“We have it in our power to begin the world all over again.” Tom Paine’s bold assertion, dating from 1776, captures an enduring facet of America’s national self-image and self-assigned responsibility to history.
The ongoing Russo-Ukraine War offers an opportune moment to reflect on Paine’s claim. Does it still hold? With 1776 itself now the subject of controversy, does beginning the world all over again remain part of the nation’s repertoire?
The American experience is replete with fresh beginnings. On the one hand are various “Great Awakenings,” both religious and secular, undertaken to purge the nation of injustice, inequality, and evils of various kinds. On the other hand are countless armed conflicts, typically styled as crusades on behalf of liberty, even if informed by overt or covert imperial ambitions. String together these various new beginnings and there emerges a triumphal narrative sufficient to command the fealty of most Americans most of the time, at least until recently.
Events of the post-Cold War era raised serious questions about whether this narrative remains viable. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 had prompted expectations of the United States claiming a position of political, economic, technological, military, and above all ideological primacy. Yet efforts to extend the life of the American Century resulted instead in a series of missteps and disappointments that would have given even Tom Paine pause.
Abroad, a sequence of ill-advised military interventions, intended to affirm a global Pax Americana, cost the United States dearly while yielding few positive outcomes. At home, a culture war centered on issues of race, gender, and sexuality fostered bitter division. The Global War on Terrorism turned out to have a domestic counterpart, a civil war waged in courts, statehouses, schools, the streets, and online. Our contemporary “Great Awakening” finds its expression in wokeness and the opposition it evokes.
If 1989 had seemed to be an annus mirabilisthen 2020 surely qualifies as America’s annus horribilis. A pandemic destined to claim the lives of a million citizens ravaged the population. Secondary effects included widespread economic distress and popular resistance to government-prescribed protective measures. Borders, immigration, crime, policing, gun ownership, public-school curricula, and a worsening climate crisis all became fodder for bitter disputes that seem immune to compromise.
To say that the nation’s political class, as embodied by the leadership of the Republican and Democratic parties, fell short in devising remedies to these challenges would be a monumental understatement. Meanwhile, as if nothing was amiss, most ordinary citizens nourished their appetite for a way of life that prized mobility, choice, and unfettered consumption, with a side dish of celebrity.
Not least among the curious aspects of the coronavirus pandemic is the palpable eagerness of Americans to pretend that it never happened. Individually and collectively, we yearn for a return to a remembered normalcy that may or may not have ever actually existed.
In the midst of all this came the hold-your-breath presidential election of November 2020. The incumbent, idolized by many, despised by others, increased his previous vote count by 12 million, an astonishing achievement, only to be turned out of office . That outcome inspired a clumsily organized insurrection. The constitutional order survived, but it is difficult to measure the damage that it sustained.
Joe Biden won the White House fair and square, of that I am certain. Yet Donald Trump’s successor has turned out to be an uninspiring, underperforming, and gaffe-prone placeholder. If beginning the world all over again defines the order of the day, Biden is demonstrably not the man for the job. Meanwhile, his political adversaries do not disguise their hopes of restoring Trump to the presidency—the very inverse of a new beginning.
At this fraught and anxiety-laden juncture, Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian army to invade Ukraine. The consequences of this ongoing war, undeniably our war too, given the number of Russian soldiers killed by a US-supplied weaponry, will not become fully apparent for some time to come. Yet we can already glimpse its probable impact on American politics, which will likely be profound and almost certainly unfortunate.
In elite circles, the Ukraine war offers an opportunity to jettison the frustrations of the post-Cold War period in favor of reassuring bromides drawn from a highlight reel of the American Century’s “Best of” moments.
A recent essay by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman shows how it’s done. The title of the piece tells you most of what Krugman wants you to know: “America, Again the Arsenal of Democracy.” As far as the Nobel Prize-winning economist is concerned, it’s 1941 all over again, with Vladimir Putin standing in for Adolf Hitler, and Volodymyr Zelensky and Joe Biden reprising the heroic roles of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, respectively.
Krugman’s credentials as a strategic analyst are rather thin. Even so, the material support that the United States and other Western allies are providing Ukraine persuades him that an outright military victory over Russia may well be in the offing. Such an outcome, he declares, will have universal implications. As “a triumph for the forces of freedom everywhere,” it will provide an object lesson to “would-be aggressors and war criminals,” not to mention “Western enemies of democracy” who, until recently, had been “huge Putin fanboys. ”
Meanwhile, Krugman declares himself to be a huge Biden fanboy. Whereas previous US presidents had “given stirring speeches about freedom,” he writes, Joe Biden has “arguably done more to defend freedom, in substantive ways that go beyond mere words, than any president since Harry Truman.” Whether Afghans would second that evaluation is doubtful.
More to the point, scoring presidential performance as chiefly a matter of employing military means “to defend freedom” is both misleading and dangerous. After all, viewed in a certain light, Vietnam was a war waged on behalf of freedom. Lyndon Johnson told us so, and at some level, almost certainly believed what he said. As for Iraq, who can doubt that George W. Bush in 2003 genuinely believed—indeed, knew for certain—that he was launching a war on behalf of democracy and freedom?
As had been the case with Vietnam and Iraq, describing Ukraine as a war for freedom robs it of historical context. It makes the event more palatable to citizens whose grasp of post-Cold War history, of NATO expansion and its use as an instrument of intervention, for example, is less than solid. Indeed, the whole point of reviving hoary stories of Roosevelt and Churchill saving the world (with Josef Stalin and US support for the Soviet Union Totalitarian carefully airbrushed out of the picture) is to simplify the past and mislead the public.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a criminal act. Aiding Ukraine’s effort to defend itself is entirely justified. But when this war ends, it will leave unsettled more issues than it resolves. For starters, Ukraine and Russia will remain neighbors and Russia’s pariah status will have to be unwound.
Further, regardless of its outcome, the ongoing war will leave intact the ideological, cultural, and economic problems presently afflicting the United States. Perplexing Joe Biden and dividing the political establishment, those problems will persist regardless of who prevails in Ukraine.
For all the feel-good references to “freedom” from the likes of Paul Krugman, the vicious and cruel Ukraine war will not enable America to begin the world all over again. To fancy otherwise is an illusion.
Beginning America itself all over again will prove challenging enough, as Tom Paine himself would likely realize. On that score, avoiding war might offer a good place to begin.
Andrew J. Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed is just out in paperback.