Why a Multipolar World Will Be More Humane
Yes, foreign policy elites are worse than Putin
Two recent essays express pretty much exactly how I feel about the American role in the Ukraine crisis, one by Freddie deBoer, and the other by Robert Wright. I wouldn’t disagree with any part of either article, but I would go a bit further than both and argue that those opposed to American militarism should be doing more to stress the moral correctness of their position. Specifically, they should challenge the idea that the United States – or more specifically, its foreign policy elites – are more virtuous than those they want the nation to confront.
When anti-interventionists do not do this, they cede the moral high ground to their opponents. I remember in the run-up to the Iraq War, everyone who opposed the invasion had to premise their argument with the disclaimer, “Yes, Saddam is a bad guy, but…” Of course, beginning every conversation by asserting that the US is good and everyone it might invade or bomb is evil puts the opponents of intervention in an untenable situation. Next time there’s a contradiction between what the US says and what Saddam says, like for example on the question of WMDs, and even anti-war people have conceded Saddam is a bad guy, who is going to believe him? If a cop is accused of brutalizing a known criminal for no good reason, no one thinks it’s a sensible argument to say don’t worry about it because the police are better than crooks. That has nothing to do with the situation under discussion, and anyone making that argument is revealing himself to be acting in bad faith. In the same way, honest people should never let an argument over whether it is wise for the US to bring Ukraine into NATO devolve into a debate about the moral virtues of Putin.
At the same time, it may be worth discussing the relative virtues of Putin if you accept the argument that the US pulling back from the world will mean more influence for countries like China or Russia. I think this is not necessarily true in the way war hawks usually mean. In a world of declining American power, China and Russia would undoubtably fill certain voids and have more power relative to their neighbors. Ukraine is either going to be run from Washington or Moscow. But when Michael Doran argues that China is building a “Middle East Kingdom,” this is beyond silly, and rests on the faulty premise that what the US has been doing in that region for 30 years has been in the national interest, so of course Beijing is eager to do the same. If the US had less power in the world, a lot of stupid and destructive things – like comprehensive sanctions on defenseless countries, invading and occupying Iraq, or trying to bring affirmative action to France – would simply not be done, because such policies represent unique pathologies of American politics. And this would be a good thing.
Nonetheless, as a more general matter, it is worth considering whether we would rather have a world order that is American-led, Chinese-led, or – in what I think is the most likely scenario and one we are already starting to see emerge – multipolar. If that is the question, I would argue that the US is a uniquely destructive force, and multipolarity is a much more desirable state of affairs than what we currently have. Coming to this conclusion requires some comparison of the moral status and decision-making ability of the people who run American foreign policy relative to those who would replace them. It does not imply a comparison, for example, between how the US and China treat their people at home; throughout history, we have seen states that give their own citizens a high degree of freedom while being vicious towards foreign adversaries, and others that are brutal at home but largely passive abroad. To think in terms of countries as “good” or “evil” in a way that can explain both domestic and foreign policy is a mistake.
Regarding the question of whether the US is morally superior to its enemies abroad, we can think about it by way of analogy. Imagine you are trying to judge the moral worth of two men. A has a dispute with his neighbor, so he goes and burns down his house. That seems like a pretty bad thing to do, and we should judge him for that.
B, in contrast, faces no threat from those closest to him, but decides for no conceivable reason to go two blocks over, arm the weaker party in an ongoing dispute, and watch the two sides start killing each other in large numbers. All the while he brings women’s studies majors into the neighborhood to lecture the children about “toxic masculinity.” If the people of the neighborhood reject B, he places them under an economic blockade and destroys their livelihoods, starving some of the children to death. B does this while patting himself on the back for being the defender of the “rules-based neighborhood order.”
Which man is worse? If the two men were political opponents, which one do you think would do more damage if he gained power?
Obviously, A represent Putin, or Xi Jinping, or most of the world leaders we classify as “bad guys.” B is the United States. A person who commits crimes for rational self-interested reasons is always less dangerous, and in some ways more moral, than one who does so for ideological reasons or because he enjoys watching the world burn down (the analogy isn’t perfect because American foreign policy is in the interests of a certain class, but not the country as a whole, so it is “rational” in a different sense).
In Afghanistan right now, millions of children are at risk of famine. This is directly attributable to the US stealing that country’s money and cutting it off from the international economy. What makes this particularly grotesque is that there’s no conceivable reason for it; if the Taliban was a threat to Americans, you could at least understand the policy as an overreaction. And this is being done by the same establishment that just months ago was saying we couldn’t abandon the people of Afghanistan when supporting them meant dropping more bombs. American weapons and military technology have facilitated the war in Yemen, which has killed an estimated 400,000 people. These aren’t isolated instances. In the last decade we’ve seen the US support destructive wars in Libya and Syria, and it has killed more people through its sanctions regime than it has in many of its pointless conflicts. American financial and military dominance has enabled this kind of behavior, which becomes less possible each year as US power shrinks relative to that of the rest of the world.
