Written by Francis Sempa via RealClear Wire,
The ideology driving US policy in Ukraine is eroding our strategic position abroad.
On February 20, President Biden made a “surprise” visit to Kiev, where he announced another half-billion dollars in aid to Ukraine and declared, “Kiev is in, Ukraine is in, Democracy is in.” “The Americans are with you,” Biden told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, “and the world is with you.” Biden further remarked that the United States’ support for Ukraine “is not only about freedom in Ukraine, but about the freedom of democracy in general.”
What is missing from all this rhetoric is a reasoned assessment of US national interests in the outcome of the Ukraine war. Some supporters of increased U.S. involvement alongside Ukraine claim that if we don’t stop Putin in Ukraine, some NATO ally will be next: a revival of the “domino theory” and the “lessons of Munich” which significantly contributed to our increased involvement in Ukraine. the Vietnam war. The idea of Putin’s Russia, which has an economy the size of Italy and whose armed forces are struggling to hold two eastern Ukrainian provinces, sweeping across the European plain to the English Channel it’s a fantasy
Contrast Eastern Europe with the Western Pacific, where American interests are clearly geopolitical in nature. China has the world’s second largest economy, a huge labor pool, a strong and ever-growing military power both conventional and nuclear (including, according to the Pentagon, more ICBM missile silos than the US) and a geopolitical agenda that seeks to unite large portions of the Eurasian landmass against the United States. China’s economic and political influence extends across Central Asia and into Africa and the Middle East through the Belt and Road Initiative.. Its naval power stretches from the East and South China Seas, across the South Sea and into the Indian Ocean, where it has developed ports called the “String of Pearls” that threaten to flank the south india
A top US Air Force general recently revealed in a leaked memo that China’s Central Military Commission under the leadership of President Xi held a “war council” last October related to Taiwan. And recently, China launched what it calls “surveillance balloons” into America’s heartland, which US fighters belatedly shot down off the coast of South Carolina after passing through the Aleutian Islands, parts of Alaska, Canada and much of the continental United States. states Naval War College professor James Holmes called this a Chinese “trial balloon” designed to gauge America’s reaction to this blatant invasion of its airspace. Senator Tom Cotton remarked that the balloon should have been shot down or captured once discovered in the Aleutians. American leaders, Holmes writes, must recognize that China is at war with us all along. In the tradition of Sun Tzu and Mao Zedong, China considers peacetime to be nothing more than “war without bloodshed”.
Most troubling of all is the strategic partnership between the two Eurasian giants, which is only gaining strength in response to the foreign policy of the Biden Administration. Herein lies America’s strategic dilemma of pursuing our interests or our values.
The two motives of American foreign policy—interests or values—sometimes coincide but often collide. Henry Kissinger, among others, has written about this foreign policy dilemma in more depth in his book Diplomacy. Kissinger says that given the peculiar domestic political evolution of the United States, a foreign policy that ignores one or the other of these reasons will eventually lose the support of the American people and thus become politically unsustainable.
Historically, when American policymakers have faced the dilemma, they have chosen geopolitics over liberal values, albeit cloaking that choice in values-laden rhetoric. Consider two examples. During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson publicly promoted the idea of non-annexation peace and national self-determination for all peoples, while secretly agreeing to Britain and France picking territories in the Middle East . And, during World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt publicly promoted the Four Freedoms and a postwar world where peace would be enforced by the United Nations, even as he provided massive aid and military supplies to Stalin’s Soviet regime, the the very antithesis of freedom and peace. In both examples, geopolitical interests trumped liberal values, but the rhetoric of liberal values persisted.
Despite this, one searches in vain to find an American president, from George Washington to Theodore Roosevelt, who thought it necessary to establish geopolitical interests in the language of liberal values. The late Angelo Codevilla made this the main theme of his latest book America’s Rise and Fall Among Nations. Codevilla highlighted the foreign policy wisdom of George Washington and John Quincy Adams, statesmen who never confused geopolitical interests with liberal values, and who never thought it necessary to disguise hard realism with soft rhetoric.
