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Sunday, January 30, 2022

Ukraine and Our Failure of Imagination

 [As it turned out, normal life returned to Watertown earlier than I had anticipated and I have a chance to do this post.]

This week I listened to this streamed discussion from the Quincy Institute about the Ukraine situation.  It features a Russian and an American academic, Fyodor Lukyanov and Thomas Graham, and Lukyanov in particular was very informative.  Putin, he argued, does not want to invade Ukraine, but he does want to alter the balance in the European security situation, both by barring Ukraine from joining NATO and by persuading NATO to take other steps to reduce its presence in Eastern Europe.  The United States, Putin apparently believes, created that situation to fill the vacuum left behind by the collapse of the USSR and its eastern European empire, and it should now give way to something new reflecting a different balance of power.  Putin has mobilized more than 100,000 troops, Lukyanov argued, because nothing less had succeeded in getting NATO's attention and starting any serious negotiations.  I thought Graham was less interesting because he immediately fell into the trap that ensnares most contemporary academics, talking about what should happen instead of what is happening or is likely to happen.  I thought however that both of them might be too optimistic, because Putin's aims cannot, in my opinion, be reconciled with the thinking of the US foreign policy establishment, which includes all Biden's senior aides.  Here I will return to some issues I addressed a few weeks ago, but with a sharper focus.

Until early in the 20th century the government of the United States, mindful that it had different domestic principles and institutions than most of the great powers, pursued policies based on legal principles in international relations.  It pledged fidelity to treaties and international law, tried to resolve any disputes by negotiation, and simply sought compensation when Americans abroad or on the high seas suffered damages.  Under Theodore Roosevelt and especially Woodrow Wilson, the United States began involving itself in overseas quarrels--but with the specific goal of making the international community adopt new principles of conduct, and even new domestic institutions, that would allow US principles to prevail worldwide.  That led to the creation of the League of Nations, but when the Senate refused to approve it, subsequent administrations returned to the previous, strictly legalistic approach.  When dictatorshps threatened the peace in the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt warned the nation that it could not stand aloof, and by the time the United States entered the Second World War he had committed us to a new world organization. The United Nations resulted.

It fell to Presidents Truman and Eisenhower to explain to the American people that the UN could not play the role of the arbiter of international conflict because the Soviet Union would not cooperate.  By 1949 Truman had helped create NATO, an alliance of the US, Canada and western European nations to defend their territory against Communism.   West Germany joined NATO in 1955.  Twice, in 1950 and 1991, the UN has authorized wars in defense of aggression, first in Korea (because the USSR was boycotting the Security Council at the time of the attack) and then to liberate Kuwait.  In general, however, it has failed to serve as a mechanism for implementing American principles.  In response, the Eisenhower Administration repeatedly insisted that it could not undertake any serious political negotiations with the Soviet Union until the Soviets accepted NATO's goals. Those included the unification of Germany via free elections, with the new Germany remaining in NATO if it desired, and the end of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.  The Soviets, not surprisingly, refused.  Not until 1975, in the d├ętente era, did NATO and the Warsaw Pact accept one another's existence and the existence of two German states.  Even then, the Helsinki Agreement was merely a political agreement, not a treaty with the force of law. 

The collapse of Communism in 1989 allowed the West Germans and Americans to realize their 40-year old dream of a reunified Germany within NATO.  Unfortunately, dazzled by dreams of "the end of history" and worldwide US hegemony, the Clinton and Bush II administrations went further, adding most of the states of Eastern Europe to NATO, including three former Soviet Republics, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. NATO also fought a brief war to liberate Kosovo from Serbia in 1999--a war which the UN would not authorize.  And in 2008 the Bush Administration invited both Georgia, in Central Asia, and Ukraine to join NATO.  This, Russia immediately made clear, it would not accept, starting a brief war with Georgia.  Russian and the United States competed for influence in Ukraine in the next two decades, and Russia in 2014 annexed Crimea and began supporting a separatist war across the Ukrainian border.

