Vladimir Putin issues a decree recognising two Russian-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent on February 21, 2022. Picture Credit ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Putin and the new global order

An older worldview makes a triumphant return, and splits the American right

Artillery Row

JD Vance, Ohio’s senatorial candidate, and one of the most interesting new voices in the debate about American grand strategy and Ukraine threw a bomb yesterday online in an interview, where he said that he doesn’t care about Ukraine “one way or the other”, and that it is ridiculous that America is focused on Ukraine’s border and sovereignty, and not America’s own borders with Mexico. 

Great powers care more about their immediate neighbourhood

“I think it’s ridiculous that we are focused on this border in Ukraine. I got to be honest with you, I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or the other” Vance said in an interview, later adding, “What explains both the Russia hawkishness and the dereliction of duty at the border is this: elites don’t care if my neighbours die. Fentanyl coming across the border kills people I care about. Declaring the cartels a terrorist org would do more for them than a Ukraine war.” 

Vance isn’t the only one. Tucker Carlson has been on the forefront of conservative realism, questioning the Ukraine debate. Recently there has been a flurry of conservative realism on Ukraine, one that harkens to an older pre-war Republican conservative tradition in the US. 

Sohrab Ahmari wrote about the propaganda effort of Neo-Nazis in Ukraine with carefully placed photoshoots of older Ukrainian Gun Karens (to use the memorable phrase of Mary Harrington) targeted to appeal to liberal NGOcrats in the West. The reaction has been apoplectic. Bruno Maçães, Portugal’s former EU-crat and consultant, said that the idea that one should care about the border with Mexico more than the border of Ukraine, is “idiotic”. Former State and National Security Council Russia hand Fiona Hill called Vance and Tucker “the ultimate stooges”. Noted intersectional feminist Bill Kristol asked what is wrong with MAGA-men. 

Vance and Carlson are, needless to mention, closer to the average American. It’s not just absurd but ahistorical and borderline delusional to claim, demand or expect great powers must and should care more about some faraway war somewhere in some faraway land, instead of their own immediate borders, especially when the northern border is facing extreme political polarisation and political violence and the southern border is a hub of human trafficking and drug cartels bordering an increasingly lawless northern Mexico. 

Vance, Ahmari and Carlson can of course defend their own arguments, but for what it’s worth, not a single one of them said Russia is worth backing against Ukraine. They just don’t want us to be involved as there are more important things to focus on. And that’s a solid realist position.

The majority language groups in Ukraine. Via Wikimedia Commons

The argument that Americans should care more about Ukraine than about Mexico also defies international relations theory and strategic logic. As Mike Sweeney wrote recently in the British Armed Forces blog Wavell Room, “One does not need to be an advocate for spheres of influence, to acknowledge the reality on the ground in eastern Europe today. Russia simply has greater strategic interests in Ukraine and also more immediate military means to bring to bear on Ukrainian territory.”

Put simply, “spheres of influence” is a fancy IR way of saying great powers care more about their immediate neighbourhood. It is also organic; spheres develop due to structural variables and interests, such as aggregate power and geography. 

The reason America would worry about foreign missiles in Cuba is the same reason Russia is concerned about Ukraine, which was the same reason Royal Navy’s home fleet’s primary duty was to guard every single square inch of the grey waters in the English Channel, so much so that they essentially sacrificed Singapore and Australia when push came to shove during a world war.

His intention is to bring back an older way of statecraft,

Alternatively, the lack of interest in faraway lands is also truer to the realities of democratic politics. People don’t go to war due to some deep interest in safeguarding norms and values. They are more likely to go to war when their way of life is threatened by a hovering menace of invasion. One might not like that, but it is reality. Refusing that logic is juvenile or ideological. The actors might change over time, the ideas might differ, the governing coalition and system might vary, but the iron rules of great power rivalry remain the same. 

Incidentally, the part that was most important in Vladimir Putin’s speech was where he highlighted (albeit in his own cherry-picked way) the motivation behind Russian action:

Soviet Ukraine is the result of the Bolsheviks’ policy and can be rightfully called ‘Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine.’ He was its creator and architect. This is fully and comprehensively corroborated by archival documents, including Lenin’s harsh instructions regarding Donbass, which was actually shoved into Ukraine. And today the ‘grateful progeny’ has overturned monuments to Lenin in Ukraine.

But then came the subtle but menacing threat. “They call it decommunization. You want decommunization? Very well, this suits us just fine. But why stop halfway? We are ready to show what real decommunizations would mean for Ukraine.” The implication, significance, and interpretations of these particular sentences deserve more study.  