This notion changed at the beginning of the 20th century, when the Progressive Movement introduced and promoted the idea that human nature was perfectible. There is no doubt that George Washington, John Quincy Adams, and every other president of the 19th century would have ridiculed this idea as ahistorical and unempirical. When the idea of human perfectibility was translated into foreign policy, the ideology of “democratism” arose, which held that Western values were universal and should be spread throughout the world.
Democracy led to related ideas that human rights were universal and that American foreign policy should work to bring about an earthly utopia. As Robert Nisbet noted in his masterful book The Present Age, “Since then [Woodrow] Wilson, with the rarest of exceptions, American foreign policy has conformed not to national interests but to national morality.” This idea grew in strength after World War II and perhaps reached its height during the Jimmy Carter’s presidency Carter, at least initially, made human rights the centerpiece of his foreign policy, although he applied them more vigorously to US allies (the Shah in Iran, Somoza in Nicaragua) than its enemies (the Soviet Union, Cuba). But the most vigorous defender of democracy was President George W. Bush, who reacted to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, by launching a crusade for democracy in the ‘Middle East and South-West Asia.
Beyond launching failed wars based on values over interests, the Bush administration supported further NATO expansion toward Russia’s borders., including public support for the admission of Georgia and Ukraine to the Western alliance. Bush seemed alien to traditional notions of spheres of influence, and seemed equally oblivious to Russian history. Bush’s successors only exacerbated the problem by further expanding NATO. A comparison of maps of Europe in 1990 and 2022 reveals the geography of NATO expansion as seen from Russia, showing, with the sole exception of Belarus, hostile and potentially hostile countries in a stretching arc from Scandinavia to the Balkans and Turkey.
The most strategically significant consequence of America’s unfettered democratism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has been to push Russia into China’s arms. The former Sino-Soviet bloc split in the 1960s due to internal rivalries. Richard Nixon’s diplomacy exploded and widened this split. Now, the bloc has effectively reformed, not based on ideology but on geopolitical rivalry with the United States. As Alexander Korolev points out in The Diplomat article, the Sino-Russian strategic partnership stems not only from the cordial relationship between Xi Jinping and Putin, but from long-term structural trends that have been building since end of the Cold War. . These trends are based on geopolitics, not values. Korolev writes that U.S. antagonism toward China and Russia “further contributes to the consolidation of China-Russia alignment” because “[c]The confrontation with China and Russia results in a convergence of the two countries’ views on the US as their biggest security threat.” Washington’s hostile approach to the two major Eurasian powers is a strategic mistake.
The Biden administration has framed both the war in Ukraine and China’s actions in the South China Sea as part of a broader ideological competition between democratic and autocratic powers.. Somehow the country that once stood by Josef Stalin to defeat Hitler and stood by Mao Zedong to help bring down the Soviet empire is reluctant to even consider ending or at least soften their hostility to Putin’s Russia in order to reduce China’s strategic threat. This is the triumph of democracy and liberal values over geopolitical interests.
Unfortunately, we have been the author of our current strategic dilemma. We have suffered the fate of other great nations who, after achieving victories in major conflicts—in the case of the United States, the Cold War—approach the rest of the world with arrogance and hubris. Over the past three decades, our foreign policy has helped fuel China’s rise, pushed Russia closer to China, and overextended our commitments and resources in peripheral conflicts that have done little or nothing to improve our security. We have forgotten the sage advice of perhaps America’s greatest geopolitical thinker, Nicholas Spykman, who warned:
The statesman who conducts foreign policy may worry
only with values of justice, equity and tolerance
to the extent that they contribute or do not interfere
with the aim of power. They can be used instrumentally
as a moral justification for the pursuit of power, but they must be
discarded when its application leads to weakness.
The pursuit of power is not made for the attainment of
moral values; moral values are used to facilitate the
achievement of power.
The main geopolitical interest of the United States should be to maintain the political pluralism of Eurasia, not to foster a closer relationship between the two most powerful Eurasian countries.
Francis P. Sempa writes about foreign policy and geopolitics. His Best Defense columns appear at the beginning of each month.