Putin has now asked not only for promises that Ukraine will never withdraw NATO, but for a broadly defined pullout of NATO from Eastern Europe.  This could mean anything from a restriction on what kind of weapons NATO would station there, to a complete withdrawal of US and western European troops from the region, to insisting that some of these states must leave NATO.  Of those three options I do not think there is the slightest possibility of the US and its allies accepting any but the first--in exchange for some Russian restrictions on armaments aimed at western Europe.  Such a deal could not be negotiated very quickly.

President Zelensky of Ukraine has now made clear that he feels NATO is being too alarmist about the troop build-up and pushing the risk of confrontation too far.  I think that he probably can do the most to avoid war, simply by announcing that Ukraine has no intention of joining NATO. That would enable NATO leaders to affirm that they understand his position and that the issue is no longer live.  NATO could also agree to multilateral talks with Russia on new European security arrangements, without committing itself to any result.

Alas, I would have to agree that Putin would use any deal he would agree to to try to extend Soviet influence, and perhaps even Soviet sovereignty, further west.  NATO would find itself in a new Cold War, parallel in many ways to the immediate post-1945 period, in which the contest was largely political, with the winning victories in Austria and partially in Finland while the Soviets took over in Hungary and Czechoslovakia by political means.  This might be an opportunity for the United States, at long last, to turn European security over to the western and Central Europeans and let them take the political initiative, at least, while remaining within the alliance.  That in fact was Eisenhower's dream, and he was willing to give the Europeans nuclear weapons to help achieve it.  I think the American people are more than ready for that, but the foreign policy establishment is not, and Donald Trump is the only President in the post-1945 era who has ever really challenged the assumptions of the foreign policy establishment.  

That establishment continues to believe that we must take maximum political positions on issues like Ukraine and Taiwan and use all means short of war, including economic sanctions, to try to secure our goals--whether they are likely to work or not.  For the time being there seems to be no possibility of either Russia or China accepting our view of the world and our proper role in it.  That calls for some kind of accommodation of the kind that the Nixon administration achieved with those nations in the 1970s, but I don't see the leadership that would attempt it now.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Boeing and us

In late 2018 and early 2019, in Indonesia and Ethiopia, two new Boeing 737 Max airplanes crashed right after take-off, killing 346 people.  In Flying Blind, journalist Peter Blind relates this horror to the broader decline of American industrial capitalism, tracing the catastrophe to the relentless focus on "shareholder value"  that has wrecked one part of American life after another.   That in turn raises broader questions. Two years ago, in a post about the superb HBO miniseries about the Chernobyl disaster, I speculated that our institutions, for different reasons, might be as rotten as those in the USSR in its later stages.  Checking that post just now, I see that I referred to a new story (in January 2020) about one of the key mistakes that led to the Boeing disaster.  Now, reading a much more thorough account, I'm inclined to believe that we have further disasters ahead.

The story of Boeing is long and complicated, involving a large cast of characters, and I do not plan to mention many names.  The one crucial name appears to be that of Jack Welch, the late former head of General Electric and corporate superhero who emerged in the 1990s and 2000s as the Henry Ford or Lee Iacocca of a new era.  Welch transformed GE by moving away from manufacturing and into financial services, the major US growth industry, of course, of the last thirty or forty years.  The downfall of Boeing began, oddly, i 1997, when it absorbed another once-leading but now-failing airplane manufacturer, McDonnell Douglas, in a merger.  The terms of the merger gave much of the control of Boeing to veteran McDonnell Douglas executives, who began destroying the culture of Boeing, that had been based on the skills of its engineers.  A later generation of corporate leaders drew heavily on GE proteges of Jack Welch.  They moved Boeing's headquarters from Seattle, its manufacturing center, to Chicago, so that top management would not become emotionally involved with the production process.  They began selling divisions of the country off and forcing the new owners to do the same jobs ore cheaply, largely by downsizing or hiring cheaper labor.  Eventually they built a new plant in South Carolina, where they would not have to deal with unions, to build a different new aircraft, the 787 Dreamliner.  By the 2000s it was losing significant ground around the world to Airbus, the European consortium.  The company's new management decided to produce a new generation of its medium range workhouse, the 737, and named it the 737 Max.

