A national mood disorder afflicts America, causing wild swings between mania and despair, superhuman exertion and bruised withdrawal. We overdo our foreign crusades, and then we overdo our retrenchments, never pausing in between, where an ordinary country would try to reach a fine balance. American exceptionalism has two faces, equally transfixed with a sense of specialness—one radiant with the nation’s unique beneficence, the other sunk in its unrivaled malignity. These extremes, confounding friends as well as enemies, are unrealistic and unsustainable.
Until the early hours of February 24, when Russian tank columns crossed the Ukrainian border and airborne troops targeted Kyiv, the United States was a chastened and declining superpower. The Biden administration seemed to have picked up where the Trump administration left off, accepting the harsh diagnosis of critics: After 20 years of failed wars, the age of intervention was over. Any thought of using force to transform other countries met the definition of insanity. A wave of recent books—Spencer Ackerman’s Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump, Andrew Bacevich’s After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed, Samuel Moyn’s Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, Luke Mogelson’s The Storm Is Here: An American Crucible—portrays a country so warped by endless war, white supremacy, and violence that its very nature now drives it to dominate and destroy. Ackerman concludes that it is “increasingly difficult to see America as anything more than its War on Terror.”
The best that such a country can do for the world is as little as possible. After the fall of Afghanistan, Moyn, a law and history professor at Yale, told Vox: “The most remarkable fact about liberals today is that, aside from a few, they’ve all learned their lesson.” What lesson? That “humanitarian intervention” is a contradiction, and war itself almost always wrong; that the U.S. cannot change other countries and does a lot of harm trying; that Americans are willing to accept far too much violence in the name of “security” and “democracy”; that the period of American global hegemony was a disaster best consigned to history.
In the past half decade, this deep skepticism has led to an odd convergence of views. From opposed starting points, the pacifist, anti-imperialist left and the nationalist, “America First” right have arrived at a common position: restraint. They have been joined by geopolitical “realists” from the center—mostly academic experts—who view international relations in terms of national interests and security, holding that the goal of foreign policy should be stability among great powers, not the spread of democracy and human rights.
The old labels have lost their predictability. Progressives now call for a return to “spheres of influence,” and conservatives denounce the U.S. military; The Intercept and Fox News sometimes sound alike; Noam Chomsky recently praised the statesmanship of Donald Trump. The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft (named for John Quincy Adams, who warned the young American republic not to go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy”) emerged in 2019 as a stronghold of restrainers from across the spectrum. It draws experts from the staff of former Vice President Dick Cheney, the Nation Institute, the oil industry, and the CIA; they’ve been paid by both George Soros and Charles Koch.
Beneath the restrainers’ views lies a shared hostility to what they often call “liberal elites”—the policy makers and plugged-in experts and pundits who never listened, and whom they despise for continuing to see America as a benevolent power. How could anyone still believe that fairy tale? For restrainers on the right, liberal zeal threatens national sovereignty and traditional values around the world and at home. For those on the left, democracy is the pretty lie that hides the brutality of capitalism and imperialism. These views are at bottom antithetical: The right wants more national power without international rules, and the left wants the nation-state to disappear. But the two sides have made a temporary marriage at what they see as liberalism’s sickbed.
With the withdrawal last year of the final troops from Kabul, restraint appeared to have won an uncontested victory. It lasted six months.
In February, as more than 130,000 Russian troops massed on the Ukrainian border, restrainers refused to believe the Biden administration’s warning that Vladimir Putin was about to invade. A war would upend their fixed views of international politics: that states pursue rational interests, not mad dreams of ancient glory; that U.S. leaders manufacture intelligence for their own ends; that imperialism is a uniquely American sin. Therefore, a war wasn’t possible. When it came anyway, restrainers found ways to place the blame on the U.S.:
“Emulation of the American way of being in the world is largely complete with Putin’s shock and awe assault.”
“The neocons on the right ... they’re power drunk, they are bloodthirsty, and they cannot be trusted ... Joe Biden is sleepwalking us towards war.”
“At first Putin’s invasion of Ukraine had at least the morally instructive quality of showing what a humanitarian intervention looks like from the other side.”
“It’s very important to understand that we invented this story that Putin is highly aggressive and he’s principally responsible for this crisis in Ukraine.”
