen, we will lament (while blaming one another). Then we will move on to the next thing.
If in fact we must move on, we will take our belief in our exceptionalism with us. We will continue to work toward a peaceful, rules-based world, and we will continue to mix self-interest with idealism. We will continue to defend—sincerely but not without limits—democracy and human rights, but only when and where we choose. We will continue to fail, often, and when we do, we will continue to find it more convenient to forget than to learn. We’ve already forgotten Iraq. Our forgetting of Afghanistan is almost complete.
What we won’t do is reconcile ourselves to the inevitability of tragedy. We can’t, and still remain Americans.
John H. Haas teaches U.S. history at Bethel University in Indiana.
Photo credit: Tatyana Tkachuk