Zelensky gives a Ukrainian national flag to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Photo by Mandel NGAN / AFP)

Against the hysterical consensus

The US has to confront its own global identity

Artillery Row

Earlier this week, in response to news that Germany was dragging its heels on contributing military tanks to the Ukrainian war effort, the Editorial Board of The Washington Post — the closest thing the United States has to an official press — issued the following thunderous announcement: “Germany is refusing to send tanks to Ukraine. Biden cannot let this stand.”

Not to be outdone, the inevitable Bernard-Henri Lévy called for trials against the Germans — for lesser crimes than the Russians, to be sure, but still. Cue jokes about the irony of wishing to punish the Germans for military inaction.

The anger is a reaction to resistance to our preferred policies

As it happens, Germany subsequently relented and agreed to send a contingent of Leopard tanks to Ukraine alongside the U.S. shipment of Abrams M1 tanks. There is nonetheless something revealing about the whole incident. What is of particular interest here is neither the diplomacy that produced this arrangement, nor the strategic question of the appropriate level of military engagement in this regional conflict on the part of the Western powers, nor even is it that pro-Ukraine sentiment has become dominant in media and policymaking circles. What is noteworthy is the vehemence with which it is expressed and with which opposition to it — or even insufficient compliance, as in the case of Germany — is condemned. 

I have come to think that this phenomenon betokens a bad conscience about certain imperial realities of American power, both at home and abroad. Let’s take the latter first. It is a hallmark of American rhetoric that our hegemonic status is a voluntary and mutually beneficial geopolitical arrangement rather than an imperial one. Yes, it grants us primacy, but it is a primacy of a qualitatively different character than that of raw force majeure. This argument goes back at least to the Cold War, when we could point to the different internal dynamics of NATO and the Warsaw Pact — yes, we were less than pleased with de Gaulle when he pulled France out of NATO, but our reaction still fell short of the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and so on.

We are obviously not a formal empire, but we are a hegemonic power of some sort. Our military force structure is global, and we are the one existing power that has arrogated to itself the authority to take an interest in other regions of the world. As The 9/11 Commission Report put it, “the American homeland is the planet”. The anger we’ve seen this week is a reaction to resistance to our preferred policies, which risks forcing us to make explicit the imperial character of our primacy. It is not enough to say that Germany is a sovereign state with different interests and preferences than our own, because then we would have to acknowledge the possibility of legitimate disagreement and the necessity of imposing our will where we want our policies to prevail. We saw a similar spasm of outrage two decades ago when France and Germany declined to participate in or even approve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

This phenomenon is related to but different from the rote dismissal of any expressions of concern about nuclear escalation as being merely Kremlin talking points. Both are components of what one might call the hysterical consensus. An underappreciated factor in producing that consensus, however, is our inability to think consciously about the imperial character of our foreign policy. When even Francis Fukuyama — perhaps the sharpest and most sophisticated advocate of U.S. power — has an unfortunate tendency to sound like Tim Snyder on Ukraine, you can tell something is up.

The same logic lay frequently at the heart of imperial self-justification

Imperial powers have always had their reasons, their moral defences of their own authority. With unparalleled euphemism, Virgil described the Roman mandate: to spare the conquered and tame the proud. Thus, the Roman mastery of the Mediterranean world amounted to the imposition of justice — at least in contrast to even more predatory alternatives.

More or less the same logic lay frequently at the heart of imperial self-justification — the modern British and French empires both relied upon it. What makes Americans queasy is that we’re not comfortable with unambiguous statements on this issue. As it happens, I am teaching Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War this semester. On reflection I don’t believe it would be preferable if we adopted the language of the Athenians, saying in effect: it has always been the law that the weaker should be subject to the stronger. Consistent hypocrisy produces intellectual tensions that are not easily resolved, however.

So too on the domestic front, where those same imperial interests are diverging from those of the larger citizenry. This is not to misrepresent the past as some sort of idyll of democratic decision-making when it came to foreign policymaking — even when U.S. foreign policymaking arguably served the interests of the American people in broad terms, it was rarely if ever a product of their deliberation and will. The trouble now is not simply that our foreign policy is “imperialistic” or “undemocratic” per se (what else is new?). The trouble is, in the absence of a genuine and sustained threat, the emergence of a widening fissure between the interests, beliefs and preferences of the elite governing class and the people as a whole.

This gap produces no small degree of discomfort and cognitive dissonance among those same elites, who are notionally committed to democratic ideals both at home (witness their fulminations against the authoritarian threat supposedly posed by Mr. Trump) and abroad (the repeated invocations of Ukraine’s status as a beleaguered democracy). That their preferred policies largely represent their own relatively exclusive preoccupations without clearly redounding to the benefit of Americans as a whole is a political, rhetorical and psychological problem all rolled into one.

Again, none of this is novel. The United States’ various adventures and misadventures during the 1990s (in the Balkans, in Haiti, etc.) also did not obviously bear much relevance to the concerns of the average American — a fact that was emphasised by contemporary critics of those policies on both right and left. It blunted the force of such critiques that the 1990s were a time of rising affluence and general material improvement in American life, however. Today, after decades of stagnating wages, rising crime, post-lockdown inflation and horrific rates of addiction and suicide — not to mention unambiguous failures in Iraq and Afghanistan — the criticisms have more heft and the rhetoric supporting our interventions rings increasingly hollow. 

It is not impossible to argue for U.S. interests in supporting Ukraine against Russia. There is no such argument that will not have to wrestle with two dilemmas, however: the imperial nature of our present global arrangement, and its distance from the real concerns of most Americans. Hence the hysterical tenor that our foreign policy debates have taken on — and the unlikelihood that it will lift even when the Russo-Ukrainian War finally ends.

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