Loudmouth politicians and their armchair equivalents on cable television have spent the last few months railing against the “march to war” in Ukraine. No, not Putin’s. America’s. The facts be damned, a determined peace party has clamored to make the case to the nation and the president that America has no business in that faraway country now in Moscow’s gunsights. (See David French’s fine piece about this here.) Among the reams of data apparently unavailable to the peace party is the fact that increasingly, the United States is not in the business of trying to make the world a better place. And when America gives up on its global democratic mission, cui bono? Among others, Vladimir Putin.
Arguably, for much of its history—with notable exceptions—the U.S. has been a revisionist power. Since its founding, pace John Quincy Adams, America has been all about democracy—at home, abroad, in principle, and in practice. That hasn’t meant expeditionary forces spanning the globe, except when it has. But it has meant standing for a different, better model of governance. Yes, during the interwar years, Congress and the people were emphatically uninterested in being a shining light unto the world. Ditto after Vietnam (and whatever you think of that war, its aims were certainly in line with the fight for freedom).
Many have expressed the hope that the United States is in another lull, looking inward post-Afghanistan, post-COVID, post-fill-in-the-blank. But the reality is that America’s preoccupation with itself, and “nation building here at home” far predates the pandemic and began in earnest in the latter years of the George W. Bush presidency. It lasted into the Barack Obama years, with Donald Trump then doubling down on Obamaian isolationism. Even vaunted foreign policy graybeard Joe Biden made clear he was done with America abroad in his disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan.
In the post-World War II era, there has been only one major benign revisionist power: the United States. If America has decided to hang up its wings and settle into the comfortable couch of status-quo power, then who is left? Naturally, the perennial revisionists, the tyrants with views of a larger domain, a sense of their own personal and ideological destiny; in short, the bad guys. And that is very bad news for every single American, whether he or she is determined to ignore Ukraine, Taiwan, Iran, North Korea, and every other flashing red light out there in the wide world.