Has the Invasion of Ukraine Made Us All Neoconservatives Now?

Strong U.S. and EU responses are a marked departure from their previous anti-interventionist foreign policies

A neoconservative revival? The U.S. and EU are implementing hawkish foreign policies similar to that of the George W. Bush era. Image Credit: Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

The past week has seen the most remarkable upheaval in international relations in at least 20 years.

All the usual behavior you would expect from the usual players has been upended by the invasion of Ukraine. The Germans have canceled Nord Stream 2 and set out to reverse their energy dependence on Russia—a price we all thought they would never be willing to pay—while tripling their defense spending. Sweden is sending anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, abandoning its neutrality for the first time since it aided Finland against the Soviets in 1939. The Swedes and Finns are talking about joining NATO. The International Olympic Committee, which wouldn’t fully cut off Russia’s athletes after they were caught doping, is finally doing so. The Swiss are freezing the bank accounts of the Russian “oligarchs” who prop up the Putin regime—and where can the world’s supervillains hide their money, if not in a Swiss bank account? Above all else, the European Union is showing bold and decisive leadership, which had previously seemed like a metaphysical impossibility.

This war is turning things upside down in U.S. politics, too. Attitudes to foreign policy that had turned inward-looking and anti-interventionist, on both the left and the right, are now giving way to hawkishness. About 70% of Americans favor sanctions against Russia, with only 20% opposed. Negative views of Russia have risen back to Cold War levels, and for a change, Democrats are somewhat more hawkish than Republicans.

So, are we all neoconservatives now? The term is a contentious and highly inaccurate label—a whole distinctive philosophy that is not synonymous with hawkishness. But in the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and particularly during the U.S. war in Iraq, “neocon” became the label or epithet used by many on the left, and eventually adopted by anti-interventionists on the right, to describe a suite of views on foreign policy. To the panicked alarm of some of those critics on the right, these views are now making a roaring comeback. And they should, because they are now being vindicated by events.

Liberal Democracy Matters

Three big ideas from the George W. Bush years are worth salvaging. The first is that regime type matters. There is an old so-called realist theory of international relations in which world events are driven by considerations that have little to do with the type of government a country has. Countries are driven by security concerns, by economic interests, by ethnic identity, by historical conceptions of their “sphere of influence.” In this realist view, to focus on values such as individual rights and promotion of democracy is a self-indulgent distraction. In place of this foolish idealism, we should pursue a kind of amoral realpolitik that seeks to craft an enduring balance of power that satisfies the competing interests of regimes of all types.

In the current case, that theory has foundered on the fact that Ukraine is not a mere bargaining chip to be traded back and forth in negotiations between larger powers. Ukraine is a country full of people who were busy making their own decisions about what kind of government they wanted to have. Regime type surely matters to them.

The roots of the current conflict go back to 2004, when Ukrainians took to the streets in a successful protest against a Kremlin puppet leader’s attempt to rig the presidential election to stay in power. When that same leader later wormed his way back into power in 2014, Ukrainians rose up again to protest his attempt to draw Ukraine into an alliance with Vladimir Putin’s Russia and pull it away from the European Union. Putin’s subsequent invasion of Crimea and the Donbas, and his buildup to the current, larger invasion, were a response to that rejection.

Everything that led up to this war happened because Ukrainians decided they wanted one model of government, the Western model of liberal democracy, over the Putinist model of authoritarian kleptocracy. More to the point, the nature of Russia’s regime also helped push it toward war. Putin viewed Ukraine as a threat precisely because it was a liberal competitor and a haven for dissidents that showed the Russian people an alternative to his corrupt rule. The desire to maintain his kleptocracy gave Putin the motive for attacking Ukraine. His authoritarianism gave him the means, allowing him to quash dissent and outlaw domestic protest against an obviously disastrous war.

Resist Authoritarian Regimes

The second Bush-era idea that we need to reclaim is the need to resist dictatorship early and often, to react to threats when they are seemingly small or remote, rather than emboldening dictators by the repeated inaction of the civilized world. This was the “forward” part of Bush’s Forward Strategy of Freedom.

