Looking Beyond Anti-Imperialism: A Response to Some Arguments about the Ukraine War
by John Whitehead
A New York Times article caught my eye recently because it seemed to confirm a tendency I had noticed among certain peace activists, particularly those on the political Left.
The article comments, “As the war in Ukraine drags on, it is not uncommon to hear peace activists and progressive politicians, including many who have opposed American interventions elsewhere, make an exception for Ukraine’s self-defense against Russia.” The article notes the relatively muted response from certain anti-war groups to US military support for Ukraine and the swiftly abandoned proposal for diplomacy with Russia made by the Congressional Progressive Caucus last October.
The Times’ observations were broadly consistent with my own observations. In reading and personal encounters, I have encountered a reluctance among otherwise peace-minded people to call for a less hawkish US response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and even a willingness to support current US policy.
While I sympathize with the reasons given for this unusual stance, I think the stance rests on a mistaken emphasis on opposition to imperialism or aggression. Such opposition, while justified, neglects the importance of a general opposition to war.
Since the Russian invasion began, various self-identified critics of hawkish US policies who take a less critical stance toward the Ukraine war have explained their reasoning. These explanations contain recurring themes.
The most prominent theme is that supporting Ukraine’s armed self-defense is the logical conclusion of opposition to imperialism.
Joseph Cirincione, a foreign policy analyst whose political engagement began with protesting the US war in Vietnam, comments that support for Ukraine’s war effort is consistent with principles of “staunch opposition to imperialist intervention” and “steadfast support for a nation’s right of self-determination.”
Matthew Duss, a former foreign policy advisor to Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) wrote in the New Republic that “preventing powerful countries from invading and obliterating weaker ones should be a core principle” of a “more stable, humane, and progressive” international order. He called for solidarity with Ukrainians and argued that by supporting Ukraine without directly intervening in the war the Biden administration “is getting it mostly right.”
Historian Matthew Specter, writing in Dissent, similarly commented that progressives “should unapologetically support the defensive war for Ukrainian sovereignty; the Left cannot afford to renounce its historical commitment to national self-determination… Ukraine’s struggle to survive is an anticolonial struggle.”
Another theme is the contrast between Ukraine’s war against Russia and past US wars, especially the Iraq War. Cirincione warned that fears of another war “such as the catastrophic U.S. invasion of Iraq” should not lead the Left to oppose action “to stop an imperialist aggressor.” Duss emphasized that “the Biden administration is not the Bush administration.”
Jon Rainwater of Peace Action distinguished between Ukraine’s “actual self-defense” and American “wars of choice in places like Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan.” Stephen Miles of Win without War drew a parallel between “Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq,” commenting that “the onus for ending the war is with the aggressor” and that in the case of Ukraine, “more often than not, President Biden has gotten it right.”
These writers and activists identify some important truths. Russia is engaged in an aggressive, imperialist war. Ukraine is seeking to defend itself, in a war effort that is quite different from the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq. Outrage over Russia’s actions and sympathy for Ukraine is the appropriate reaction to the current situation.
However, these commentators fail to address crucial questions: is war the best solution to Russian aggression? Could the war end up causing far more harm than good?
The various arguments for US military support to Ukraine cited above seem to implicitly assume that if a war is defensive or anti-imperialist then that fact should resolve all doubts or skepticism about the war. Such an assumption is unwarranted. The nature of war is to be massively destructive and often futile, and history gives examples of wars fought for defensive or otherwise worthy causes leading to bitterly disappointing outcomes.
Ukraine’s war of self-defense against Russia is unlikely to be an exception to the rule that war yields counter-productive results. I have argued before that most of the likely outcomes of the war continuing are extremely bad ones. I may be mistaken in that judgment but the question of how the Ukraine war will end needs to be addressed, even if it is a war for self-defense or against imperialism.
These writers and activists’ emphasis on anti-imperialism and the negative example of the Iraq War also reveals an oddly selective criticism of US foreign policy. As they must be aware, the United States has fought wars that were not as unambiguously aggressive as the Iraq War but that nevertheless had dire consequences—and that were opposed at the time by peace activists.
The US war in Afghanistan, for example, and the larger Global War on Terrorism were launched in response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Both US policies could plausibly be described as forms of self-defense against an adversary that, if not precisely imperialistic, was certainly engaged in aggression. Yet these policies still ended in disaster because they relied on destructive means ill-suited to responding to the aggression that prompted them.
Going slightly further back in history provides another relevant example, the Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991. This US-led war was prompted by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, an act of aggression comparable to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Yet at the time many people, including most Democratic members of Congress, opposed using military force to stop Iraqi imperialism or defend Kuwait’s self-determination.
Opposition to the Gulf War could be based on a recognition of Iraqi aggression combined with reasonable concerns about the war’s destructive results. Such a stance was expressed at the war’s outset by Bernie Sanders, then a congressman.
Sanders called Iraqi President Saddam Hussein a “vicious dictator who illegally and brutally invaded Kuwait” but also expressed his concern that “the death and destruction caused will not, in my opinion, soon be forgotten by the Third World in general — and by the poor people of the Middle East in particular.” He presciently added, “I fear that someday we will regret that decision and that we are in fact laying the groundwork for more and more wars in that region in years to come.”
He continued with a call “to support our troops in the most basic way — by bringing them home alive and well. I urge my fellow members to ask the President to stop the bombing immediately and request that the Secretary General of the United Nations go to Iraq to begin immediate negotiations for the withdrawal of Iraq from Kuwait and the cessation of the war.”
Opposition to the current US policy of sending weapons, including cluster bombs, to Ukraine and support for diplomacy aimed at a cease-fire could be defended in similar terms. The anti-war group Peace Action, to its credit, has provided an excellent list of recommendations for constructive, nonviolent responses to the Ukraine war. (While produced relatively early in the war, many of the recommendations remain relevant today.)
More broadly, critics of hawkish US policies might do well to base their criticism more on war’s destructive, often uncontrollable consequences rather than on whether a given war is imperialistic or aggressive. Being anti-imperialistic or defensive is no guarantee against a war leading to disaster. Searching for nonviolent means of opposing imperialism and aggression is a wiser strategy.
For more of our posts on Ukraine, see:
A Hidden Cost of the Ukraine War: How Russia’s Invasion Encourages the Spread of Nuclear Weapons
For more of our posts on the cost of war, see:
Seeing War’s Victims: The New York Times Investigation of Civilian Casualties in Iraq and Syria