Ideological Silos of Left and Right: Missing the Point in Ukraine

Photograph Source: Jan Tik – CC BY 2.0

From the first day of the Russian aggression on February 24th, I have worried about the trajectories of the Ukraine Wars, the risks and effects of various policy moves by the engaged antagonistic political actors to achieve their ends. I have also felt that a better understanding emerges if we recognize the plural and complex character of four encounters—on the battlefields pitting Russian aggressors against Ukrainian resisters, inside Ukraine as various elements struggle for control and security; in the geopolitical matrix by which the U.S. is intent on humbling Russia by shattering its will and exposing its weaknesses as a challenger of U.S. global primacy, while Russia is determined to regain hegemony over its near abroad in Ukraine and push back against NATO influence close to its borders; and, finally, in cyberspace whereby  war-mongering propaganda, fake news, and truth have become almost indistinguishable. The overall effect of such an inflammatory information and malicious exaggerations is to prolong the killing and heighten the strategic stakes for all sides, and given the horrifying aspects of the Ukraine Crisis making the conflicts unfit for diplomatic resolution.

In light of this mélange of considerations how can we hope to achieve a clearer understanding of what is happening, what are the relative risks, and what could yet be done to end the killing to avoid any further massacre of innocents and safeguard humanity from present risks of escalation to a wider war, possibly fought with nuclear weapons? A first step in the right direction is to pronounce that the ideological silos of both extreme left and right slant policy advocacy toward extremism, cause confusion, and to the extent influence is exerted, the effect is confound the search for viable and humane modes of deescalation. Extremist policy vectors are unsatisfactory cognitively, normatively, and prudentially.

The extreme left explains the Ukraine Crisis as essentially an outcome of inflated post-Cold War global imperial overreach orchestrated by the U.S., manifesting itself by way of neoliberal globalization in close conjunction with the projection of military dominance on a planetary scale. The extreme right, which enjoys far greater access to elite circles of government and media than the left, explains the Ukraine Crisis as an essentially evil plot by a Russian autocrat to destroy sanctity of the territorial rights of a sovereign state, violating the most basic rule of a state-centric world order, and mounting an unacceptable challenge to the exclusive global responsibilities of the West, led by the U.S., to uphold security throughout the world in accord with democratic values and humanitarian principles. These ideological silos of explanation have different impacts in the West, leaving those on the left frustrated by their political irrelevance, while those on the right are currently riding a high wave of influence almost oblivious to the geopolitical storm clouds of a wider war that unleashes nuclear weapons. So far the gray zone that operates in between these silos of clarity and formally holds governmental power in the United States has given up ground to the rightest pressures, but still has been prudent enough to avoid an outright military confrontation with Russia yet as the clock ticks the risks of wider war rise.

Russia seems to have its own silos, but with less salience because of the autocratic structures of domestic governance, and an accompanying decay of the private sphere as an active participant in political discourse. In this sense, whether Putin’s recourse to unlawful aggression against Ukraine is viewed by Russians variously as an opportunistic miscalculation gone wrong, the start of a process of recovering geopolitical prerogatives lost after the Soviet collapse, or a last-ditch effort to avoid Russian free fall recalling the Soviet collapse, or likely, some combination of these factors. Analysis is not as important as it is in the U.S. as Russian discourse is limited to rigidly regulated propaganda emanating from the Kremlin. From outward appearances the assessment seems reduced to a matter of divining Putin’s mind and Russia’s behavior as to whether it is better interpreted as opportunistic or dogmatic and visionary. Well-informed Russian experts diverge, but rarely due the sort of left/right dichotomy operative in the West.

