Hubris Kills Diplomacy

by | Feb 15, 2023


International conflict cries out for statesmanship. It calls for the kind of leadership that rises above the passions of the moment, takes the long view, considers the legitimate interests of all, and looks for creative solutions. The temperament of statesmanship is prudence and restraint. This type of leadership requires not only relevant experience but a historical perspective, critical distance to the present, and imagination.

There also can be no statesmanship, no diplomacy, without empathy, that is, a willingness to see a conflict from the point of view of opponents. Neither can there be any compromise and relaxation of tensions without a measure of modesty. To assume that all right is on your side is incompatible with statesmanship. Such arrogance also runs counter to the old Western view of human nature, whether classical or Christian. It is a prescription for confrontation and disaster.

What brings these considerations to mind is America’s way of dealing with Russia since the crumbling of the Soviet Union. It can be argued that conceit, ignorance, and lack of strategic empathy have played far too large a role in American foreign policy in the post-Cold War period.

An observer can be deeply suspicious of Russia and, most recently, greatly bemoan its invasion of Ukraine and still regard US policy toward Russia as a tale of arrogance and missed opportunities. The United States, Russia, Europe, and the rest of the world would have been better served by a much different policy. Because America’s way of treating Russia can be seen as not untypical of how it has dealt with other powers in recent decades, this article may be read as a case study of the attitudes dominating America’s foreign policy establishment. These include a propensity for hubris, unilateralism, and short-sightedness.

A recent American secretary of state affords a good example of favoring inflexibility and confrontation over diplomacy. Mike Pompeo expresses this preference in the title of his new book, Never Give an Inch. It is paradoxical, to say the least, but also strong evidence for the thesis of this article, that one who exhibits this tendency in extreme form should have been appointed America’s diplomat-in-chief.

A brief survey of post-Cold War US-Russia relations will illustrate America’s disinclination to look at disputes from the point of view of an opponent, consider historical circumstances, and engage in diplomacy. Sketching US conduct will set the stage for asking what it is that predisposes the US to confrontation rather than flexibility and negotiation. To understand what accounts for this foreign policy pattern is all the more important in that it brings with it grave dangers.

From Pragmatic Flexibility to Hostility

Toward the end of the Cold War, there were some signs that the US might choose a path different from the one just described. In his second term, President Ronald Reagan expected that the Soviet Union would soon begin to fall apart. In his conduct towards the Soviet leaders, he combined firmness left over from the worst of the Cold War with a new flexibility. His ambassador to the Soviet Union, Jack Matlock, who stayed in this post until 1991, told this writer in conversation a few years ago that Reagan emphasized with him that the US should not try to take military advantage of the great problems with which Russia had to contend as it left communism behind. Russian leaders needed some leeway to deal with enormous difficulties. President George H.W. Bush, his secretary of state James Baker, and his national security advisor Brent Scowcroft sent similar verbal signals to Mikhail Gorbachev and other Russian leaders. Then, when the reunification of Germany was proposed, the Russians were told that no attempt would be made to use reunification to expand NATO beyond the old border to the DDR. Was this the start of an era of more cordial relations with Russia?

The apparent interest in finding new ways of interacting with Russia was not, however, unambiguous or non-controversial. Many influential members of the large US national security and foreign policy establishment inside and outside of government, whether Republican or Democrat, were deeply suspicious of Russia and uncomfortable with trying to link Russia to the Western family of nations. It was as if this establishment or an influential element within it had a will of its own. That will generally resisted a marked relaxation of tensions. Neoconservative hawkishness, which was hard to tell apart from an assertive neoliberal internationalism, remained strong in both parties.

More will have to be said later about the deeply entrenched and widely embraced democratist/humanitarian ideology with clearly hegemonic implications that contradicted the more pragmatic, non-confrontational inclinations of many American leaders. It is common knowledge that when Dwight Eisenhower left the presidency a few decades earlier, he warned of the power of the military-industrial complex. The influence of the latter has only grown in the intervening years. This complex is not chiefly an intellectual enterprise but an alliance of Big Business, the Pentagon, and Intelligence; but as the Soviet Union was crumbling, this mighty network was well-served by the just-mentioned type of ideology, including the notion of American exceptionalism, which put a romantic, “idealistic” gloss on an interventionist foreign policy and a push for more defense spending. The ideology made it easy to think that these policies were not for the sake of more power or enrichment but were necessary to counter ever-new bad actors in the world. Virtue required these policies.

As Russia struggled, American leaders, most prominently President Bill Clinton, moved, though not without opposition, to add the countries in Europe previously under USSR’s control to NATO. The alliance had had the purpose of protecting against the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, but now that Russia was abandoning communism and the old military stand-off was coming to an end, the need for NATO was no longer obvious. To undertake a huge expansion of NATO might seem even more questionable. What new threat or potential threat would an enlarged alliance counter? Whatever else motivated American leaders, retaining and expanding NATO looked like a case of US power projection. It indicated, among other things, that the US wanted to prevent the formation of a genuinely European security architecture and to continue exercising decisive influence in Europe, an influence that would now be extended to many more countries. Being the wholly dominant power in a large alliance of economically advanced or advancing countries would also, at least superficially, contribute to maintaining the image of America as the world’s sole superpower.

