The Iraq War was the event that drew me into political consciousness as a teenager in high school. I remember sitting in my biology class as the teacher let us deviate from the day’s material to argue about the imminent U.S. invasion in the Middle East. I felt uneasy about the justifications given for the war, but I was badly outgunned: nearly everyone else felt that President George W. Bush’s case was airtight. I watched the ensuing chaos on the television screens and attended enormous antiwar marches, shouting my lungs off about the pointlessness of the conflict. I’ve probably never felt more politically powerless in my life.
In the years since, the war and its consequences cast a long shadow over my thinking. I was part of a generation of young people who had seen American foreign policy at its worst—an unnecessary war in Iraq and a mismanaged war in Afghanistan.
Polling from the Chicago Council on Public Affairs released in 2018 reveals that generational shift. It found that 72 percent of baby boomers believed it was best for the U.S. to take an active role in the world, but only 51 percent of millennials agreed. These attitudes may reflect a more negative view of the U.S. in general. When asked whether the U.S. is the “greatest country in the world” or “no greater than other nations,” 72 percent of baby boomers said it was the greatest country in the world, while just 50 percent of millennials agreed. This split was found in every major area of the council’s survey: millennials were much less supportive of U.S. global leadership.
As I grew older, I found my thinking on these topics changing. I realized that looking only at a country’s sins was a poor way to evaluate its history. I needed to look at the big picture. What does the world look like absent the American-led order?
The conflict in Ukraine provides a window into that world. Modern technology has made us witnesses to Russia’s invasion. Anyone with Internet access can see what a war of aggression looks like, thanks to Ukrainians with smartphones.
Many Americans are understandably puzzled by Russia’s pummeling of its eastern neighbor, which represents a massive escalation of a conflict that began in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and a civil war in eastern Ukraine instigated by Russia. Why did Putin launch this war?
Most of our political leaders have settled on a simple explanation: Russia’s leadership sees control of Ukraine as a core national interest. The foreign policy establishment and the hard-left ideologies to which many millennials subscribe can agree on that much. Both sides argue that Russia views Ukraine as a buffer against the West and that it wants to control it politically. Having failed to do that by other means, it’s willing to use military force to achieve its objectives.
The difference between the establishment and hard-left views concerns the question of whom to blame. The American foreign policy establishment mostly faults Russia itself, while some left-wing intellectuals take a different view. For instance, Freddie deBoer, a popular Marxist blogger, argues that the war is at least partly a “consequence of American imperialism.” He writes that “Russia has no desire to have American troops parked next door. . . . Letting Ukraine join NATO could have resulted in American troops stationed right on Russia’s porch.” He ends his post with a quote from the Chinese Foreign Ministry: “When the U.S. drove five waves of NATO expansion eastward all the way to Russia’s doorstep and deployed advanced offensive strategic weapons in breach of its assurances to Russia, did it ever think about the consequences of pushing a big country to the wall?”
Leaving aside the question of whether this argument about provoking Russia has merit, it’s in the comment section below the article that deBoer reveals his larger worldview. “The United States is the greatest source for evil and destruction since the fall of the Third Reich,” he wrote. “Ask the Iraqis, the Iranians, the Congolese, the Hondurans, the Vietnamese, the Laotians, the Cambodians, the Nicaraguans.” When one commenter pushed back on this, he reiterated his view: “That is, indeed, perhaps my core political belief of all, and it always has been.”
But what if we did ask the world what it thinks of America? It turns out that plenty of people in the professional polling industry have done so. Pew Research asked 25 countries if they prefer the U.S. or China as the world’s leading power. Across these countries, a “median of 63% say they prefer a world in which the U.S. is the leading power, while just 19% would favor one in which China leads.” And it’s not like the pollsters were just asking in countries where America has always had friendly relations.
In Japan, where the only atom bombs ever used in wartime were dropped (by America), 81 percent preferred America to China. But of course, Japan has historical animosity with China. What about Brazil, then, where, at the height of the Cold War, the United States backed a military coup in 1964? Even there, 51 percent of respondents said they preferred America; just 28 percent backed China. Almost twice as many Indonesians, who suffered human-rights abuses under the regime of U.S.-backed dictator Suharto, prefer America to China. And in South Africa, where U.S. administrations once supported the apartheid government, America is preferred to China.
