Narcissism Goes to War

Peter Ramsay reviews Benjamin Abelow, How the West Brought War to Ukraine: Understanding How US and NATO Policies Led to Crisis, War, and the Risk of Nuclear Catastrophe (Siland Press, 2022).

(long read)

This pamphlet crisply details the West’s role in bringing about the war in Ukraine. Benjamin Abelow provides a systematic and concise explanation of how the USA and NATO provoked the war. He concludes with a short, powerful argument for attributing the primary responsibility for the violence not to its immediate cause—Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine—but to its less proximate, more mediated, yet much more significant causes: ‘American governmental stupidity and blindness’, and ‘the deference and cowardice’ of Europe’s leaders to that ‘stupidity’ (p.59). If you still think the official Western version has any credibility, you need to read this. And if you already know that the chief cause of the war is much closer to home than the Kremlin, you should give a copy to anyone you think may be open to the truth about Ukraine.

Although Abelow describes the self-deluding arrogance and hypocrisy of Western policy very clearly, he does not attempt to explain how or why US policy has become so stupid or European leaders so cowardly. He appears dumbfounded by it, describing the level of irrationality involved as ‘almost inconceivable’ (p.59). Nevertheless, we must conceive of it, because it has happened and if we are to mitigate the war’s dire consequences we must understand why it has happened. Abelow’s brief discussion of the attitudes of American policy-makers does provide a very useful insight. However,  to turn it into an explanation we need to go beyond the tradition of political ‘realism’ that Abelow seems to rely on, and grasp the critical importance of the ideas that motivate Western elites. 

Abelow first sets out the long history of Western pressure on Russia. In the 1990s, the Americans abandoned their initial promise to Russia not to expand NATO into Eastern Europe in the wake of German reunification. By 2004, 11 new states had joined, including three (Poland, Lithuania and Estonia) which directly bordered Russian territory. In 2001, the US unilaterally withdrew from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty it had signed with Russia. In 2008, NATO followed up by declaring that Ukraine (with a more than 1,000 mile-long border with Russia) and Georgia would be admitted to the alliance at some point in the future. The current CIA director, William J Burns, who was the US ambassador in Moscow at the time, made it clear to Washington that NATO membership for either Ukraine or Georgia would be  regarded by Russia as an unacceptable act of aggression (p.20). Then in 2014, the elected pro-Russian government in Kyiv was overthrown by an uprising of pro-Western nationalists. A leaked recording of a telephone call showed the extent of involvement by US State Department officials and the US ambassador in shaping the composition of the new Ukrainian government. Russia responded by annexing Crimea. Pro-Russian separatists formed two breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine, receiving military support from Russia.   

After 2014, with more willing governments in Kyiv, the USA further ramped up the pressure on Russia. In 2016, it placed missile launchers in Romania that are capable of firing offensive nuclear weapons at Moscow. From 2017 onwards, the US began arms sales to Ukraine, alongside growing training and other military support. In 2019, the US unilaterally withdrew from the 1987 treaty with Russia restricting intermediate range nuclear weapons, and rebuffed Russian proposals for a replacement agreement. In 2020 and 2021, NATO conducted live-fire exercises in Estonia close to the Russian border, including simulating attacks on Russian air defences. In 2021, the Ukrainian and American navies conducted a huge naval exercise in the Black Sea involving incursion into waters claimed by Russia. Throughout this period the aim of US policy was ‘interoperability’ between US and Ukrainian forces. That was achieved in 2021, in effect incorporating the Ukrainian military into NATO even if Ukraine was not yet formally a member of the alliance.

