Empire for Thee, But Not for Me
What do people actually mean when they say we’re hypocrites for opposing Putin’s aggression?
Dear Reader (excluding anyone who thinks Russia is a NATO member),
“Among the magical words that hypnotize men’s minds and keep them from asking intelligent questions, the Monroe Doctrine has a sovereign charm in American politics.”
Charles F. Dole, a Unitarian minister, wrote that in The Atlantic in 1905.
It’s nice to see that some things never change.
I keep hearing that all Vladimir Putin wants is a Monroe Doctrine like the one we’ve got. Here’s Bill Maher:
In this country, we've had since 1823, the Monroe Doctrine which says—and this is 200 years old, when we said, look, anybody within a 1,000 goddamn miles of us that's ours—the Caribbean, all of Latin America, that's the Monroe Doctrine. Do not f**k with us anywhere near us. But [for] Putin, Ukraine is the ancestral home of Russia. Kyiv, that's where the Russian state started. Kyiv and Rus is the first era of Russian history. I'm not saying he is a good guy or that he should invade it.
Here’s proud “CIA whistleblower” and Johns Hopkins professor Melvin Goodman’s essay, “The United States of Hypocrisy: Revisiting the Monroe Doctrine,” subtitled, “In refusing to acknowledge Russia’s concerns about US and Western intervention on its borders, the Biden administration is engaging in hypocrisy.”
Here’s Bernie Sanders arguing that we need to acknowledge that Russia is an imperial power and we should expect it to have a Monroe Doctrine just like us.
And of course, here’s Patrick Buchanan paleo-splaining that “Putin wants his own Monroe Doctrine.”
This is just a smattering of recent examples. This argument goes back a long time. Here’s Cato’s Ted Galen Carpenter in 2014 explaining that the “US Needs to Recognize Russia’s Monroe Doctrine.”
One last example of many. In 1939, when the Soviets invaded Finland, they did it in furtherance of what Soviet diplomat Ivan Maisky called a “Soviet Monroe Doctrine.” Of course, because history is a puckish fellow, when the Soviets tried to turn Cuba into a colonial garrison of the Soviet Empire, Nikita Khrushchev insisted the Monroe Doctrine had “outlived its time” and had “died, so to speak, a natural death.”
Now, the nominal heir to Khrushchev and the world’s foremost champion of nostalgia for the Soviet empire is a defender of a Monroe Doctrine for me, but not for thee.
Before we continue, I should add another irony. Russia is significantly to blame for the creation of the Monroe Doctrine in the first place. Russia wasn’t alone, but under Czar Alexander I, Russia joined the Holy Alliance, which was determined to restore monarchism, the divine right of kings, and the colonial holdings of various empires, specifically the Bourbon rule of Spain and its former colonies in South America.
America had no problem with the Holy Alliance so long as it stuck to the grubby Old World. But we’d be damned if we’d let them recolonize South America and threaten the United States. Great Britain was nominally on our side because it wanted to protect trade with the New World. But we refused to work in tandem with them because we were—understandably —pissed about the War of 1812.
Now, I’m not going to defend everything we did under the banner of the Monroe Doctrine. I can defend some things, but I’m not going to speak up for, say, all that crazy William Walker stuff. But telling the revanchist, reactionary rulers of Old Europe that they should keep their stinking mitts off South America strikes me as entirely just and defensible, particularly in 1823.
But here’s the thing: My opinion of the Monroe Doctrine doesn’t matter. All of these people denounced the Monroe Doctrine specifically or American “imperialism”—real and alleged—generally. Patrick Buchanan wrote a whole book on the subject, A Republic, Not an Empire. Bill Maher said all sorts of stuff about American imperialism. Ted Galen Carpenter was a signatory member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy aimed at pushing back against George Bush’s “imperial” policies. While I only just learned that there’s a whackadoo faction of the hard left that considers Bernie Sanders a defender of American imperialism, Sanders has certainly made it clear that he at least thinks he’s an opponent of it.
Even Vladimir Putin, butcher of Kharkiv, has a very long history of claiming to be opposed to “Western imperialism.” Rather than regurgitate his usual propaganda talking points, take a look at this statement rich with irony. He said of sanctions in 2018: “It seems to me that our American partners make a colossal strategic mistake ... [a] typical mistake of any empire. ... People think that nothing will happen, everything is so powerful, everything is so strong and stable, there will be no negative consequences. But, no, they come sooner or later ... they really are taking a saw to the branch they are sitting on.” I wonder if he remembers those words when he gets all the reports of Ukrainians sending home Russians in body bags rather than greeting them as liberators as he planned.
