I vividly recall the day in November 1989 when the Berlin Wall, the preeminent symbol of the Cold War, was breached. I was then an Army officer serving in West Germany. In the blink of an eye, the world order that I had come to accept as permanent simply vanished.
A new order was emerging. Notables gifted with (or claiming to possess) great political insight and savvy vied with one another in identifying its contours. History had ended. A unipolar order had emerged, with a sole superpower presiding as the “indispensable nation,” the Vietnam War—heretofore a defining event for Americans of my generation—consigned to a footnote in the chronicle of American triumph. No viable alternative to liberal democratic capitalism existed. Replenished and revitalized, the American Century appeared certain to continue indefinitely.
Then, in remarkably short order, complications ensued: wars, a presidential impeachment, 9/11, more war, Hurricane Katrina, the Great Recession, more war, an accelerating environmental crisis, domestic cultural upheaval, Donald Trump, another impeachment, a devastating pandemic, an assault on the US Capitol, and yet another impeachment. With the fall of Kabul on August 15, 2021, events reached a nadir of sorts as the nation’s longest war ever ended in abject failure.
The American Century had, however belatedly, ended. It was Vietnam all over again—only worse. “In the aftermath of Saigon redux,” wrote the New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, “every enemy will draw the lesson that the United States is a feckless power, with no lasting appetite for defending the Pax Americana.” By cravenly pulling US troops out of Afghanistan, Stephens asserted in a previous column, “we are extending our 50-year streak from Vietnam, to Somalia, to Iraq, of being at least as dangerous to our friends as we are to our enemies.” The likely implications were dire. “Retreat needn’t always lead to surrender; but, as Napoleon is reputed to have said, ‘the logical outcome of retreat is surrender.’”
Others agreed. Something definitive and irreversible had occurred. “There’s no polite way to say it,” one observer wrote. “Pax Americana died in Kabul.” The war’s outcome, another wrote, showed that “American exceptionalism always was illusory.” It was the 1970s all over again—or worse still, the 1930s. “A shift toward a more isolationist US foreign policy” was gaining momentum. Allowing the Taliban to prevail in Afghanistan marked not merely the “death of democracy” there but was “reminiscent of the appeasement of Hitler and has started the countdown to World War III.”
Quite a turnabout from the euphoric aftermath of 1989. Here, it appeared, was the “end of history” turned on its head.
Yet as Dinah Washington famously sang, what a difference a day makes. Or, in this case, a few months.
On February 24, 2022, after weeks of muscle-flexing, Russian forces invaded Ukraine. In an instant, with the new war riveting public attention in the United States and throughout the West, Afghanistan was essentially forgotten.
As is so often the case, this new war did not follow its expected course. With the conflict barely begun, Newsweek weighed in with a preliminary verdict. Vladimir Putin “has never lost a war,” it began.
During past conflicts in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria and Crimea over his two decades in power, Putin succeeded by giving his armed forces clear, achievable military objectives that would allow him to declare victory, credibly, in the eyes of the Russian people and a wary, watching world. His latest initiative in Ukraine is unlikely to be any different.
Other analysts concurred. After all, Putin had invested heavily in efforts to modernize the Russian military. Those efforts would now pay off, and Russian troops would make short work of Ukraine’s motley defenders. The results on the current battlefield belied such predictions, however. Thanks to President Volodymyr Zelensky’s inspiring leadership, the fighting spirit of Ukrainian troops, and massive quantities of arms provided by nations intent on denying Putin victory, Ukraine put up a stiff fight.
Equally important in determining the war’s course, and arguably even more surprising, was Russian military incompetence. Four decades before, a snide British journalist had described the Soviet Union as “Upper Volta with rockets”—backward, clumsy, unsophisticated. By 2022, the USSR was gone and the rockets had become more advanced, but as measured by the Russian Army’s performance, the charge still fit.
Nonetheless, more than a few American observers saw in the war evidence that another transformative moment was at hand. Despite (or because of) the fact that US forces played no direct role in the fighting, history was once more taking a sharp turn. And this time, it promised to be for the better.
The Russia-Ukraine War of 2022 is ostensibly nudging history back on track. Francis Fukuyama, the author of the “end of history” thesis, expects a Russian defeat in Ukraine that will “make possible a ‘new birth of freedom,’ and get us out of our funk about the declining state of global democracy.” What Fukuyama refers to as the “spirit of 1989” will thus “live on, thanks to a bunch of brave Ukrainians.”
Writing in The New York Times, David Brooks caught that spirit. The war in Ukraine is having a transformative impact on the United States, he insists. Courageous Ukrainians are bearing witness to “what it looks like to believe in democracy, the liberal order and national honor but also to act bravely on behalf of these things.” Fighting to defend their country, they remind Americans that “patriotism is ennobling, a source of meaning and a reason to risk life.” Brooks credited pale-skinned and fair-haired Ukrainians with inspiring and instructing Americans, in ways that dusky Afghans (not to mention South Vietnamese) never did. “They’ve shown us that the love of a particular place, their own land and people, warts and all, can be part and parcel of a love for universal ideals, like democracy, liberalism and freedom.” In the resistance mounted by plucky Ukrainians, Brooks could see the potential of something akin to a much-needed cultural revolution (or counterrevolution) at home.
