What explains America’s hyper-ideological response to the Ukraine crisis? Less than a year before Vladimir Putin launched his invasion, Washington had wrapped up two decades of lousy regime-change wars, waged in the name of planting “freedom” in that region’s inhospitable soil. There was, or seemed to be, broad agreement that liberal moralism in foreign policy stood discredited: It had destabilized whole swaths of the Middle East and North Africa and bogged down America and its allies in the region’s bloody and intricate enmities—and to what end?
Yet now, a few months later, the United States and its NATO allies are once again on an escalatory path, handing billions of dollars’ worth of sophisticated weaponry to Kyiv, deploying covert operatives to assist the Ukrainians, and mounting massive (if so far useless) economic sanctions against Russia. This is a proxy war against Moscow in which Western or Ukrainian victory is an utter fantasy. And yet Washington, it seems, is prepared to fight the Kremlin down to the last Ukrainian. And all this has been done, once again, to win, as President Biden tweeted, “a great battle for freedom. A battle between democracy and autocracy. Between liberty and repression.”
“In persisting in this way, as the last ideological empire, the US-led Western bloc will ensure its own demise.”
This Manichaean framing has done the job so far. That is, the foreign-policy Blob has appeared largely successful in using the crisis to breathe new life into the liberal imperium and marshal support for its faltering institutions, not least the Western Alliance. Appearances can be misleading, however. When all is said and done, the war (and the reaction of Western governments) will likely be seen as the liberal ruling class’s collective swan song for the post-1945, ideological world order. As other powers abandon ideology in favor of reasserting national and civilizational claims, the United States and its various clients and satraps remain committed to ideological struggle, to bolstering liberalism—the one modern ideology that survived the previous century’s clash of ideologies.
In persisting in this way, as the last ideological empire, the US-led Western bloc will ensure its own demise, and the swan song will give way to a self-composed elegy.
Defending Ukraine has become the latest holy war for a generation of elites that largely came of age during the Cold War, one that internalized that era’s evangelical binaries and symbolic crusades and is forever seeking the next apocalyptic event to signal its virtue. A Russian victory in the war wouldn’t be merely Ukraine’s loss, according to the dominant account of the conflict in the West, but also the effective fall of the so-called liberal international order, whose rules Washington and its North Atlantic allies laid down in the wake of World War II.
The various instruments of that order—from the United Nations to the Swift intra-bank transfer system, from NATO to Hollywood—went into action in response to the Kremlin’s decision to invade Ukraine rather than tolerate its absorption into the liberal imperium. Massive German remilitarization was suddenly celebrated as an unalloyed good. Poland’s right-wing government won a strange new respect in the councils of Europe for its rabidly pro-escalation stance. Kyiv asked (for weapons and funds), and it received. Ukraine-flag emojis became de rigueur for journalists and celebrities. And so on. Liberal interventionism seemed to have regained all the glory it lost to the Iraqi and Afghan debacles and the “Arab Spring.”
Yet in the third decade of the 21st century, the world looks altogether different than it did in 1991 or even 2001. Ukraine is no Kuwait. Nuclear giant Russia is not Iraq. And a United States that has carried out two decades of costly wars and failed nation-building projects in the Middle East, all while China ascended, isn’t the self-assured hegemon it was when the Twin Towers came down. It is wishful thinking to believe that the shift to multipolarity—with the rise of China and multiple regional centers of power ending America’s global dominance as the sole hegemon—could be stopped militarily. Nor can the process be reversed by NATO acting as the Global Police Department of the Free World, protecting those select few nations that qualify as “democracies” by fickle Western standards from the barbaric despotism of an older world.
“As one form of universalism—liberalism—eliminated its competition for world domination, it paradoxically lifted the mental fog of ideology.”
Fact is, despite much bluster and rhetorical posturing reminiscent of the Bush era, Washington is far weaker today than it was then: It is over-extended, deeply polarized, low on morale, and facing an unprecedented spike in energy prices and a wider inflation crisis. Reality matters. But the foreign-policy establishment and its media organs show no sign of rethinking, let alone stepping down the escalation ladder. Liberalism, it seems, can’t live without aggressive universalism—the insistence that the whole world must operate according to “norms” perfected in the West and imposed on panta ta ethnē (all the nations), and that achieving global cultural homogeneity justifies all forms of interventionism, using nongovernmental organizations or drones as the need may be.
But now, that universalist impulse is running up against the limits of a changing world. Astute critics of liberal order saw this coming. In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, just as Francis Fukuyama was declaring the permanent triumph of liberalism and the “end of history,” the Marxist scholar Immanuel Wallerstein wrote prophetically and counterintuitively of the decline of the liberal imperium. In an essay published in 1991, Wallerstein homed in on what he saw as the liberal West’s false consciousness in response to the fall of the Soviet Union. “The collapse of Leninism,” he warned, “is being interpreted as the triumph of Wilsonian liberalism, whereas, in fact, 1989 represents the demise not of Leninism alone, but of both ends of the great ideological antinomy of the 20th century, [that of] the Wilsonian versus the Leninist eschatologies.”
For Wallerstein, the two competing ideologies of the 20th century, which had triumphed jointly against a third, Nazism, were caught in a relationship of dialectical dependence. Given the interdependence of the global political and economic system, removing Leninism from the picture meant that various other dominos from the old Cold War bi-polar world would also fall, with the “triumphant” West incapable of stopping the process.
One needn’t share Wallerstein’s Marxist priors to see that he had plainly predicted the shape of events to come with profound clarity. A realist—that is, fundamentally tragic—worldview could have led one to the same conclusions: that the absolutism and totalizing worldviews of modern ideologies made conflict between them inevitable. The process created a convenient Manichaean framing of the world as a zero-sum struggle between the forces of evil and righteousness, which also provided a rationale for globalism and crusades of world domination.
The demise of the Soviet Union eliminated one of the faces of the modern Janus that was the postwar ideological international order. Unipolarity made the ideological Manichaeism on which post-Enlightenment modernity functions much harder to sustain. As one form of universalism—liberalism—eliminated its competition for world domination, it paradoxically lifted the mental fog of ideology, permitting the return of particularity—rootedness, locality, community, and civilization. Hence, the conditions unleashed by unipolarity proved salutary for concrete instantiations of life in the world’s most prominent cultures and civilizations, allowing these culture-complexes space to reanimate and revive themselves in their particular spheres.
This process has been at work for decades, recasting politics around the world and revivifying traditions, peoples, and different forms of life. Only in America and within its liberal imperial domain, the ruling class has continued to resist these shifts, using its vast resources to insist on old utopian ideals and demanding still more globalism and homogeneity. Just as Russia was co-opted by the Leninist ideology, so has America been reduced into a vessel for liberalism and devolved into a propositional state. America has ideologized itself into a universal category—as yet another “ism”: “Americanism”—that is but a euphemism for liberalism, disembodying the nation into the bargain. In so doing, the world’s last ideological empire has united the non-Western civilizations in resistance.
**By Arta Moeini