I had to roll my eyes when I read David Leonhardt’s “Morning” in the New York Times last week.
“Russia’s threat to invade Ukraine,” he wrote, “has added a layer to the relationship between Moscow and Beijing. The threat reflects Putin’s view — which Xi shares — that a powerful country should be able to impose its will within its declared sphere of influence. The country should even be able to topple a weaker nearby government without the world interfering. Beside Ukraine, of course, another potential example is Taiwan.”
Nowhere in the rest of the column does Leonhardt mention that the U.S. insisted on the same right nearly two centuries ago. The Monroe Doctrine, named after President James Monroe, staked out the Americas as the sphere of influence of the U.S. It warned the colonial powers of Europe that they were no longer welcome there. It was “our backyard,” not theirs.
Moreover, this doctrine quickly became the political-legal architecture, legitimizing U.S. military intervention in the internal affairs of countries in Central and South America, if our “national interests” required it. Not surprisingly, more than a few presidents exercised that “right” in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.
But the story doesn’t end here.
Out of the unimaginable death and destruction of WWII, the U.S. emerged as the preeminent power in the world. And in that position, it quickly declared itself the leader of the “free world – its new sphere of influence – and ascribed to itself the right to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries anywhere in the world.
Which it proceeded to do countless times, nearly always in the name of “freedom and democracy” and “fighting communism.” But it wasn’t always successful in its mission. More than once the interventionist (and counterrevolutionary) plans of the White House, Pentagon, and CIA ran up against popular movements demanding their right to choose their own path of development.
We saw this in Cuba, where a U.S. military invasion in 1962 was repelled by the new government led by Fidel Castro. A few years later the Vietnamese people led by Ho Chi Minh in a bitter and costly war vanquished the U.S. military machine and won what was most precious to them – their national independence. And then there was Operation Iraqi Freedom decades later that was met with massive resistence, sacrificed the blood and treasure of people on all sides, and left Iraq and that region of the world unstable and, at times, chaotic.
Leonhardt is a smart guy and surely knows this sorry and bloody history, not to mention the decision of successive administrations in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union to extend NATO eastward to the borders of Russia. But that doesn’t prevent him from writing as if Putin’s and Xi’s insistence on their own sphere of influence represents something without precedent, an entirely new page in world politics.
Now I’m not suggesting that Russia or China have any more right to a sphere of influence (which by their nature circumscribe the sovereignty and independence of other states) than the U.S. does. Nor am I unaware that Putin is an autocrat who has imperial ambitions of his own. But it doesn’t follow that Russia and China have no legitimate national security interests in their respective regions of the world. To dismiss them, as U.S. policy makers – and successive administrations – have, is egregiously irresponsible. It endangers world peace, as we are seeing.
To defuse the present standoff, I’m not expecting Biden to announce the pullback of NATO to its 1991 borders. Such a retreat, even if he were so inclined – and he isn’t, would be, in his mind, politically suicidal for him as well as Congressional Democrats up for election this fall. Is there any doubt that it would be seized upon and exploited by Republicans and the whole Trumpist movement in the same way that the pullout from Afghanistan was?
I believe that the intermediation of the UN at this moment is unrealistic too.
So what is the way out of this dangerous confrontation that, if not peaceably resolved, could have unintended and catastrophic consequences for tens of millions?
It lies in the hands of Biden and Putin. If they are imaginative and sober minded they can find ways to defuse the present situation and retreat from their present positions in such a way that both sides can declare victory.
Facilitating such an outcome, even if it is late, should be what is presently missing – an aroused people and elected representatives in both countries, insisting on a resolution that protects the territorial and political integrity of Ukraine, while demoblizing troops on all sides and acknowledging the legitimate security concerns of Russia.
In the meantime, each of us should let President Biden and Congress know that war is unacceptable and unnecessary.