Updated: Aug 11
In The Republic, Plato wrote an allegory of the Cave, which described a group of people that have been living all of their lives in a cave, only able to see shadows on the walls. These shadows are reality for the cave dwellers. When they break their chains and go to the surface, the sun, which symbolized reality, blinds the cave dwellers sending them back into the cave and the comfort of the world of shadows. This analogy of Plato can be applied to almost any aspect of human existence. The mass of people will always feel more comfortable in the world of sensation, where reality is more malleable. The saying “ignorance is bliss” has a certain amount of truth to it. Reality, often contradicting the shadows which constitute our existence can be difficult to accept and is often rejected.
Foreign policy, being a field of study dominated by schools of thought which emphasize the shadow elements of our perceptive nature all too often ignores the importance of taking a philosophical approach to national security issues. Realism, the idea that foreign policy should be looked at as a zero sum game, with a victory for us coming at the expense of another nation or idealism which thinks our relations should be based upon contemporary ideals of right and wrong are both based upon surface principles which ignore the history behind American relations with foreign countries and fail to see the future consequences of policies which, today may look like a gain, but down the road may cause irreparable harm. What is needed is a new theory of international relations, which ignores the false construct of the two dominant theories and instead emphasizes the power of ideas in forming a world order based upon peace and cooperation.
As of this writing, the situation between Russia and Ukraine seems to be headed towards a downward spiral which threatens to become international in nature. It’s impossible to tell the true nature of the news received by intelligence agencies; too often, that news has been used to push political objectives. However, if it’s to be believed then the United States is threatening a military response to any action by Russia to possibly invade that country. Why would the United States risk a war halfway around the world with a superpower, over a country which has zero effect on our overall security position? The answer lies in how the cold war was able to define us not just politically, but also culturally as well. Not only did we have military forces stationed around the world to combat the Soviet threat, but also our whole military-industrial complex justified its existence through the defense of that threat. On the home front, people built fallout shelters and children would do duck and cover drills all in preparation for a potential nuclear war. Movies, such as The Longest Day, Red Dawn, and On the Beach were made to play into people’s fears regarding a nuclear apocalypse. Children’s shows such as GI Joe instilled this idea this idea into young people through the portrayal of Cobra as being analogous to the Soviets and the assertion of patriotism coming through the opposition to Cobra. The modern Republican Party was the result of diverse, unlikely elements coming together through a mutual opposition to Communism. Total War is often described as the complete mobilization of a country’s economy to a particular war effort. During this time period the United States never mobilized itself in this fashion, instead the populace was mobilized psychologically, viewing the threat from the Soviets as being always on the horizon, with the Cold war being analogous to a game of Chess with good vs evil being the two competitors. When the Soviet Union and subsequently the Warsaw Bloc collapsed in 1989 American policymakers were left dumbfounded, without a purpose and direction from which to drive foreign policy. Some on the right refused to believe what they were seeing and constructed the idea that the collapse of communism was nothing more than a giant ruse, with the purpose of deceiving the West and thereby acquiring Western capital in an attempt to be more competitive economically. The anti-Soviet attitude being ingrained in people’s subconscious couldn’t be discarded so easily.
The vacuum created with the downfall of the Soviet Union left us in search of new enemies. The existence of communism as an international force let us define ourselves as a beacon of freedom relative to the communist bloc. With that force no longer what it once was the identity of Americans was in danger of transforming into nothingness. The subsequent war against Islamic extremism was an attempt to reassert that identity. The weakness of that threat has once again left a vacuum which needed to be filled, and with the rise of Vladimir Putin and the attempt to secure border areas as buffers to the West, Russia once again has been posited as a threat to the American Way of Life.
It's important to remember though the common thread that runs through humanity. Human diversity is reflected in the variety of economic, cultural, and political systems that we see not only currently but throughout human history, and while at times those systems are reflective of incongruities that cannot be sustained the citizens of those countries still have the same wants and needs as we do: the desire to procreate, to be part of a community, for comfort, and security. These needs are at times perverted by political systems which try to transform human nature instead of conforming to it. The inevitable disintegration of States is more often due to this perversion of the State than anything else. However, during their existence they constitute and existential threat which requires a response. Both of the Cold War leading protagonists were examples of this with the United States championing Capitalism and the Soviet Union championing Communism. Both ideologies are based upon the constant need for expansion, being internationalist in orientation, failing to recognize the inherent diversity of people’s and institutions. In an attempt to mold everyone into a singular form, they seal their own destruction.