Having recounted this litany of American military pressure on Russia, Abelow then asks the obvious question: what would have happened if we put ‘the shoe on the other foot’? The most well-known principle of American foreign policy is the 200 year-old Monroe Doctrine, which declares political interference by any European power in the Americas to be a hostile act. Abelow recalls the Americans’ willingness to enforce the doctrine in 1962 when they blockaded Cuba to prevent Soviet missiles being placed there. Similarly, today the USA would regard Canada or Mexico joining a military alliance with Russia or China as an existential threat, just as Russia views Ukraine joining an American-led alliance. To give the comparison its full historical context, the USA has not been invaded by a foreign power since 1814, while Western powers have invaded Russia no less than three times since the beginning of the twentieth century alone. On one of these occasions, during the Russian Civil War, the USA itself was among the invaders. Fully 13 percent of Russia’s population died in the last invasion from the West, during the Second World War.

Abelow argues that Putin’s decision to invade in 2022 was probably the immediate consequence of the combined effect of 1) the integration of the Ukrainian military into NATO, 2) the prospect of Ukraine’s formal admission as a NATO member, and 3) the resultant possibility that the Americans would deploy intermediate range nuclear missiles in Ukraine, giving the Americans a significant first-strike capacity against Russia. By late 2021, this combination seemed to confirm the existential threat to Russia, and Putin launched his own pre-emptive strike. He cites Putin’s very public complaints in 2021 about the missile threat and the West’s complete silence in response to his offers of a new missile pact.

Having outlined the genesis of the war, Abelow moves on to the stupidity and blindness of American policy, and its apparent irrationality.  He recounts the well-known opposition of numerous American foreign-policy heavyweights to the expansion of NATO. Figures including George Kennan, Robert McNamara, Paul Nitze, Richard Pipes and Robert Gates – none of them dovish when it comes to the deployment of American military power – have publicly criticised official indifference to Russian security anxieties. Abelow also recalls the accurate prediction of realist academic John Mearsheimer in 2015 that American policy would cause Putin not to try to conquer Ukraine but rather to ‘wreck’ it, as he is now doing. Notwithstanding these weighty critics, the official US position has nevertheless been to treat Putin as a new Hitler bent on Russia’s territorial expansion who must be stopped. 

What is novel about Abelow’s argument here is that he shows that the realist critics’ analysis of the Ukraine crisis is not only well understood, but even shared, by Russophobic policy-makers in the US administration. He provides an analysis of an interview with the leading Washington insider and Russia expert Fiona Hill who, even as she explicitly pursues the Putin-as-Hitler line to justify America’s proxy war, does not deny the idea that Moscow’s plans are a reaction to American pressure, she even embraces it. Hill reveals that, during her time as an intelligence analyst, their own assessment was that the threat of NATO expanding to Ukraine would likely prompt Russia to annex Crimea. 

Hill’s openness is disarming, as if she does not really grasp the truth of what she has said: that, insofar as there is anything to the Hitler analogy that she relies upon—and there is very little to it beyond the bare facts that Putin is an authoritarian leader who has invaded another country—Russia’s actions are nevertheless a response to American pressure that US policy-makers actually foresaw. In other words, on her own account, the ‘new Hitler’ is in large part an American creation. Hill seems to confirm George Kennan’s assertion that the policy of expanding NATO in order to protect against the Russian threat was a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ (p.45). Abelow quotes British academic Richard Sakwa: ‘In the end, NATO’s existence became justified by the need to manage the security threats provoked by its enlargement.’ (p.50)

For Abelow, this is the reason that the policy is monumentally stupid. Not only is there no threat from Russia that is independent of American policy, but at least some American proxy-war hawks seem to be aware of the fact. The upshot is that a costly war—one that will ruin Ukraine, and probably Russia too, and that runs a serious risk of nuclear conflagration—has been provoked for no good reason. Moreover, it has been precipitated over a country in which the USA has no real national interest. As Abelow bluntly puts it: 

Ukraine is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a vital security interest of the United States. In fact, Ukraine hardly matters at all. From an American perspective…Ukraine is irrelevant. Ukraine is no more important to the citizens of the United States than any one of fifty other countries that most Americans, for perfectly understandable reasons, couldn’t find on a map without a lot of random searching. (p.58)

