The Return of Manifest Destiny

A year after invading Ukraine, it is clear that Vladimir Putin made a catastrophic mistake. Even though he is 70 years old, time was on his side. He should have waited, at least one more US presidential election cycle, and continued to press his case in the court of world opinion.

Instead the Russian president-for-life lost patience and invaded a sovereign nation with which Russia has had intimate relations, though often not happy ones, for hundreds of years. Based on his success in barely-noticed “Bloody January,” 2022, in quelling mass protests in Kazakhstan, another independent neighbor nation, Putin ordered a second “special military operation” in Ukraine six weeks later. He expected it to last no more than a week or two.

In doing so he grievously underestimated Ukrainian resistance. He overestimated Russian military capabilities. He misjudged the degree of American involvement in the matter. A year later, an estimated 100,000 Russian soldiers are dead or seriously wounded; about as many as are thought to be dead or wounded in Ukraine, along with at least 7,000 civilians there.

As many as eight million Ukrainians refugees are scattered in other counties, mostly in Europe. Hundreds of thousands of Russians have left their homeland, to avoid repression or conscription. Thousands more have been imprisoned for daring to dissent. A relative handful have thrown themselves – or been thrown – out of upper-story windows.

This much seems to me to be inarguable; in other words, objective truth.  Win or lose his war in Ukraine, Putin has done his own country irreparable harm.

The rest below is, as Paul Krugman would say, wonkish. But there is a practical conclusion at the end.

If you are among those who believe, as I do, and a large segment of non-aligned global opinion as well, that America foreign policy goaded Putin into making his mistake, then the interesting question for American citizens has to do with who is responsible for America’s share of the blame?

On the surface, it appears to be Joe Biden. He authorized the US-Ukraine Strategic Partnership, pledging to extent NATO membership to the borders of Russia itself. Some believe that was the proximate cause of Putin’s decision.

Look more closely, and it is clear that ambitions for a much larger NATO alliance  began in late 1992, with the election of President Bill Clinton  That goal has been pursued in a straight line ever since by Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Biden. As Philip Bump notes in Aftermath: The Last Days of the Baby Boom and the Future of Power in America (Viking, 2023), Biden was born in 1942; Clinton, Bush and Trump in 1946; and Obama in 1961. Their diplomatic and military advisers are, of course, a large part of the story.

Zig-zag interpretations of American political history have been around practically since the beginning of the Republic.  Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Adams, Arthur Schlesinger, Albert Hirschman, and Robert Nozick are among those who have caught my attention over the years.

The latest in Stephen Skowronek, a high-end professor of political science at Yale University.  I find him especially helpful just now because of the way he distinguishes between narratives that develop around successful presidential incumbencies administrations, and the larger circumstances, both national and global, in which presidents have conducted their business,

In “Presidential Leadership in Political Time,” in 1984, Skowronick wrote

When a presidency succeeds, our natural inclination is to laud the talents and skills that the incumbent brought to the office; when things go wrong, we look for strategic missteps and character flaws. There is something comforting in these judgments, for they preserve our confidence in the presidency and the American political system at large…

But what if this system does not present each incumbent with the same test? … Taking a look at the broad sweep of American history… brings into view a recurrent sequence of change – of political breakthrough, followed by political breakups, followed by political breakdowns – and identifies typical reconfigurations of the relationship between the presidency and political system along the way.

For those intrigued by Skowronek’s approach, I recommend a collection of five of his essays written over forty years Presidential Leadership in Political Time: Reprise and Reappraisal. Especial interesting is the comparison in the original essay of three pairs of presidencies drawn from the New Deal and Jacksonian regimes – Franklin Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson (breakthrough); John F, Kennedy and James K, Polk (breakup); and Jimmy Carter and Franklin Pierce (breakdown). Also interesting is Skowronek’s discussion of the Trump presidency.

But the subject here is what I take to be the breakthrough election that in response to the end of the Cold War, thirty years ago.

As I read Skowronek’s schema, recent “political time” began with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the subsequent implementation of a new American foreign policy regime. Since it doesn’t have any name yet, I suspect it may eventually come to be seen as a reprise of the cultural phenomenon that swept the United States in the nineteenth century known as Manifest Destiny:  the conviction, as puts it, “that the United States [was] destined—by God, its advocates believed—to expand its dominion and spread democracy and capitalism across the entire North American continent.”

In the nineteenth century, Manifest Destiny was invoked to promote the Monroe doctrine, to annex Texas, as well as California and Oregon, to purchase Alaska, and to remove indigenous people from their lands. Its implications for slavery precipitated the Civil War, and were settled by it.

In the twenty-first century, Manifest Destiny II has been employed to justify intervention in the first and second Balkan civil wars, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the occupation of Afghanistan 2003-2021, regime-change in Libya in 2011, plans to expand NATO membership to the borders of Russia, participating in the Maidan demonstrations in Ukraine in 2014, military support for Ukraine militarily 2022-2023, and pledging to defend Taiwan from China – all in the interest of maintaining “a rules-based international order” that emerged from World War II.

As Mark Twain said, “History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.”

In Skowronek’s tripartite schema, the election of Clinton was clearly the “breakthough” that established the Manifest Destiny II theme for the next twenty five years. Bush’s eight years in office saw a continuation of those policies by other means. Obama’s presidency initiated the “breakup” of the established regime, with two presidential aspirants, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, serving as Secretary State. The Trump and Biden presidencies have demonstrated the difficulty of maintaining credibility in an enervated regime. Whether or not that constitutes “breakdown” remains to be seen.

Is “transformational leadership” in the manner of Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt still possible in the “political time” of the twenty-first century? In an essay in 2010, Skowronek sought to place the Obama presidency in historical perspective – too soon, in my judgment, and viewed through the wrong prism.  Probably not, he concluded. “Progressivism has proven hard for conservatives to dislodge in any decisive fashion,” he wrote, “because it is as much a way of governing as a set of substantive commitments. The progressive bias in government affairs runs deep; policy is king and performance is the standard of rule.”

Is it possible to imagine a breakthrough presidency conceived in terms of a reformation of America’s international commitments, with a corresponding emphasis on policies deemed progressive?  The presidency of Dwight Eisenhower is the one that comes to mind. Harry Truman adopted the policy of “containment,” of course, but it was Eisenhower who signed the armistice that made it operational, It remained in force through the second term of Ronald Reagan.

What is the alternative to maintaining faith in Manifest Destiny II?  It is to embrace the doctrine of realism, as espoused by Henry Kissinger in one generation, and John Mearsheimer, of the University of Chicago, in the next. That would mean learning to live in a world of two Great Powers and many Middle ones, without abandoning the conviction that democracy and the rule of law are superior forms of governance towards which to strive, in the hope that they will win out over time.

It would mean recognizing that Russia’s war in Ukraine has little to do with history or justice, because it is a clash of the aspirations of two empires in which a remarkably valiant nation is being crushed.

And the practical point?  The 2024 presidential election will be even more interesting than you thought; and perhaps that of 2028 as well. The American empire is being tested.  It is time for a good look in the mirror.

.                                                                           xxx

Rushing to finish last week’s column, I linked Johnson’s Russia List, John Mearnsheimer, and Christopher Caldwell as prominent critics of US foreign policy, but neglected to mention two others:  Walter Russell Mead, of the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal; and Andrew Bacevich, of the Quincy Institute. I recommend author and fellow Substack columnist Robert Wright as well.

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