It’s this recognition that it isn’t people but systems which are evil which should guide us in the formulation of foreign policy. A foreign policy consistent with our philosophical outlook. For too long, the cold war dynamic of us vs them, of demonization of opponents has infected how we formulate ideas on how to conduct ourselves collectively in the field of international relations. How we’re supposed to conduct ourselves relative to those around us in our personal lives should guide our political convictions and by consequence our views on foreign affairs. Most people realize that the first impressions don’t constitute who an individual is. As we get to know people better our views constantly evolve and change. So, why does this not apply in the political realm? People are very reluctant to change their political allegiances, holding them as being semi-divine, living their lives with one idea of the political good, failing to see in the opposite any redeeming values. Imagine if this is how we decide to live our personal lives. Social relations would be turned into a war of all against all. The chaotic condition of our current foreign policy vis-a-vis Russia derives from the inability to translate how we think in the personal realm over into the political.
To go beyond surface appearances it’s necessary to understand why thing are the way they are. Throughout all of human history, aggression never exists autonomously from other causes. Wars are conducted always in the name of freedom and liberty, whether that’s the truth or not is another story. The perception that Russian aggression in the Ukraine and potential aggression in Eastern Europe is nothing more than a naked land grab ignores the post-cold war history of the region.
With the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union had conceded defeat in the Cold War, with the implicit assumption being that Russia’s politics and economy would be westernized and in turn, Cold War relics such as NATO would no longer have a justification for its existence and dissolve. None of these worked as intended. The economic and political reforms were a disaster leading to an economy run by the Russian Mafia and a political system incapable of addressing them. Taking place concurrently, NATO not only did not dissolve but also expanded up to the borders of Russia. American military bases were established in a ring formation surrounding Russia. Former Soviet satellites such as Georgia were supplied with military equipment from NATO. It’s necessary at this point to put ourselves in the shoes of not only the Russian people but also their military and political establishment. They had just conceded defeat and dedicated themselves to adopting, which to them were foreign economic and military ideals. The result was the expansion of a military alliance founded upon the goal of going to war with the Soviet Union. With the dissolution of that political unit the justification for NATO’s existence was no more and from an objective point of view should have either dissolved or stayed at its pre-1989 borders. From a Russian point of view, there was every reason for viewing these actions as being aggressive in intent. The failure of Russian political leadership to formulate effective responses to these western moves was what lead to the rise to power of Vladimir Putin, who upon taking power proceeded to re-establish Russian spheres of influence in those countries, (including the Ukraine) surrounding Russia.
Another way to view this to imagine this scenario taking place in our own backyard. In fact, it has with Cuba. We attempted on more than once occasion to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro and even threatened war over the placement of missiles on the island. These actions had sound justifications which go back through history. States with hostile neighbors automatically create destabilizing situations that cannot last permanently. Whether it’s Athens, Sparta, Rome or the present-day U.S. and Russia, buffer States are a necessity for a stabilized world order.
The Russian meddling in the affairs of Ukraine is the functional equivalent of American meddling in the affairs of Mexico. A Russian attempt to make a satellite out of Mexico would be strenuously opposed by our government for justifiable reasons. The Ukraine sits on Russia’s southern border; their attempt to oppose it becoming an American satellite is justified on equal grounds.
A resolution needs to come about through mutual shared understanding. American foreign policy needs to be based upon the idea of justice and reason. The idea of American exceptionalism, that the United States is on a pedestal relative to the rest of the world and is therefore entitled to a different set of rules and norms leads to an inherently unstable international framework. As in our personal lives, when individuals play by a set of rules different from everyone else a breeding ground of resentment is created and rules are perceived to be made for a select few, consequentially delegitimizing the whole system. However, moves on the party of the United States such as bringing NATO back to its pre-1989 borders would have to be met by reciprocal moves by the Russians to respect the territorial sovereignty of their neighbors and the internal politics of other nations, something they haven’t been doing as the most recent American presidential election has shown.