The kind of melioristic ideology that helped inspire and justify American global assertiveness in the post-Cold War era amounted to nothing less than a vision of the world transformed, to be realized by means of American power. This understanding of the goal of American foreign policy has been ubiquitous in the US foreign policy establishment, whether in its Republican or Democrat iteration. For the purposes of this article, it is less important how to label this frame of mind than to indicate its central features and show how it helps explain America’s confrontational global posture. One general term often used for this large influence is “neoconservatism”, but it is closely akin to assertive liberal internationalism and promotion of human rights.

According to the neoconservative worldview, America was founded on universal principles, usually summarized as a preference for “democracy”, which endowed the United States with the historical mission to spread these values to the rest of the world. Making the promotion of democracy a central objective of US foreign policy accords with an overarching ideology that has long wholly dominated the universities, media, and politics in the Western world. That ideology may be called “democratism”, which is far more than a guide to foreign policy. It is nothing short of an entire view of life and the world. In keeping with this ideology, members of the US foreign policy elite assume that regimes that resist America’s great and virtuous cause have to be confronted and perhaps removed.

Whether particular persons with this expansionist, imperial mindset should be called “neoconservatives”, “liberal internationalists”, “human rights activists”, or something else entirely could be the topic for another study. Here it is sufficient to point out that the people now under discussion all agree on this central point: the US is a force for good in the world, and it must—as a moral leader and indispensable nation—push ideologically, politically, and militarily for a world in which all respect the principles that it champions. States or movements that threaten this goal have to be actively confronted and defeated.

Among the most well-known advocates of this view of America’s role in the world, who had a major influence on post-Cold-War American foreign policy thinking, are Robert Kagan, his wife Victoria Nuland, Paul Wolfowitz, Michael Novak, Irving Kristol, William Bennett, Charles Krauthammer, and, more recently, Mike Pompeo. These individuals are usually called “neoconservatives”. People who might prefer a different label but exhibit the same democratist missionary zeal include Madeleine Albright, Richard Holbrooke, Samantha Power, and Anthony Blinken. From the point of view of the states that have had to contend with the practical policy consequences of this kind of thinking, it has mattered little how particular US foreign-policy-makers and theorists have preferred to be known.

People around the world who are not caught up in the intellectual habits of the US-dominated Western world may be pardoned for thinking that this American ideology looks markedly self-centered and self-serving. There is, however, a very close historical parallel to this American frame of mind. The French Jacobins, the intellectual leaders of the Revolution of 1789, also enunciated supposedly universal principles—“freedom, equality, and brotherhood”— and appointed a certain country, their own, as the Liberator of mankind. They too saw themselves as representing “virtue”. The US foreign policy establishment has appointed as the virtuous leader of the world not France but America–the country whose foreign policy they happen to be directing.

Those who are aware of the great scope and variety of human thought over the centuries, Western and non-Western, may be forgiven for thinking that there is something curiously limited and limiting, even provincial, about the intellectual assumptions of the US foreign policy establishment. Considering the pervasiveness of the foreign policy outlook just discussed, it is easy to forget how sharply it contrasts with the ideas and temperament of those who set early America on its course and produced the US Constitution.

For people like George Washington or John Quincy Adams, the task of American foreign policy was to guard American interests and protect Americans. Nothing could be more alien to their thinking than that America should spearhead efforts to spread its principles around the globe. They also assumed that America’s relations with other nations should be, as far as possible, marked by the kind of deliberation, restraint, mutual respect, and willingness to compromise that marks all civilized human conduct and is encouraged by the Constitution.

Neoconservatism and liberal internationalist progressivism are, for some of their advocates, sincerely-held ideological preferences that happen to have certain practical implications. For others, the ideology flows from and serves more or less conscious but unstated interests. Hawkish ideology is a useful tool for advancing a political or economic agenda. Behind the idealistic façade of favoring a better world for all can hide a major driver of interventionism–the desire to remove in other societies obstacles to the amassing of more power and riches.

The intellectual and political dynamic generated by America’s increasingly oligarchic/plutocratic regime would deserve a separate study. A hugely wealthy and profit-driven American elite has long been in a position to bias the market of ideas in the universities and the media. The system of government that is replacing America’s old constitutional structures is showing more and more of its plutocratic and rapacious nature both at home and abroad. One of the domestic manifestations of the drive to overpower opposition has been a Woke assault on traditional institutions and moral restraints and the development of an elaborate private-public partnership for censoring opinion and declaring Truth that matches establishment orthodoxy. The corresponding progressive curtailment of traditional American liberties is evident from the growing use of police state methods, including the surveillance of citizens without a court warrant.

Paradoxical as it may seem to some, the interventionist impulse of neoconservatism and liberal internationalism is today being reinforced by an emerging Western-generated global Woke alliance that confronts traditional beliefs and practices around the world. This influence, already well-represented in the US foreign policy establishment, will intensify the backlash against the US and Europe in non-Western societies.

