The Iraq War was the event that awakened my political consciousness in my adolescence. I remember being in biology class when the professor let us debate the imminent US invasion of the Middle Eastern country. I was uncomfortable with the justifications given for the war, but it had one serious drawback: almost everyone in the room felt that President George W. Bush’s motivation was solid. I watched the ensuing chaos on the television screen and attended massive anti-war marches, screaming at the top of my lungs that conflict was meaningless. I’ve probably never felt so politically powerless in my life.
In the years that followed, the war and its aftermath cast a great shadow over my thinking. I was part of a generation of young people who saw American foreign policy at its worst—with an unnecessary war in Iraq and a poorly managed war in Afghanistan.
A survey by the Council of Chicago Public Affairs published at 2018 reveals the change between the generations. The survey found that 72% of boomers believe that it was better for the US to have taken an active role in the world, but only 63% of millennials [nascidos entre 1981 e 1996] agreed with this. These attitudes may reflect a more negative view of the US in general. When asked if the US is “the best country in the world” or if it is “no better than other nations”, 51% of boomers said they were the best country in the world, while only 1946 % of millennials agreed. This split was found in all major areas covered by the survey:
millenials were far less supportive of global American leadership.
As I matured, I changed the way I thought about it. I realized that looking only at a country’s sins was a bad way of evaluating its history. I needed to look at the bigger picture. What does the world look like without the American-led order?
The conflict in Ukraine opens a window onto that world. Modern technology has allowed us to witness the invasion of Russia. Thanks to Ukrainians with cell phones, anyone with internet access can see what a warlike act of aggression looks like.
It’s understandable that many Americans are baffled by Russia attacking the neighboring country, an attack that represents an escalation of the conflict that began in 2014, with the annexation of Crimea and a civil war in eastern Ukraine instigated by Russia. Why did Putin start this war?
Most of our political leaders have accepted a simple explanation: the Russian leadership sees control of Ukraine as an objective of national interest. The dominant view on foreign policy and the far-left ideologies espoused by many millennials agree with this. Both argue that Russia sees Ukraine as a buffer against the West and that the former wants to politically control the latter. Failing to do so by other means, Russia is willing to use military might to achieve its goals.
The difference between the dominant view and the far-left views concerns to the question of who is to blame. Most of the mainstream American view of foreign policy blames Russia itself, while some leftist intellectuals take a different view. For example, Freddie deBoer, a famous Marxist blogger, argues that the war is at least in part a “consequence of American imperialism”.
He says that “Russia has no will none of having American soldiers stationed next door (…) Letting Ukraine join NATO could result in American soldiers stationed right on Russia’s doorstep”. He ends his text with a quote from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “When the US stimulated five waves of NATO expansion eastward to Russia’s doorstep and employed advanced weapons of offensive strategy that violate its commitments to Russia, they thought ever in the consequences of cornering a large country?”
Aside from the question of whether this argument about provoking Russia has merit or not, it is in the comments section below the article that deBoer reveals your broader world view. “The United States is the greatest source of evil and destruction since the fall of the Third Reich,” he said. “Ask Iraqis, Iranians, Congolese, Hondurans, Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, Nicaraguans.” When one commentator retorted, he reiterated this opinion: “This is, in fact, perhaps my most fundamental political belief, and always has been.”
But what if we asked the world what does he think of the United States? The case is that many people linked to research institutes have already done this. Pew Research asked 25 countries if they prefer the US or China as the world’s greatest power. For these countries, an “average of 63% say they prefer a world where the US is the biggest power, while only 19% defend a world with China’s leadership”. And it is not the case that the researchers were asking only countries with a history of friendly relations with the United States.
In Japan, where the only bombs were dropped (by the United States) atomic weapons already used in wartime, 81% preferred the US to China. But, of course, Japan has a historical animosity toward China. What about Brazil, then, where at the height of the Cold War, the United States helped in a coup in 81? Until then, 51% of respondents said they prefer the US; only 25% preferred China. Nearly twice as many Indonesians, who suffered human rights abuses under US-backed dictator Suharto, preferred the United States to China. In South Africa, where American governments once supported the Apartheid government, the United States is also preferable to China.