I’ve written a lot about how in domestic politics, many charges of hypocrisy are themselves hypocritical. Republicans denounced Obama’s crony capitalism. But when Trump played the same games, Republicans defended him and Democrats denounced him, charging Republicans with being hypocrites. The Democrats were right for calling Republicans hypocrites. But the Democrats were hypocritical, too, since they not long ago had no problem with crony capitalism. I can literally recount dozens of these sorts of dizzying hypocrisies—like Democrats defending sexual abusers and Republicans denouncing them, and then switching sides.
But this is different. I cannot grasp the moral or strategic logic that says the Monroe Doctrine or American imperialism are dangerous, evil, or stupid when invoked in the name of American interests but totally understandable and defensible when done in Vladimir Putin’s interests.
The America First crowd wants to retrench, withdraw, and dismantle the “American Empire,” as they describe it. But they also want to argue that Russia has a perfectly understandable right to pursue the logic of empire. That’s just weird, man.
Similarly, the foreign policy left wants to assign moral responsibility for every bad thing that happens as a result of—or in spite of—American foreign policy as the evil fruits of empire. I get the argument, and there are times when it’s true. But what I can’t get my head around is why when Putin invades a country and murders people on an industrial scale that, too, is America’s fault. Over and over again, the “Blame America Firsters” of the left and the right talk about Putin like he’s an Aesopian figure with no moral agency. The American frog is always to blame for not appreciating and placating the scorpion.
Look, if I pester a grizzly bear, poking her with a stick and trying to put party hats on her cubs, I deserve to have my face eaten. And while I know the Russian bear is a popular metaphor—it’s just a frickin’ metaphor.
But the real problem with all of this “who are we to condemn Russia?” crap is that the answer is obvious: We’re the United States of America. Are we flawed? Sure. Have we made mistakes? You betcha. But the internal logic of all this stuff rests on the ancient sin of moral equivalence. William F. Buckley’s famous line about this argument during the Cold War bears repeating. If one man pushes an old lady in front of an oncoming bus and another pushes an old lady out of the way of an oncoming bus, it is simply preposterous to describe them both as “the sorts of men who push old ladies around.”
There was no moral equivalence between Soviet Russia and the United States and there is none between Putin’s Russia and the United States, either. Spare me the “what about Iraq?” stuff. Sure, it’s perfectly defensible (and even correct) to condemn the Iraq War. But we never intended to do to Iraq what Putin intends to do with Ukraine. Even if you think establishing democracy in another country is bad, or even if it fits your definition of “imperialism” (it doesn’t fit mine), you’re still left with the problem that not all empires are equally bad. The Soviet empire was illiberal, oppressive, undemocratic, and cruel. It committed genocide and used slave labor. It conquered nations and kept them as vassal states. Putin wants to absorb Ukraine and trample any attempt at democracy or even national sovereignty. I understand the nat cons yawn at the former, but they claim to care about the latter.
Again, even if you don’t much care about the democracy stuff, any remotely defensible definition of nationalism should not only respect Ukraine’s nationhood, it should respect the desires of the Russian people. If you think Putin is acting on behalf of the Russian peoples’ desires, I think you’re wrong. If you think Putin is acting on behalf of the Russian peoples’ interests, not only do I think you’re wrong (and more than a little twisted), I think you’re a hypocrite because you keep telling me that “empire” and “nationalism” are opposed to one another. That’s the whole argument against the EU, NATO, the Monroe Doctrine, “globalists,” “transnational progressivism,” fluoridated water, etc. Unless of course you think these immutable laws of logic and morality only apply to the United States, but are wholly inapplicable to Russia and Vladimir Putin.
Indeed, the incessant effort to cast NATO as the military face of American imperialism isn’t just Russian propaganda—though it is that. NATO is a voluntary organization that requires its members to be democracies. You can leave at will. That’s not a problem right now, given that there’s a long list to join and none to leave. The Russia-backed Collective Security Organization—often described as the equivalent to NATO—is an alliance of unfree vassal nations. I think it’s silly to call NATO an imperial construct; if it were we’d have had an easier time getting member nations to do our bidding and meet their spending requirements.
I don’t think the Monroe Doctrine has anything to do with the current situation. Heck, I think most of the people invoking it don’t even understand what the Monroe Doctrine was or wasn’t. But if you think it’s proof of American evil but also a justification for Russian evil, I think your real problem is with America, not imperialism or evil.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: I am filing this very late and there’s not too much to report, so I will keep it short. I think because we serve dinner to the dogs immediately after their evening walk, they’ve been lobbying earlier and earlier in the late afternoon to go out. It makes it virtually impossible to get out of a chair anytime after 4:30 without them leaping to their feet and demanding perambulation. But other than this gripe, they are quite happy. Well, for the most part. Though, all of the above notwithstanding, Zoe and Pippa do have a fairly robust interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine. Meanwhile, the great feline dance continues.
And now, the weird stuff