I do not think of myself as a war hawk, but less than one year after the U.S.’s haphazard withdrawal from Afghanistan, we are faced with yet another crisis—Russia’s near inevitable invasion of Ukraine. It is my belief that we, the country with the strongest, most technologically advance military in the world, have a responsibility to protect our fellow democracies in an act of preserving the liberal democratic order. The violation of sovereignty that Russia will perpetrate is of a magnitude the world hasn’t seen in decades, with the exception of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The question is, though, are we ready to engage in another war? Particularly with a military power such as Russia?
I will try to be even-handed in my approach to this question. If it is within the U.S.’s strategic imperative to maintain its hegemonic power, the choice should be a simple one—act on Biden’s words and “swiftly and decisively” respond to Russia when it invades Ukraine. This should first be done through non-violent diplomatic measures, entering discourse with Russian leaders, but if this fails, it is necessary to act swiftly and decisively by means of military force. My opinion is predicated on the failure of diplomacy, which, though not a given, is in dire straits.
As we once again find ourselves on the brink of geopolitical chaos with Putin amassing over 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, it will call into question the role of the U.S., the European Union, and international organizations. They must act as they did over fifty years ago, though, toeing the delicate line between aggression and escalation. Though there are multiple avenues for how the U.S. can approach this predicament, it’s vital to first determine what our strategic imperative is.
First, we must ask, is it to maintain our position as a global hegemon? We have found ourselves the sole superpower after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with it the burden and privilege to assert global military, diplomatic, and economic dominance. In this role, the U.S. has been the biggest contributor of both finances and military resources to the United Nations, as well as invested heavily in keeping the freedom of navigation throughout the oceans safe and secure from states wishing to assert dominance out of their sovereign waters. If the U.S. decides this is still what it wants, if its objective is to hold on to its position of power without letting other global powers compete for a more dominant position, then we must act as Biden said we would, “swiftly and decisively”.
The implications of standing by and watching a competing power invade another sovereign state without doing anything, discredits much of what the U.S.’s hegemony and belief system is built upon: military dominance and a state’s right to self-determination. Though Ukraine isn’t a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and therefore not given the collective security guaranteed by the organization, it’s a canary in a coal mine for how far authoritarian regimes can push the U.S.’s tolerance of aggression by states not officially bound to any collective security agreement.
Other great powers will be watching the canary.
The precarious position of Taiwan, paired with the rapid militarization of China, spells trouble for whatever the outcome may be for the Ukraine situation. Taiwan is also not a member of any agreement guaranteeing collective security, nor has the U.S. outrightly stated it would come to Taiwan’s aid if China decided to invade. It is a crucial beacon of democracy in a democratically turbulent area of the world, though, and it is a strategic imperative of the U.S. to preserve our democratic allies, is it not?
If Russia invades Ukraine without military repercussions from the U.S., what message does that send to the vulnerable world of democratically fragile states that ally with the U.S.?
If the cost of conflict is too much for our populace to bear, then we would be right to step down from our position as hegemon and revert into a multi-polar power structure, because it wouldn’t just be Russia rising if the U.S. fell, but China, as well as India and Iran.
If we are ready to retreat, ready to accept that our run has ended as the dominant global superpower, then we should let the events in Ukraine play out, offer support and sanction to refugees and those who become displaced. Offer aid and financial support to states taking the brunt of the asylum seekers, invest our resources into food aid, health aid and financially backing communities that suffer the most. But we must accept that our position to do so will be undermined by the action we did not take in the first place. The U.S. will once again be seen as a reactive power, responding to crises. It will not be a preventative power, one that seeks to resolve a conflict or situation before it starts; well beyond Ukraine, our credibility will be undermined indefinitely.