Russian Interest Ignored   

In the early years of the post-communist period, Russia sought closer ties with Europe and even inquired about NATO membership, but these attempts were not taken seriously or were rebuffed. Those resisting closer ties with Russia could cite Russia’s failure to meet Western standards of democracy and civil liberties, but the eastward expansion of NATO rested primarily on a more or less implicit claim that somehow the Soviet Union might stage a comeback, a prospect that was anathema, especially to its former satellites. Was Putin not a creature of Soviet intelligence? Had he not criticized the collapse of the Soviet Union? Was he not, despite his renunciation of communism, embarked on a restoration of the old Russian empire?

There seems to have been little desire among US policymakers to understand just what Putin so disliked about the collapse of the Soviet Union. One can be sharply critical of Putin and still have no difficulty understanding why many non-communist Russians would decry the manner in which Russia abandoned the Soviet command economy. For example, Russian oligarchs-to-be who had financial backing abroad were able to “buy” many of the economic assets of the old Soviet state at bargain basement prices. These “purchases” amounted, in effect, to plunder. Free market economists in the West of the abstract, dogmatic kind defended subjecting the Russian economy to this kind of “capitalist” shock treatment, but it is hardly surprising that many non-socialist Russians were resentful of this large-scale looting of Russia and the spread of a kind of gangster economy.

How to explain that the repeated Russian protests against the expansion of NATO did not restrain US policymakers? One might have thought it obvious that incorporating the old Soviet satellites into NATO while rebuffing Russia would be perceived by Moscow as, at minimum, highly unfriendly and as, more likely, starkly provocative. Again, why was NATO, this supposedly defensive alliance, expanding in the first place? What threat was it countering at this time of Russian frailty? We are no longer the Soviet Union, the Russians pointed out. Yet their protests were ignored. Russia was struggling to achieve internal stability and address great economic difficulties. Was it at the same time engaged in major sinister conduct that posed an acute threat to America and Europe and necessitated massive countermeasures?

Contrary to the verbal commitments of earlier American leaders, the expansion of NATO moved troops, missile systems, and other weapons up against Russia’s border. Whatever motivated the US and NATO, these actions had to be seen by Moscow as showing little or no regard for its interests. Who not blinded by partisanship could fail to see that Russia would view NATO’s expansion as provocative and as presenting a large security challenge?

NATO is called a defensive alliance, but US foreign policy in the last few decades has been heavily weighted in the direction of interventionism. The US has used NATO in part as a cover and justification for its global designs. Several major US-led foreign policy moves—notably in Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq—have betrayed an expansive, even combative, mindset. The already-mentioned belief that America plays a virtuous role in the world is obviously relevant when trying to establish the US motive for these actions and the expansion of NATO. The practical implications of the democratist ideology to which both neoconservatives and liberal internationalists subscribe run strongly in the direction of a determined globalism that includes the possibility of regime change and nation-building.

It was after many years of US/NATO military activities, including ones that Russia deemed highly provocative and unfriendly, that Ukraine became the focus of tensions between Russia and the West. One example among many of the pressure brought to bear on Russia was US-led maneuvers involving American soldiers in the Baltic states in 2018. In September of 2021, NATO troops conducted joint exercises in Ukraine with the Ukrainian military. These maneuvers had been preceded by major NATO naval and air maneuvers in the Black Sea involving a large number of ships and aircraft. The Russians strongly protested. Open hostilities almost broke out when a British destroyer veered into what the Russians consider their territorial waters.

Ever since the 2008 Bucharest Summit Declaration (a major architect of which was then-US ambassador to NATO and current undersecretary of state Victoria Nuland) in which NATO formally endorsed Membership Action Plans (MAPs) for Ukraine and Georgia, Washington has simply ignored Russia’s numerous expressly-stated strong objections to having Ukraine, historically closely connected to Russia, join NATO. As tensions over this issue grew, the US continued the unofficial military integration of Ukraine into NATO, providing weapons and training. This policy accelerated after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Why Russia perceived NATO conduct as threatening might be conveyed by asking how American leaders might have reacted if Russian soldiers and weapon systems had been a part of maneuvers in Cuba, while at the same time, a military alliance between Russia and Cuba was being considered. The question is of course purely rhetorical. Yet Cuba has never been in any sense a part of the United States. Did any American doubt even for a moment that the US was right to refuse to accept the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba?

Spheres of Influence

These observations raise the issue that countries, especially major powers, always assert a sphere of influence within which they expect or demand that their wishes be respected. This sphere is typically in their near-abroad and grounded in history. The US is today claiming a sphere of influence that is more far-reaching than that of any other country. Already in the 1820s the US declared, in the so-called Monroe Doctrine, that powers outside the Western hemisphere must not intervene anywhere in the Americas. This was a bold claim, to be sure, but it was more of a defensive strategy than an expression of imperial ambition. Whatever else may be claimed against it, the Monroe Doctrine certainly did not put forth an ideological justification for US intervention in different regions of the world. The doctrine merely declared that it would be contrary to the US national interest for powers outside of the hemisphere—certain European powers came especially to mind—to assert themselves in the Americas.