By contrast, it is obvious that for Russia ‘Ukraine is the most vital of vital interests’ (p.58). In something close to despair, Abelow observes that ‘Even from a blinkered American perspective, the whole Western plan was a dangerous game of bluff, enacted for reasons that are hard to fathom’. And he concludes by asking: ‘what sane person could believe that putting a Western arsenal on Russia’s border would not produce a powerful response? What sane person could believe that placing this arsenal would enhance American security?’ (p.58) 

These final rhetorical questions pose another. If Western policy is really insane, as Abelow implies, why does it have such overwhelming support among Western elites? This support is not restricted to America’s notorious military-industrial complex which, as Abelow notes, is the most obvious beneficiary of NATO’s proxy war.  Why have not only our politicians, but also the overwhelming majority of our journalists, academics, and chattering classes preferred to support an insane policy rather than tell the easily available facts about how the Ukraine war came about, as Abelow himself has done? They are not all in the pay of Lockheed Martin or Raytheon or the Pentagon. What accounts for this mass insanity?

The beginnings of an answer lie in Abelow’s analysis of the Fiona Hill interview, because Hill’s candour exposes Western policy-makers’ and experts’ remarkable inability to take account of any perspective other than their own. Even though Hill knows that Russia is reacting to prior American pressure, she appears incapable of attributing any weight or significance to that fact when set against the idea that Putin is the new Hitler. In an astonishing passage from the interview, she even recognises that Putin’s own family suffered during the terrible 900-day German siege of Leningrad in the 1940s (his older brother and uncles died, his mother and father barely survived disease and wounds). Yet rather than drawing the obvious conclusion—that Russian fears of Western aggression are therefore not unreasonable—she asserts that it is ironic that Putin should copy Hitler’s expansionism. 

Hill’s attitude might be read as cynical: she knows one thing but says another. But if she were that cynical, she would not be so candid as to say both things at the same time. The intelligence expert who tells you that the other side is to blame by explaining how her own side is to blame is not thinking strategically. She has lost sight of the meaning of her own knowledge and of the blatant contradiction in her claims. Her knowledge of the external world is entirely subordinated to the idea of Putin as the new Hitler because that idea validates her self-identity as a good person who is, together with her colleagues, engaged in a struggle against a fascist aggressor. This narcissism is characteristic of elite consciousness today in many fields, including foreign policy. 

Abelow is right to imply that this way of thinking is ultimately irrational and dishonest. At some level, Hill knows that the policies she supports have created the threat she is claiming to fight, and she cannot be alone in this. But his charge of insanity, while appealing rhetorically, tends to obscure a vital aspect of the narcissism that drives Western policy: the aspect in which the self-regarding sense of virtue is informed by the dominant political ideas of our time, ideas which influence not just experts but political leaders and entire populations. Anti-fascism is a core element of those ideas. 

Anti-fascism remains the foundational myth of contemporary Western society. With a real historical origin in the Allied victory in the 1940s, its heroic story of good democratic states resisting evil genocidal dictatorships unites liberals, socialists and even conservatives. It is an outlook that gives Western elites a sense of purpose and legitimises their power. This is why it has been repeatedly recycled in wholly different contexts in which it has no real relevance. If we widen our historical frame of reference, we can see that the kind of self-fulfilling, mythical anti-fascism now mobilised against Russia has been a persistent feature of American foreign policy ever since the end of the Cold War.