Consider for a moment a question; how many current political figures can go on an extempore rant about history, even if it is cherry-picked, and use that as a rhetorical justification for potentially the most consequential military action since the second world war? 

The most common reaction to Putin’s speeches on social media was a throwback to calling him a Soviet apologist trying to recreate the former USSR. It couldn’t be further from the truth. Only clinical midwits think Putin is a Sovok. Putin despises the USSR and communists. He is as imperial as they come and the only thing he could do to make him any more reactionary would be a ceremonial Romanov restoration. 

Meeting of the members of the Holy Alliance at the Congress of Verona, 1815. Via Wikimedia Commons

His idea of political alignments is more “Holy Alliance” than “Warsaw Pact”. His intention is to bring back an older way of statecraft, that reflects aggregate power in a world where great powers decide and smaller states follow, instead of smaller states condescendingly lecturing and hectoring great powers to act against their interests. 

It’s a worldview fundamentally opposed to any  collective voices, globalism and political equality. Which is why the progressive and liberal outrage against him, as they, more than the “western conservatives”, understand just how much Putin threatens their worldview and idea of history’s progressive and egalitarian march. 

One can hope that this might change the way international relations is studied, one that returns to a more classical approach, instead of the nonsensical theoretical frameworks that Putin’s war will prove wrong. Putin’s ordering of forces to cross the borders of Ukraine and a potential partition of Ukraine will take the borderlands to a former Habsburg-Romanov dividing lines. 

Ukraine simply does not matter enough to the majority of people

The small states talking about “norms” in the UN where a P5 has veto powers will prove, once again, the importance of power and geography, and the irrelevance of values in the international anarchy. We have been in such a conceptual vacuum since the early nineties, that to understand how time can be turned back by sheer force in a pure “Great Man Theory”  fashion, is too much for a lot of commentators to grasp. 

That’s why “conservatives” who grew up in the unipolar era, are talking about “defending norms”, and “progressives” are livid that imperialism can just straightforwardly come back like this. Russia is turning into an empire — not a liberal or communist one but rather a conservative and reactionary one,  and that’s not the ideological framework that a lot of people are used to. 

However, given that the real world is different than liberal or progressive theories, the revealed preferences indicate that Ukraine simply does not matter enough to the majority of people in the West to deter Putin’s ambitions. The howls of outrage are therefore a loud and activist fringe with disproportionate power and platforms. That doesn’t mean that they are not capable of significant sway, as most historical events are usually led by an activist fringe. 

Everyone feels sympathy for Ukraine. But the conflict there does not threaten the way of Western lives. This is just the reality, noting that is honesty, and not being either pro or anti Putin, as the question is simply irrelevant. 

In that light, the most notable thing is the quality of rhetoric on the American right-realist spectrum. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I recently wrote in these pages, that a grand-strategy of realism would need a counter-elite:

Advocates of a restrained foreign policy will face an uphill struggle even if they manage to form some redoubts—they will constantly be undermined on all sides by an NGO-industrial complex that’s busy writing its brand of evangelism as constituent code into the whole liberal international order, and there are many more establishments churning out nodding-dogs for such than there are for realists.

And therefore, “the rhetoric of restraint needs to, therefore, reflect the target audience”, that is the newly realigned working-class men of the American electorate, and that realists “will need such ruthlessly honest and populist rhetoric to sell to those people who will form the backbone of this new movement, which will sometimes test the boundaries of electoral propriety. There will be a need for a vocal defence of nationalism, the national interest, and national borders.” 

Foreign policy realism, predicated on national interest, is of course a fundamentally narrow and reactionary worldview that is opposed to any utopian, revolutionary and crusading instinct of promoting universal values across the globe, with blood and treasure if necessary. Hans Morgenthau wrote:

Realism maintains that universal moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states in their abstract universal formulation, but that they must be filtered through the concrete circumstances of time and place. The individual may say for himself: Fiat justitia, pereat mundus (Let justice be done, even if the world perish), but the state has no right to say so in the name of those who are in its care. Both individual and state must judge political action by universal moral principles, such as that of liberty. Yet while the individual has a moral right to sacrifice himself in defense of such a moral principle, the state has no right to let its moral disapprobation of the infringement of liberty get in the way of successful political action, itself inspired by the moral principle of national survival.

Vance, Ahmari, and Carlson can therefore claim themselves to be on the right side of history and democracy (so to speak) as they are giving voice to the voiceless majority, who will defend their country when attacked but would otherwise prefer to be left alone.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover