The anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a painful reminder that once the bombs start falling, we’ve all ultimately failed. As a proud advocate for a more progressive US foreign policy, I’m personally reminded of the need to take stock of not just the last year of war, but how we got here, and, importantly, how we can try to make sure to stop the next war before it ever even begins.
Before we go further, it is worth stating that the overwhelming majority of progressives in the United States approve of President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Ukraine. It’s not hard to understand why. Biden has steadfastly stood by Ukrainians as the victims of international aggression, supplying them not just with the means of defending themselves but also significant, vital economic and humanitarian aid. He has marshaled a major multilateral coalition while also trying to keep lines open for diplomacy with Russia, both on the war and other important issues. And, importantly, he has put clear constraints on US military involvement to avoid escalation between the world’s two largest nuclear-armed states.
Even though there are important debates over how to get there, progressives desperately hope for a swift end to the war and justice for its victims. While there are areas of disagreement, by and large, given the hand he was dealt and the tools currently in our national security toolkit, most progressives have found far more to like than to dislike in how Biden has navigated the crisis. But this support belies a far deeper frustration and disappointment with the status quo that is at the very heart of progressive foreign policy.
To start, Washington’s debates about the world are, to a progressive, frustratingly narrow. In a town where so many politicians and pundits think they’re generals (and more than a few generals think they’re politicians), nearly all of Washington’s debates center around troop movements and the latest arms shipments. Progressives know that the suffering of a war goes far beyond the battlefield. Sadly, vanishingly little attention is given to the ongoing refugee crisis caused by the war, the threat to global food security when two of the world’s wheat suppliers are battling, or the ongoing risk created by the failure to adequately protect nuclear power plants. All of these challenges require creative, persistent US statecraft to confront, but you wouldn’t know that from Washington’s debates.
As we watch the horrific war in Ukraine spill into its second year, progressives must use this moment to recommit to seeking changes in US foreign policy to create a more peaceful and just world.
The tools available to Biden are also woefully insufficient to the challenges at hand, a direct result of our nation’s nearly singular focus on military might, which progressives (and even some decidedly non-progressive experts) have long fought against. Beyond the battlefield, US efforts have largely focused on holding Russia accountable for its unprovoked invasion through a mixture of sanctions and international condemnation. Yet, these efforts have fallen far short of their stated goals.
While seizing the occasional oligarch’s yacht may feel deeply satisfying, the truth is our sanctions regime is unable to truly target President Vladimir Putin’s power. He and his cronies hide behind an international financial system built to protect the interests of the wealthy, using shell companies, legal money laundering, and other corrupt schemes progressives have decried for decades to avoid consequences for their horrific actions. Similarly, progressives have long been at the forefront of opposing the broad, sectoral sanctions that have long failed to create change in Cuba, Venezuela, or Iran and are, predictably, similarly failing now in Russia.
Beyond sanctions, there is also absurdly little focus on genuine accountability for Russia’s repeated war crimes in Ukraine. Again, for decades progressives have been agitating for the United States to invest in creating and supporting genuine international mechanisms for accountability. Had President George W. Bush not walked away from the International Criminal Court two decades ago (over loud protests from progressives), perhaps Putin might be more worried about finding himself in the Hague today. And had we been more willing to hold ourselves and our allies accountable for our own failings — as progressives have also long demanded — we would no doubt be more successful in doing so today with one of our adversaries.
Finally, it is impossible to ignore the parallels between Russia’s invasion a year ago to our own invasion of Iraq 20 years ago next month. Both invasions, whatever the claimed pretexts, were ultimately the result of political leaders, drunk on their own power, actively misleading their own populace, and inadequately constrained by domestic or international law, doing what they wanted with wanton regard for the ensuing harm and devastation. Nothing could be farther from the world progressives are working to build, and the longer we fail to learn from these parallels, the more likely we will see another disastrous war of choice in the future.
Ultimately, all of this leaves most progressives with mixed emotions as we observed the anniversary of the war in Ukraine last week, grateful for what can be done but lamenting what could have been had the United States made different decisions in the past. As we watch that horrific war spill into its second year, we must use this moment to recommit to seeking changes in US foreign policy that make sure that 20 years from now, we find the United States in a far, far better position to truly work for peace, accountability, and justice.