Americans are merchants of hope, a retired diplomat from a Gulf state told me this week. So they are. His sentence evoked two occasions when I saw former American ambassadors to Ukraine promise an audience of young Ukrainians that the US would always stand behind them. Three hundred miles behind us, some wits in Kyiv joked after the US embassy moved to Lviv in the west of the country on 14 February. Double that when it finally left for Poland a week later. But the problem is many in those audiences believed the diplomats. Like their young cohorts in Kabul, they made life plans on that premise.
We now live in the middle of a great recession. American power is everywhere retreating, leaving behind vacuums that others strive to fill. The return of the Taliban in Afghanistan is the best symbol of the great recession, which started with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2011. Repressive as the new Afghan regime already is – and the repression can only grow – it is at least a national movement. In eastern Europe, the decline of the American empire is magnified by the incipience of European power, creating a combustible mixture, a propitious landscape for a war of worlds. In Ukraine the end of the American empire is taking an even grimmer form than in Afghanistan: a war of genocide whose declared goal is the extermination of Ukrainian nationhood.
[See also: Why Russia is a prisoner of geography]
Russia’s war on Ukraine could never have happened a decade or two ago. American power looked immense then – so immense that it almost never needed to be exercised, relying more often on prestige and intimidation. In 2008 the mere possibility, hinted at but left ambiguous, that Washington might try to stop the Russian invasion of Georgia was indeed sufficient to make Vladimir Putin turn back from the capital, Tbilisi. For the Russian president, it took many years, culminating in the success of his Syrian gamble, to finally lose all fear and respect for what he now calls the “empire of lies” – the “merchants of hope” in the softer language preferred by my Gulf interlocutor.
The problem is that Washington today feels lost. It may actually be lost. It is agonising to hear all the Ukrainian voices appealing to the White House for help saving civilians in Ukraine, as if we still lived in the old world. Today the United States no longer has the resources to act. Above all, it no longer has the political will to bend world events in a certain direction. American politics has shattered into a thousand shards. How could you build a bold and assertive foreign policy from fragments of ideas and visions, many of which have ceased to be intelligible?
The US can no longer act as a world empire, but it has yet to learn how to act in the world that follows its decline. There was a lot Washington could have done to prevent the catastrophic outcomes we are now witnessing in Ukraine, but doing so would have required a very different approach. Instead of a global suzerain and legislator, a strategic actor. Instead of rules and institutions, strategy and action. After all, Turkey has so far been able to prevent the fall of Idlib in Syria, a humanitarian disaster planned by the Russian contingent in the country. The way it did this was not through a direct clash with Russia but rather by moving into the same theatre, and so reducing Russia’s freedom of action. Moscow now must deal with a series of Turkish military outposts around Idlib. It has no appetite for a direct confrontation.
Something similar should have been attempted in Ukraine. Instead, the US absconded, unable to deal with the difficulties of the task: acting in a world that is no longer American-built.
What happened instead appeared bizarre to most observers. The US assumed the role of global commentator, offering all kinds of analysis and prognostication on events in Ukraine. Intelligence has been shared with the Ukrainian forces and some arms delivered, but the heavier equipment Ukraine desperately needs, such as air-defence systems, remains off limits. Even Poland’s plan to transfer some of its old Soviet-made fighter jets to Ukraine fell through after Washington deemed it too risky. In December the Pentagon abandoned a bid to send more training missions to Ukraine amid White House fears of provoking Russia.
The priority for the US is to avoid any action carrying responsibility for the outcome, hence the continuous publicising of intelligence. The thinking seems to be that by showing they have not been caught by surprise, the American authorities can avoid the accusations of negligence or incompetence that marked the US’s adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, like a divinity that can see the future but refuses to interfere with the free will of mankind.
The result has been humiliating. From the perspective of the Kremlin, events over the past month have allowed Russia to show that the US is now so powerless it cannot stop developments it has full knowledge of. While the White House keeps explaining that it is not interested in escalating the conflict, Russia has brought in 16,000 foreign fighters from Syria, bombed a base on the Polish border used by Western military advisers and threatened the use of chemical weapons in Ukraine.
Strategically, too, the decision to interfere as little as possible with the course of the war raises eyebrows. Ukraine is not Cambodia or Tanzania. It is a country critical to the security of Nato because it is a buffer between numerous Nato countries and the organisation’s main security threat. What Nato strategist can regard with equanimity a changed scenario in which the eastern flank has become immeasurably more difficult to defend? By not acting now, the US is merely ensuring it will have to act in much worse circumstances in the future. American passivity is an error.
There are the economic sanctions, of course, but can they save Ukraine? The logic behind them is that they will weaken Russia over a period of years and perhaps prevent a repetition of the current war closer to central European capitals. They can do little or nothing to save Kyiv from the announced onslaught. And it is far from clear that the sanctions will reinvigorate the Western-led global economic system. Sanctioning central-bank reserves raises some troubling questions for the future. Will countries continue to accumulate dollar reserves if they can be frozen or even cancelled at the touch of a button? Note that as long as Russian central-bank reserves are held by foreign central banks they are a form of “inside money”. They are liabilities accepted by a counterpart and registered as such in their computers. They can be unilaterally revoked. By contrast, gold or Bitcoin would be “outside money”, where the relationship between asset and asset holder is exclusive, without the need for a corresponding liability.
How the game will unfold is uncertain. Sanctioning central-bank reserves on this scale is unprecedented. What Americans and Europeans hope is that the global system can be used against a large economy like Russia without being stretched to breaking point. For Moscow, there may be the opposite temptation: now that Russia has stopped playing by the rules, its only hope is to put the system under greater and greater pressure, to the point where it stops working or, conceivably, breaks down.
For Russia to move away from the dollar, it would need an alternative currency. The weaponisation of the dollar will never lead to a breakdown on its own, and an alternative global monetary system cannot emerge by fiat. If it were to emerge, because of changes in the structure of global trade and finance, then it would be a Chinese rather than a Russian alternative.
[See also: Can the war save Joe Biden’s presidency?]
There is a final reason the Ukraine crisis should not be seen as a great rebirth of the Western world. I struggle to find Western liberal ideas behind the noble Ukrainian struggle. The values on display are more permanent and universal. What I saw during my stay in Kyiv just before the invasion on 24 February was a people united in courage as they faced a foreign tyrant. Where did that courage come from? Not from think tanks lecturing on the rules-based order but from stories of resistance and patriotism over centuries of Ukrainian history. Ukrainians are brave because they have seen so many of their fellow citizens sacrifice their lives and lose loved ones. Their hearts tell them they must live up to these examples of heroism. There is love, too: a deep love for Ukraine, its past and future.
This week, while trying to explain the war to an audience of Indian students in Jaipur, I put Western liberalism to one side and relied on different ideas. Indians should support Ukraine because its struggle is the struggle of a nation in peril. Imagine, I suggested to these students, you were in danger of losing not just your life but India as well. And imagine you could join with every other Indian citizen to save your country from the ravages of imperialism and colonialism. Imagine the invaders saw you as inferior, ready to be absorbed into a higher civilisation. Imagine all around you there was a gallery of fallen heroes pointing the way to the younger generation. Would you fight?
Nato and the West and liberalism never came up. They didn’t have to.
This article appears in the 16 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s War Goes Global