The question of Ukraine’s membership will be top of the agenda at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Lithuania this week. On one side of the debate will be those who argue that only the alliance’s ironclad guarantees can prevent a future recurrence of Russia’s savage aggression. On the other will be those who warn that President Vladimir Putin will never stop fighting if he believes Ukraine will join NATO the next day.
But the details of the debate aside, just ponder the fact that Ukrainians are fighting and dying to join the West — and what that says about the differences between the great powers clashing for influence today. Russia and China are trying, sometimes violently, to pull smaller states into their orbits. America often has its hands full keeping them out.
Across Eurasia, an age of neo-imperialism looms. Putin has spent the last quarter-century rebuilding a Russian empire in the former Soviet Union. His weapons of first resort include political meddling, strategic corruption and asymmetric trade flows. But when Ukraine or Georgia start acting like real states with geopolitical destinies of their own, the Kremlin has gotten very violent indeed. Putin’s bid to erase an independent Ukraine is merely the latest, and most jarring, manifestation of this imperial project.
Meanwhile, the modern-day People’s Republic of China is acting like the great Chinese empires that preceded it. President Xi Jinping’s nation is claiming most of the South China Sea and East China Sea as its own. It contests chunks of India that are larger than some European countries. It is stealthily annexing parts of Bhutan and accelerating its timeline for a reckoning with Taiwan. Xi also seeks a larger, looser sphere of influence encompassing much of the Asia-Pacific. “The Ming Dynasty appears to be their model,” former US Defense Secretary James Mattis commented.
Both Xi and Putin are getting plenty of blowback. Ukraine is desperately resisting subjugation; countries from India to Japan are seeking to stave off Chinese hegemony. And nations throughout Eastern Europe and East Asia are, ironically, responding to imperial encroachment by courting the most successful empire of them all.
America was born in an anti-imperial revolt. Since then, it has assembled an informal empire that spans the globe. America’s alliances thrust its power into the key regions of Eurasia. Its worldwide network of military bases would make the British Empire blush. Washington is immersed in the politics and policies of countries on every continent.
The US has sometimes exercised that influence heavy-handedly — just ask people in Latin America. Yet what makes America’s empire so remarkable, and so effective, is that it usually grows at the behest of smaller states.
NATO was originally a European idea: Leaders in Western Europe saw no other way to protect their countries from a resurgent Germany or an aggressive Soviet Union. Australia and New Zealand demanded inclusion in the US alliance network as their price for allowing the revival of post-World War II Japan. After the Cold War, one of the primary reasons NATO expanded was that countries in Eastern Europe were banging on its door.
For generations, countries in Europe and the Asia-Pacific have sought inclusion in America’s sphere of influence to stymie their more powerful neighbors. They have willingly surrendered some sovereignty to Washington, as a way of defending that sovereignty against more existential challenges.
That’s partly a tribute to geography: The fact that the US is located so far from the Old World means there is little chance it will conquer and annex countries there, which makes America more appealing as a partner against predators next door.
It’s partly a tribute to politics: A powerful democracy is more likely to use that power responsibly than are tyrannies that export their habits of violence and repression to the world. It’s also, partly, because the US is a superpower with a broad-minded view of its national interests.
America has never confused foreign policy with altruism. But for generations, it has calculated that it would fare best in a world that is mostly free from rampant aggression and cascading insecurity; that delivers shared prosperity through a stable, open trading system; and that protects freedom of geopolitical choice for its members. It has built alliances that elicit the input and initiative of weaker members.
To be sure, America’s adherence to these maxims is imperfect. Yet the flaws of an American-led world seem modest compared to those of any other plausible order, which is why so many countries have seen admission into Washington’s informal empire as their ticket to salvation.
Ukraine may or may not ultimately join NATO; President Joe Biden’s administration doesn’t yet seem sold on the idea. Yet the fact that Ukraine wants that prize so badly tells us something fundamental.
Self-styled realists claim that great powers are all fundamentally the same, in their quest for security and greatness in global affairs. Don’t try that line in Kyiv. Like so many frontline states before it, Ukraine understands there is a vast difference between the American empire and its competitors — the difference between life and death.