It was 4:00 AM and I couldn’t sleep. As news about the devastation of Ukraine from Russia continues, talking heads warn of Europe on the brink of war. My mind was ambushed by racing thoughts about our troubled world, and our divided nation’s place in it.
What does America stand for? Are we truly an exceptional country? Are we even an ethical one?
I dedicated my life to protecting this nation. I know firsthand how misguided most Americans are about how we interact with the rest of the world. But to understand their confusion, we have to first look within. And as we condemn Russia’s aggression, we must resist the temptation to ignore our own shortcomings.
The madness of January 6, 2021 was the tip of the iceberg. The problem goes beyond misled “patriots” who brought us to the brink of autocracy. The system itself is broken. Today’s leaders fuel our toxic culture. Our politics are driven by greed, factionalism, suspicion, resentment. Our media feeds us bits and pieces of slanted information, designed not to inform us but to anger us – to turn us against each other.
Recognizing what America has become at home, can we really expect the face we show the rest of the world to be a powerful force for good? We need to ask ourselves: are we a healthy democracy built upon noble values, or are we deluding ourselves with marketing slogans to justify our place in the world?
America is quick to impose its values on other countries. When Woodrow Wilson announced the U.S. entry into World War I, he justified it as necessary to “make the world safe for democracy.” We have been echoing that for more than a century. Our time as a global superpower has been marked by endless American military interventions.
That sleepless night, I kept wondering whether describing America as an exceptional beacon of democracy is real or “fake news”.
I didn’t like the answer. We are arguably the most hegemonic country in the world. We have started or supported more wars than any other nation under the guise of freedom. But to what end? The world is not safer or more peaceful given our penchant for war.
The lies we tell ourselves at home are reflected in the lies we tell ourselves about our place in the world. We’ve sold ourselves stacks of fake news. We lied about Vietnam. We lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Iran, Libya, Syria – it goes on and on. How can we still expect other countries to trust our intentions, when half of us don’t even trust our own government?
As we watch what is unfolding in Eastern Europe, we cannot escape our past. We defeated fascism in World War II – and rightly so – but could not resist the temptation to keep looking abroad for monsters to destroy. NATO may have been a necessary bulwark against communist expansion, but fear of communism cannot explain the steady expansion of NATO since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Decades of westward expansion, including the addition of former Soviet republics, did not make Europe more stable – they helped create today’s crisis.
When Germany was reunified, we assured Russia that NATO would not expand westward toward Russia’s borders. We went against those assurances with round after round of NATO expansion. A quarter century ago, the architect of Soviet “containment” strategy called the NATO expansion plans of the day (adding Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic) “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era.” But we didn’t stop there. And our loose talk about bringing Ukraine into the fold was too much provocation for Russia to swallow.
None of this justifies Russia’s aggression, but it created the perfect environment for Vladimir Putin to assemble his own “fake news” narrative to his own people and the world. “NATO is a growing threat,” “the West cannot be trusted,” “our Ukrainian brothers and sisters must be liberated.” Sound familiar? We wrote that song. Putin just covered it.
We are right to condemn Putin’s invasion but what moral authority do we have to preach about peace, diplomacy, or sovereignty? Our decades of militarism, combined with NATO antagonism, provided Russia with the perfect pretext for its own hegemony.
War is hell. And we helped light the fire.
Sometimes the truth hurts. But the truth is what we need to help America move forward. If America truly is great, its greatness is a product of its ability to recognize its flaws and work to correct them. It is easy to look at the situation in Ukraine and blame other countries. It is harder to admit our own mistakes that have contributed to the crisis. To be truly great is to always be reflecting and improving; to always be questioning who we are and how we interact with others. To be truly great is to learn from mistakes.
There are still good people who want to, and can, change our direction. Those people are not afraid of the truth. They are not afraid to question what American greatness is or afraid of accepting our shortcomings. Reminding myself of that will help me sleep better at night.