Henry Kissinger is arrogant. At 100 years old, he still represents all that is smug and imperious about U.S. foreign policy. Donald Trump and his fellow denizens of the far right project the same vibe with their MAGA madness.
A similar strain of American arrogance can even be found among liberals, the ones who believe that Washington possesses all the answers. Think of Madeleine Albright and her comments about the indispensability of the United States. “If we have to use force, it is because we are America,” the former secretary of state in the Clinton administration said back in 1998. “We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.”
Such comments are risible, particularly in hindsight after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Albright was obviously looking in a funhouse mirror that reflected back an image of America as a basketball center rather than what it so frequently is: an ostrich with its head in the ground.
Okay, none of this is news. Hubris and its consequences: this subtitle can be applied to pretty much any book about American foreign policy since the late nineteenth century.
But here’s the surprising part. Americans on the left can be just as blinkered and arrogant as all the figures further to the right that we’ve criticized repeatedly for the same sins.
So, for instance, a broad assortment of pundit-activists from Noam Chomsky to Jeffrey Sachs have staked out what they consider “pro-peace” or “diplomatic” or “progressive” positions on the war in Ukraine. In open letters, New York Times advertisements, and countless blogs/podcasts/tweets, they have supported “peace now” against the position held by 65 percent of Americans of supporting Ukrainians in the defense of their country.
Here I’m not particularly interested in debating this subclass of leftists on their interpretations of the origins of the current war, which I’ve challenged elsewhere (for instance on the role played by NATO expansion or the notion that what happened in 2014 in Kyiv was a “coup”).
I’m more interested in two linked aspects of this position. First, these pundit-activists have not bothered to consult the victims in this conflict. They show no evidence of talking with Ukrainians, reading Ukrainian analyses, or taking into account Ukrainian perspectives. Imagine a journalist who interviews Donald Trump about accusations that he raped a woman but doesn’t bother to talk to the woman who made the accusation. That would violate all the rules of journalism (not to mention common decency). And yet the victims of Russia’s war get no hearing from a group of pundit-activists who have otherwise specialized in standing up for victims (for instance, of American wars).
Second, these pundit-activists believe, with Albright, that America is the indispensable nation in this conflict, that it has the power to force a ceasefire, negotiate a peace, and remake the European security order. This naïve belief in the power of American empire flows from a mistaken understanding of the role the United States has played in Ukraine (that it stage-managed the “coup” in 2014, that it has single-handedly blocked potential peace negotiations since the invasion last year).
According to this argument, even if the United States used its preponderant power for “evil” in the past, it can turn around like a super villain that has seen the light and use this preponderant power for “good.” In this way, a false reading of the past produces nonsense policy recommendations today.
But let’s take a closer look at these two varieties of arrogance and how they have managed to infect the American left.
The Lives of Ukrainians
In an interview with The New Statesman last month, Noam Chomsky outlined his views on Ukraine. As a longtime admirer of Chomsky, I was frankly dismayed at his comments. He repeats several debunked canards, for instance, that the United States and UK (not Russia or even Ukraine) have blocked peace negotiations.
And he adds some new ones into the mix. Russia, he argues, is acting with greater restraint in Ukraine than the United States did in the Iraq War. It’s hard to come to that conclusion after looking at pictures of the destruction of Mariupol and Bakhmut or reading of Russia’s destruction of 40 percent of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. Chomsky also dismisses Sweden and Finland’s entrance into NATO as having nothing to do with a fear of Russian attack. Russia may indeed have no intention or capacity to attack either country, but there is no question that Swedes and Finns worry about the prospect of invasion (or cyberattack).
Of course, like many other supposed iconoclasts on this issue, Chomsky prefaces many of his statements by noting that Russia committed a crime by invading Ukraine before going on to whittle away at Russian responsibility for the war. It’s all too reminiscent of the American right’s whitewashing of U.S. history. Yes, the authors of the Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum will concede, land was stolen from the Native Americans and slavery was “barbarous and tyrannical.” But by glossing over the particulars of those crimes, right-wing revisionists miss the centrality of violence in early American history in their eagerness to make their ideological points. So, too, do left-wing revisionists soft-pedal Russian imperialism in their rush to condemn the perfidy of the United States.
What is obvious from the interview, however, is that Chomsky hasn’t talked to any Ukrainians to test his hypotheses or his conclusions. He hasn’t even talked with the Ukrainian translator of his works. That translator, Artem Chapeye, had this to say last year after the Russian invasion.
I started as a volunteer translator of “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” into Ukrainian—now I’m aghast at how you mention, in one sentence, the lead-up to this invasion: “What happened in 2014, whatever one thinks of it, amounted to a coup with US support that… led Russia to annex Crimea, mainly to protect its sole warm-water port and naval base,” Chomsky said…Before “overthrowing capitalism,” try thinking of ways for us Ukrainians not to be slaughtered, because “any war is bad.” I beg you to listen to the local voices here on the ground, not some sages sitting at the center of global power. Please start your analysis with the suffering of millions of people, rather than geopolitical chess moves. Start with the columns of refugees, people with their kids, their elders and their pets. Start with those kids in cancer hospital in Kyiv who are now in bomb shelters missing their chemotherapy.