The key to the 737 Max was a new pair of more powerful engines that would increase fuel efficiency, raising profits directly for airlines and indirectly for Boeing.  But rather than spend billions and several years to design a whole new airplane, Boeing decided to put those engines on an existing version of the 737, while making the minimum necessary modifications.  Those older versions had fallen well behind in key areas.  While newer aircraft now had new computer screens in the cockpit which would immediately inform the pilots of any problem and tell them what to do about it, the 737 pilots had do some of their own diagnosing, and take several minutes, if not more, to find the appropriate response in a large manual.  This would obviously impose enormous pressure upon the pilots in any emergency situation, especially since most emergencies occur during takeoff or landing when they have a great deal more to worry about.   Then, working out the design and testing it in wind tunnels, the engineers found a serious problem.  The new, larger engines, mounted differently than in older generations of planes, could suddenly force the plane to pitch upward during a tight turn.  They decided to rely on a software program called MCAS--already in use in Air Force tankers--that would compensate by forcing the stabilizer in the tail to correct for the upward pressure. This decision became an example of the potential for catastrophe growing out of the use of what amounts to artificial intelligence to handle complex problems.  The last, fatal design mistake involved the sensor that would tell MCAS that the plane was pitching dangerously upward and had to correct.  Such sensors were vulnerable to damage and malfunction, and some engineers pressed for backup sensors, but without result. Two other Boeing decisions made the problem much worse.  They cut back severely on planned test flights that might have revealed the problem to pilots, and they decided not to tell regulators and buyers about the new use of MCAS because it might make it harder and take longer to get the plane certified.

Meanwhile, the industry had co-opted the regulatory process.  The Federal Aviation Agency experts who were supposed to evaluate safety independently now worked for Boeing, which could even influence the size of their annual bonuses.  (I used to receive small annual bonuses as a federal employee myself, but they were simply portions of unspent funds that were divided evenly among staff.)  There was no one willing, or probably able, to play the role of Dr. Frances Kelsey of the FDA in the early 1960s, who singlehandedly stopped the approval of thalidomide in the United States while it was leading to the births of thousands of severely disabled children in Britain and elsewhere.  Such a person might have insisted on building a simulator for the new plane and making every potential pilot spend some time in it--but Boeing didn't want to spend the money on one, and no one made them do it.  The pilots who had to face the fatal malfunction on the two aircraft that crashed had no idea of what they were dealing with and no quick way to find out. 

All this is shocking enough, but even worse was the failure to ground the new plane after the first crash--as had been done in 1979 when a DC-10 crashed--until a thorough investigation could find out what had happened.  Partly because the first failing plane belonged to an Indonesian airline, Boeing found it easier to blame the airline or the pilot.  And thus, a few months later, the same thing happened again, in Ethiopia.  Then began a long story of attempted damage control, recorded in detail by Robison, in which Boeing tried to get the planes in the air again as soon as possible while denying any responsibility among the higher ups.  Like the Perdue Pharma executives who addicted hundreds of thousands of Americans to opiods, the Boeing executives will clearly never face criminal prosecution.   The grounding of the planes cost the company far more money than it would have cost either to design and build a new aircraft or to provide for adequate testing and training.  What saved Boeing was the pandemic.  Initially it looked like the last, fatal blow to the corporation and the industry, but the federal government stepped in to bail it out.  Yet the company's future remains far from bright.  The corporation also benefited from an interlocking network of lawyers, one of whose hubs is the firm of Kirkland and Ellis, who are extremely strong within the Republican Party and have penetrated the regulatory establishment.

Corporate America's new philosophy, pioneered by Jack Welch, has been disastrous for everyone else in the short run, and for American business, I believe, in the long run.  In the short run it puts relentless downward pressure on wages and benefits as more and more jobs are outsourced.  It also encourages corporations not to spend money on the development of better new products as long as they can make consumers buy the same older ones.  Profits go into stock buybacks, which enrich investors and executives, instead of investments in new equipment which would create jobs and better products.  For two years now, the pandemic has made issues like this almost invisible--even in health care, where they are also very important.  I do not know where real change is going to come from.





