Tuesday, March 15, 2022

An "America First" Foreign Policy Supports Ukraine Against Russia

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.


clifford said...


I cannot understand the Claremont crowd on this. The behavior of some of the Claremount Institute/Hillsdale people on this has been horrible. I have got into many nasty fights over this. The name calling of me as a quisling,and a neocon shill, because I think US honor requires keeping our word to those whom we give security guarantee to.

Angelo was never a fan of Trump and I have yet to read the final book. But the direction the taste of the book published at American Mind and other items published there and American Greatness (A ezeen I still respect and have hooe for, as it prints stuff from Conrad Black and Victor Davis Hanson) reads more like LewRockwell.com and the old right isolationism of Ron Paul.

I would argue that many of the younger Claremont/Hillsdale crowd have been caught of the spell of Bronze Age Pervet and voices like him and Curtis Yarvin who see the central issue being the overthrow of the hegemonic rule of neoliberal global elites.. and they see Ukraine as a distraction from that fight.

However, I think You are unfair to call what the Claremont crowd is advocate is Trump's foreign policy position. Actually Trump would argue that the US needed to act far more aggressively and decisively towards Putin. Here your dislike of Trump and the paying attention to what he says and not paying attention to what he did. If it was not for the Trump team the Ukranian national guard units would not have been trained by us special forces. They would not have trained in US antitake systems, and trained combate radio and coms and giving them the resources to allow even the national guard u its to get such comms gear. I know this first hand, Larry.

Also the PiS government which you thought were pro-Putin, getting your info from Ann Applebaum (whose now tries to give cover for her husband and his corrupt support for the kleptocrats and the Germans economic interests who finance that party), is leading helping the Ukranians fight the Russians and challenging the rest of Europe to get in the fight.

I just wanted to write this. It is after 1am here in Warsaw but I wanted to post this before going to bed.

Larry Arnhart said...

In my exchange with Glenn Elmers in the comments section of the previous post, I have said that the mistake of the Claremont/Hillsdale folks is in assuming that the Monroe Doctrine is a sufficient foundation for American foreign policy today. Jaffa certainly did not believe that. But Jaffa was also right to condemn the U.S. invasion of Iraq to promote democracy as imprudent utopianism. American and European aid for the Ukrainians in this war is not utopian, and it's in the national interest of America.

clifford said...

Larry, It is your last line that I take issue with "This is the moral nihilism of Trumpian foreign policy." What you take issue with is Codevilla, Shideler, and the Claremont Institute position, not Trump's. Trump, in his words and deeds, does not agree with Codevilla, Shideler, and the Claremont Institute people's Moral Nihilism.

I too share your view that Jaffa would be cheering for how the Ukrainians are showing the world what civic spirit and a willingness to defend your home.

Also, the mistake you are doing is making this debate about liberal democracy vs. illiberal democracy--here you have fallen into a false dichotomy created by the left and pushed by many neoconservatives. This is about self-determination and the right to self-governance (aka its about the consent of the governed). It's about republican self-government vs human rights liberalism on steroids (which leads to trans-rights, transhumanism, destruction of the family, etc, or the unleashing of the forces of individualization that demoralize and reduce human beings into slaves or that was what Tocqueville warned would happen). I argue that the Declaration is not about pushing global human rights of neoliberal internationalism, but rather the right of people to govern themselves within the institutions and frames of government they chose to establish to govern them.