These statements could all have come from the left, right, or center. As it happens, in order they’re from Pankaj Mishra, a left-wing anti-imperialist; Joe Kent, a pro-Trump Republican candidate for Congress in Washington State; Thomas Meaney, whose career has spanned the Claremont Institute and the New Left Review; and John Mearsheimer, a realist international-relations scholar. They give neither Russia nor Ukraine any agency—only the U.S. drives history. The war is not about Putin’s fantasy of a restored empire, or Ukraine’s determination to remain an independent democracy. It’s simply one move of a long game in which America is the aggressive player, Russia a threatened opponent capable of being restored to reason, and Ukraine a hapless pawn. Putin was only reacting to NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders.
None of this analysis held up. The NATO alliance has always remained a defensive one, posing no military threat to the Russian Federation, never seriously considering Ukrainian membership, and guilty of no historic betrayal, either, as the Johns Hopkins historian M. E. Sarotte shows in Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post–Cold War Stalemate. The book argues that both superpowers squandered the chance for cooperation after the Cold War, but it refutes the Russian claim that expansion broke an explicit American promise to advance NATO “not one inch eastward.” In any case, Putin had offered an entirely different justification on the eve of the invasion: Ukraine was part of Russia. Ukraine didn’t exist.
In the months following February 24, a few restrainers quietly changed their minds on Ukraine; others fell silent about one of the most important geopolitical events of the century. Most persisted with the conviction that American arms would achieve nothing, that a doomed Ukraine should find the quickest way out of pointless bloodshed by negotiating away territory and human beings for neutrality and peace. When I went to Ukraine this past spring, Oleksandr Sushko, the executive director of a prodemocracy foundation in Kyiv, told me that some progressive American colleagues recoiled when Ukrainians like him spoke of fighting for liberal values. “Don’t say the word freedom,” Sushko was warned, “because ‘freedom’ was used to intervene somewhere in the world.” In an essay, Samuel Moyn advised the West to follow the example of countries in the “global south” and criticize the invasion without doing a thing to stop it—which would have left Ukraine a Russian-occupied wasteland and encouraged future aggressors around the world.
This restraint is not a hard-won prudence in the face of tragic facts. It’s a doctrinaire refusal, by people living in the safety and comfort of the West, to believe in liberal values that depend on American support. The restrainers can’t accept that politics leaves no one clean, and that the most probable alternative to U.S. hegemony is not international peace and justice but worse hegemons. They can’t face the reality that force never disappears from the world; it simply changes hands.
Meanwhile, the war has reduced their position to rubble. U.S. intelligence turned out to be accurate. Putin has rejected any serious negotiations, both before invading and since. His purpose is not to neutralize or “liberate” Ukraine, but to annihilate it for the dream of Greater Russia. Occupying troops have committed atrocities on an unimagined scale. NATO weapons have allowed Ukrainians to defend themselves and eventually regain lost territory in a conflict they understand to be a fight for survival. European support has not disintegrated under Russian blackmail. American leadership has proved decisive in holding the West together in defense of collective security and democratic values. The war is about freedom. Russia is likely to lose.
But we should pause before closing the book on the post-9/11 years and never listening to the restrainers again. The war has kindled hope, at times bordering on triumphalism, for a renewal of liberal democracy, not just as a guide to foreign policy but as a mission at home. In September, the political philosopher Francis Fukuyama told The Washington Post, “If Ukraine is able to defeat Russia, the demonstration effect is going to be really tremendous. It’s going to have domestic political consequences inside every democracy that’s threatened by one of these populist parties … I do think that we could recover a little bit of the spirit of 1989. Ukraine could trigger something like that in the United States and Europe.”
Imagining that a Ukrainian victory would have a decisive effect on the internal politics of Western democracies is unwarranted exuberance. Illiberal populism continues to thrive in countries whose governments support Ukraine—Poland, the U.K., France, Italy, Sweden. The major non-Western democracies—India, Indonesia, Brazil, and South Africa—have stayed more or less neutral on the war; India began to criticize only when Russia began to lose. In the U.S., arming Ukraine still has bipartisan backing in Congress and from the public, but a Republican win in the midterm elections could allow the party’s Trumpist wing to block military aid; and if Trump is reelected in 2024, the U.S. might well switch sides. In that case, American politics would transform Ukraine, not the other way around.