 

Sunday, January 16, 2022

What the nation is reading

 Looking at Amazon today, I noticed the link for the 100 best-selling books on the site.  I decided to check it out to see what the USA is reading.  I'll confine myself to the top 50--anything more would be too complicated to assess. I have looked at nos. 51-100 and they wouldn't change the pattern significantly.

The top seller on Amazon right now is The Great Reset: Joe Biden and the Rise of 21st Century Fascism, by the radio personality Glenn Beck.  Only four of the top 50 deal with current politics, and two of the others are right-wing propaganda: The Real Anthony Fauci (4) by the anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and American Marxism by Mark Levin.  (Conservatives can choose between analyses of Democrats as either Communists of Fascists.)  The only liberal book about politics is Unthinkable by Congressman Jamie Raskin (22), which combines the story of his personal trauma with an account of January 6, 2001. Some balance is provided, however, by the only work of political history in the top 50, The 1619 Project, about which I have already said plenty in previous posts. It ranks 39th, even though it ranks at the top of the Times combined nonfiction best-seller list this week.  This list includes just one more work of miscellaneous non-fiction, The Office BFFs, an insider history of the TV show of the same name. 

Second on the overall list is a self-help work by James Clear, Atomic Habits.  It's the first of 14 self-help books in the top 50, including Atlas of the Heart  by Brene Brown (6), The Four  Arguments by Don Miguel Ruiz (7), The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, (10) A Little Closer to Home by ABC weatherwoman Ginger Zee (11), and an earlier classic of the genre, Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People (47).  

Leading the fiction category at (4) is It Ends With Us, by the extraordinarily popular young adult/romance author Colleen Hoover.  Hoover has five books in the top 50, far and away the most of any single author, and nearly 1/3 of the 17 novels on the list.  The only classic among them is Orwell's 1984.  Ten of the entries are children's books,  led by My Little Golden Book About Betty White (12). Lastly, there are three cookbooks.

I was hoping this weekend to review Flying Blind, a history of the disastrous decline of Boeing--culminating in two fatal crashes--by Peter Robison.  That will have to wait until next week. It's a very important book, showing how the newly dominant trends of corporate America are wrecking the quality of products on which we depend.  It ranks  #10,491 (hardcover) on Amazon.  I have been living with the impact of the same corporate trends on publishing for the last 20 years in particular.  Their impact is clear from the amazon top 50.   Within another 20 years, serious non-fiction will have become a hobby.

Sunday, January 09, 2022

Presidential communication

On January 6 in Statuary Hall in the Capitol, President Joe Biden gave the  most remarkable speech of his career, commemorating the insurrection of a year ago and condemning Donald Trump's continuing claims of a stolen election.   Like Lincoln's first inaugural and his Gettysburg Address, and like any number of FDR's speeches just before and during the Second World War, the speech dealt above all with a great threat to democracy and the need to preserve it.  Here was Lincoln on March 4, 1861:

"Plainly the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy. A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible. The rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left."

Nearly three years later at Gettysburg, Lincoln restated the aim of the war: to ensure that "government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Throughout his first two terms Franklin Roosevelt boasted that the United States was proving that democracy could deal effectively with the Depression, and in his third inaugural in January 1941 he insisted that democracy was still the wave of the future worldwide:

"No, democracy is not dying.

"We know it because we have seen it revive—and grow.

"We know it cannot die—because it is built on the unhampered initiative of individual men and women joined together in a common enterprise—an enterprise undertaken and carried through by the free expression of a free majority.

"We know it because democracy alone, of all forms of government, enlists the full force of men's enlightened will.

"We know it because democracy alone has constructed an unlimited civilization capable of infinite progress in the improvement of human life.

"We know it because, if we look below the surface, we sense it still spreading on every continent—for it is the most humane, the most advanced, and in the end the most unconquerable of all forms of human society."

President Biden struck a similar note:

"Make no mistake about it: We’re living at an inflection point in history.

"Both at home and abroad, we’re engaged anew in a struggle between democracy and autocracy, between the aspirations of the many and the greed of the few, between the people’s right of self-determination and self- — the self-seeking autocrat. 

"From China to Russia and beyond, they’re betting that democracy’s days are numbered.  They’ve actually told me democracy is too slow, too bogged down by division to succeed in today’s rapidly changing, complicated world.