But ideas and attitudes much different from those dominant among America’s early leaders would emerge that transformed the idea of “manifest destiny” into a justification for bold American involvement across the seas. By the time of President Woodrow Wilson, a new way of thinking attributed to the US a missionary role in the world. “Making the world safe for democracy” came to encapsulate America’s purpose in the Great War.

In time, the US abandoned its older, limited notion of “national interest”, replacing it with an ideologically charged notion of global responsibility and hegemony. America’s national interest was, in effect, made synonymous with the interest of mankind. In the twentieth century, Washington vastly expanded the sphere within which it felt entitled to assert its power. After World War II, the US appointed itself the guarantor and enforcer of a world order of which it was itself the architect. America’s sphere of influence and interest became virtually unlimited, extending even to the internal affairs of countries whose domestic regimes it found unacceptable. The push for armed world hegemony was justified by democratist ideology, which was boosted and intensified by the neoconservative notion of American exceptionalism. History had appointed America as the leader in the great mission of democratizing the world. Countries challenging American moral and military hegemony were put on notice that to oppose Washington was to oppose righteousness and the Good itself.

Theorists with an ahistorical, purely abstract frame of mind may dislike the notion of a sphere of influence and insist that having the power to assert such a sphere does not confer any right to have one. Yet realistic students of history and international affairs have always recognized that, rightly or wrongly, all countries will, to the extent that they can, claim and enforce a sphere of influence, especially in matters of national security. What can be legitimately claimed is another question. Can a claim to a global sphere of influence, or a globalized sense of national interest, be deemed legitimate?

Ordinarily, it is assumed that a state’s geographical proximity and historical connection to a contested territory has a bearing on the reasonableness of its claims to national interest. A great paradox relating to the war in Ukraine is that, although in recent decades the US has felt entitled to an essentially global sphere of interest, it has acted towards post-Soviet Russia as if Russia had no legitimate national interest, let alone a sphere of influence outside its formal boundaries. Moscow should simply accept Washington’s dictates. Russia had no business protesting NATO’s expansion. It had to understand that its sphere of influence and security interests did not even extend to Ukraine, although historically the latter has been deeply intertwined with Russia. According to US policymakers today, Russia is not even entitled to defend what has been, since 1804, its naval base at Sevastopol in Crimea, or protect ethnic Russians living in that peninsula. Remarkably, as far as the US is concerned, history has no bearing on assessing the Russian view of the present conflict. Is it, then, irrelevant that it was only in 1954 that the Soviet Union transferred administrative control of Crimea–which had been an “autonomous” socialist republic within the Soviet Federation–to the government of Ukraine?

Ignoring the significance of political and cultural factors with deep roots in history comes naturally to intense partisans and ideologues. They do not want anything to interfere with their ambitions and their self-serving picture of the world. It is very different with statesmen and diplomats, for whom understanding concrete realities is necessary to the resolution of conflict.

Imperial Thought and Action  

When trying to assess America’s motives, it is necessary to understand that, both in theory and practice, American leaders have long been strongly inclined to more or less conscious imperial thinking: imperial not in the old-fashioned sense of desiring territory but in the sense of wanting to be hegemon, able to overpower the will of opponents through the use of hard or soft power. As already discussed, the US foreign policy establishment has been strongly attracted to the theory that the US is a state called to spread its values all over the world. President George W. Bush explicitly made the US the leader of what he called the “global democratic revolution”.

That phrase, which expressed the future as envisioned by the Russian communist Leon Trotsky, was placed in Bush’s mind by a neoconservative speechwriter, and Bush liked the sound of it. His neoconservative national security guru Paul Wolfowitz and the large neoconservative/liberal internationalist network in the universities, the think tanks, and the media urged Bush to make the US the spearhead for cleaning up the world, starting with the Middle East. In a book about terrorism, David Frum and Richard Perle called for putting “an end to evil”, the title of their book.

This goal was, to say the least, ambitious, and thinkers in the past who were anywhere within calling distance of the old Western view of the human condition would have dismissed it as utopian, not to say preposterous. Assertive military-industrial actors like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were not intellectuals but found the ideology of American empire serviceable to their hawkish interventionism. Steady pressure, sanctions, confrontation, and, if necessary, direct military action were widely seen as the way to deal with leaders and countries resisting America’s great global cause. Advocacy or disinformation campaigns, facilitated by a complicit media establishment, have been an integral part of how the imperial network operates. The lead-up to the invasion of Iraq is but the most conspicuous example of the role played by propaganda and even outright deceit.

Russian protests against US-NATO conduct in the last couple of decades that the Russians deemed dismissive of Russian interests did not make the US reduce its pressure. The Russians made clear that they would never accept that Ukraine became a member of NATO. Ukraine had to remain neutral. Yet the actions taken by the US showed disdain for these wishes. In fact, one might even wonder if the intent was always to provoke some drastic Russian countermoves. In 2014, for example, the US, under the supervision of Victoria Nuland at the US State Department, encouraged and backed a coup in Ukraine that deposed a popularly-elected president who was perceived in the West and among some Ukrainian nationalists as too friendly to Russia. At that time the Russians refrained from large-scale military action but responded by infiltrating troops into Crimea. The US used the heightened tensions and the specter of war to intensify its unofficial military integration of Ukraine into NATO.

