The United States claims to follow a values-based foreign policy, but is this really reflected in its handling of the war in Ukraine?
For many years now, the United States has claimed that their foreign policy is centered around its ‘values’, namely “[protecting] fundamental human rights” and supporting democracy to advance a greater “freedom agenda,” as written on the State Department website. The Biden administration, in particular, has emphasized the importance of ‘values’ to their foreign policy. In a speech in early 2021, then-newly appointed Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, declared, “The Biden administration’s foreign policy will reflect our values.”
In the Biden-Harris National Security Strategy, a 48-page document, released in October 2022, the word “values” appears 29 times. The document asserts that “Actions to bolster democracy and defend human rights are critical to the United States not only because doing so is consistent with our values, but also because respect for democracy and support for human rights promotes global peace, security, and prosperity” (emphasis added). It further claims that, faced with a “strategic competition to shape the future of the international order… the United States will lead with our values.”
The United States’ claim that its foreign policy decisions are derived from moral values is not new. When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, then-President George W. Bush portrayed it as a conflict of good vs. evil, stating: “Our enemies… embrace tyranny and death as a cause and a creed. We stand for a different choice… we choose freedom and the dignity of every life.” Bush also famously referred to three countries, including Iraq, as the “axis of evil.”
The publicly stated reasons for the invasion were to democratize Iraq, to “disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction […] and to free the Iraqi people.” While these seem like morally righteous and valiant aims on the surface, it is now common knowledge that the true reasons were, in fact, much more sinister, particularly given that alleged US intelligence suggesting that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was entirely false. Political Scientist Ahsan I. Butt, for instance, argues that the Bush administration invaded Iraq for its “demonstration effect”, stating: “Put simply, the Iraq war was motivated by a desire to (re)establish American standing as the world’s leading power.”
In hindsight, it is extremely difficult to argue that the US interfered in Iraq based on its moral values, especially when considering the negative impact the invasion has had on Iraq, with hundreds of thousands of civilians having been killed, and the country having slid further into political turmoil.
The latest US foreign policy endeavor is in Ukraine, where conflict between Ukrainian and Russian forces rages on, nearly a year after Russia’s initial invasion. While there are officially no American boots on the ground in Ukraine, the US is doubtless still heavily involved in the conflict, having sent over $68 billion in aid to Ukraine in 2022.
The US’s proclaimed goals in supporting Ukraine are once again closely tied to its values. Central to the US’s support for Ukraine is the notion that Russia vs. Ukraine is a battle between authoritarian and democratic values, and that the US must provide Ukraine – the democracy – with the opportunity to defend itself against authoritarian encroachment. As stated by Antony Blinken, “The United States is committed to strengthening our relationship with Ukraine as we work to build a prosperous future for all Ukrainians.”
In a speech to the Ukrainian parliament in May, Boris Johnson, then-Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, a country that can be considered an extension of the US on this matter, given its extremely close political relationship and previous alignments in foreign policy matters, proclaimed that the war “is about Ukrainian democracy against Putin’s tyranny. It is about freedom versus oppression. It is about right versus wrong. It is about good versus evil.” In other words, the US and its Western allies are portraying their support for Ukraine as a humanitarian act, guided by morality.
However, when analyzed closely, the Western narrative with regard to Ukraine is incongruent with its actions. Yes, the US and other Western institutions have provided extensive financial and military support for Ukraine, but the extent to which its actions have ultimately benefitted the Ukrainian people can be questioned.
Just weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, several reports emerged that the two sides were close to agreeing a peace deal that would put a halt to the fighting. These reports came after Russian and Ukrainian delegates convened in Istanbul for negotiations on March 29, in which billionaire Roman Abramovich and Russian political figure Vladimir Medinsky were key participants. Ukraine agreeing to distance itself from the West and forgoing to join NATO was crucial to the structure of the deal.
While one cannot be certain as to precisely how close a deal was to being agreed, an unexpected obstacle prevented negotiations from continuing. On April 9, Boris Johnson made a surprise visit to Kyiv, urging Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials to stop talks with Russia. As Ukrainian news outlet, Pravda, reported in early May, “As soon as the Ukrainian negotiators and Abramovych/Medynskyi agreed in general terms on the structure of the future possible agreement based on the results of Istanbul, the Prime Minister of Great Britain Boris Johnson appeared in Kyiv almost without warning.” According to a high-ranking Ukrainian official, Johnson brought two key messages to Kyiv, namely that an authoritarian figure like Putin is not to be negotiated with, and that even if Ukraine were ready for peace talks, the collective West, Ukraine’s key ally, was not willing to support negotiations – a deal breaker for Ukraine, given its dependence on Western aid.
