Note: This is a response, as part of a Boston Review forum, to an essay by Rajan Menon.
There is much to praise in Rajan Menon’s essay. Menon’s sober analysis of the state and future of the war in Ukraine succeeds as an antidote to the reductive, circular commentary that has dominated the media landscape for over a year, save for a few examples—including in this publication. Menon knows how wars have historically ended between great powers and foreign-backed insurgencies: in treaties and accords that reflect compromise rather than unequivocal victory. He provides comprehensive, plausible paths to end the war that don’t adhere to all of Ukraine’s demands, but serve the interests of its short- and long-term stability. I share his hope for a Russia deterred from attacking Ukraine in the future (and an eventual partner in the global community), and a strategy for the reconstruction of Ukraine that rests on international cooperation.
But Menon’s essay distorts a progressive strategy for a postwar Ukraine—a Ukraine, and a world, that is more democratic, egalitarian, and free from territorial aggression. This is unfortunate. Progressives do not seek a diplomatic solution at all costs, but an alternative global order that moves us away from the current framework of “great-power competition” as the basis for international diplomacy.
Menon claims that “realists and progressives” see NATO expansion as a casus belli, believing the hubris of the West precipitated Putin’s bellicosity, and “oppose the Biden administration’s arming of Ukraine but fail to specify what, if anything, they could have done instead.” Realists and progressives, he argues, seek an immediate diplomatic resolution to the war, fearing a prolonged conflict heightens the potential for greater U.S. involvement. The question begs to be asked: will Ukraine become America’s next Vietnam?
This is a mischaracterization of progressives’ foreign policy views. Realists and progressives are not synonymous, and a plurality of thought exists within the progressive sphere that is distinct from the realist camp. As an advocate of a progressive foreign policy, I have supported—and continue to support—U.S. security assistance to Ukraine, as well as Ukrainians’ military and political resistance to Russian aggression. I also reject the idea that the world must provide “Russia what it wants at Ukraine’s expense.” I am not alone. Leading progressive foreign policy thinkers such as Matthew Duss, Stephen Wertheim, and Emma Ashford have all supported U.S. arms transfers to Ukraine and the Ukrainian insurgency. And while Vladimir Putin’s willingness to use nuclear weapons should be taken seriously, it is that fear of nuclear escalation, I believe, that will deter the Biden administration from sending combat troops into Ukraine.
The foundation of a progressive foreign policy, in my view, entails providing material support to countries suffering from deprivation and aggression in multiple forms—with such assistance reflecting the security and democratic interests of the United States and its people. While a consensus on what constitutes a progressive foreign policy is lacking, a guiding principle of a progressive agenda should be to mitigate suffering in global terms and in ways that do not empower autocrats, reinforce imperialism, or facilitate the likelihood of future conflicts. A progressive foreign policy also serves the global majority (poorer nations within the G77) at the expense of the minority (wealthy nations in the G7).
Progressives, at least those affiliated with “progressive restraint,” believe that these principles have yet to be applied by the United States as the basis of its grand strategy. In fighting its twenty-year Global War on Terrorism, the United States neglected the structural sources of terrorist violence. In the last decade alone, the United States and its allies have failed to systematically address systemic problems in Middle East and African nations—and, at times, exacerbated these problems by its dependence on military solutions, including the evasive, paradoxical promise of “humanitarian intervention.” These issues include widespread government corruption (in Iraq, Egypt and Libya), civil war (in Syria and Yemen), and ongoing paramilitary and terrorist violence (in Sudan and Somalia). The end of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan in 2021 has now translated to the West’s neglect of a potential famine, where an estimated $800 million is needed to prevent “catastrophic hunger” in the country.
These crises collectively create disorder, death, and suffering in the millions. They spur forced migrations and large numbers of refugees. Add the proliferation of natural disasters brought on by climate change, and you have multiple humanitarian crises that, due to the interconnectedness of global economic and diplomatic relations, will affect both the Global South and Global North for years to come. To use increasingly common parlance, the world faces a polycrisis.