In November of 2021, secretary of state Anthony Blinken entered into a “strategic partnership” with Ukraine. This agreement formalized US support for full Ukrainian membership in NATO. It also stated that Ukraine had a rightful claim to Crimea. A person of diplomatic rather than confrontational temperament always asks how possible actions are likely to be perceived by an opponent. When Blinken concluded the partnership with Ukraine, diplomacy was obviously far from his mind. The reaction of the Russian leaders was, as any realist would expect, one of existential dread. They had to contemplate the prospect of losing its big Black Sea naval base in Sevastopol and of having NATO forces installed there instead—a national security nightmare.

It was just a few months later that Russia invaded Ukraine. A coincidence? One may regard the invasion as ruthless, reckless, or a violation of international law, but calling it unprovoked or capricious suggests an inability or unwillingness to see US conduct from the point of view of an opponent.

Long before the invasion, the Russians had declared that beyond Ukrainian neutrality they wanted an end to the Ukrainian civil war, which had become a “frozen conflict”, and special arrangements for Russian speakers in the east, but when the invasion took place, the Western media immediately advanced the view that Putin wanted to incorporate Ukraine into Russia as a first step in a long-range effort to build a new Russian empire. Given Russian capabilities and earlier Russian statements of what Russia wanted and opposed, a different scenario looked more plausible: that Putin was trying to head off an unacceptable military-political threat in his backyard and to take control of the Russian-speaking areas.

There is an interpretation of the invasion that squares with how events unfolded on the ground but that differs markedly from the one asserted by the Western media. It is that Russia’s primary objective was to secure the areas east of the Dnieper river and, more generally, to create a good bargaining position for future negotiations regarding the future of Ukraine. A military campaign to occupy Ukraine would have demanded many times the forces that the Russians were committing or had in readiness. This suggested that the apparent attack on Kyiv may have been largely a diversion intended to tie up Ukrainian troops in the north and making it easier to achieve Russian objectives in the east and southeast.

Although Russian military moves as well as earlier Russian statements made this a plausible interpretation, the Western media uniformly stuck to their own narrative. That narrative featured Putin the ruthless imperialist whose troops thoroughly bungled their mission. The Western media also virtually ignored the complex historical background of the war and other basic information necessary for explaining the conflict or assessing the claims of the parties. The “news reporting” in the Western media has been sometimes blatantly simplistic and tendentious. This has placed better-informed observers in the most uncomfortable position of keeping quiet about basic facts or risking being perceived as supporting the Russian invasion.

It can be argued that, already by the summer of 2022, the Russians were well within reach of achieving their main objectives. They wanted to create the circumstances in which the areas east of the Dnieper, four provinces in particular, could be pacified and Russian speakers could retain and promote their culture and have a close connection with Russia. They had also reasserted their traditional military presence in Crimea. The Ukrainians had suffered great setbacks and were militarily exhausted. Official channels in the West and Ukraine have later put the number of casualties at around 100,000 for each side, but confidential sources in the US military consulted in the writing of this article have estimated that Ukrainian casualties in the war are roughly seven times those of the Russians.

Yet, urged on by Washington politicians trying to out-hawk each other, the Biden administration has kept sending the Ukrainians more weapons and other support (recently another 2.5 billion in military assistance) to encourage them to fight on through the winter—as if dislodging and repelling the Russians were a realistic prospect. As the US and the Zelensky government resisted peace talks that would consider Russia’s demands, the war has dragged on, prolonging and intensifying the suffering of innocent Ukrainians. The US has put more and more billions of military aid on the US credit card. American spending (military and non-military) on Ukraine and allied nations in 2022 totaled more than $113 billion with billions more yet to be approved by the US Congress for 2023. Together with the mantra to support Ukraine “for as long as it takes”, providing Patriot missiles and advanced military systems and US soldiers to train Ukrainians in their use are among the signs portending a protracted war.

The resistance of some European leaders to U.S inflexibility may suggest a desire for old-fashioned diplomacy, but the U.S has insisted on “unity”, that is, adherence to its policies, as when, most recently, a very reluctant Chancellor Olaf Scholz was pressured into sending German tanks to Ukraine. The “unity” was made evident by the US sending tanks of its own. 

Given U.S-NATO opposition to a cease-fire, it stands to reason that the Russians are now making strategic-tactical adjustments in preparation for achieving a more definite end to the war. Russia’s partial evacuations have been portrayed in the Western media as signs that the tide of the war is turning, but these military moves are probably more credibly interpreted as Russia making redeployments in preparation for a new offensive once the freezing of the ground has facilitated the use of tanks and heavy weapons and more Russian troops have been introduced. The predicament of Ukraine, already desperate, has become progressively worse because of the catastrophic damage to its infrastructure and a lack of energy. Do US leaders actually expect the Ukrainians to be able to repel the Russians from Ukraine, or do they think that by arming the battered Ukrainians the Ukrainians can wear the Russians out in another endless war?   

