Friday, February 25, 2022

Invasion of Ukraine and the Rise of America's Isolationists

Interesting piece, from Zoe Strimpel, at Bari Weiss's SubStack, "America Is Afraid of War. Putin Knows It":

The problem is not just that the United States has, over the past two decades, waged two unsuccessful wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nor is it just that Americans are tired of fighting and don’t care about the former Soviet Union, although there’s some of that. (In a poll just released by the Associated Press, just 26 percent of Americans say the U.S. should play a major role in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.) Nor is it just that Joe Biden is a weak president who lacks the energy needed to do battle with the likes of Vladimir Putin. (See, for example, the statement Biden put out shortly after the invasion was announced.)

It’s that the United States seems to have forgotten the point of waging, or threatening to wage, war. Peace is earned through strength. We can’t ask for it. We can’t talk our way into it. We can’t simply impose (or lift) sanctions. We have to achieve it by threatening—credibly—to pummel into oblivion anyone who gets in the way.

There is a reason that Teddy Roosevelt’s famous 1901 pronouncement—“Speak softly, and carry a big stick”—has become something of a cliché. It’s because it works.

This used to be understood, or taken for granted, not only in Washington but in London, Paris and every other NATO capital. That is no longer the case—in no small part because both left and right, while moving further apart from each other in almost every other respect, have converged on a shared neo-isolationism. Today, almost no one in any position of authority is willing to make a moral argument for going to war.

If you grew up in the second half of the 20th century, during the Cold War or immediately after, you heard often about America being the world’s policeman. During this time, Britain watched its empire collapse and the American empire, which the Americans never called an empire, rise. America promised to respect freedom, democracy and minority rights, and it backed that up with force: a sprawling conventional army, a vast navy, thousands of fighter jets, a nuclear umbrella that extended across the West.

I felt the safety of this promise keenly as a child in London. Most of my extended family had been decimated by the Third Reich, and the idea of a liberal and humane controlling authority was enormously reassuring.

Of course, America had many faults. There were plenty of Vietnamese who did not regard it as a beacon of freedom. The same was true in large pockets of Latin America and Africa. And it was haunted still by slavery. It had gotten much wrong, at home and overseas.

But still. America was the crown jewel of the West, the culmination of a 2,500-year-old evolution that stretched back to the Athenian polis. It had hurtled human progress forward, created gleaming skylines and world-renowned universities and an American Dream that—amazingly—was open to the entire world. It was an invitation to everyone. At the heart of all this was a new kind of civilization that transcended ancient bloodlines and tribal affiliations. It was rooted in the Enlightenment, and its radical promise—that all men are created equal—offered dignity and hope. It was held together by a democratic tradition, an individualism that was rugged but tempered by a sense of community and duty, and the rule of law.

All of this is blindingly obvious but has become almost embarrassing to say out loud. That’s because we no longer know who we are or why it matters...