The ideology that drives U.S. policy in Ukraine is eroding our strategic position abroad.
On February 20, President Biden made a “surprise” visit to Kyiv, where he announced another half-billion dollars in aid to Ukraine, and stated, “Kyiv stands, Ukraine stands, Democracy stands.” “Americans stand with you,” Biden told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, “and the world stands with you.” Biden further remarked that U.S. support for Ukraine is “not just about freedom in Ukraine, it’s about freedom of democracy at large.”
What’s lacking in all of this rhetoric is a reasoned assessment of U.S. national interests in the outcome of the Ukraine War. Some supporters of increased U.S. involvement on Ukraine’s side claim that if we do not stop Putin in Ukraine, some NATO ally will be next—a revival of the “domino theory” and the “lessons of Munich” that contributed significantly to our increased involvement in the Vietnam War. The notion of Putin’s Russia, which has an economy the size of Italy’s and whose armed forces are having a difficult time holding on to two eastern provinces of Ukraine, sweeping across the European plain to the English channel is a fantasy.
Contrast eastern Europe with the western Pacific, where American interests are clearly geopolitical in nature. China has the second-largest economy in the world, a huge reserve of manpower, a strong and ever-growing military power at both the conventional and nuclear levels (including, according to the Pentagon, more ICBM missile silos than the U.S.), and a geopolitical program that seeks to unite huge 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 via the Belt and Road Initiative. Its naval power extends from the East and South China Seas, through the South Sea, and into the Indian Ocean, where it has developed ports called the “String of Pearls” that threaten to outflank southern India.
One of America’s top Air Force Generals 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, China recently launched what is being called a “surveillance balloon” across America’s heartland, which U.S. fighters belatedly shot down off the coast of South Carolina after it had traversed the Aleutian Islands, parts of Alaska, Canada, and much of the continental United States. Naval War College Professor James Holmes called this a Chinese “trial balloon” designed to gauge U.S. reaction to this blatant invasion of its airspace. Senator Tom Cotton remarked that the balloon should have been shot down or captured once it was discovered over the Aleutians. American leaders, Holmes writes, need to recognize that China is at war with us all of the time. In the tradition of Sun Tzu and Mao Zedong, China views peacetime as 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. Therein lies America’s strategic dilemma of pursuing our interests or our values.
The two motives of U.S. foreign policy—interests or values—sometimes coincide but often clash. Henry Kissinger, among others, has written about this foreign policy dilemma, most profoundly in his book Diplomacy. Kissinger says that given America’s peculiar domestic political evolution, a foreign policy that ignores one or the other of these motives will eventually lose the support of the American people and therefore become politically unsustainable.
Historically when U.S. policymakers have been faced with the dilemma, they have chosen geopolitics over liberal values, even as they have cloaked that choice with value-laden rhetoric. Consider two examples. During the First World War, President Woodrow Wilson publicly promoted the idea of peace without annexations and national self-determination for all peoples, even as he secretly countenanced Great Britain and France carving-up territories in the Middle East. And, during the Second World War, 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 very antithesis of freedom and peace. In both examples, geopolitical interests trumped liberal values but the rhetoric of liberal values persisted.
However, one looks in vain to find an American president from George Washington through Theodore Roosevelt who thought it necessary to couch geopolitical interests in the language of liberal values. The late Angelo Codevilla made this the principal theme of his last 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 hardheaded realism with soft-headed rhetoric.
That notion changed in the early twentieth 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 nineteenth century president would have ridiculed this idea as ahistorical and unempirical. When the idea of human perfectibility was translated into foreign policy, the ideology of “democratism” emerged, which held that Western values were universal and should be spread throughout the globe.
Democratism 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, “Ever since [Woodrow] Wilson, with only rarest exceptions, American foreign policy has been tuned not to national interests but to national morality.” This idea grew in strength after World War II and perhaps reached its apogee during the presidency of Jimmy Carter. Carter, at least initially, made human rights the centerpiece of his foreign policy, though he applied it more vigorously to America’s allies (the Shah in Iran, Somoza in Nicaragua) than her enemies (the Soviet Union, Cuba). But democratism’s most vigorous champion 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 southwest Asia.
Beyond launching failed wars based on values over interests, the Bush administration supported the further expansion of NATO towards Russia’s borders, including public support for the admission of Georgia and Ukraine to the Western alliance. Bush appeared to be oblivious to traditional notions of spheres of influence, and appeared to be equally oblivious to Russian history. Bush’s successors only compounded the problem by expanding NATO further. A comparison of maps of Europe in 1990 and 2022 reveals the geography of NATO expansion as viewed from Russia, showing, with the lone exception of Belarus, hostile and potentially hostile countries in an arc stretching from Scandinavia to the Balkans and Turkey.
The most strategically significant consequence of America’s unbounded democratism in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century has been to push Russia into the arms of China. The old Sino-Soviet bloc split in the 1960s due to internal rivalries. Richard Nixon’s diplomacy exploited and widened that 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 feature article in The Diplomat, that 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 the end of the Cold War. These trends are based on geopolitics, not values. Korolev write that America’s antagonism toward both China and Russia “further contributes to the consolidation of China-Russia alignment” because “[c]onfrontation with both China and Russia results in a convergence of the two countries’ views of the U.S. as their greatest security threat.” Washington’s hostile approach to both Eurasian great powers is a strategic error.
The Biden administration has framed both the Ukraine War 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 sided with Josef Stalin to defeat Hitler, and sided with Mao Zedong to help bring down the Soviet empire, is loath to even consider ending or at least softening its hostility to Putin’s Russia in order to lessen China’s strategic threat. This is the triumph of democratism 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 great conflicts—in America’s case, the Cold War—approached the rest of the world with hubris and arrogance. During the previous 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 did little or nothing to enhance our security. We have forgotten the wise counsel of perhaps America’s greatest geopolitical thinker Nicholas Spykman, who cautioned:
The statesman who conducts foreign policy can concern
himself with values of justice, fairness, and tolerance only
to the extent that they contribute to or do not interfere
with the power objective. They can be used instrumentally
as moral justification for the power quest, but they must be
discarded the moment their application brings weakness.
The search for power is not made for the achievement of
moral values; moral values are used to facilitate the
attainment of power.
America’s primary geopolitical interest should be to maintain the political pluralism of Eurasia, not foster a closer relationship between the two most powerful Eurasian countries.
Francis P. Sempa writes on foreign policy and geopolitics. His Best Defense columns appear at the beginning of each month.