In 1989 it was possible to believe that Europe would lead the way toward a more integrated, cosmopolitan world under an American security umbrella; it was easy to discount the force of nationalism. That ceased to be true a long time ago, as Fukuyama knows: It’s the subject of his latest book, Liberalism and Its Discontents. He argues persuasively that liberalism—individual freedom, equal rights, rule of law, consent of the governed, open markets, scientific rationalism—is in retreat around the world, not because of “a fundamental weakness in the doctrine,” but because of “the way that liberalism has evolved over the last couple of generations.” The causes of its decline run deep: globalization, rapid technological change, inequality, mass migration, institutional sclerosis, failures of leadership. In the past few decades, an exaggerated emphasis on freedom has driven polarization in democracies, including ours: radical egalitarianism on the left, reactionary authoritarianism on the right. Both forms of illiberalism seek to forge group identities—exclusive, intolerant ones, steeped in resentment—to replace the national identities that have become corroded in an era of globalization.
Fukuyama believes that liberalism can recover and thrive again through “a sense of moderation,” by toning down its individualistic extremes—sensible advice, but not exactly an antidote to a global crisis that has reached even Sweden. When writers like Fukuyama and Robert Kagan—in his 2018 book, The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World—call for liberalism’s renewal, they often assume its self-evident appeal. They downplay the erosion of American legitimacy and will, and they gloss over a question that doesn’t interest the restrainers but that has returned in full force with a new European war: Can America still lead? And if not, can the liberal order survive?
The institutions and rules of the postwar era, which enabled a historic expansion of freedom and prosperity around the world, depended on not just U.S. power but the American example. It doesn’t seem possible for liberal democracy to remain healthy abroad but not at home, and vice versa. Its decay in the U.S. has coincided with the rise of authoritarianism globally. The likely successor is not, as the left wishes, world government and international law under the aegis of the United Nations, but rival nationalisms, including Trump’s “America First,” with “might makes right” in every neighborhood.
The Biden administration, while disavowing the term cold war, is already waging one—invoking a global contest between democracy and autocracy, using industrial policy to gain strategic advantage over China in areas such as microchip production. In The Twilight Struggle: What the Cold War Teaches Us About Great-Power Rivalry Today, Hal Brands, a historian at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, revisits the U.S.-Soviet contest for its now-forgotten lessons on how to conduct “high-stakes, long-term competitions.” But a new twilight struggle would be far murkier than the Cold War’s stark ideological contest between two systems across the globe. China, a totalitarian state that delivers the goods, is the obvious peer adversary today, but Brands also includes Russia, though he was writing before Putin and Xi Jinping announced a friendship with “no limits” between their two countries on February 4 at the Beijing Olympics. Their statement featured the terms multipolarity, polycentric world order, and civilizational diversity , but its real message for the U.S. and the West was blunt: You had your turn—now butt out. Three weeks later, Putin gave the world a look at the multipolar future.
American policy in the original Cold War was to contain Soviet communism until it finally altered its character or collapsed. This time around there’s no universal ideology to combat, only brutal, cynical dictatorships. Illiberalism today is entirely negative. In place of utopia, it offers resentment—of American power, Western elites, decadent globalists. Putin gives the Russian people nothing they’re willing to die for. When he declares a national emergency, they flock to the airports and borders rather than risk their skins in defense of the motherland.
Brands is concerned with “winning a long-term rivalry,” but what this would mean today isn’t clear. Maintaining military and technological supremacy? The fall of authoritarian regimes? Limitless expansion of the free world? Or something more modest, like improved behavior from Moscow and Beijing? Brands is well aware of flaws in the Cold War analogy, but he doesn’t reckon with the most important difference. When the last twilight struggle began, the U.S. had just emerged from the ruins of World War II energized and unified by victory, the world’s dominant country by far. Today we can’t hold an election without fear of civil war. Any thought of winning a new cold war has to start from this dismal fact.
Rather than relearning the lessons of the Cold War, or overlearning those of the post-9/11 years, we have to escape the old pattern of wild swings by facing what is new. We’re left to resolve two hard and conflicting truths: Autocratic regimes will exploit American restraint to enlarge their power at the expense of their own people, their neighbors, and the international order. But American action will stoke illiberal reactions when it brings domination, not freedom.
One way out of this dilemma was proposed by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams in 1821, when, after warning against going abroad to destroy monsters, he added: America “is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.” The best thing we can do for the world’s disrepair is to fix our own collapsing house. That sentiment is becoming more and more common today, expressing a prudent sense of limits. Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, recently wrote that “democracy promotion at home rather than abroad should be the focus of U.S. attention,” because there’s more at stake here and a better chance of success.
