The Ukraine War Isn't about Democracy. It's about States Seeking More Power.
Writing for The Volokh Conspiracy, hosted by Reason magazine, George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin argues that the war in Ukraine amounts to a clash between liberal democracy and authoritarian nationalism and that these stakes must be taken into account when continuing to support Ukraine.
Somin argues that the ideology of the winning side in a war receives a boost, pointing to the rise and then fall of fascism and communism. These examples are lacking, to say the least, and hardly prove that a wartime victory necessarily leads to the triumph of the winner’s ideology.
To begin with, Somin’s own examples of the rise of communism and fascism seem to refute his own point. The more or less liberal democratic Entente powers won the First World War, but rather than seeing liberal democracies empowered, we saw them fall to the forces of fascism and national socialism.
Alternatively, the Bolsheviks hardly had a ringing victory in the First World War. Rather, the Communists handed over vast swathes of land to the Central Powers to withdraw from the war, were then embroiled in a drawn-out and brutal civil war, and eventually had their invasion of Poland crushed by the nascent Polish state.
Undoubtedly, global communism received a boost after the establishment of the Soviet Union, but one can’t deny that this was at least partly due to the USSR’s support for communist subversives around the world.
Or take the Cold War. With the USSR’s collapse into a rusty heap, one might expect that the triumphant Western democracies would have been joined by the rest of the world based on Somin’s theory. Despite declarations of the end of history, that has hardly happened.
One merely needs to look at who is and who is not sanctioning Russia right now to see that the victorious ideology is hardly guaranteed to be swarmed by new friends eager to hop on the bandwagon.
Rather than the war’s being primarily an ideological struggle between the forces of good and evil, there is a more sensible and sound explanation for why the war is being fought, which in turn alters how one views what is at stake; that explanation is found in how states seek to advance their own interests and power, or what we might call “national interest.”
By now many readers are likely familiar with the offensive realist interpretation of the crisis, and then full blown war, in Ukraine offered by John Mearsheimer in 2014 in Foreign Affairs and later in a YouTube lecture that has since been viewed over twenty-eight million times. In short, Mearsheimer argues that the Western powers are responsible for the crisis because they ignored Russian national interests and security concerns, notably offering future North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) membership to both Georgia and Ukraine at the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest.
Russia was outraged by this and made its displeasure known, first by verbal protestations and later by invading Georgia.
This threatened NATO expansion continued a trend since the end of the Cold War of ignoring both Russian state interests and American experts who predicted the very crisis that we are in now. George Kenan stated in 1998 that NATO expansion would lead to a new cold war. Similarly, former ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock, stated, “NATO expansion was the most profound strategic blunder made since the end of the Cold War.” In Ted Galen Carpenter’s words, “It was entirely predictable that Nato expansion would ultimately lead to a tragic, perhaps violent, breach of relations with Moscow. Perceptive analysts warned of the likely consequences, but those warnings went unheeded. We are now paying the price for the US foreign policy establishment’s myopia and arrogance.”
Relations worsened in 2014, in the midst of the overthrow of the democratically elected but pro-Russian Ukrainian government, when an intercepted call between then assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland and US ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt in which they casually discuss who should become the next president of Ukraine was published. Imagine how the United States would react if China backed the overthrow of the government of Mexico and the US intercepted a call between Chinese agents deciding who the new president would be. Most Americans would obviously hit the roof, which is what happened in Russia, which then seized Crimea and backed the eastern separatists.
It is important to note that national interests do not necessarily change merely because of regime type or ideology. A liberal Russia would still have interest in securing its borders, just like the US, which would not tolerate Chinese or Russian troops being stationed in Canada or Mexico. In his classic and must-read book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, Mearsheimer went so far as to argue that World War II would have occurred whether or not Adolf Hitler had ever come to power because at the root, most international conflict is structural, not ideological. In Mearsheimer’s words “Even without Hitler and his murderous ideology, Germany surely would have been an aggressive state by the late 1930s.”
This is highly relevant, as Somin argues in favor of continued military assistance to Ukraine in part on the grounds that
a Ukrainian victory could even help discredit authoritarian nationalism within Russia itself, just as defeat in World War I discredited the ideology of the czars, and defeat in the Cold War helped undermine Communism. If so, we might end up with a more liberal and less menacing Russia. That would be a great boon to Russians, Ukrainians, and Westerners alike.
This claim is highly dubious on multiple levels. For one thing, as stated above and demonstrated the continuity between imperial and Nazi German foreign policy, national interests are not tied to ideology.
Secondly, Somin does not even consider that were Vladimir Putin and his regime to be discredited by a shameful defeat that was facilitated by American assistance, Putin might be eventually replaced by someone far more dangerous and nationalistic. One might recall that grievances about Germany’s defeat in World War I helped fuel the rise of Hitler and the National Socialists.
Ultimately, it is not surprising that Somin has a blind spot when it comes to Russian national interests, as he makes no mention of the interests of the American state (i.e., American “national interests”) in the conflict at all. Rather than arguing for continued support for Ukraine because it is somehow in America’s national interest, Somin argues that we must support Ukraine because it is in the interest of the liberal ideology to do so. Mearsheimer addresses such universalist international fantasies in his recent book The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities.