Between Iraq and Ukraine: Progressive Foreign Policy in a Multipolar Age
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine constitutes the most graphic evidence yet that the unipolar American era—the era in which Washington was the only great power that launched major wars—is over. The American foreign policy establishment has been adapting to this shift for several years. American progressives have not. What would it mean if we did?
But first, a word about this week’s Zoom call. It will be on Thursday, not the usual Friday, at Noon EST. (Sorry, it’s hard to schedule interesting guests on short notice.) Paid subscribers will get the Zoom link this Wednesday and the video next week. Our guest will be Ivan Krastev, Chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, a contributing opinion columnist at The New York Times, and one of the most insightful commentators on Europe, Eastern Europe, and Russia. He published a New York Times column on Sunday entitled “We Are All Living in Vladimir Putin’s World Now.” We’ll talk about the impact of Russia’s invasion on European politics, European foreign policy, and European identity. I’ve been wanting to talk to Ivan for a while, and there’s never been a more important time. Join us.
Back to American progressives and the Russian invasion.
Last October, a group of Ukrainian socialists published a statement about Russia’s impending attack on their country. One paragraph in particular stands out. It’s not about Ukraine specifically. It’s about the shifting balance of global power:
“After the collapse of the USSR, only one superpower remained in the world – the United States. But nothing lasts forever and now its hegemony is declining. US interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq brought catastrophic wars to the peoples of these countries and ended in disgrace for the United States. Unfortunately, the decline of American imperialism has been accompanied not by the emergence of a more democratic world order, but by the rise of other imperialist predators, fundamentalist and nationalist movements. Under these circumstances, the international left, accustomed to fighting only against Western imperialism, should reconsider its strategy.”
If you’re an American progressive, I’d suggest printing this out and affixing it to your wall.
Most American progressives have lived their entire adult lives in the unipolar age. At first, unfettered American dominance bred a species unseen since the Vietnam war: the liberal hawk. With Moscow sidelined, the US was free to expel Iraq from Kuwait in the Gulf War in 1991, and to launch wars that halted ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999. When these wars ended in American victory, many Washington liberals—I was one of them— concluded that human rights could travel on the barrel of an American gun. “We...say to the people of the world, whether you live in Africa, or Central Europe or any other place,” declared Bill Clinton in 1999, “if somebody comes after innocent civilians and tries to kill them en masse because of their race, their ethnic background or their religion, and it’s within our power to stop it, we will stop it.” At the turn of the millennium, Samantha Power was just about the coolest progressive in America.
Within a few years, the dream of liberal hegemony had become a nightmare. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya—the more wars America launched, the more money it wasted, the more working-class American kids it maimed, the more refugees and failed states it produced. Outraged that Washington liberals had become junior partners to the openly imperialist American right, anti-war progressives rebelled. In 2004, Howard Dean nearly toppled the Democratic establishment because he had opposed the Iraq War. In 2016, Bernie Sanders nearly did the same. By 2020, the coolest progressive in America was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
But as American progressives were rallying against American empire, American empire was beginning to recede. It’s easier to see the signs in retrospect. In 2008, as NATO pushed ever closer to Russia’s borders, Moscow—its geopolitical free fall arrested by rising oil and gas prices—counterattacked. It invaded Georgia in 2008. In 2014, it seized Crimea and hacked out a chunk of eastern Ukraine. In 2015, Russia’s air force entered the Syrian civil war. In an effort to halt the West’s advance, Vladimir Putin also began aiding right-wing nationalist forces across Europe and the United States. China began pushing back, too. It dredged islands and built fortifications in the South China Sea. Beijing also grew more aggressive in South Asia. In 2020, soldiers seeking to extend China’s Himalayan frontier killed twenty Indian soldiers. It was the bloodiest Chinese military conflict in forty years.
In Washington, Russia and China’s counterattacks against American hegemony gave hawks a new mission. With the “war on terror” now discredited, “great power competition” offered a life raft. And, like the “war on terror,” the new struggle against China and Russia was a bipartisan affair. In announcing the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy, Pentagon chief James Mattis in 2018 declared that “great power competition—not terrorism—is now the primary focus of U.S. national security.” The following year, Ely Ratner, now the top China hand in Joe Biden’s Pentagon, declared that Trump’s “National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy basically get the narrative right.” Ratner—along with Biden’s top Asia advisor on the National Security Council, his Undersecretary of Defense and his Deputy Director of the CIA—are all alumni of the Center for New American Security (CNAS), a think tank currently led by a former top foreign policy advisor to John McCain. Victoria Nuland, the number three official in Biden’s State Department, and its highest-ranking Russia expert, hails from CNAS as well. She also once served as Deputy National Security Advisor to Dick Cheney.