But separating these projects is a lot harder to do in the postwar, post–Cold War world than it was two centuries ago. Striving to be an exemplary bystander, for all the urgency of our own problems, is too narrow an approach, either abroad or at home. The American-led order lasted three-quarters of a century, and people struggling for democracy in other countries are less eager to see it end than the Quincy Institute is. Even when they resent our interference, they also want our support. And in this country, invocations of “national interest” and strategies for “long-term rivalry” absorb experts more than they move ordinary people. As American history shows, we’re loath to sacrifice for an international cause that has nothing to do with freedom.
Russia’s war has demonstrated that a decent world isn’t possible without liberalism, and liberalism can’t thrive without U.S. engagement. Ukraine shows one way for America to use its power on behalf of freedom: Instead of sending troops to fight and die for democratic illusions in inhospitable countries, send arms to help an actual democracy repel a foreign invader. No U.S. troops, no meddling in civil wars, no nation building, no going it alone. Collaborate closely with allies and take measures to avoid catastrophe. Call it the Biden doctrine—it’s been remarkably successful.
Do its principles extend beyond this war? For example, what can the U.S. do to support Iran’s democratic protests that wouldn’t ultimately undermine the cause and, eventually, bipartisan backing at home? Broader sanctions would further the destruction of Iran’s middle class. Withdrawing from nuclear talks during this brutal crackdown, though the right thing to do, would not affect the regime’s behavior. The Biden administration—unlike the Obama administration during an earlier surge of protest in 2009—has chosen to give Iran’s brave young demonstrators strong rhetorical support and practical help in the form of access to satellite communications as a way around the regime’s internet blackout. Any deeper U.S. involvement in an internal struggle as dramatic and enduring as Iran’s—for example, arming insurgents or trying to manipulate regime change—would be destructive, and it would stir up the kind of domestic battle that precludes steady, reliable support for democracy abroad.
This recognition of limits would make a foreign policy founded on liberal values more persuasive abroad and more sustainable with the American electorate, holding off the next oscillation toward grandiosity or gloom. Where democracy exists, strengthen it and defend it against foreign subversion, if necessary with arms. Where it doesn’t, take care to understand particular movements for change, and offer only support that preserves their legitimacy. Align U.S. policy with the universal desire for freedom, but maintain a keen sense of unintended consequences and no illusions of easy success.
Liberalism suffers from inherent weaknesses that Putin and other autocrats shrewdly exploit. Championing borderless values such as freedom and equality, it falls prey to a kind of imperialist zeal (in his September speech announcing the illegal annexation of four Ukrainian regions, Putin held up Russia as a bulwark against Western colonialism). Declining to affirm any transcendent moral order, liberalism loses its attractive power when it offers a flat world with a smartphone in every pocket and nothing meaningful to live for. And it triggers bitter reaction when it fails to grasp the abiding appeal of nationalism.
In the age of Putin, Xi, and Trump, liberalism and nationalism seem to be mortally opposed. The first is universal (“globalist,” in the derisive phrase of nationalists), the second particular; the first ennobles the individual, the second exalts the community. But in a healthy society, liberalism and nationalism coexist; in fact, they’re inextricable. Without shared identity and strong social bonds, liberty atomizes citizens into consumers, spectators, gamers—easy targets for a demagogue. But national solidarity can’t endure if it’s coerced. A people kept compliant with lies of national greatness, shopping, and police roundups will turn on one another in the face of crisis.
When I asked Ukrainians what the war was about, they inevitably gave two answers in a single phrase: survival and freedom. “Patriot war and democratic war—you cannot distinguish,” Denys Surkov, a crew-cut, scowling doctor, told me. “It’s the same war.” Ukraine is fighting for its existence as an independent nation, and for the right of Ukrainians to choose their own way of life, their own form of government—which is democracy. These two causes are inseparable and reinforce each other. Without a sense of nationhood, Ukrainians wouldn’t have the unity and collective will to resist at such a steep price. Without liberal values and a democratic government, Ukraine would likely divide into ethnic and regional factions.
Something similar is true here in the U.S. Our national identity has always been rooted in democracy. Nothing else, not blood and soil, shared ethnicity or faith, common memories or moneyed pursuits, has ever really held Americans together—only what Walt Whitman called “the fervid and tremendous idea.” It’s as fragile as it is compelling, and when it fails, we dissolve into hateful little tribes, and autocrats here and abroad smile and rub their hands. Don’t imagine that America can bring the light of freedom to the world, but don’t think the world will be better off if we just stop trying.
This article appears in the December 2022 print edition with the headline “America Can Still Lead.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.