As Soviet power collapsed at the end of the 1980s, the American elite abandoned the now redundant anti-communism as a rationale for its institutions and global power, and instead revived the old Allied commitment to anti-fascism. The supposed red menace was replaced with the supposed threat of military or one-party dictators. At first, the USA alighted on the very unconvincing threat posed by Panamanian military dictator Manuel Noriega before turning to Iraq’s only slightly less implausible Saddam Hussein. Both of these were offered up as the new Hitler, and their countries subjected to bombardment, invasion and sanctions. Notably both dictators were in large part American creations, having enjoyed fulsome American backing during the Cold War. Similarly, the War on Terror and the long war in Afghanistan were American-led campaigns to protect us all from the threat of Islamist militants who were frequently described as fascists but had previously been American proxies fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. These campaigns were ideological in the strict sense that they were rationalised by a one-sided account of the facts that served Western rulers’ flattering self-image: they did indeed make war on authoritarian and repressive leaders and movements, but they obscured the fact that their adversaries’ power and actions were not independent of earlier Western policy. Now Vladimir Putin has been manoeuvred into the Hitler role by a decades-long campaign of American provocation. 

The wars against evil dictators and ‘Islamofascism’ were part of what became a wider crusade to spread liberal democracy throughout the world. Most of those who promoted these campaigns, and the military interventions they entailed, were motivated by a degraded liberal universalism that sought to liberate humanity from the human rights abuses that were supposedly licensed by national sovereignty. NATO rode roughshod over national sovereignty first with the 1999 attack on Serbia to protect Kosovar Albanians, then with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the bombing of Libya. Indeed, American national security became equated with the success of this global campaign. But what it in fact produced was a ‘cosmopolitan dystopia’, in which states are wrecked and populations subjected to chaos and warlordism in the name of human rights. The most infamous example is the carnage in Iraq, but Afghanistan, Libya and Syria have all paid the price of the West’s pursuit of its own virtue. 

Despite these disasters, and the notoriously fraudulent justification for the Iraq invasion, the self-regarding anti-fascist mythology has survived to put Ukraine to the sword. This has entailed a bare-faced reversal of the West’s long campaign against national sovereignty, with NATO now claiming to be defending Ukraine’s sovereignty. It is a claim that does not stand up either to the facts about NATO’s meddling that Abelow recounts, nor to a realistic account of Ukraine’s internal politics. But the anti-fascist mythology has been able to pull off such a volte face, and survive its previous very public disasters, for two reasons. Firstly, there has been neither an ideological alternative to the West’s flattering self-image nor a geopolitical alternative to American power; secondly, the mythology has served to rationalise and justify the existing power structures, both internationally and domestically. Let’s consider each reason in turn.  

The combined defeats of the Western labour movements and of the Soviet Union in the 1980s created a situation in which there has been no alternative to neoliberal capitalism in politics and no ‘peer competitor’ to the USA in international relations. Where the politics of the Cold War was marked by political and geopolitical ‘bipolarity’, the period since 1989 has been one of ‘unipolarity’. Without any systematic alternative to or critique of their liberal, anti-fascist, human-rights ideology, and without any rival superpower, it was possible for Western elites to be gripped by what Mearsheimer has called ‘the great delusion’ of liberal hegemony, in which Western elites believed they could and should spread liberal democracy and human rights across the globe, if necessary at the point of a Cruise missile. This really is what NATO leaders imagined they were doing as they expanded NATO (and the EU) eastwards. Unipolarity of the political imagination accounts for the narcissism and the blithe attitude to the disasters that the pursuit of the ideology has already achieved. As Abelow remarks, the attitude of Western experts and leaders has been that no rational actor could have doubted their benign intentions even as they advanced their forces to Russia’s borders (p.51). Understanding the narcissism of anti-fascist consciousness allows us to add that a key aspect of this ideological delusion is that, from its point of view, anyone who opposes the West’s liberal institutions—which are identified with the cause of human rights and democracy—must ipso facto be a genocidal fascist, or an apologist for genocidal fascism, whose interests and arguments can therefore be discounted. 