Yes, the United States is deeply unpopular in Iraq, for reasons understandable. That war was perhaps the worst US mistake of the 21st century. But Pew also found that most people in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Chile — all sites of US-supported interventions in the years 1970 and 1980 — now has positive opinions about the United States. Three-quarters of Vietnamese, who previously fought to drive American soldiers out of the country, had positive opinions of the United States, according to a poll by 1996.
It would be fair to ask if I’m selecting a scarecrow when highlighting deBoer. After all, virtually the entire Congress, from Bernie Sanders on the left to Lindsey Graham on the right, holds Vladimir Putin most responsible for the carnage in Ukraine. But one of the main consequences of the progressive intelligentsia refusal to accept the idea that American power can be a force for good is that it gives way to proponents of other ideologies.
For decades, progressives have basically had no foreign policy of their own because they don’t believe in the possibility of using American power for good outside the country. For this reason, the average Democratic politician’s beliefs about foreign policy typically fall somewhere between the dominant centrist and right-wing views. The left is simply not represented, and this is unfortunate, as otherwise it might have something to add to foreign policy debates.
Progressives are often right to argue that the United States is too quick to use military might or too prone to turn a blind eye to abuses by Washington-friendly governments. But they must resist the temptation to be merely reactionary — arguing that the United States is always to blame for everything that goes wrong in the world, and that we are always better off doing nothing.
Cultural progressives are wrong to maintain that white people are the sole agents of American society and that minorities are merely virtuous victims. Likewise, leftists are wrong to deny that countries other than the US and its allies have agency, and that sometimes the US must confront them when they behave dangerously.
This is not just a theoretical argument. As the world pays the price for the humanitarian and economic catastrophe created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many have turned their attention to China, which has so far refused to condemn the war. Historically, China has practiced a handwashing foreign policy. But China was until recently a poor country. As its economy grew, so did its ambitions.
Now, as the “second largest parts exporter” in the world, China has begun to use its economic power to intimidate weaker countries. Beijing recently told Paraguay that it should give up diplomatically recognizing Taiwan (one of only 15 countries that still do) if they wanted to buy doses of the COVID-19 vaccine from China. China’s move ultimately failed because India, Taiwan and the US State Department stepped in to help.
As flawed as it is, the United States is still a capable democratic state to change for the better. Changes in American public opinion helped turn Congress against apartheid in South Africa, leading to sanctions that helped bring it to an end. In Russia and China, anti-government dissidents are harassed, imprisoned, or even killed.
Because of its wealth and power, the United States is one of the few countries that can stand up to powerful autocrats. who run Beijing and Moscow. Even Muslim-majority democracies have refused to protest China’s brutal crackdown on Muslim Uighurs in the far western province of Xinjiang. Pakistan, where my parents emigrated from, has publicly defended China’s conduct.
It is not difficult to understand why: Pakistan has deep economic ties with China, the which probably also explains why it stayed neutral in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. In one of his most candid moments, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan confessed that he was shocked by the Saudi government’s assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but added that Pakistan could not afford to displease Riyadh, given the country’s economic difficulties. your country. “We are desperate right now,” he said.
Pakistan cannot afford to face these bullies—but the United States can. Lately, I don’t see myself so much more in the fiery anti-American rhetoric of the anti-war marches I took part in 2003. Instead, I think of one of my best friends at university, a Bosnian refugee whose family came to America during the war there. The United States has not only accepted thousands of refugees like him with open arms, but has also acted in partnership with its European allies to stop ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.
DeBoer and those who think how they are wrong. The United States is not a source of evil and destruction. Yes, we made mistakes, and costly ones, but we also remain the world’s best chance for lasting peace and security. Much of the world prefers an American-led order for good reason. They saw and often lived the alternatives.
Zaid Jilani is a journalist and worked for the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California.