According to Aristotle, we cannot understand something unless we understand what causes it, but ‘cause’ for Aristotle was a complex, multi-layered concept. In the case of the present war between Ukraine and Russia, Aristotle would have described Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as the efficient cause – the immediate precipitant – but would have argued that a fuller understanding must include the material history of Europe; the form given to that history by the Second World War and its long aftermath, which left the US in effective control of the continent; and the overall or final direction of history at stake in the conflict.
I want to focus here on the form given to the conflict by America’s preponderant role in European politics. I will concentrate on five interrelated questions: America’s overall relation to Europe; European self-governance; the German question; the Russian question; and Eurasia.
The starting point for any understanding of America’s role in Europe must be the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. Provoked by the Latin American revolts against Spain, the doctrine was an attempt to forestall European intervention in the Western hemisphere. But this was balanced with the promise, in President Monroe’s words, ‘not to interfere in the internal concerns of any [European] powers’ – in other words, ‘to consider [any existing European] government de facto as the legitimate government for us.’
The doctrine was modified in the 20th century, beginning with Woodrow Wilson’s rejection of balance-of-power politics and his call for ‘internationalism’, but this shift was always one-sided. The US retained its ‘right’, based on the Monroe Doctrine, to exclude ‘foreign’ interference in the Western hemisphere, but assumed a new right to interfere elsewhere in the world. That opened the way to the current situation: America is not only preponderant in Europe today; this preponderance reflects an enormous global imbalance.
Second, America’s disproportionate power reflects the long-standing difficulties Europe has had in organising its own relations. In effect, European governments have been infantilised since the Second World War. The most obvious example of this is the fact that Nato’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe has to be an American general. European governments distrust one another, but rather than work out their differences, they rely on the United States. Financially, too, European security is underwritten by American wealth at the cost of European autonomy. The 2008 Bucharest Summit Declaration that ‘Nato welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership’ was opposed by France and Germany, but to no avail. This has enormous consequences for the present crisis.
Third, American power in Europe has substituted for a long-term solution to ‘the German question’. By virtue of its size, geographic position and economic power, Germany ought to play a leading role in mediating between East and West, in other words, between Russia and Western Europe, but, in good part because of the catastrophe of Nazism, has been reluctant to do so. This has left a vacuum, which the US has filled in a negative way – by perpetuating the split between Western and Eastern Europe, which began as a form of colonialism after the Second World War. To be sure, America has been pivotal in encouraging Eastern European economic development, but at the cost of empowering the region’s most Russophobic elements, which historically have been on the right. Poland’s role in servicing the CIA’s torture ‘black sites’ is an example of what I mean.
Fourth, the possibilities for peace that the Soviet Union under Gorbachev offered to both Europe and the United States in 1989-90 were of a sort that comes along very rarely, not even once a century. Gorbachev spoke of ‘our common European home’. Under American leadership, however, the West’s response was to expand Nato, an anti-Russian alliance both in its origins and at present, and to impose shock therapy on the Russian economy. Russia, historically, has always contained both democratic and statist elements. America’s outsize role encouraged the statist side of its politics, which was by no means inevitably dominant. No one can really say how post-1989 Russia would have developed if it had not been treated with condescension and hostility, but those are the conditions that produced Putin.
Fifth, American ‘internationalism’, as shown by its disproportionate role in Europe, has global implications, especially for East Asia. In the late 19th and early 20th century, when American foreign policy began to shift from the balance of power implicit in the Monroe Doctrine to its grandiose and vague ‘internationalism’, thinkers such as Halford Mackinder – arguably Theodore Roosevelt’s favourite geographer – began to see the value of keeping the European peninsula divided from Russia. For Mackinder, such a division was preferable to forms of peace and co-operation that would make Eurasia, the world’s ‘heartland’, the centre of geopolitics, reducing American sea power to a secondary role. Whether consciously or not, American thinkers were guided by this insight not only in 1989 but in 1917 and 1945. In other words, they have sought to keep Europe and Russia divided. This has implications for America’s present relations not only to Russia but also to China.
To conclude: there is no question that America has contributed to world peace, especially through its part in the defeat of German and Italian fascism and Japanese militarism, and in filling the vacuum left in Europe after the Second World War. But this history has left global politics with a fundamental problem at the centre: America’s disproportionate role. This problem is not merely contingent, it is structural. The United States, which has no security problems of its own, regularly launches foreign wars, as in Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan, as well as fostering proxy militarisations, as in Eastern Europe and Ukraine, without paying any price, and without learning anything from its mistakes. The result is hubris. This has immediate implications for the Ukraine conflict, in that America’s leadership has an interest in keeping the war going. As Aristotle argued, we cannot understand any event merely in its immediate context, but need to understand long-term causes both in the sense of what brought the event about, and in the sense of the ‘final cause’ that the event serves.