If there is one good result of the pandemic and the resulting economic crisis, it may be to remind the U.S. establishment that in the end, the international strength and influence of a country depends on its domestic strength.No amount of military power or propaganda can compensate for economic, political, and social weakness and division at home. If the United States can assimilate this lesson, it will be in a much stronger position to withstand future shocks like climate change and its consequences. If it cannot, the pandemic will be seen by future historians as another steep downward step in the West’s decline.This truth was obscured for much of the past three decades by the triumphalism generated by U.S. success in the Cold War. On the one hand, the collapse of Soviet communism was so complete that it appeared to prove beyond question the eternal, self-evident validity of the democratic capitalist political and economic model that was embodied in Francis Fukuyama’s notorious work “The End of History.”Ironically, Fukuyama’s idea of perfected liberal capitalist democracy echoed in many ways the Soviet doctrine of “Real Achieved Socialism” in the USSR. The effect in both cases was to deprive elites of capacity for self-reflection and self-criticism, and therefore of capacity to think about reforms. Why reform an already perfect system?Ronald Reagan was held to have played a key part in the collapse of communism through a combination of his fervent anti-communist ideological rhetoric and his adoption of the “Star Wars” missile defense program which supposedly convinced the Soviet elites of their technological inferiority and need for radical reform.In fact, as former Soviet sources have made clear, “Star Wars” had only a minimal effect on Gorbachev’s decision to launch his reforms. It formed only one element in a growing awareness of relative Soviet technological and economic backwardness stretching back almost two decades. And as far as the system’s increasing loss of ideological legitimacy both among ordinary Soviet citizens and younger members of the elites, missile defense had nothing to do with it. Cynical Soviet jokes about the Soviet system were about the stupidity and incompetence of communist officials and the permanent shortages of consumer goods and foodstuffs, not about military competition with the U.S.For Gorbachev and his allies in the Communist Party, figures like former Ambassador to Canada Alexander Yakovlev — who had lived in the West and could report on the growing gulf between Soviet and Western living standards — played a key role. Western liberal capitalist democracy was quite simply and obviously working better than Soviet communism.Reagan’s democratic rhetoric also had very little impact. In Eastern Europe it wasn’t necessary: East Germans, Czechs, and Poles had been rebelling long before Reagan came along, in part for nationalist rather than democratic reasons.Russians had mostly been turning a deaf ear to Western propaganda for the same period. The moment that doomed Soviet domination in Eastern Europe was the Solidarity Movement in Poland, when the Soviet government backed away from military invasion and instead backed a fragile, unstable, and illegitimate form of Polish military rule that by the late 1980s was visibly coming apart.In the bipartisan American establishment, however, the belief that the collapse of communism was a victory for the U.S. and the West became mixed up with the idea that it was a triumph of the supposedly Reaganite strategy; something that also ignored the way in which Reagan’s nuclear compromise with Gorbachev at Reykjavik helped convince the Soviet leader that the U.S. was not an enemy of the USSR and would not take advantage of internal disruption caused by his reforms.Since the end of the Cold War, a combination of military pressure, economic sanctions and ideological propaganda has been applied by both Republican and Democratic administrations to Iran, Russia, and China, with steadily diminishing success. The reasons for this lack of success differ somewhat in each case. In all of them however, public hostility to the U.S. has been strengthened by the accurate perception that American rhetoric of democracy and freedom is often a cover for implacable U.S. hostility to their nations.To this in recent years has been added something quite new: a perception of American domestic incompetence. As Stephen Walthas written in Foreign Policy, this is unprecedented. However much people may have despised the U.S. in the past, nobody ever doubted American efficiency; and as Goethe wrote, “Hatred harms no-one. It is contempt that drags men down.”This perception has grown over time as a result of a whole range of developments: failure in Iraq and Afghanistan; the shambolic response to Hurricane Katrina, with its evidence of the political spoils system on state efficiency; the 2008 recession, and the U.S.’s inability to regulate its financial sector or punish malefactors; the visible decay of U.S. public infrastructure, especially when contrasted with China; repeated tax cuts for the rich; the age of U.S. political leaders, which reminds older Russians of the Soviet gerontocracy of the 1970s; the grotesque public antics of President Trump; and now the dreadfully inadequate initial response to the pandemic — once again, as compared with that of China.Both domestically and internationally, the legitimacy given by America’s democratic tradition can buy time for reform, time that would be denied to weaker political orders; but no state legitimacy can survive forever repeated failures to achieve vital state tasks.Domestically, the pandemic crisis should lead to radical reform in the U.S.. As argued in my book, “Climate Change and The Nation State,” this should ideally take the form of a “Green New Deal,” intended to build technological progress, economic growth, job creation, and social solidarity as well as to limit climate change.Internationally, the pandemic’s lesson on the comparative insignificance of security threats from China and Russia to American lives and wellbeing should divert U.S. rivalry with these countries into a new course: not colossally expensive military confrontation and hostile propaganda, but a competition of state efficiencies. This is a competition that Russia has already largely lost, and China does not have to win.There is a precedent for this in American history. At the turn of the twentieth century, President Theodore Roosevelt linked the idea of a “New Nationalism” to that of “National Efficiency.” This was intended both to equip the U.S. to meet the immense new challenges thrown up by industrialization, immigration, and urbanization, and to strengthen the U.S. in competition with other nations.Otherwise, the United States may come to resemble the later Roman Empire, once an example to all its neighbors. By the fifth century AD, a combination of epidemics, economic decline, tax evasion for the wealthy, and the expense of the military had made the demands on ordinary citizens so terrible that many preferred to be conquered by the Barbarians.