Why was Putin so confident that Western sanctions against Russia would be ineffectual and quickly dropped? Because that’s what happened after all his previous acts of aggression. Why does he think, even now, that he can grind Ukraine under his heel by the sheer force of terror, using rocket and artillery bombardments to reduce civilian population centers to rubble? Because that’s what he did in Chechnya, and that’s what he has spent the past 10 years helping the Syrians do to their country—and nobody ever stepped up to stop him. As Europe discovered in the 1930s, repeated attempts to avoid war by ignoring or appeasing the aggressors only make a larger and bloodier war more likely by emboldening the dictators.

The Syrian precedent is particularly relevant because this was a turning point for America’s own descent into an anti-interventionist funk. The key moment occurred in the fall of 2013, when President Obama sought congressional authorization to strike against the Assad regime in Syria, and Republicans led the way in refusing him. To be fair, Obama’s approach was half-hearted, and the intervention he proposed was too small to accomplish anything, so it’s no mystery why he couldn’t rally a bipartisan coalition. But that moment shook up the old foreign policy alignments and allowed anti-interventionists to gain the ascendancy they have since enjoyed within the right. Yet if the U.S. had acted to stop Assad and his Russian allies then, would Putin think he could get away with the same tactics today?

By the same token, the war in Ukraine may have already saved Taiwan from the immediate prospect of a Chinese invasion. After the disastrous American withdrawal from Afghanistan, China had been expressing a new and belligerent confidence about its prospects for retaking Taiwan by force. Chinese leaders clearly had concluded that being an ally or client of the United States was not all it’s cracked up to be and that we would abandon Taiwan if it were attacked. Now they have to revise all of those calculations: Taiwan’s resistance may be stronger than they are expecting, China’s own forces may not perform as well as expected and, above all, the international reaction may be far too damaging to China.

This is one reason why Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia—small states living in Russia’s shadow on the Baltic Sea—have recently been reinforcing their alliance with Taiwan half a world away. They recognize that if one country is able to fend off the aggression of a neighboring dictatorship, it becomes easier for all other free nations to do so.

A New Freedom Agenda

That brings us to the last big idea that recent events have vindicated: the universal appeal of freedom. When it became fashionable to dismiss George W. Bush-era foreign policy idealism, the idea that probably came in for the most mockery was Bush’s confidence that, as he more recently put it, “The desire for freedom, like the dignity of the person, is universal.” I don’t know whether the desire for freedom is universal; there are plenty of bootlickers who serve as the willing tools of a strongman. But the need for freedom is universal, and its appeal cuts across every national and ethnic barrier.

Consider the current situation. In reaction to the invasion of Ukraine, Europe is more united than it has ever been in its entire history. A continent riven over the millennia by countless territorial wars of conquest is now united in revulsion against a territorial war of conquest. What united them, if not the common ideal of a liberal democratic society?

The appeal of a free society is a powerful force that can reshape the world and break it out of its historical patterns of hatred, violence and oppression. We began to grasp that truth in the euphoric days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but then we doubted it during the “freedom recession” that followed, in which countries like Russia lapsed back into dictatorship. Now we are starting to see that the power of political liberalism as an ideal is far from spent.

The response to the current crisis indicates the need for a new version of Bush’s “freedom agenda,” a new foreign policy—reformed and revised in the light of recent experience—that is centered around the need to defend free societies, to promote the ideals of liberalism and to act firmly to thwart and undermine dictatorship wherever it rears its ugly head.

There is a natural pattern in democracies where we tend to overreact to events, make mistakes, experience the consequences of those mistakes and then correct back in the other direction. America’s anti-interventionist funk of the past 10 to 15 years was clearly a mistake, and now events in the real world are shaking us out of our torpor and prompting us to rethink it.

As a friend recently put it, “I do not think it’s just fine and dandy if Russia invades and conquers its neighbors, so I guess I’m a neocon now.” He meant it sardonically, as a way of bristling at the false alternative offered to him by the dogmatic anti-interventionists. But I invite everyone to take this as an opportunity to reevaluate the case against vigorous American leadership in the world, and to take seriously the key ideas that have been vindicated by the Russian attack on Ukraine.

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