The reason for the West’s unwillingness to strike a deal with Russia is apparent: The West wants to use Russia’s war with Ukraine (and the ensuing sanctions on Russia) to force regime change in Russia. “The collective West… now felt that Putin is actually not as all-powerful as they imagined him to be… right now there was a chance to ‘press him’. And the West wants to use it.” Only a few days after Johnson’s unexpected visit to Kyiv, Putin publicly stated that negotiations had reached a deadlock and would not continue. The Russian President has since declared multiple times that he is still willing to find a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine conflict, most recently in an address on December 22.
Generally, Western leaders have attempted to keep their goal of regime change in Russia quiet, but occasionally, the truth has slipped out. In a speech in March, US President Joe Biden proclaimed: “For God’s sake, this man [Putin] cannot remain in power.” Meanwhile, in late February, a spokesperson for the Johnson government stated that Western sanctions on Russia are meant “to bring down the Putin regime,” by engineering an economic and political crisis.
While attempting to bring down a foreign government is nothing new for the US, it is important to understand what this aim means with regard to their decision-making vis-à-vis the Ukraine conflict. Effectively, the US and its allies are using the Ukrainian territory and, more importantly, the Ukrainian people, to fulfill their self-interested political aspirations. In other words, Western leaders, led by the US, are encouraging Ukraine to keep fighting as long as possible, no matter the military circumstances and substantial Ukrainian losses, in order to “bleed” Russia, and increase the chances of Putin being forced to step down as President. An article in the Washington Post summed the situation up nicely: “For some in NATO, it’s better for the Ukrainians to keep fighting, and dying, than to achieve a peace that comes too early or at too high a cost to Kyiv and the rest of Europe.”
So, how has the US and Western-backed war of attrition versus Russia worked out for Ukraine? As the fighting in and around the Donbas continues, numerous Western media outlets still insist that Ukraine has a fighting chance against Russia. But, with Russia recently having mobilized 300,000 troops, it is sensible to predict that Russia will eventually get the upper hand in the conflict, if they do not already have it.
Aside from the military situation, Ukraine’s economy shrank an astonishing 33% in 2022 and is expected to shrink a further 10% in 2023. Ukraine has also suffered a 35% decrease in its exports, ranging from wheat to steel, while unemployment – already at over 30% – is expected to continue rising. The Ukrainian government was also forced into quantitative easing to steady the economic ship, which has led to a stark increase in inflation. As observed by Jacob Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, “We’re already giving them just enough to avoid hyperinflation… but there’s clearly a risk of a more serious economic contraction, and the only way to stop that will be to provide more financial assistance.” In contrast, Russia’s economy shrank around three per cent in 2022, much lower than most Western analysts anticipated, at the start of the sanctions.
In addition to the grim economic situation, the war in Ukraine has caused a major crisis for its inhabitants. Since the beginning of the war, around eight million refugees have fled the country, while many more have been displaced internally. The UN estimated in September that around 18 million Ukrainians needed humanitarian aid, and the World Bank has warned that poverty in the country could rise tenfold. Furthermore, Ukrainian officials have estimated that rebuilding the country will cost approximately $750 billion. In short, the country of Ukraine is in tatters and will be heavily reliant on Western financial aid for the foreseeable future, to prevent a total collapse.
Against this background, it is reasonable to say that the drawn-out conflict has not paid off for Ukraine and that finding a diplomatic solution would likely have been in the country’s best interest. However, at least in part due to Western influence on Ukraine, a peace deal was not an option for the Ukrainians.
It is important to note that Western influence on Ukraine did not begin in 2022, but has been prominent for several years, dating back to the Maidan Revolution that took place in 2014. In fact, due to US involvement in Ukraine around 2014 and frequent discussion about the country joining NATO, some accurately predicted that Ukraine would eventually become entangled in a conflict between Russia and the West, and get destroyed in the process.
John Mearsheimer, an International Relations scholar, gave an enlightening lecture on this issue in 2015, where he said:
“What we’re [the West] doing is encouraging the Ukrainians to play tough with the Russians. We’re encouraging the Ukrainians to think that they will ultimately become part of the West, because we will ultimately defeat Putin and we will ultimately get our way.
“The Ukrainians are playing along with this, and are almost completely unwilling to compromise with the Russians and, instead, want to pursue a hardline policy. If they do that, the end result is that their country is going to be wrecked. And what we’re doing is, in fact, encouraging that outcome.”
Seven years later, Mearsheimer has been proven correct. In an attempt to land a knock-out punch on Putin, the West has driven Ukraine into economic and humanitarian turmoil. The sad reality is that the US sees Ukraine as merely one piece on a grand chessboard of world power and politics, rather than a true ally. Moreover, the complete lack of regard for Ukrainian infrastructure, civilians and soldiers show that the US’s long-standing claims that values drive its foreign policy are nothing more than a façade, used to establish moral superiority over its adversaries, and to justify self-serving interventions around the globe.