Anatol Lieven is Director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He was formerly a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and in the War Studies Department of King’s College London.
President Donald J. Trump and President Xi Jinping | July 8, 2017 (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.
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Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 1952; President Barack Obama, at NATO Headquarters, Brussels, 2014.
President Trump's latest comments criticizing NATO and the ensuing media reaction obscure the fact that Americans have long held dissenting opinions on the U.S. relationship to European security.
As has happened all too often throughout the Trump era, the heat of escalating rhetoric on the part of the 45th President and his committed adversaries has distracted from the more substantive foreign policy debate.
Today, the U.S-European security relationship has never been more sacrosanct, at least in the mind's eye of the national security establishment and their allies in the mainstream press. Yet historically, the range of debate and criticism of this ostensibly sacred pact has been far more open than nostalgia or the modern commentariat may suggest.
Throughout American involvement in NATO, the nation's national security elites, members of Congress, commentators, and, yes, presidents, too, have all challenged the contours of commitment to the organization and its members at one time or another. Furthermore, they did so when Western countries faced a significantly larger Soviet military deployed deep into the heart of Central Europe.
During the early Cold War, the nature of American involvement in the alliance and its commitment to staff Europe with a permanent garrison were not seen as beyond question, even by American officials in positions of authority. In fact, American Cold War architects sold an American garrison in Europe as a temporary measure meant to shore up allies still licking their wounds from the Second World War. In congressional testimony concerning the ratification of the NATO treaty, Sen. Bourke B. Hickenlooper (R-Iowa) pressed Secretary of State Dean Acheson on if he thought the treaty meant that the U.S. would leave "substantial numbers of troops over there." An indignant Acheson responded, "[t]he answer to that question, Senator, is a clear and absolute 'No.'"
Even as Acheson's assurances to Congress proved hollow, NATO's first commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, while supportive of NATO's legal mechanisms of collective security, believed that America's garrison and material aid were temporary. Eisenhower warned that if "in 10 years, all American troops stationed in Europe for national defense purposes have not been returned to the United States, then this whole project will have failed."
In Congress, the extent of American military involvement remained a persistent issue for the Republican Right. Be they principled noninterventionists or Asia First unilateralists, the extent of American troop presence in Europe remained a contested issue. Retired Army officer Bonner Fellers, writing in a July 1949 issue of Human Events, a conservative magazine, summed up the widely agreed-upon position of these dissenters. While Fellers believed that the NATO treaty had "enormous psychological value," as it served as a "symbol of unity" and deterrence, he did not think that that should translate into a massive and permanent military garrison in Western Europe.
Fellers revisited the issue two years later in an article for Human Events, which was read into the Congressional Record. Rather than see the American European garrison as a deterrent, Fellers asserted that it could be viewed as a provocation and argued that the "presence of our forces on the Rhine gives Stalin a visible symbol, a unifying agent which tends to enlist the support of all Russians behind the Kremlin."
It is important to note that Fellers was hardly a dove. Instead, he was a committed anti-communist who loathed the Soviet Union and supported a nuclear deterrence on the cheap, a Fortress America 2.0. Yet, he, like many within the Republican Right, did not allow their ideological priors to automatically dictate a desire for endless security commitments to Western Europe.
On Capitol Hill, Fellers's views were common and supported by conservative Republicans who saw an American military garrison as an expensive handout to allies whose rebuilt economies could shoulder their defense, all while providing little deterrent effect. In 1953, speaking on the issue of America's military mission in Europe, Rep. Lawrence H. Smith (R-Wis.) asked rhetorically, "[w]here is the threat of military aggression?"
According to Smith, after returning from a fact-finding mission in Europe, his subcommittee on Europe reported that "there was no fear of communism in the hearts and the minds of the people there." The sentiments espoused by Fellers and Smith persisted in pockets of the Republican Right throughout the early Cold War despite the ideological demands of the era.