"And they’re betting — they’re betting America will become more like them and less like us.  They’re betting that America is a place for the autocrat, the dictator, the strongman.

"I do not believe that.  That is not who we are.  That is not who we have ever been.  And that is not who we should ever, ever be."

The rest of Biden's speech, which I urge you all to read in full, fully recognized the extent of the threat to democracy posed by the continuing popularity of Donald Trump--whose name he never mentioned--and the steps Republicans are taking to allow them to alter the results of fair and free elections.  And like the speeches of FDR and Lincoln, it seemed to proclaim a readiness to take whatever steps might be necessary during the next three years to meet that threat. 

Biden, however, labors under an enormous handicap compared to these two great predecessors.  For reasons having very little to do with his personality or ability, his speech did not have 1/10 the impact of theirs, because of changes in the media and the nature of public opinion in the nation that he is trying to hold together.

Virtually every newspaper in the nation in 1861 and most of them in 1863, it is safe to say, printed the full text of Lincoln's inaugural and of the Gettysburg address, and their readers read them because they had little else to do with their free time, and because they, too, were focused on the secession of the South and the war the nation was fighting to try to end it.  Roosevelt's 1941 inaugural was also printed in the nation's leading newspapers in full and broadcast on the radio as well.   In the administration of Harry Truman the president added television to his arsenal of communication weapons, and the televised evening address became the primary means of presidential communication under Nixon.  The extraordinary events of the twentieth century, both abroad and at home, gave the average citizen an sense of investment in the doings of the government, led by the chief executive, and George W. Bush took advantage of that legacy after 9/11--but he used it to set the United States on a disastrous course.  Now the tradition of a generally high level of interest in the president's thoughts and actions seems to be nearly dead.

I did not see President Biden deliver his address. Major networks carried it in full, but he delivered it during the day, when most of us--even writers like myself--were working.  The New York Times, to its great credit, carried it in full, and when I decided to post it on my one social media outlet I found the text on the White House web site, where I linked it above.  I feel confident that a much smaller portion of the population heard or read it than in past eras of crisis.  The White House has already removed the link from its main page, and our attention is now back on the COVID epidemic.  

President Trump, alas, did find a way to command the nation's attention effectively: by tweeting.  His outrageous tweets repeatedly became front page news and the focus of television news stories--just as social media in general have eclipsed newspapers, either in print or online, as the focus of the attention of so many millions of Americans.  Information has become a commodity in the 21st century, and some kinds of information draw more viewers or listeners than others.  We saw a preview of this half a century ago in the first era of television advertising, which featured sound bites and images chosen to arouse emotion, rather than encourage thought.  The tweet  has now replaced the speech or the monthly newsletter as the means by which Senators and Congressmen try to communicate with their constituents.  For the second year in a row, and the second time since 1934, there will be no State of the Union address in January during the week after Congress reconvenes for its second full session.  

Because so many millions of us spend more time with our favorite cable news network, podcasts, or social media platform than we do listening to or reading the words of any elected official, around 40% of the population really does not care what President Biden says--they are Republicans who have written him off.  Nor does he command the kind of loyalty that popular Republican or Democratic presidents have among their own troops--and he has not found a way to secure it.  Regular readers know that I trace the collapse of our politics to the failure of the government to unite us behind some successful foreign or domestic enterprise over the last two decades.  Yet I also wonder whether effective democracy depended on an educated population which, for whatever reason, took the workings of its institutions seriously and took the time necessary to understand what they were doing--as well as a press that took the time to let them know in some detail.  Those ingredients are also lacking, and democracy might not survive without them.

Tuesday, January 04, 2022

A thorough critique of the 1619 project

 Exactly a month ago, I did a post critiquing the defense of the 1619 Project that Jake Silverstein of the Times published to commemorate its new book version.  An historian of slavery and the Civil War period named James Oakes has now published this extremely telling critique of the whole project on a fairly obscure, traditional leftist web site called Catalyst.  Oakes brings to bear a lifetime of study of the issues involved and a real command of the literature on the politics and economics of slavery that has been written over the last century.  I recommend to all interested readers that they read the long piece in detail, but I will summarize what he had to say quickly.

