"The United States, thus far in a less bloody way, is also involved in a war it chose but cannot exit—in this case, for fear of undermining the international system from which it has drawn its power and prosperity for the past three quarters of a century."
On March 24, a month after Russian tanks rolled across Ukraine’s borders, the Biden White House summoned America’s partners (as its allies are now called) to a civilizational crusade. The administration proclaimed its commitment to those affected by Russia’s recent invasion—“especially vulnerable populations such as women, children, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTQI+) persons, and persons with disabilities.” At noon that same day, Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted about the “massive, unprecedented consequences” American sanctions were wreaking on Russia, and claimed Russia’s economic “collapse” was imminent.
Never has an official non-belligerent been more implicated in a war. Russia and its sympathizers assert that the U.S. attempt to turn Ukraine into an armed anti-Russian camp is what the war is about in the first place. Even those who dismiss this view will agree that the United States has made itself a central player in the conflict. It is pursuing a three-pronged strategy to defeat Russia through every means short of entering the war—which, of course, raises the risk that the United States will enter the war. One prong is the state-of-the-art weaponry it is supplying to Ukraine. Since June, thousands of computer-guided artillery rockets have been wreaking havoc behind Russian lines. A second prong is sanctions. With western European help, Washington has used its control of the choke points of the global marketplace to impoverish Russians, in hopes of punishing Russia. Finally, the U.S. seeks to rally the world’s peoples to a culture war against an enemy whose traditionalism, even if it does not constitute the whole of his evil, is at least a symbol of it.
It would be foolish to bet against the United States, a mighty global hegemon with a military budget 12 times Russia’s. Yet something is going badly off track. Russia’s military tenacity was to be expected—bloodying and defeating more technologically advanced armies has been a hallmark of Russian civilization for 600 years. But the economic sanctions, far from bringing about the collapse Blinken gloated over, have driven up the price of the energy Russia sells, strengthened the ruble, and threatened America’s western European allies with frostbite, shortages, and recession. The culture war has found few proponents outside of the West’s richest latte neighborhoods. Indeed, cultural self-defense may be part of the reason India, China, and other rising countries have conspicuously declined to cut economic ties with the Russians.
There have been signs for years that a new Iron Curtain was about to drop on the European continent. In 2008, the U.S. announced plans to bring certain non-Baltic republics of the former Soviet Union—notably Ukraine and Georgia—into NATO and the American sphere of influence. Should Ukraine prevail in this proxy war the U.S. will have succeeded, in a way. But it will have done so at an almost unspeakable price. It will have undermined the international economic architecture on which rests its control of global markets (and its ability to safely run government deficits). It will have carried out a shotgun wedding of Russia and China, forcing the most natural-resource-rich country on the planet into the arms of the West’s most dangerous adversary. Should Ukraine fail, the Ukraine policy of the Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations will be counted among the significant foreign policy blunders in American history.