Just as there has been no alternative to Western narcissism, so the narcissistic outlook has also appeared to serve the short-term practical interests of America’s political elite. At the international level, Sakwa’s observation that NATO is necessary to protect us from the security threats created by its own expansion indicates that the effect of policy-makers’ basking in their anti-fascist virtue is to create something like a US-led protection racket. As Wolfgang Streeck has noted, after a long period in which the German economy had been increasingly oriented towards Russia and China, the Ukraine war has decisively subordinated not only Berlin but all of Europe to American interests. Energetically assisted by his British capo, Godfather Biden has put an end to any pretensions the EU may have harboured that it could maintain a foreign or security policy independently of the Americans, as the recent EU-NATO Joint Declaration has confirmed. The Americans have now succeeded in forcing Germany to start paying its full share for NATO, a longstanding aim of US policy. He has even forced the Europeans into greater energy dependence on America, while simultaneously putting up new trade barriers to European exports. By the artifice of military pressure, the USA in collaboration with pro-Western Ukrainian leaders has ensured both that Ukrainians will suffer actual Russian aggression, and created a palpable (if vaguer) insecurity for Europeans more generally. This serves to force the rest of America’s allies into line, and to reiterate those allies’ dependence on US power. This is how a protection racket works, albeit in this case a protection racket-by-proxy.

The image of an American protection racket could, however, mislead as much as it informs. Unlike a true criminal protection racket, in which the benefits to the racketeer are the straightforward conscious purpose of the strategy of fear, in the cosmopolitan dystopia any advantages for US strategic interests are the contingent results of an ideologically driven policy whose chaotic effects have also undermined American influence and authority in the very process of asserting American power.

Relentless liberal, anti-fascist war-making has clearly alienated most of the non-European world from Western policy. The earlier wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were also taken as opportunities by the US to demonstrate its domination of its ‘allies’ by recruiting them to serve in coalitions under its leadership, but the willingness of others to be co-opted has waned ever since the Kosovo War. Outside of Europe and North America, there is very limited support for NATO’s proxy war in Ukraine. The only major countries to back sanctions against Russia have been Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, and New Zealand. The smug self-regard of the NATO powers can only be maintained if you look away from their actual record of militarism and destruction. While this remains possible in the self-obsessed West, non-Westerners have far fewer reasons to play along, especially in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan. It may be that, as Streeck suggests, keeping wealthy Europe under its thumb in these circumstances is a vital American interest, helping it ultimately to pivot its focus towards containing China, but that is itself an indication of America’s weakening grip. 

Moreover, it is indicative of the larger poverty of American strategic thinking that over the long term the US has failed to exploit its overwhelming victory in the Cold War by incorporating Russia into the Western orbit. Instead, for all the Western talk of democracy and human rights, the policy of NATO expansion has only consolidated Putin’s authoritarian rule and driven the Russians into the arms of the Chinese Communist Party, America’s only serious global competitor.  

The limitation of the protection racket metaphor is the same as that of all ‘realist’ approaches to international relations. It tends to reduce international affairs to the strategic interests of nations, but in the process obscures a vital dimension of the articulation of those interests: the ideas that motivate political actors and provide legitimacy for their actions – in this case, the cosmopolitan crusade for democracy and human rights, that has both been produced by and undermined America’s unipolar hegemony. Moreover, it is political ideas that govern the relationship between foreign policy and domestic political pressures. And it is here that we see a key short-term political advantage of the anti-fascist mythology: it puts foreign policy at the service of domestic political needs. Although, just as in international relations, the mythical basis of the foreign policy may now be creating serious domestic difficulties. 