An issue that cannot be taken up here is that US military involvement in Ukraine makes it a co-belligerent with Ukraine in a war against Russia. This is but one example among many since the end of World War II of the Washington establishment routinely and flagrantly violating the US Constitution by initiating or participating in undeclared wars. It illustrates yet again the great distance in intention and temperament between the American Framers and those who are today setting the tone in US foreign policy.

Putin the Intolerable

For as long as Vladimir Putin has been president of Russia, tensions between the US and Russia have been presented as essentially a conflict with him. Personalizing conflicts in this manner is typical of how the US neoconservative or liberal internationalists justify their objectives in particular countries. In the Middle East, Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and Hafez al-Assad are examples of leaders who have been considered too evil to remain in office, no matter that the alternative to their rule might be worse for the respective country.

As for Washington’s way of dealing with Putin, it is not obvious that his supposed vice has exceeded that of other leaders with whom the US chooses to cooperate. That Putin has been singled out as uniquely evil in recent years indicates that America’s foreign policy establishment and the major business and financial interests with which it is entangled regard Russia as a major and particularly recalcitrant obstacle to their purposes. This is not the place to go into the specifics of how Russia resists or subverts the objectives of America’s oligarchic regime. Suffice it to say that Russia’s attempt to limit foreign influence, assert national independence and sovereignty, and reaffirm a traditional cultural identity is not amenable to American and other Western globalist ambitions. With regard to economic matters, the US-dominated oligarchic elites consider it insufficient for Russia to sell to other countries from its natural resources. It must limit its sovereignty and open itself up to outside development and exploitation.

The world is full of brutal, corrupt leaders, and the US interacts and even cooperates with many of them in the national interest or in the private interest of particularly powerful groups. Why not also engage diplomatically with the Kremlin? Because Putin is exceptionally evil, we are told. He simply cannot be tolerated. His security services have killed people! Never mind that killing is something the US does routinely in distant undeclared wars or interventions. Drone strikes are a method of choice when killing particular individuals. But that’s so very different from Putin’s brutality, American imperial actors cry indignantly. Putin is such a devil that he must be regarded as the Hitler of our time. It’s Munich all over again, and we must be wary of “appeasement”. Putin’s goal is to restore something like the Soviet communist regime that enslaved people and murdered millions! It is often asserted that Putin is also mentally unstable, unpredictable, and utterly ruthless, which fits the American habit of demonizing opponents.

Do US policymakers actually believe what is alleged about Putin’s mental condition? If they do, their backing Putin, the president of a major nuclear power, into a corner seems utterly reckless. The avalanche of disparaging allegations suggests that it is not Putin who is the real problem. What ultimately rankles US leaders is that Russia is not complying with America’s demands. The portrayal of the Russian president is yet another attempt to justify a policy of pressing America’s wishes and disregarding those of Russia.

The West co-existed for decades with the Soviet Union, an ideological empire whose professed aim was to bury the West. It had openly declared global ambitions. It deployed troops, weapons, intelligence, and infiltrators accordingly. It ran a totalitarian police state, and it did kill millions. Still, many in the West advocated cultural exchanges, efforts to lessen tensions, arms limitation agreements, etc. The Russia of today is playing a far less ambitious and assertive international role, and it is contending with severe domestic difficulties. It is, arguably, a “revisionist middle power”—a very large regional power feeling increasingly insecure in a multipolar world, rather than a great power aspiring to project power trans-regionally.

Despite his background in Soviet intelligence, President Putin is no communist. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, perhaps the most profound anti-communist of all, believed that Putin was the kind of leader Russia needed to hold the country together after the fall of the Soviet Union. The vastness of his country, its diverse populations, and its enormous problems, including domestic power struggles, might seem to require superhuman powers. The Russian system of government does not conform to current Western norms of liberal democracy, but it comes much closer to that kind of rule than anything in the Russian political tradition, which has ranged from authoritarian to totalitarian government. Why is it that Putin has been held to a far more rigorous standard and has been more severely judged than leaders in the world who are at least as brutal as Putin but are granted considerable freedom of action by the US?

The influence of democratism with its moral self-applause and bold, imperial demeanor goes a long way towards explaining America’s disinclination to listen to the arguments of opponents and to engage in the give-and-take of diplomacy. But one also detects within the American foreign policy establishment another influence: something like a visceral, almost personal animosity towards all things Russian. Many people in this large network seem to have a strong aversion to nationalism in general but to Russian nationalism in particular. This explains why, as long as Ukrainian nationalism is pitted squarely against Russian nationalism, it is exempted from harsh Western scrutiny. Putin’s support for Russian Orthodoxy and related traditions is all the more irritating to Western leaders in that it is combined with expressions of scorn for what is today called “Western values”. Putin’s disdain for cancel culture and “wokeness” align him most uncomfortably with “populist” and “authoritarian” sentiment in the West. The sources of anti-Russian sentiment are complex, but the main thrust of US policy towards Russia might be described as emanating from a mixture of arrogance and vindictiveness.