The blob has adjusted to multipolarity; the American left has not. Progressives have vastly more influence in the Democratic Party on domestic than on foreign policy. And where progressives do offer a clear foreign policy perspective—their opposition to America’s participation in the war in Yemen, for instance, or their support for Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, or for the Iran nuclear deal—it doesn’t concern America’s relations with Russia or China. As a result, debates about great power competition largely pit the bipartisan blob against the white nationalist right. Everyone knows what Tucker Carlson thinks about US policy toward Russia. Does anyone know what AOC thinks?
Now that Russia has attacked Ukraine, it’s urgent progressives develop some answers. The answer cannot be to ignore or minimize Russian aggression because NATO unwisely promised membership to Ukraine in 2008. Yes, many Russians—including Russians who cherish liberal democracy—felt betrayed when the West greeted the disbanding of the Warsaw Pact by expanding its military alliance ever closer to Russia’s borders. But NATO’s encroachment into Russia’s sphere of influence did not force Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine any more than Fidel Castro’s ties to the Soviet Union forced the United States to try to invade Cuba in the 1960s. And now that Putin has invaded, American progressives must heed the call of those Ukrainian socialists who warn about the dangers of “fighting only against Western imperialism.” American progressives are accustomed to criticizing US arms sales and sanctions. And for good reason. Both inflict cruelty around the world. There is, however, a vast difference between selling arms to dictatorships like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which use them to wage proxy wars across the Middle East, and selling them to a democratically elected government under attack from Europe’s most powerful military. Similarly, there is a vast difference between America’s sanctions against Cuba and Iran—which restrict medicine and other humanitarian goods to long-suffering populations that never asked to be placed under economic siege—and America’s current sanctions against Russia, which come at the request of an elected president and aim to stop a war.
But if ignoring Russia’s current aggression poses one danger, ignoring America’s own history of aggression poses another. When Joe Biden declares, as he did last Thursday in his remarks on Ukraine, that “America stands up to bullies. We stand up for freedom. This is who we are,” he is implying that America possesses an inherent predisposition towards supporting democracy. That’s dangerous. It’s dangerous because it suggests the US is so virtuous that it can be trusted to bypass international law. Which is exactly the logic George W. Bush employed to invade Iraq.
The alternative to both these mistakes—the mistake of minimizing what’s happening in Ukraine because of Iraq and the mistake of forgetting about Iraq because of what’s happening in Ukraine—is to think about these two acts of aggression together. Thinking about what these invasions share can help progressives formulate principles that guide our opposition to the multiple imperialisms produced by a multipolar world.
The first principle is the most obvious: international law. At their most basic, the invasions of Ukraine and Iraq constitute violations of the United Nations Charter, signed after World War II “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” The Charter calls on countries to “settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.” Since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, America’s leaders have rediscovered the sanctity of this principle. But the US itself bears some of the responsibility for its breakdown. In his speech announcing a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Putin cited America’s war “waged against Belgrade, without the UN Security Council’s sanction” and “the invasion of Iraq without any legal grounds.” Putin’s speech was filled with lies. But these statements were true. The US did go to war against Serbia in 1999 without UN approval; as justification, it cited NATO’s support instead. In trying to stop Slobodan Milosevic from ethnically cleansing Kosovar ethnic Albanians, the Clinton administration may have had good motives. But four years later, when the Bush administration cited Kosovo to justify its own bypassing of the UN in Iraq, it claimed good intentions too. I’m not suggesting Putin invaded Ukraine because of these American precedents. But in weakening the principle of non-aggression, the US made his work easier. Intoxicated by American exceptionalism, America’s leaders often assume they can break the rules they expect others to follow. It rarely works out well.
Even after Iraq, neither establishment Democrats nor Republicans discuss international law. The foreign policy section of the 2020 Democratic platform does not include the phrase. Instead, Biden officials employ terms like “liberal international order” or “rules-based international order,” which are designed to create the illusion that the US conducts its foreign policy according to internationally-agreed upon rules but, in reality, mean whatever the US government wants them to mean at any given time. The results can be absurd. US officials, for instance, often cite China’s behavior in the South China Sea as a violation of the “rules-based order” that the US upholds. In fact, China is violating something far less amorphous and subjective than the “rules-based order.” According to a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, Beijing is violating the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. So why doesn’t the US just say that? Because the US itself hasn’t ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The American foreign policy establishment likes to pretend this kind of hypocrisy doesn’t matter. Progressives should insist it does.
A second principle to learn from Ukraine and Iraq is the necessity of restraining executive power. It appears clear that Putin’s decision to invade stemmed from a growing isolation from reality, which left him susceptible to fantasies that Ukraine is not an independent nation and that its people would tolerate, or even welcome, a Russian attack. But although America’s political system is more democratic than Russia’s, unchecked executive power can breed dangerous ignorance here too. When Iraqi exiles went to meet Bush several months before America’s invasion, according to the journalist George Packer, they realized that he did not know the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims. The Bush administration made categorical and terrifying claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction even though the US possessed very little information on the subject. According to a post-hoc investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee, the US did not have a single source inside Iraq providing it information on WMD before the war. Had members of Congress carefully scrutinized the Bush administration’s claims, they might have realized how flimsy they were. But according to the Washington Post, only six senators and a handful of House members read the classified National Intelligence Estimate on Iraqi WMD.