During the final decades of the Cold War, opposition to the presence of an American military garrison in Western Europe and the continuation of military aid emanated primarily from the left wing of the Democratic Party as a new generation of Democrats took office and sought to rein military spending and commitments. On Capitol Hill, Democrats attempted to force American troop level cuts in Europe in the House in 1988, and the Senate in 1990.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the horseshoe of opposition to maintaining the status quo thickened as a body of conservative Republicans joined progressive Democrats in opposing NATO expansion, first in 1994 and then in 1999. While both votes failed, and the United States maintained a sizeable garrison in Europe, the opposition to outdated Cold War paradigms remained and flowed freely, untainted by the scurrilous charge of echoing "Putin talking points."
Indeed, even as late as November 2016, President Obama mirrored the sentiments of then President-elect Donald Trump in stating that “[i]f Greece can meet this NATO commitment, all our NATO allies should be able to do so."
This latest fervor has, as all too often now, completely ignored these historical debates around American foreign policy commitments, creating in their passions an ahistorical sense of policy inevitability. If Americans past and present, from presidents on down, could question the contours of American security commitments and did so in far more perilous times, then so should we.
Last month, Foreign Policy published a report that stirred the debate on U.S. Middle East policy. It claimed “the Biden administration is reconsidering its priorities” in Syria and may conduct “a full withdrawal of U.S. troops.” Now, legacy media is debating the future of American involvement in Syria.
Missing from this discussion is the suffering that involvement has caused.
Writing for the New York Times, retired general Kenneth McKenzie warns “it’s not time for our troops to leave” Syria. Mere talk of a withdrawal (let alone actually withdrawing), he argues, is “seriously damaging to U.S. interests.” It “gives hope to Tehran” that Iran might rival American influence in the Middle East — which is bad, supposedly. Why Iran has less of a right to influence its own region than people thousands of miles away is unclear.
McKenzie also argues that American troops must remain to “secure the prisons holding ISIS fighters.” Without boots on the ground, militants might escape and the Islamist group could “rejuvenate itself.” McKenzie doesn’t believe the Syrian government could prevent prison breaks on its own, or even with Russian and Iranian support.
This argument is highly speculative. If the Americans leave, imprisoned ISIS fighters might escape. And, if enough do, they might rebuild their organization into a force too formidable for Syrian forces to handle. Multiple unlikely contingencies must materialize to even warrant taking this reasoning seriously.
But McKenzie’s claim suffers a more fundamental problem. It confuses the cause for the antidote. Everyone from Noam Chomsky to Rand Paul knows American intervention created the conditions that allowed ISIS to grow. Bombing Arab nations to smithereens, toppling their leaders, and starving governments through sanctions and outright theft generated a power vacuum. As did deploying troops indefinitely, which prevented states like Syria from maintaining territorial integrity and establishing the mechanisms for self-governance.
McKenzie believes the Syrian government is simply too weak to quell the increasingly small threat an ISIS in retreat poses. Assuming he’s correct, it’s worth asking why that’s the case. The facts again point to American intervention.
Nearly 13 years into its ongoing civil war, Syria is in tatters. Once a middle-income nation with respectable living standards, it’s now the poorest country on Earth. More than 90% of Syrians live below the international poverty line of $1.90 per day. Their paychecks are worthless, with the Syrian pound losing virtually all of its relative value since the war began.
It’s not all America’s fault. The Syrian government undoubtedly bears significant blame for the humanitarian crisis. But American sanctions hamstring it from improving matters. The infamous Caesar Act targets anyone who "engages in a significant transaction" with the Syrian government. Signed into law by Donald Trump, this heinous policy effectively precludes the international community from helping Syria rebuild.
A bipartisan but overwhelmingly Democratic coalition of lawmakers recently voted against slapping new sanctions on Syria. Unfortunately, for every one of them, there were 12 supporters of the legislation. Dubbed the Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act, it would extend the sunset of the Caesar sanctions by eight years. The bill would also expand the list of proscribed transactions.
But there’s more. Years ago, with America’s blessing, Turkish-backed militias stole capital from over 1,000 factories in the city of Aleppo alone. This assault on the productive forces of Syria’s industrial hub left its economy in tatters. But that’s not all the United States and its allies stole. America’s occupying troops routinely commandeer Syrian wheat and petroleum. Trump admitted as much, saying that soldiers “were staying in Syria to secure oil resources.”
The Syrian state is starving. More American intervention isn’t what Syria needs. It needs the United States’ boot off of its neck.
In these discussions of states and militants, we mustn’t lose sight of what matters most: the people. American militarism in Syria has wrought dire human costs. It has helped to plunge Syrians into the depths of unimaginable despair. Over 80% of them are food-insecure and a similar proportion lack sustained access to electricity. Many enjoy just one hour of it per day. Without electricity, you can’t refrigerate food and it rots. That causes shortages. People have taken to eating out of the garbage.
McKenzie seems to care little about this immense suffering. And why would he? His job as a general was to project American military might, whatever the costs, a position he apparently continues as a guest writer for The New York Times.