Before making proposals about negotiations and peace, the advocates of such positions should stop talking and listen to peace groups in Ukraine. They might profitably begin by consulting a recent statement by Ukrainian NGOs called a Ukraine Peace Appeal:
We, Ukrainian civil society activists, feminists, peacebuilders, mediators, dialogue facilitators, human rights defenders and academics, recognise that a growing strategic divergence worldwide has led to certain voices, on the left and right and amongst pacifists to argue for an end to the provision of military support to Ukraine. They also call for an immediate cease-fire between Ukraine and Russia as the strategy for “ending the war”. These calls for negotiation with Putin without resistance are in reality calls to surrender our sovereignty and territorial integrity.
American peace activists might even consult with Russian anti-war activists who have sided at great personal cost with Ukrainian victims against their own government. Listen, for instance, to Boris Kagarlitsky, who has long staked out a lonely, independent left position in Russia:
from the Western progressive public, we only need one thing – stop helping Putin with your conciliatory and ambiguous statements. The more often such statements are made, the greater will be the confidence of officials, deputies and policemen that the current order can continue to exist with the silent support or hypocritical grumbling of the West. Every conciliatory statement made by liberal intellectuals in America results in more arrests, fines, and searches of democratic activists and just plain people here in Russia. We do not need any favor but a very simple one: an understanding of the reality that has developed in Russia today. Stop identifying Putin and his gang with Russia.
But in their utterly parochial presumptuousness, those Americans who support “peace now” only consult themselves.
In Praise of U.S. Indispensability
On May 11, after Donald Trump appeared in a lie-filled extravaganza on CNN, peace activist Medea Benjamin tweeted in response to a Wall Street Journal clip from the Town Hall: “Watch: Trump Says as President He’d Settle Ukraine War Within 24 hours. “It’s not about winning or losing but about stopping the killing.” YES! I wish Democrats would start saying this!”
So, after repeatedly demonstrating against Trump’s lies for four years, how can the Code Pink activist suddenly turn around and accept on face value something so outlandish from the mouth of the ex-president? Like so many of Trump’s utterances, this one is pure boast. Trump couldn’t “settle” the war even if he wanted to do so. After all, he has a pretty sorry track record in this regard, having not settled any wars when he was president (North Korea) and having threatened to launch a few of his own (Iran, Venezuela) during the same period.
But the issue here is not Trump’s mendacity. It’s the willingness of the credulous to believe that an American president can swoop in and stop a war in 24 hours. The war in Ukraine wasn’t started by the United States and it won’t be finished by the United States. That role belongs to Russia, which will either withdraw voluntarily, be forced to withdraw, or (very improbably) beat Ukraine into submission.
A similarly naïve belief in U.S. indispensability can be found in a full-page ad last week in The New York Times sponsored by the Eisenhower Media Network, a group of former U.S. military and intelligence officers funded by Ben Stein, of Ben & Jerry’s fame. These military influencers have obviously had second thoughts about their former jobs, which were all about the use of force to achieve national goals. But in one way, at least, they are consistent: they remain singularly obsessed with American power.
Their statement reads in part: “As Americans and national security experts, we urge President Biden and Congress to use their full power to end the Russia-Ukraine War speedily through diplomacy, especially given the grave dangers of military escalation that could spiral out of control.”
Well, that sounds sort of reasonable. Except that it assumes that the United States has that power. Certainly, Washington is helping to sustain the war—i.e., prevent Russia from visiting more atrocities on the Ukrainian population—by delivering weapons to Kyiv. Does that mean, then, that the United States should stop sending weapons, pressure Ukraine to make concessions at the negotiating table, and accept a deal where the victims lose territory, get no compensation from the aggressor for their losses, and continue to fear future attacks because membership in NATO is off the table?
Is that what these former military and intelligence officials mean by “full power”? It still comes down to a belief that the United States is the only country that can cut the Gordian knot of geopolitics because, again, it is the indispensable power. Strip away the pretty language of diplomacy and the sad truth emerges: once the agents of American power, always the agents of American power.
Perhaps it is the fate of Americans to be arrogant, regardless of where we stand on the political spectrum. Such is the side effect of privilege. We Americans are all beneficiaries of exceptionalism, even those of us who decry its corrosive impact.
I’m not immune. I have long argued that the United States can play a positive role in the world. I have urged the United States to champion human rights, democratic practice, economic equality, and climate justice. But I’m also acutely aware that the United States has rarely done any of these things. And I’m sensitive to the criticism, often from the Global South, that American “do-gooders” can have just as malign an impact overseas as American soldiers, corporations, and financiers. We are hegemons by birthright.
So, what’s an American to do?
First of all, we Americans must be much more modest about what we can do in international affairs as individuals and as a country. We need to jettison our super-hero complex, whether as liberating soldiers or arm-twisting diplomats. We need to work alongside partners, not on top of them.
But above all, we need to listen. In the anti-apartheid movement, we listened to our South African partners. In the struggle for peace and justice in the Middle East, we listen to our Palestinian and Israeli partners. That’s the essence of solidarity.
So, first step: listen to our progressive brothers and sisters in Ukraine and Russia. They should be the primary guides to our action, not some set of abstract principles. Otherwise, even the harshest critics of U.S. empire end up falling victim to the same assumptions that lie at the core of America’s uber-arrogant foreign policy.
May 24, 2023