Large and disturbing questions hover over this general subject. How exactly is the deep hostility to Russia in America’s interest? As combined with the general crusading mentality already discussed, aversion to Russia has undermined opportunities for rapprochement and pushed diplomacy to the side. Is this adamant antagonism not actually dangerous to America and the rest of the world? And how does fanning the flames of a conflict over distant Ukraine advance America’s national interest? Conflating personal animosities and ideological tastes with the US national interest or the interest of the entire world suggests conceit and self-importance out of the ordinary.

It should be kept in mind that the US coalition against Russia does not even represent the oft-cited “conscience of the world community”. The West has only about an eighth of the world’s population, and it is becoming more isolated from the rest of the world, which is not on board with the American agenda. Russia, with its truly enormous natural resources, and China, with an industrial might equal to or surpassing that of the US, have been pushed by US policies into aligning against us. Neoconservatives and liberal internationalists may tell themselves that this is a price worth paying for a virtuous foreign policy, but, surely, whether a policy has any claim to the moral high ground depends on its long-term effects and human cost.

The Cost of Arrogance

We may think it justified to despise Putin and wish him gone, but no power, no matter its form of government—certainly not a major nuclear power—will put up with others simply ignoring its stated national security concerns. Yet, again and again, the US has paid little attention to Russian protests against NATO expansion and attempts to make Ukraine a member of the Western alliance, an objective in which, a decade and a half ago, the vast majority of Ukrainians had little interest. Showing disdain for an opponent is a non-starter in diplomacy, but this attitude has been a staple of US foreign policy toward adversaries in the post-World War II era. Egregiously lacking has been the empathy, prudence, critical distance, historical understanding, and long-range thinking that we associate with statesmanship.

Given the frame of mind of US foreign policymakers and the corresponding state of American-European public opinion, punishing Russia for its invasion of Ukraine was a matter of course. But it appears that the punishment meted out reflected some of the same carelessness and shortsightedness that has long characterized US policy towards Russia. It may be too early to tell, but it seemed to this writer from the start that the sanctions and other punitive actions were likely to do more damage to the West than to Russia.

The Russians have of course been negatively impacted by the sanctions, but they appear not to have been greatly damaged by them, may in some ways even have benefited from them. One sign among many of how the war is affecting the parties to the conflict is that the value of the ruble has gone up while that of the pound and euro has fallen. The US dollar, the world’s reserve currency which has long been under threat from new payment patterns in international trade, has been further undermined as a consequence of the war.

A sharply decimated Ukrainian military hangs on by a thread, needing debt-financed US military aid to continue indefinitely, but a desire to deal a crushing defeat to the Russians and a refusal to face the facts on the ground keeps the Western and Ukrainian leadership from pursuing a ceasefire and negotiations.

Outside of Ukraine, it is Europe that is suffering and will suffer the most. Parts of Europe are shivering this winter because of high energy prices or shortages. Supply issues will haunt the European economy for the foreseeable future. Some large industries, not least in Germany, may need to cut or stop production. Major bankruptcies are likely. It is not improbable that social unrest will destabilize governments. The leadership of the European Union is likely to suffer a loss of credibility. Critics of the EU may welcome this development, yet individual countries fighting among themselves for limited resources or other advantages may create rifts more serious than those previously induced by EU overreach. What will look to some nationalists as an opportunity to redefine or dismantle the EU may cause more than transitory dissension and conflict. There are acute tensions in the Balkans.

In sum, the US-led West has inflicted on itself what looks more and more like a large, deep wound. But internal dissenting voices are silenced in the name of unity. So destructive to European interests has US policy been that one might even be allowed to wonder whether for some US leaders the objective has been to undermine Europe’s ability to compete economically with the US That the consequences for Germany are particularly damaging calls to mind that for many in the US foreign policy establishment controlling Germany has been from the beginning an unstated purpose of NATO.

Moral and intellectual arrogance and unwillingness to look at contested issues from the point of view of the other side are always a recipe for conflict, but, when, as in the current conflict, they are combined with seemingly willful ignorance, shortsightedness, not to say stupidity, they may blow up the world. Richard Nixon managed to sever China from the Soviet Union during the Vietnam War despite the ideological affinities between the two countries. That was smart and creative—an act of statesmanship. What our current foreign policy “experts” have done is turned both China and Russia strongly against us and made many other countries distance themselves from us or align themselves with our opponents. We sputter and virtue-signal while we damage ourselves and our allies.

It is by no means unrealistic to contend that the war in Ukraine was wholly avoidable. Genuine diplomacy, some real give-and-take, could have defused tensions and created agreement on a neutral, independent Ukraine, an end to the civil war, some form of independence for the Russian-speaking areas in the Donbas region, and Russian primacy in the Crimea. But America’s leaders, determined to have their way with Russia, have had no inclination to compromise. Considering the patterns in US policy towards Russia in the post-Cold War period, it is hard to avoid the impression that, in their own eyes, US policymakers are always wearing white hats while their opponents are always wearing black ones. Why would a righteous power compromise with evil?

