While some wars may be necessary and unavoidable, a war pitting Russia against Ukraine—and potentially involving the United States—doesn’t make the cut. Yet, should such a war occur, some members of the American commentariat will cheer. They have yearned for a showdown with Vladimir Putin. The depth of their animus toward Putin and the hyperbole it inspires is a bit of a puzzle that deserves examination.
A veteran New York Times correspondent charges that Putin “has put a gun to the head of the West.” In an op-ed recently published in the Times, a former US national security official accuses President Biden of “sending the message that the United States is afraid of confronting Russia militarily.” “In an era when fascism is on the march,” a Boston Globe columnist warns, “much more may hang in the balance” than simply the security of a single country on the far eastern fringe of Europe.
A sense of impending doom punctuates the taunts: With unnamed fascists gathering outside the city gates and the very survival of the West at risk, the sitting president succumbs to cowardice. Whence does such overheated language come? What does it signify?
One obvious explanation is the unvarnished Russophobia pervading the ranks of the American political elite. With roots going at least as far back as the Bolshevik Revolution, disdain for Russia only deepened across several decades of Cold War. Although the Cold War ended a generation ago, this habitual animus survives fully intact, nowhere more so than in Washington. Demonizing Russia is an easy sell.
In international politics, most crimes, no matter how heinous, are forgivable. Even those perpetrated by the Nazi regime do not figure in day-to-day US relations with the Federal Republic of Germany. Nor, as it turns out, does the United States hold Ukraine’s collaboration with the Third Reich against it.
On that score, Russia is an exception, with members of the American establishment disinclined either to forgive or to forget past transgressions attributed to the Soviet Union. Note how the Soviet-American partnership that was crucial to defeating Nazi Germany has all but vanished from our collective consciousness. We revere Churchill; we revile Stalin. That Putin is a former KGB officer presumably tells us all we need to know about him.
But let me suggest that our present-day antipathy toward Russia derives from something deeper than an unwillingness to let go of old grudges. The real issue has less to do with them than with us. More specifically, it centers on a desperate need to refurbish the concept of American exceptionalism. Nowhere is that need felt more powerfully than among members of the foreign policy establishment.
American exceptionalism is the conviction that in some mystical way God or Providence or History has charged America with the task of guiding humankind to its intended destiny. Embedded in the phrase is the essence of our collective identity.
We Americans—not the Russians and certainly not the Chinese—are the Chosen People. We—and only we—are called upon to bring about the triumph of liberty, democracy, and humane values (as we define them), while not so incidentally laying claim to more than our fair share of earthly privileges and prerogatives.
American exceptionalism assumes a Manichean world in which good is pitted against evil, with our side assumed to embody good. Packaged with highfalutin sentiments of the sort to which recent US presidents (except one) routinely—and perhaps even sincerely—pay tribute, American exceptionalism justifies American global primacy.
But we Americans have a problem. Of late, the United States has not appeared especially exceptional. If anything, the reverse is true.
Who in their right mind would identify with a nation that has in the not-so-distant past engaged in a costly and arguably illegal war in one country (Iraq), while waging a 20-year-long war in another (Afghanistan) that ended in humiliating defeat? In what sense does a nation that loses over 900,000 of its citizens to a pandemic, whose dysfunctional central government annually spends trillions more than it takes in, and that cannot even control its own borders qualify as exceptional? Can a nation in which the richest 1 percent control 16 times more wealth than the bottom 50 percent be deemed exceptional? Or one in which a major political party characterizes violent insurrection as “legitimate political discourse”? As for a nation that elects Donald Trump president and may do so again: The term “exceptional” hardly seems appropriate.
“Reckless,” “incompetent,” “alienated,” “extravagantly wasteful,” and “deeply confused” more accurately describe our predicament.
How to get out of the political, cultural, and economic mess in which we find ourselves—yes, how to make America great again—is the overarching question of the day.
Those eager for a showdown with Russia over Ukraine offer one answer to that question: Putting a brutal bully in his place will go far toward restoring American exceptionalism’s lost luster. It’s “wag the dog” in modified form: militarized assertiveness in faraway places promising a shortcut to redemption.
Don’t believe it. The people gunning for a showdown with Putin come from the ranks of those who two decades ago were gunning for a showdown with Saddam Hussein, while promising a happy outcome.
There is an alternative approach far more likely to yield positive results. That alternative approach posits a reformulation of American exceptionalism based not on muscle flexing in faraway places but on modeling liberty, democracy, and humane values here at home. The clear imperative of the moment is to get our own house in order. Stumbling into yet another needless war won’t help.
As for Ukraine, the crisis there poses minimal risk to the West, which possesses ample strength to defend itself against Russian aggression. Rather than flinging macho-man insults about who will stand up to Vladimir Putin, wisdom suggests that the United States should acknowledge the possibility that Russia possesses legitimate security interests of its own, those interests extending to the question of whether Ukraine has a friendly or unfriendly orientation. As for fascists, the ones deserving concerted American attention tend to be homegrown.
Elevating Russia to the status of Enemy Number 1 is actually a diversion from matters of far greater immediate importance. It’s time for Americans to wake up to the fact that we face far more pressing concerns.
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Andrew J. Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book, Paths of Dissent: Soldiers Speak Out Against America’s Long War, co-edited with Danny Sjursen, is forthcoming.