From the early days of the Syrian Civil War, anyone who knew anything about the region could understand that the only meaningful opposition to the government had always been Islamist. Whenever I would read about an atrocity being committed by the Assad regime, I could always at least understand that the men of that government were fighting for their wives and daughters not to be raped, which often happened to Alawites, Christians, and others who fell into the hands of US-backed rebels. Who could say what they would do when facing the same circumstances? One can understand why if you’re Assad you’ll take the bad press and indictment at The Hague as the price of survival.
Contrast these decisions that have to be made by men on the ground with the actions of those who sat in air-conditioned offices in Washington, doing things like sharing PowerPoints about “gender mainstreaming in IR” and talking about how as students of color they don’t have to visit the countries they are “experts” in, while deciding to prolong and exacerbate a conflict in Syria less than a decade after they’d already destroyed its neighbor. As I’ve shown, they made things worse, giving the US government moral responsibility not only for the atrocities committed by the rebels, but the regime’s reaction to them when faced with a threat to its survival. Here’s how Ben Rhodes in his memoir describes the debate within the Obama administration on whether to arm the Syrian rebels.
David Petraeus, by that time the director of the CIA, pushed for it. He was also honest about what it was and wasn’t: This won’t change the direction of the war, he’d say; it will allow us to build relationships with the opposition…It spoke to the schizophrenia in American foreign policy that we were simultaneously debating whether to designate the Syrian opposition as terrorists and whether to provide military support to the Syrian opposition.
How does this make sense? “Build relationships with the opposition” for what, if it doesn’t affect the outcome of the war? A theme of my book is that it’s all this stupid, none of it makes sense even on its own terms.
Had Assad not been born the son of a Syrian dictator, or his older brother hadn’t died in a car crash, it seems likely he would’ve spent his life as a mild-mannered ophthalmologist who never inflicted pain on anyone worse than what’s involved in performing an eye exam. Petraeus, in contrast, could’ve done anything he wanted with his life, and sought out leadership in a system that engages in wanton death and destruction on an industrial scale while pushing for more of it. I’m sure in his heart, he thinks he has made the world a better place. Yet that can’t be the standard for decency, because otherwise we would have to also say that Hitler and Stalin were good people.
If you think I’m wrong about American foreign policy and that it hasn’t been that bad in recent decades, you can disagree with this analysis. But I’d argue that it’s incoherent to agree with me on things like the Syrian intervention and sanctions but at the same time absolve American foreign policy elites of the charge that they are evil. I guess you could also argue that no one is evil, it doesn’t exist, we’re all products of our circumstances, etc., but then you also can’t use that word to refer to leaders of other countries.
None of this has anything to do with being “anti-American.” Like public health, foreign policy elites are a tiny portion of the population with an outsized influence on a particular area of governance. The fact that these people have managed to equate criticism of themselves with criticisms of the United States or the American people as a whole is a sign of their success, and doing so is the way they silence dissent.
This is why, when I oppose American intervention in Ukraine, I’m not going to preface it by saying how bad Putin is, at least until those in favor of being involved have to answer for Iraq, Syria, Libya, and the other disasters that have characterized American foreign policy over the last several decades. I can at least understand why Putin does not like missiles, troop deployments, and bases on his borders, or why he would not want a neighbor to engage in cultural genocide against his fellow Russians. Yes, it is also easy to understand why Putin’s neighbors are suspicious of him too, and my inclination is not to judge them too harshly, except when I’m told that the US must sacrifice for Ukraine because it is a “democracy.” I’m not much of a moralist in international affairs, but the destructiveness and incompetence, in addition to the utter senselessness, of American foreign policy make it a unique case. The US has been expanding NATO in the face of decades of clear warning that it could end in disaster, without presenting anything resembling a coherent argument for why doing so is in the national interest. Foreign policy elites are now planning an insurgency in Ukraine if and when Putin conquers that nation, therefore trying to turn the country into a permanent war zone. They will likely fail, for reasons I’ve pointed out before, but if they succeed their actions will be consistent with recent efforts in places like Syria and Libya, which each involved leading a nation to ruin because they wanted to feel virtuous and gain the political benefits that result from “doing something” in our broken politics.
Just because the people who make American foreign policy are dumb and their motivations banal does not mean they’re not evil. The less power they have in the future, the better the world will be.