1. The centerpiece of the project--the idea that the it presents a new view of slavery that has only emerged since black scholars got their seat at the academic table in the last few decades--is ridiculous, and an insult to earlier generations of white and black scholars who in fact had investigated the same issues very thoroughly.  Some of the project's arguments have already been raised and rejected based upon evidence.

2.  The project is political, not historical or even journalistic, presenting a very slanted view of history designed explicitly and admittedly to bolster a case for reparations for black Americans.

3.   The project's assertions about the importance of slavery to the pre-1861 American economy are badly overblown, and the sources that the authors cite often do not bear them out.

In a similar but much less wide-ranging criticism of the 1619 Project, the historian Sean Wilentz recently detailed how difficult it had turned out to be for him and other skeptical historians to register their concerns in a mainstream historical journal.   This piece was published on a web site in the Czech Republic.  Oakes's piece should be coming out in the New York Times Magazine as a full-scale rejoinder, or in the New York Review of Books or the American Historical Review or the Journal of American History--but it isn't.  The critics, who include some of our most eminent and accomplished historians, are being marginalized, while the book version of the 1619 project has shot to the top of the New York Times best-seller list.  That is another reason that I am linking this article and asking readers to circulate it further.  We need to make clear that this new imperial regime has no clothes.

Sunday, January 02, 2022

The Crisis over Ukraine

 The crisis over Ukraine, which threatens to escalate into a confrontation between the United States and Russia, and the even more perilous potential crisis over Taiwan, stem from conflicting goals and world views among the three leading powers in the world, the US, Russia, and China.  It is in fact somewhat similar to the crises that set off the 27-year Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in 431 B. C., as so ably recorded by Thucydides the Athenian, one of the founders of modern history.  That crisis grew out of a general war between the Greeks and the Persians, which left the Athenians in a dominant position over much of Greece and the surrounding islands.  This crisis goes back to the end of the Cold War, which left the United States in such an apparently dominant position that our foreign policy elite decided that we were now destined to rule the world. It was the George W. Bush administration that first put that policy into print in its national security strategy and attempted to implement it, with disastrous results, in the Middle East, but that view dominated the Obama administration as well and seems to rule the Biden team--which is really a third Obama administration--as well.  We  have never really had a national debate over this policy, although Donald Trump made very half-hearted attempts to start one, and very few Americans, I suspect, really understand our relationship to the rest of the world and where it might lead.

Some elements of the new policy have been written down--notably in the Bush II administration's national security strategy of 2002--but I don't think any official document or presidential speech has ever laid the whole thing out, the way Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman did on the occasions of the two world wars and the Cold War.  We all remember how we decided in 1989 that the fall of the Soviet Union meant the triumph of capitalist democracy and the final defeat of the alternative ideologies of the twentieth century, but despite Paul Wolfowitz's famous leaked memorandum of 1992, I believe, on the future supremacy of the United States, we do not fully understand what these events meant for our foreign policy elite.  The first Gulf War, authorized by a UN Security Council resolution and carried out with almost the unanimous support the world community, seemed to validate the original hope that the UN would keep the world's peace, but in 1999, when the Security Council would not support war against what was left of Yugoslavia, the United States turned NATO into an offensive alliance.  The question of NATO expansion illustrates what has happened.  NATO was originally an alliance against expansion by the USSR.  When the USSR collapsed and broke apart President George H. W. Bush and James Baker apparently promised not to expand it into the former Soviet empire, but Bill Clinton--a Democrat, of course--decided to do it anyway.  NATO now includes, I believe, the entire former Soviet bloc with the exceptions of Serbia and Kosovo, as well as the former Soviet states of Latvia,. Lithuania, and Estonia.  Defended on the basis of defending democracy, the expansion has been in fact a means of expanding the US sphere of influence to the borders of Belarus and Ukraine.  Meanwhile, several of its members, such as Turkey and Hungary, have cast what democratic traditions they had aside.  In another important development, the US beginning in 2001 has called on NATO members to support military initiatives in other parts of the world, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and they have done so, turning themselves into adjuncts of US policy.  