The domestic significance of the cosmopolitans’ ideological struggle against fascism is not merely a matter of the arms industry’s lobbying. As Abelow notes, the popular response within the West to its proxy war with Russia has been ‘driven by a self-righteous anger’ (p.46). The war helps to neutralise and rally otherwise disenchanted populations at home with the invocation of a self-serving sense of moral virtue grounded in liberal democracy’s foundational myth. As it becomes increasingly obvious that the political classes of the West have nothing to offer their own peoples, what they can continue to pretend to offer is the noble cause of democracy and anti-fascism. The claim is that Ukrainians’ heroic resistance to Russian invasion is the frontline in a battle between democracy and dictatorship, between national sovereignty and a new imperialism. This is a pretence because, as Abelow demonstrates, the Russian invasion is an artefact of Western policy at least as much as it is the work of any Russian authoritarianism or imperialism. Moreover, the pretence presents the threat to democracy as external, and thereby serves to obscure the far more significant internal threat which lies in Western elites’ own repudiation of accountability to their populations (evidenced, for example, by the relentless elite hostility in Britain and across the wider West to the British electorate’s decision to assert our national sovereignty against the undemocratic EU, and by their subsequent enthusiasm for lockdowns). In this way, the anti-fascist mythology forms part of a larger post-democratic ideology of vulnerability in which political legitimacy arises not from the accountability of government to those it rules over but from the claim to protect the ruled from threats (including, as we have seen, threats that the governing class has itself recklessly manufactured). 

Nevertheless, invoking a fascist threat and exhorting Western publics to make sacrifices for America’s war on Russia is proving to be a severe test of this ruling ideology. Governments in Europe are required to impose sanctions against Russia that are exacerbating already severe stagflationary pressures. These governments already lack much political authority in the face of restive populations, and the proxy war which the Americans have manufactured is plainly not in the national interests of any of them. Germany has long sought better relations with Russia because it has so much economic self-interest in doing so. Hungary has already broken with the sanctions consensus in Europe. The political classes of Germany and Italy, in particular, may struggle to maintain their supine approach to Washington’s war.

Of course, Russia is the rump of a failed empire with its own version of the anti-fascist myth which it uses to justify its war-making. The explanation of NATO’s policy and its underlying  ideology offered here does not provide a justification for the Russian invasion, which is an unmitigated disaster for both Ukraine and for Russia. Rather, this critique focuses attention on the root of the problem: the political bankruptcy of dominant Western liberal elites and their dependence on a redundant myth of their own benign role in the world. The constant reiteration of the threat of fascism against any popular opposition to liberal policy is by now a wearily familiar aspect of liberal discourse, despite the real shortage of actual fascists beyond the political margins. It is indicative of a mainstream political imagination that is only comfortable in its safe space of an increasingly irrelevant past, blind to the damage that this is doing in the present. That mythical anti-fascism is now rolled out to justify provoking and sustaining a war between the two countries that suffered the most from the effects of actual fascism speaks to the sheer depravity of our rulers, and the wider liberal elite, a depravity proportional to their own narcissistic sense of virtue. 

It is impossible to argue with Abelow’s conclusions concerning the cowardice of both America’s and Europe’s leaders. His conclusion about the ‘stupidity’ of American policy, however, needs a little qualification. What is stupid from the point of view of the American people’s interests as a nation, and from the point of view of everybody’s else’s national interest—not least that of the Ukrainian and Russian peoples—makes more sense from the point of view of the rulers of the cosmopolitan dystopia. It keeps them, their ‘forever war’ and their creepy anti-fascism in business a while longer. 

What will be unquestionably stupid is for the citizens of the NATO states to continue to tolerate our decadent elites and their destructive narcissism. Support for the Ukraine war requires a wilful blindness towards the recent history of events in Ukraine on the part of politicians, the media, academia, and the wider professional middle classes. This studied ignorance speaks to a profound laziness of spirit—an unwillingness to confront the truth of our own societies and a preference for its comforting myths. The impact of this war beyond Ukraine is already huge and is going to get worse. The future of Europe’s nations—if they are to have one—will belong to those who are willing to break from liberalism’s tired mythology, to take control of their states’ foreign policy and pursue a democratic alternative to the dystopian ideology that has brought disaster to Ukraine.

Benjamin Abelow, How the West Brought War to Ukraine: Understanding How US and NATO Policies Led to Crisis, War, and the Risk of Nuclear Catastrophe (Siland Press, 2022)

The third paragraph of this article was corrected on 12 January 2023 because the text had previously implied that the breakaway republics were recognised by Russia in 2014. Russia did not recognise them until 2022.