In my view, silos of thought are not helpful guidelines for prescriptive or normative approaches to the various elements at play, and a more useful understanding comes from focusing on the debates, perspectives, and shortcomings in the gray zones where ‘group think’ and special interests exert a decisive influence in shaping the worldview of advisors and leaders. In this respect, it is important to assess the degree to which foreign policy elites in the geopolitical West, especially the U.S., are responsive to the priorities and justifications put forward by the military-industrial-intelligence-congressional-think tank-media complex (MICTIM), and how its impacts relate to degrees of engagement and detachment from various conflicts, and yet need to convince enough of the citizenry to lend support depends on rationalizing wars by referencing the evil and menace of the other, and in this case reviving Cold War memories of Russia as a menacing enemy of all that the transatlantic alliance stands for. To this extent there is a sharp distinction between autocratic Russia and democratic U.S. As notoriously acknowledged in the 2002 Report of the neocon Project for a New American Century, despite the strength of MICTIM it cannot make war without a high level of societal support. The citizenry needs to be mobilized by being made fearful, angry, hostile, and confident enough to bear the costs and risks of war, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union as its necessary enemy this would require ‘a new Pearl Harbor’ to be depicted as a strategic threat as well as an evil, criminal act.

Obviously, Russian aggression against Ukraine was not itself a direct enough assault on the U.S. homeland to be that new Pearl Harbor event, which for two decades 9/11 performed as the demonic actor in this geopolitical theater of the absurd. Attacking Ukraine was sufficiently indirect and distant from the homeland and posed no obvious security threat to the U.S. Yet it was provocative in other ways useful for the center-right nexus of foreign policy advisors in Washington. It could be credibly cast as a barbaric attack on a white Christian nation that aroused feelings of identification and produced a spontaneous outpouring of humanitarian sympathies sufficient to support immediate diplomatic of Ukrainian sovereign rights and the demonization of Putin by Biden and the media. This early phase of restrained engagement with Ukrainian resistance intensified as Russian atrocities mounted and the strategic stakes attached to the political outcome rose. Most relevantly, Ukrainian resistance proved more formidable than expected, and it began to be believed that in the course of helping Ukraine avoid being overrun by its gigantic Russian neighbor, the West in general could solidify its global dominance that was attained back in 1992 when the Cold War ended. Not surprisingly at this point that the parameters changed, the U.S. began to increase the extent of its involvement, not primarily for the sake of Ukraine, but to push back against this Russian challenge, and indirectly message China to lie low or else. Concerns about underscoring geopolitical primacy took precedence over safeguarding Ukraine. Nothing less than the legacy of the Cold War was at stake, whose aftermath was characterized by the United States as the self-anointed unipolar architect of world order. It is this shift of emphasis that is hidden beneath the current attachment by MICTIM to ‘a victory scenario’ and the notable silence of the leadership in Washington about framing ‘a peace scenario’ as if diplomacy was either futile, unnecessary, and undesirable. Futile because Moscow was allegedly unresponsive, unnecessary because the risks associated with inflicting defeat of Russia worth taking, undesirable because ending the war on Ukrainian soil too soon would deprive the U.S. of a major geopolitical victory that seems within its grasp.

If this is a generally accurate account of why there is no effort being made to stop the killing as leading moral authority figures such as the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres  and Pope Francis have urged without generating a peace-oriented counterforce. This discouraging portrayal of the global scene when it comes to the agendas relating to war/peace, leaves the future dependent on civil society activism, a calling of accounts from below. Remembering that the political leaders of the victorious states in World War II agreed before the guns went silent that there was no point establishing a UN which had an effective normative mandate and sufficient material capabilities to implement the Charter against the world’s most powerful states. It did not hide this unseemly institutional modesty, but endowed this geopolitical right of exception with normative authority by giving the five permanent members of the Security Council a virtually unrestricted authority to veto any decision of the only body in the entire UN system than could decide rather than recommend or advise. True, the International Court of Justice can render decisions, but its jurisdiction is limited to voluntary acceptance by states in conflict and although its decisions are subject to implementation if the Security Council can muster a consensus. Otherwise decisions by the Worlld Court can be ignored or nullified without adverse consequences.

The Ukraine Crisis highlights the many fragilities of world order at a time when geopolitical alignments are in flux, with Russia challenging, China rising, and the U.S. struggling to maintain the status quo. Such circumstances are dangerously diverting attention of leaders and publics from the monumental tasks of achieving food and energy security at a time of the menacing ecological instabilities associated with climate change.

Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.