The Iraq and Afghanistan interventions were part of the  the Bush II administration's crusade to wipe out unfriendly regimes and spread democracy--the natural form of government everywhere, it claimed--in the Muslim world. These initiatives have been disastrous failures, capped by the Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan last year.  The Obama administration nonetheless continued these polices in Libya, where it toppled Qaddafi's regime and created long-term chaos, and in Syria, where it decreed that Assad must go but could not secure that result despite a bloody civil war.   The United States has also continued to punish hostile nations with sanctions, a tradition that goes back to the days of the Cold War.  Saddam Hussein's Iraq suffered from US sanctions for 12 years before the US finally overthrew him.  Iran has faced sanctions for decades--and after the Obama administration promised to lift them as part of the nuclear agreement in 2015, Donald Trump backed out of the agreement and reimposed them. Obama also decided finally to lift sanctions against Cuba that had been in place for more than half a century, but Trump reversed policy there as well. North Korea is also under sanctions because of its nuclear program, and Venezuela also faces them because it has a leftist government.  Russia has also faced sanctions since it annexed Crimea in 2014. 

The Ukraine crisis grows out of the same American policies.  In 2008, in its waning months, the  Bush II administration offered NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia, two former Soviet Republics on Russia's borders. Russia promptly started a brief war against Georgia, and neither government actually tried to join NATO.  The United States has continued to promote democracy and an independent regime in Ukraine, however, and it has provided weaponry to Ukraine to resist the war the Russians started in 2014.  Russia has now massed about 150,000 troops on the Ukraine border, and Putin has demanded that the US give up the idea of NATO expansion.  This we are refusing to do. President Biden has said that American troops will not fight for Ukrainian independence, but he has threatened far more severe sanctions on  Russia if war does break out.  This is quite similar to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, in which Corcyra (Ukraine) asked Athens (the US) for its help in a dispute with Corinth, a Spartan ally (Russia.)  Athens initially limited its help but then joined the battle, and Sparta decided to go to war with Athens at Corinth's side. The rest, as they say, is history.

Meanwhile in the western Pacific, Taiwan--then called Formosa--passed from Japanese occupation to the sovereignty of the Chinese Nationalist government in 1945.  Then in 1949 the Nationalist leadership fled to Taiwan after they lost the civil war to the Communists.  The United States continued to treat them as the legitimate government of all China until 1972, and in 1955 Congress passed a joint resolution pledging the United States to defend Taiwan against a Communist attack.  That, we now know, led us perilously close to war with China, fought by us with atomic weapons, in 1958.  In 1972 President Nixon in the Shanghai Communique affirmed that there was only one China, and in 1979 President Carter abandoned the US defense obligation to Taiwan in order to open diplomatic relations with Communist China.  The US has not recognized Taiwan as an independent state, and indeed the new elected Taiwanese government has not claimed to be so--but it continues to plan the defense of Taiwan against an attack from the mainland.  That in fact has been the main combat mission of the US Navy since the end of the Cold War in Europe.  Many naval officers doubt however that the US would be able to prevent an invasion if the Chinese mounted one. China, meanwhile, is becoming more and more assertive about its rights over Taiwan, and its takeover of Hong Kong over the last year or two represents a new level of aggressiveness.

The United States made its entrance on the world stage in 1917 and became the world's leading power in 1945 calling for an international institution that would defend against aggression and maintain peace.  When in the early stages of the Cold War the USSR prevented the UN from playing that role, the US essentially decided to assume it itself, with the help of any allies it could secure.  When Communism fell the US government assumed new pretentions--ones which neither Russia nor China has ever accepted.  Despite all the setbacks of the last 20 years, Washington has not accepted a world in which our values do not prevail everywhere, and in which powerful nations reject our pre-eminence.  Something, I think, has to give. 

Since 1789 the US has stood for democracy in the world.  For over a century it sought to lead by example, and in 1917 and 1941 it went to war in part of defend other democracies.  It helped spread democracy after that war and did protect it in key areas during the  Cold War.  Now, however, democracy is in retreat, and the US itself is not providing a very inspiring example of it.  Not for the first time, we face the need somehow to scale back our pretensions to fit our actual capabilities.  I see no evidence that any such re-evaluation is taking place right now.