The Trumpian advocates of an "America First" foreign policy--like those at the Claremont Institute--have been arguing that it's not in the national interest of America to take the side of Ukraine against Russia. But there is a good argument for saying that it really is in America's national interest to support Ukraine.
In my previous post, I wrote about Angelo Codevilla's essay recently published by the Claremont Institute. Yesterday, the Claremont Institute published a new essay by Kyle Shideler. Both essays suggest that an America First foreign policy based on the Monroe Doctrine should teach us that the U.S. should not get involved in the war in Ukraine. But as I have studied these statements, they seem confusing and even incoherent; and some of what they say suggests that intervening on the side of Ukraine serves American interests.
There are at least three questions here. First, does Russian expansionist autocracy threaten the interests of the United States? Codevilla and Shideler generally say no. But some of what they write suggests that the answer might be yes.
Codevilla can say both yes and no in one paragraph: "Although today's Russia poses none of the ideological threats that the communist Soviet Union did (and though we have no directly clashing interests with it), Russia is clearly a major adversary in Europe and the Middle East. Its technical contributions to China's military, and its general geopolitical alignment with China, are most worrisome for the United States."
So which is it? Do "we have no directly clashing interests" with Russia? Or is Russia "a major adversary" and "most worrisome for the United States"?
On the one hand, Codevilla says that "Russia is no more willing to conquer Europe than it is able." On the other hand, he stresses Russia's offensive capabilities for fighting in Europe: "its operational doctrine since World War II calls for taking the initiative in a preemptive, massive, decisive manner. In these prospective conflicts, the Russians would use the S-400 air/missile defense system to isolate U.S./NATO forces by air, as well as strikes (or threat thereof) by the nuclear-capable Iskander missile to cut them off on the ground. Their ground forces, led by Armata tanks, the world's best, would then press to make them prisoners."
So, again, which is it? Is Russia an offensive threat to U.S./NATO forces or not?
But then, since both Codevilla and Shideler assume that an America First doctrine is based on the Monroe Doctrine, which says that America's interest is in defending its hegemony in the Western Hemisphere, while avoiding any entanglements in Europe, they imply, although they do not explicitly say so, that it's not in America's national interest to be a member of NATO and thus obligated to defend every NATO country against attack.
This raises my second question: Is the Monroe Doctrine a sufficient foundation for American foreign policy today? Both Codevilla and Shideler say yes. But they also say a lot that suggests no.
Shideler says that America has "an interest in preventing the rise of a power consolidating all Northwestern Europe, the Pacific Rim, or the Middle East, as such a power could hamper or deny our ability to engage in commerce, and likewise harm us." Through the early history of the American Republic, he observes, the British Empire secured these interests by serving as an offshore balancer on mainland Europe, so that no state could become so powerful as to achieve regional hegemony on the continent. But then with the weakening and collapse of the British Empire, the U.S. had to take the role of offshore balancer. Realists like John Mearsheimer would say this explains why it became a national interest for America to intervene in European wars to check the rising power of Imperial Germany (in World War I), Nazi Germany (in World War II), Imperial Japan (in World War II), and the Soviet Union (in the Cold War). Do Codevilla and Shideler agree with this? If they do, then they have rejected the Monroe Doctrine as insufficient for today.
Codevilla observes: "As always, Ukraine is where Russia's domestic and foreign policy intersect. With Ukraine (and the Baltic states), Russia is potentially a world power. Without it, much less." If that is true, and if it is true that it's in America's national interest to prevent Russia from becoming a world power, then the U.S. needs to intervene on the side of Ukraine, and thus set aside the Monroe Doctrine.
But then we need to be clear about what we mean by America's national interest. And that leads to my third question: Are America's interests morally right?
Shideler seems to affirm a moral relativism in foreign policy that would say no:
"to recognize that Russia has long opposed the expansion of Western power into its near abroad is not the same as defending its security claims. And recognizing the Russian demand in no way denies Ukraine's own interest in preventing itself from being dominated by its larger neighbor. To recognize the interests of one nation is not to deny the interests of another, nor does it make a moral claim as to which set of interests are 'right' or 'wrong.'"
Shideler also says, however, that American national interests include "preserving the way of life, beliefs, and distinctiveness" of America, and "that distinctiveness is based, in part, upon shared principles, articulated in our Declaration of Independence."
But then, of course, the Declaration of Independence does make a moral claim as to which set of interests are right or wrong: the natural rights of all men to equal liberty are naturally right, and tyranny is naturally wrong. Judging by those distinctively American, and yet also universal principles, the interest of Ukraine in liberal democracy is right, and the interest of Russia in illiberal autocracy is wrong. Consequently, an America First foreign policy really does support Ukraine against Russia.
But, apparently, Codevilla, Shideler, and the Clarement Institute disagree. They say that in international conflicts over national interests, we cannot make a moral claim that any of these interests is "right" or "wrong."
Vitaliy Kim is governor of the Mykolaiv region of Ukraine. The port city of Mykolaiv is shelled by the Russians every day. Bodies pile up at the morgue.
"Good morning. We're from Ukraine." This is typically the beginning of Kim's morning video message that is watched by most of the people of Mikolaiv.
A few days ago, his message was: "What can I say, the 17th day of war, all is well, the mood is excellent. We have freedom, and we're fighting for it. And all they have is slavery. . . . Together to victory."
If Harry Jaffa were alive today, he would be cheering them on by comparisons with Winston Churchill. Instead, the spokesmen for the Claremont Institute tell us that there is no "right" or "wrong" here.
This is the moral nihilism of Trumpian foreign policy.