In today’s Western world there is no more common form of self-delusion than for personal or group interests to dress up as moral benevolence. 

Self-Destructive Conceit

The contrast between the thinking and temperament of the current US foreign policy establishment and those who designed the US Constitution could not be sharper. The American Constitution assumed that human beings are flawed and that omniscience is out of the question. No individual or group has a monopoly on truth or virtue. A better society, even a common good, may be possible, but achieving it takes special effort. Specifically, our lower natures have to be contained. Mere partisanship and self-indulgence must be held in check. The Framers set up a system of checks and balances that encouraged genuine deliberation and compromise for the sake of a common good. The other side in a controversy had to be heard. There had to be self-restraint and respect for minorities. The implications of this view of policymaking for foreign relations are obvious. A premium is put on working out differences. Consider the contrast between this prudential, realistic way of dealing with competing interests and the current American assumption that America’s opponents must simply yield.

With regard to Ukraine, Washington has acted as if determined to have Russia simply abandon all its claims or face a proxy war—or more—with the US: this at the expense of the Ukrainians who would do the actual fighting and dying and suffer the destruction of much of their country. US policymakers seem to be telling themselves that the risk of the conflict spiraling into a horrendous conflagration is morally warranted. Militarily, the European members of NATO are little more than American protectorates, and their leaders, closely intertwined as they are with America’s oligarchic imperial regime, are under permanent pressure to acquiesce to US demands.

Interpreting US policy toward Russia and Ukraine in the last many years as designed to trigger a Russian invasion would attribute to American leaders an extraordinary level of ruthlessness and cynicism, but the result of the invasion has been to strengthen European support for America’s anti-Russia campaign. Fear and emotion caused by the invasion made European leaders go along with US opposition to European reliance on Russian energy and to other closer ties between Europe and Russia. Important decisions, with far-reaching implications for the future—which should have been made only after calm, lengthy, and thorough deliberation—were instead made hastily and in the midst of the passion of the moment. One example of major decisions of great significance for particular countries that were made after only the briefest and most superficial discussion is the decision by Sweden and Finland to apply for NATO membership—a subject that would deserve separate treatment. Since the invasion, some European leaders have acted almost as if they lacked all critical and historical distance to the events of the moment and, not least in the case of the sanctions, as if oblivious of possibly disastrous consequences for their respective populations.

Still, the human and economic cost to the Europeans of the war and the sanctions seems insignificant in comparison with the cost to the Ukrainians. It is the people on the ground in that country who are paying the horrendous price for the intransigence and lack of statesmanship of leaders. On top of all the death, destruction, and dislocation, Ukrainians are now suffering the indignity of foreign investors swooping down to buy up Ukrainian homes, enterprises, buildings, and other assets for pennies on the dollar. How appalling yet familiar this pattern: wars that diplomacy and negotiations should have averted turn out to be, for circling foreign investors, great opportunities for enrichment.

Another disheartening paradox resulting from the lack of statesmanship is that what is for Ukrainians an unmitigated disaster is for the American military-industrial complex another bonanza. In America’s progressively oligarchic and plutocratic culture and system of government, one permanent and major source of bias against statesmanship is the insatiable desire for more defense spending.

To point to American arrogance and inflexibility and shortsighted European complicity is certainly not to approve of Putin as a leader or to excuse his invasion of Ukraine, but it cannot be plausibly denied that American attitudes help explain much of that conduct. He is up against a power that is in the habit of dictating terms to or demonizing opponents and against many leaders who seem to harbor a special resentment towards Russia.

American assertiveness, which is sold to self and others as admirable moral zeal, produces ever-new tensions. The unwillingness to consider the expressly-stated interests of Putin and Russia is a case in point, and has put the world in great danger. The pride of those who direct US foreign policy seems at times to know no bounds, a subject to which this writer has devoted considerable study. The neoconservative and liberal internationalist claim to moral superiority is often frightening in its conceit and in its potential for uncompromising conduct. “Pride goeth before destruction”, says the Bible. “Whom the Gods will destroy they first make mad”, the ancient Greeks believed.

Assuming that reckless, aggressive US leadership does not trigger a world-ending nuclear holocaust, the historians of the future will undoubtedly be astounded by the arrogance and shortsightedness of America’s treatment of Russia. In a historical situation that calls for the breadth of vision, restraint, give-and-take, and flexibility of statesmanship, all-important decisions are being made by small-minded men and women with bloated and irritable egos.

Ryn is is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Catholic University and a member of the Academic Board of the Ron Paul Institute.

Reprinted with permission from AGON Magazine.
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  • Claes G. Ryn

    Ryn's areas of research and teaching include the history of Western political thought, politics and the imagination, historicism, the theory of knowledge, conservatism, American political thought, constitutionalism, and the moral and cultural dimensions of international relations. Ryn has taught also at the University of Virginia, Georgetown University, and Louisiana State University.

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