Yes, America is deeply unpopular in Iraq, for understandable reasons. That war is perhaps America’s worst mistake of the new century. But Pew also found that majorities in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Chile—all the sites of U.S.-backed interventions in the 1970s and 1980s—now have favorable views of the United States. Three quarters of Vietnamese, who once fought to eject American soldiers from their country, had favorable views of America in a 2014 poll.
It would be fair to ask whether I’m picking on a strawman by singling out deBoer. After all, virtually all of Congress, including everyone from Bernie Sanders on the left to Lindsey Graham on the right, holds Vladmir Putin most responsible for the bloodshed in Ukraine. But one of the main consequences of the progressive intelligentsia’s refusal to embrace the idea that American power can be a force for good is that it cedes the playing field to proponents of other ideologies. For decades, progressives have basically had no foreign policy of their own because they don’t believe in the possibility of using American power abroad for good. For this reason, the average Democratic politician’s foreign policy beliefs typically fall somewhere between the centrist foreign policy establishment and the Right. The Left simply isn’t represented, and that’s unfortunate, because it could otherwise have something to add to foreign policy debates.
Progressives are often correct to argue that America is too quick to use military force or too willing to excuse abuses committed by governments friendly to Washington. But they must resist the urge to be merely reactionary—to argue that America is always to blame for anything that goes wrong in the world, and that we’re always better off doing nothing. Cultural progressives are wrong to argue that white people are the only agents in American society and that minorities are merely virtuous victims. Likewise, foreign policy leftists are wrong to deny that other countries besides America and its allies have agency, and that sometimes America must confront them when they behave dangerously.
This isn’t just a theoretical point. As the world reels from the humanitarian and economic catastrophes created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many have turned their gaze to China, which has so far refused to condemn the war. Historically, China has practiced a hands-off foreign policy. But China was until recently a poor country. As its economy has grown, so, too, have its ambitions. Now the world’s “second-biggest exporter of parts,” China has begun using its economic power to bully weaker countries. Beijing recently told Paraguay that it would have to drop its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan (one of only 15 countries that still does so) if it wanted to purchase doses of China’s Covid-19 vaccine. China’s gambit ultimately failed because India, Taiwan, and the U.S. State Department stepped in to help.
For all its flaws, America is still a democratic state and capable of changing for the better. Shifts in American public opinion helped turn Congress against South Africa’s apartheid regime, leading to the sanctions that helped bring it down. In Russia and in China, anti-government dissidents are harassed, jailed, or even killed.
Because of its wealth and power, America is one of the few countries that can stand up to the powerful autocrats who rule in Beijing and Moscow. Even many Muslim-majority democracies have refused to protest China’s brutal repression of the Muslim Uyghurs in the far-western Xinjiang province. Pakistan, where my parents emigrated from, has even publicly defended China’s conduct. It’s not hard to understand why: Pakistan has deep economic links with China, which probably also explains why it has stayed neutral in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. In one of his more candid moments, Pakistan’s leader Imran Khan admitted that he was shocked by the Saudi government’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but he added that Pakistan could not afford to snub Riyadh, given his country’s dire economic straits. “We’re desperate at the moment,” he said.
Pakistan can’t afford to stand up to these bullies—but America can. These days, I don’t find myself relating as much to the fiery anti-American rhetoric of the antiwar marches I attended back in 2003. I think instead about one of my best friends in college, a Bosnian refugee whose family found its way to the United States during the war. America not only welcomed thousands of refugees like him but also acted in concert with its European allies to stop ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.
DeBoer and those who think like him are wrong. America is not a source of evil and destruction. Yes, we make mistakes, and costly ones, but we also remain the world’s best chance for lasting peace and security. Much of the world prefers an American-led order for a reason. They’ve seen, and often lived, the alternatives.
Photo by Jens Kalaene/picture alliance via Getty Images