The war also brightened Bret Stephens’s mood. Gone was the near despair triggered by the embarrassing spectacle in Kabul. In a column headlined “This Is a Moment for America to Believe in Itself Again,” he characterized “the crisis of Ukraine, which is really a crisis of the West,” as an opportunity for Americans to return to their redeeming work. Forgotten were the 50 years of fecklessness: Ukraine’s war was America’s war. As if intent on erasing even the memory of Afghanistan, Stephens wrote that whenever and wherever the United States had fought, “it was for grand moral purposes, not avaricious aims.”
“Grand” and “moral” are not terms typically associated with America’s war in Afghanistan. Even so, virtually overnight, the acolytes of American power were hailing the war in Ukraine as signaling the coming restoration of a global Pax Americana. As for Afghanistan: Fuhgettaboutit!
From the analysts’ perspectives, the war in Ukraine is both awful and good news, to be denounced and also welcomed. According to Pankaj Mishra in the London Review of Books, “Putin’s atrocities in Ukraine have now given” that establishment “an opportunity to make America seem great again.” No heavy lifting required; certainly no sacrifice on the part of American citizens—just conveniently edited memories.
Casting the conflict in terms of “our” freedom situates it in a more familiar and gratifying narrative. While visiting Warsaw, President Biden made this claim the centerpiece of his impassioned address. “The darkness that drives autocracy,” he declared, “is ultimately no match for the flame of liberty that lights the souls of free people everywhere.” As Biden sees it, the war in Ukraine is not about one nation’s determination to defend itself. It’s about preserving the flame of liberty for free people everywhere, with the conduct and recent outcome of the Afghanistan War irrelevant to the case at hand.
In the present moment, reviving this hallowed Truman/Kennedy/Reagan/Bush II Doctrine requires pretty fancy footwork. For starters, it means ignoring various and sundry inconvenient facts about Ukraine’s own history and about the course of US policy both during and after the Cold War. But members of the foreign policy establishment have long displayed an aptitude for picking and choosing among facts they deem worthy of notice. An ability to remember and forget selectively is a prerequisite for being admitted into their ranks.
Any person with a modicum of decency will hope and pray that Ukraine prevails in this hideous conflict. Yet while Americans should welcome the prospect of Ukrainian victory, the consequences for US policy are unlikely to be cause for celebration.
Most embarrassingly for American policy-makers, the failure of Putin’s “special operation” exposes the overall Russian “threat” as essentially fraudulent. Barring a suicidal nuclear attack, Russia poses no danger whatsoever to the United States. (Emphasis added for the slow-witted.) Nor does it pose a meaningful threat to Europe. An army stymied in its efforts to overcome the scratch force cobbled together to defend Ukraine won’t get very far should the Kremlin choose to attack the European members of NATO. The Russian bear has effectively defanged itself.
Even so, count on Washington to interpret the Russia-Ukraine War as demonstrating the imperative of militant American globalism. Indeed, with the war’s outcome still in the balance, The New York Times has already reported with satisfaction that “the United States has reclaimed a mantle of leadership that some feared had vanished in Iraq and Afghanistan”—this, amazingly enough, the consequence of a war in which US forces have not fired a shot or suffered a single casualty. Not since the mujahideen forced the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan in the 1980s has a proxy war paid such handsome dividends to a great power that remained safely on the sidelines.
Back then, the sidelines offered a modicum of safety. But by embarking upon its own military follies, the United States wasted little time in squandering whatever it had accrued at the Kremlin’s expense. That this pattern of recklessness may recur today looms as a real possibility.
Reclaiming the mantle of military leadership, for example, is already justifying further increases in Pentagon spending. It may well revive the United States’ post–Cold War penchant for armed intervention. And most significantly, it is likely to provide a rationale for embarking upon a “new cold war” with China. In short, the broad outlines of US policy following the Russia-Ukraine War will revert to what they were when the prior Cold War was just getting underway in the late 1940s.
For some—especially the military-industrial complex and its beneficiaries—this will come as good news. For others, notably anyone who believes that the climate crisis, among other concerns closer to home, poses a greater proximate threat to our collective well-being than China, this will come as an unwelcome development. To wager that intensified military competition with China—the third-largest US trading partner—will provide an antidote to Trumpism and revive the American Century is to place a very risky bet indeed.
Put simply, we have seen this movie before. The most recent version, dating from 9/11, ostensibly marked the end of America’s “holiday from history,” the troops (if not the nation) thereafter marching off to a series of misguided wars. In Kabul in the summer of 2021, that movie reached its dismal conclusion. Now, when the credits have barely finished flickering across the screen, foreign policy insiders, having learned little and remembered even less, are proposing a sequel. Don’t expect them to foot the bill for producing it.