Throughout their coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, mainstream media and political commentators in America have framed the conflict as an earth-shattering violation of international norms in our modern era. “The Russia-Ukraine crisis is about whether the world will operate according to rules or whether anarchy will prevail,” Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted the day of the invasion. “World order is the oxygen for all else, for whether and how we live.” Reporters and commentators have described Russia’s invasion as a moral atrocity without any kind of recent precedent: “medieval”; comparable to Adolf Hitler; marking the “first” test of the post-1945 "rules-based" global order; or triggering the advent of a new one entirely.
For those of us who closely observe U.S. conduct on the world stage, the self-sanitizing and ahistorical nature of many of these narratives has been head-spinning. Not too long ago the U.S. knowingly deceived the global community before entering a war of choice and a neocolonial nation-building project in Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. President Joe Biden and much of our commentariat claim standing up to “bullies” is “who we are.” Yet the U.S. has actively aided Saudi Arabia in its brutal, ongoing war and blockade against Yemen, which human rights watchdogs say has involved Saudi Arabia taking actions that are similar to or worse than Russia's in Ukraine and created one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. (Notably this has not deterred Biden from trying to cozy up to the country for help in dealing with the Russia crisis.) This is just to list two of countless examples of the U.S. being a bully, or siding with bullies, after World War II and disregarding a rules-based order.
A truthful account of the world is a precondition for understanding it.
Pointing out this inconsistency and self-flattering omission of history is often to enter a conversational minefield. But the value of this exercise is not to play some abstract game of whose hands are dirtier. It’s about combating imperial blindness — American society’s endless capacity for self-delusion about how and why it conducts itself as a hegemon in the global arena. By cloaking its geopolitical goals in the language of moralism and sweeping contradictions beneath the rug, the U.S. is able to behave recklessly and brutally without taking accountability for its behavior or learning lessons from it. And refusing to understand that only sows the seeds for further misbehavior and poor decision-making.
A truthful account of the world is a precondition for understanding it. And understanding the real world, rather than living in a world of idealized self-image or visceral feeling, is a precondition for behaving morally and effectively. The myth of Russia’s actions as entirely singular — as a kind of satanic force that has caused a rupture in the progress of human civilization — increases the odds that American society develops a mandate for a rash intervention such as a no-fly zone that could spark a war with Russia. (Stopping evil incarnate would seem to be a worthy reason to risk World War III.) But a more accurately contextualized account of what’s happening and recently happened in the world can act as a source of humility and restraint. At a time when belligerence surrounding the Russia-Ukraine crisis is intensifying, it couldn’t be more urgent.
Russia’s military operation in Ukraine — an act of aggression and a war of choice — is heinous. Russian President Vladimir Putin is not just conducting an unjustifiable war, he's waging it brutally. Human rights watchdogs say that Russia has used indiscriminate cluster bombs, and it’s clear that Russia is targeting areas that are densely populated with civilians. Aiding Ukraine’s suffering population and surprisingly well-performing military is a moral and, as far as I can tell, strategically sound thing to do.
But the Biden administration’s aid to Ukraine was not fueled by moral imperatives. The U.S. is not a country that gazes upon the world with an altruistic eye, but a state which, like any other, pursues its own interests. Moreover, in its quest to be the world’s sole superpower, it has acted ruthlessly for decades. Which is why the U.S. painting its involvement on behalf of Ukraine as a pure extension of defend-the-underdog principles is nonsense.
During the Cold War, the U.S. didn’t just casually ignore sovereignty but actively snubbed it, with indiscriminate bombing campaigns and the backing of dozens of coups and brutal authoritarians that killed or helped cause the death of millions. More recently, the U.S. occupied Afghanistan for nearly two decades even after the Taliban surrendered, where it used brutal and unmonitored airstrikes, targeted civilians with its double-tap drone strike policy, and is currently subjecting the country to an economic suffocation campaign that has laid the groundwork for a horrific humanitarian crisis that has resulted in the death of some 13,000 infants since January. While commentators in the West describe Putin’s use of blockades as belonging to the Middle Ages and condemn his use of cluster munitions, the U.S. is backing Saudi Arabia, which has used cluster munitions from the U.S. against Yemen and is starving its population. All the while, the U.S. has declined to intervene in many genocides the world over.
The chief reason that U.S. policymakers are so attentive to Ukraine’s welfare and need for aid is because Russia is a huge, nuclear-armed and powerful adversary of the U.S., and they're concerned about the instability and precedent set by the invasion, particularly in immediate proximity to NATO countries. Because of this invasion’s geopolitical significance — and the racialized assumption that Europe is not a place where war belongs, in contrast to the Middle East or Central Asia — the media has focused on this with extraordinary intensity, and in the process reshaped our national consciousness.
It makes sense that a war that matters a lot to the U.S.’s core geopolitical interests would be huge news. What doesn’t follow is that that war in and of itself elevates the U.S.’s moral sensibilities.
Stephen Wertheim, a senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me the U.S. seems to be seizing an opportunity to reclaim a moral high ground. “In this moment there is a real danger that American leaders will use this moment to reclaim a sense of moral purity that the U.S. has lost domestically and internationally as a result of the war on terror and post- 9/11 military operations,” he told me. “This attempt seems to take the form of ‘Russia is a terrible actor’ — which is true, and ‘Therefore the U.S. is more virtuous than it was a month ago’ — which is false.”
The U.S. cannot cleanse itself using Putin’s unconscionable actions.
The U.S. cannot cleanse itself using Putin’s unconscionable actions. And the more it tries to do that, and the more it tries to erase every other conflict in recent world history in order to single him out in the process, the easier it becomes to go to war. The urge to enter war will increase if the entire country buys into its own propagandistic moralizing and is convinced that Russia's actions constitute an entirely unique threat to humanity. Growing pressure from the public, Congress, and our hawkish press could put pressure on the Biden administration, which has generally been very clear about wanting to avoid military intervention against Russia, to act imprudently if Russia does something like uses chemical weapons or accidentally hits a NATO target.
Consistency in describing the world creates a foundation for more careful behavior: If people remember that Russia is one of many actors that are doing horrific things internationally then people will breathe before deciding what kind of action should be taken. (Note that one does not have to ignore the political and moral differences between Russia and other countries to note the fact that some of Russia's actions are not unique.) Considering that the stakes are a possible confrontation between the world's two biggest nuclear powers, thinking about the civilizational long game in this situation is rather important.
And consistency in describing the world is a prerequisite for any agenda to try to behave consistently in the world — and reckon with how radical of a task it is. Seeking a consistently morally upstanding foreign policy would require confronting and clashing with some longtime allies, thawing tensions with some adversaries and making all kinds of decisions on whether to intervene in every armed conflict in the world. Naturally any serious exercise of this kind raises questions of constraints on national resources and practical concerns about international stability and access to trade routes and energy. And if it truly is serious, it would require confronting the reality that much of the global economy and security are not based on noble and democratic principles but shaped by power structures led by the West and capital.
Calling for consistency is a demand for honesty about what’s really driving the events of the world. It prevents the public from fooling itself with self-flattering illusions. And it's a critical part of any agenda to truly better the world.