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The Ukraine war in American history
Altruism and interest
In the space of a few weeks, an American consensus has gathered around the idea that the United States ought to do something to help Ukraine resist the continuing Russian invasion. Opinions differ on the nature of that help. The Biden administration so far has relied on economic sanctions against Russia and various forms of aid to Ukraine, short of the deployment of American military forces. Some Republicans have said the United States should do more; others have said it should do less. But strikingly, almost no one in the United States has said America should do nothing.
This is at least a little surprising. Only a few years ago, Donald Trump was promoting a kind of neo-isolationism, and the idea was catching on. Many Americans expressed weariness at having to police the behavior of other nations. Being top cop is expensive, and there were worthier causes on which American tax dollars might be spent. Meanwhile Trump was getting cozy with Vladimir Putin and seemed unlikely to oppose Putin’s efforts to re-expand the Russian sphere.
Yet anyone familiar with American history should not have been surprised at the reaction to Russia's brutality in Ukraine. Americans have rarely been good at ignoring the trampling of rights of others. When the trampling also threatens American interests, the ignoring has been impossible.
Americans were first tempted to go to the aid of a beleaguered country in the 1790s. France was at war with Britain and other European powers, and many Americans sympathized with the principles of the French Revolution. Others feared for American credibility if the United States did not honor the terms of its treaty of alliance with France, left over from the Revolutionary War. In this case, though, other considerations prevailed. George Washington did not want to engage in a second war against Britain, so soon after the first, and he adopted a policy of neutrality.
In the 1810s and 1820s, Americans emotionally supported the cause of anti-Spanish nationalists in Latin America and anti-Ottoman nationalists in Greece. But those wars were far away, and again American interests tilted against involvement. James Monroe and John Quincy Adams, Monroe's secretary of state, parlayed American non-involvement in the Greek war into the Monroe Doctrine, which said that the United States would stay out of European affairs and insisted that Europeans stay out of the affairs of the Americas.
Altruism and interest finally aligned in the 1890s, when Cuban nationalists rose in rebellion against Spanish colonial rule. Spanish atrocities outraged many in the United States and prompted demands for American intervention. William McKinley hesitated before deciding that the interests of the United States in regional stability dictated going to war against Spain. As a dubious bonus, America acquired an overseas empire in the wake of the war, annexing the Philippines and Puerto Rico.
Interest dominated the thinking of Woodrow Wilson as he led the United States into World War I. German submarines were attacking American ships on the Atlantic. But Wilson put an altruistic gloss on the matter by declaring that the world must be made “safe for democracy.”
An utterly un-altruistic peace settlement at the end of the war caused Americans to refocus narrowly on self-interest. Too narrowly, as it turned out. Concluding that Hitler's growing appetites in Europe were not their problem, Americans let Hitler run rampant until he threatened the very future of democracy. It was Hitler's Japanese allies who jumped the United States at Pearl Harbor, but the axis of fascism seemed of one piece in the danger it posed to democracy.
America's Cold War combined the altruism of defending democracy against communism with the self-interest of countering Soviet armed force. After a hiccup in Korea and a stumble in Vietnam, the United States prevailed in its forty-year struggle against the Soviet Union.
At this point some observers prematurely declared history—by which they meant the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism—at an end. Putin and Xi Jinping weren’t persuaded. Xi became the most formidable of the new authoritarians, but it was Putin who most egregiously challenged the post-Cold War order by his invasion of Ukraine.
Americans' hearts go out to the Ukrainians as they fight for their country’s independence. American interests are involved as well; if Putin isn’t stopped now, his appetite, like Hitler’s, might grow with the eating. The United States could be forced to fight a bigger war against him later.
The challenge for the Biden administration is to determine where the balance lies between altruism and self-interest. This challenge is fraught with peril. It's also something Americans have dealt with many times before.