It’s up to Russians to create a more accountable political system in their country. But there’s a lot for American progressives to do here. As U.S. Marine Corps veteran Philip Klay pointed out last year, the authorization for war that Congress passed after 9/11 has become a virtual blank check for presidents to employ force virtually anywhere, on the vaguest of pretexts. According to Klay, it “has been used to justify 41 operations in 19 countries, many of them operations that mustered almost no public scrutiny.” Under something called The International Emergency Economic Powers Act, Congress has also given presidents carte blanche to impose the harshest and most far-reaching sanctions without congressional approval. Especially after the presidency of Donald Trump, it’s madness for Congress to keep handing presidents these loaded guns. In a multipolar world, in which American recklessness could bring war not just with Iraq but with a nuclear-armed great power, progressives should work to rein in the imperial presidency here at home.
Finally, the wars in Ukraine and Iraq stem from Russia and America’s insistence on dominating smaller nations. Putin wants to make Ukraine a puppet state. The Bush administration, for all its talk about liberating Iraqis, aimed to make Iraq an American client that could provide a steady supply of cheap oil, especially after 9/11 raised questions about Saudi Arabia’s long-term stability. What Putin could not tolerate in Ukraine, and the US could not tolerate in Iraq, were regimes outside their control, even ones that posed no real threat beyond their borders. (Saddam Hussein did, of course, threaten his own people. But that had little to do with America’s decision to invade.)
Why do these twin examples matter? Because in a multipolar world, trying to dominate smaller nations risks great power war. Some of the most dangerous places on earth are the borderlands between the spheres of influence of great powers. That’s why Berlin was so dangerous during the cold war. It’s one reason Ukraine is a battlefield today, and it’s why Taiwan poses even greater perils.
The tenets of American exceptionalism require America’s leaders to pretend the US opposes spheres of influence. But that’s not true. America demands one itself. Just look at how Biden officials reacted when Russian officials threatened to send military assistance to Cuba or Venezuela. Progressives cannot wish away the influence great powers wield over their smaller neighbors. The challenge is to ensure that great powers do not wield that influence in the criminal manner in which Russia is doing now in order to maintain the possibility of global cooperation.
Doing that means not forcing smaller countries into zero sum choices between great powers. In the short term, the US must help Ukraine defend itself and maintain its independence. Hopefully, this Russian government will learn a lesson from its atrocious behavior or be replaced by a better one. But since NATO still isn’t going to admit Ukraine because the US and Western Europe won’t send their soldiers to fight Russia on Ukrainian soil, Kyiv is ultimately going to have to choose neutrality. Hopefully it can still integrate economically with the rest of Europe and maybe even join the European Union. But it’s in Ukraine’s long-term interests to have a decent relationship with Russia, and it’s in America’s interest not to make Ukraine the frontline of another Cold War. The same principle holds in Taiwan, which is in even greater long-term peril because China, unlike Russia, is a rising power. For more than forty years, Taiwan has prospered and avoided war by maintaining a relationship with the US and China that is not zero-sum. Maintaining that should be progressives’ goal, not only because it’s in the best interest of Taiwan but because ensuring that small countries aren’t forced into zero-sum choices helps great powers cooperate. And great power cooperation is essential to combatting common global threats like pandemics and climate change.
Although it was buried by news from Ukraine, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change this week released another terrifying report. Protecting Ukraine right now means helping it win this war. But in the longer term, protecting Ukrainians, and people across the globe, requires seeking ways of avoiding a second cold war with both Russia and China. Because in this new multipolar world, rival imperialisms don’t only threaten human rights and international peace. They threaten the planet as well.
In the Guardian, I wrote about Putin’s lies and America’s half-truths.
I’ve never heard a historian rebut a tyrant in as eloquent or timely as way as Yale’s Timothy Snyder does in this lecture, “Ukraine: A Normal Country.”
For no particular reason, I’ve been reading Joshua Yaffa’s Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia. It’s a marvelous book, and immensely valuable to understanding how Putin rules, and what it would take to bring him down.
In my newsletter a couple weeks ago on the evolution of the word “apartheid” in American discourse about Israel, I neglected to cite this review of Jimmy Carter’s book by the great Henry Siegman. It’s still worth reading today.
In Mallorca, a Ukrainian sailor partially sinks the Russian-owned yacht on which he works in retaliation for the attack on his country. In Ukraine itself, a farmer uses his tractor to steal a Russian tank.
See you on Thursday,