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.