Is America truly ready for another war?
It is surreal that in 2022, the United States is closer than ever to the brink of war with Russia, but here we are. There’s not much to really think about at this point. Russia has placed thousands of soldiers at the Ukrainian border, intelligence reports are warning of an imminent invasion, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is building up deterrence and defense capabilities in Eastern Europe, and potential NATO expansion is now the big flashpoint that could very well lead us into war. Putin has the support of Xi Jinping on the matter, with Xi publicly opposing NATO expansion in solidarity with Putin. Deep down, every war hawk in the United States is cheering internally while panicking externally, likely feeling vindicated for sticking with their harsh, incessant rhetoric for years.
Great power competition has made its return, a relic of an era that many don’t truly know because they weren’t born yet or they’ve just forgotten about it by now. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the United States didn’t exactly know what to do with its place in the world as the only major power left. Foreign policy and war doctrines evolved over the next decade until the next major shock: 9/11. From there, the U.S. cultivated troops into a counterinsurgency force and explored other forms of warfare that were more suited for conflicts with non-state actors. This allowed the U.S. to intervene in other countries’ affairs with a greater degree of efficiency that didn’t require total occupation (but opted for total occupation twice anyway). Of course, counterinsurgency was a mixed bag with many more negatives than positives, but before Americans had time to really reckon with the consequences of that era, interstate power competition has begun to rear its head once again.
With this, Americans really have to grapple with how interconnected everything is. The United States is in an awful spot domestically. Between book burnings in Tennessee, rising rates of crime and costs of living, homelessness, debt, and callous politicians more interested in their paycheck and power than fixing issues impacting millions of Americans, fighting a war may look like it doesn’t alleviate those issues. That’s because it doesn’t. War is a form of foreign policy, albeit the most destructive option. If Americans are choosing to fight a war, it isn’t just for power. It’s for survival, too. But the motives for survival are hard to discern when Americans have been watching their government fight so many pointless wars and intervene in so many conflicts to seemingly no avail for decades.
There are two ideas fundamentally at conflict with each other in U.S. foreign policy. On one hand, Americans want strong relationships and commitments with their allies, an idyllic international system that is beneficial for all who take part in it. On the other hand, Americans want to be the leader of that international system because then they get to shape how people take part in it and put down all those who oppose that system or don't implement the values of the international system the way that the U.S. sees fit. During the Cold War, the U.S. committed atrocities and undermined sovereignties constantly while preaching about how atrocities are bad and sovereignty is good. But ultimately, the collapse of the Soviet Union was vindication for everything the U.S. had done, even if the collapse of the Soviet Union had less to do with U.S. foreign policy and more to do with the Soviet Union’s decaying social and economic conditions through the 1970s and 1980s.
Through the 1990s and the U.S. counterinsurgency era, the American government refined its Cold War-era strategies. Since the Soviet Union, the main power threatening American hegemony, was gone, new opportunities emerged for the U.S. to push even further in its goal to become the ambitious leader of the world. Technological breakthroughs and economic imperialism accelerated this process, and 9/11 sealed the deal by adding even more heavy-handed nationalistic sentiments and reactionary political ideals into the mix.
Now, in 2022, this ambition is being tested in a way that the U.S. has never quite experienced before. The U.S. is no longer the only major economic, technological, or military power. Both the U.S. and its allies have key economic and military partnerships with those rival powers like China and Russia. The U.S. government has willingly shown that it will fight conflicts that don’t need to be fought and engage in nation-building efforts to keep the United States' strategic positioning, continuing to posture themselves as world leaders. Failure to act on this new flashpoint with Ukraine wouldn’t just be a blow to whatever little bit of credibility we have left after our disastrous counterinsurgency era. It would be the final straw to break the hypocritical camel’s back, fully exposing the U.S. as the selfish, egotistical, short-sighted, and reactionary empire that it is.
To be quite honest, I don’t think a lot of Americans will know or understand what to do. Even world leaders don’t know what the best strategy is. The U.S. is truly in dark, murky waters right now, and another war is the last thing people (or at least a good number of people) want. I certainly am one of them. None of us know how this is going to play out, but we have to be ready. Looking at the course of history, war has always been a part of its development. Most of history has been shaped by wars. The U.S. was created by wars, too, whether it was for expansion or survival. Americans can try all they want to move past it with modern sensibilities on peace, conflict, violence, and human rights, but this sensibility is coming too little too late.
Situations like the current predicament with Russia and Ukraine were what America’s alliances, international structures, and foreign policy apparatus were meant to avoid, and whatever Americans do here is going to define the future. The ideal situation is that Russia doesn’t invade Ukraine and the U.S. is able to negotiate another deal with them that would respect Ukrainian sovereignty while acknowledging and addressing both Russia’s and Ukraine’s security concerns, as well as ours. The world rarely works in the ideal way. If Russia does invade and the U.S.-led NATO acts, there will be a war which is deadly, costly, and awful for everyone involved. But if there is no action, then the modern values that have defined international affairs since World War II will truly mean nothing, and it will make the imperialist strategies and visions of U.S. rivals bolder. No matter what your opinion is on the role of the U.S. in the world, I don’t think any American reading this is going to be ready to live in a world where the U.S. isn’t the dominant power, even its most vocal critics. It’s something that is taken for granted, and Americans are now in a lose-lose situation where every option leads to some undesirable outcome. The U.S. is officially at Russia’s mercy, and all Americans can do is hope their government doesn’t mess the situation up further.