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How ideology shaped the U.S. response to the Ukraine invasion

New book shows ideological concerns permeate foreign relations

Although some politicians and analysts argue that U.S. foreign policy should somehow rise above ideology, the evidence suggests that isn’t possible, according to a historian who edited a new book on the subject.

Any approach to dealing with allies and foes around the world has some kind of organizing principle that amounts to an ideology, said Christopher McKnight Nichols, a professor of history at The Ohio State University.

“Even leaders who don’t think deeply about ideology, or even outright reject ideology, can’t escape it,” said Nichols, who is the Wayne Woodrow Hayes Chair in National Security Studies at Ohio State’s Mershon Center for International Security Studies.

“The apparent absence of ideology demonstrates the opposite: the profound influence of ideologies in U.S. foreign relations.”

Christopher McKnight NicholsNichols is co-editor of the new book Ideology in U.S. Foreign Relations, with David Milne, professor of modern history at the University of East Anglia. The book includes 22 chapters by experts examining ideology from a variety of angles. Nichols wrote a chapter on unilateralism.

The influence of ideology is apparent in how the United States has dealt with Russia in the buildup and aftermath of its invasion of Ukraine, Nichols said.

President Obama’s national security team said his approach to foreign policy would be “pragmatism over ideology.”

But Nichols said the underexamined ideologies of the administration prevented them, at least in part, from anticipating the threat that Russia posed to world peace.

“They thought Russia was a waning power and China was a more important one and those assumptions amounted to an ideology that led them to underestimate Russian power,” he said.

President Trump’s embrace of Russian leader Vladimir Putin also functioned as an ideology – whether Trump thought so or not – that helped set the stage for the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

After the invasion, President Biden returned to America’s ideological commitment since the Cold War to protect European allies. But even then, Biden walked a tightrope between helping Ukraine and the long-standing American desire to avoid getting entangled in foreign wars, Nichols explained.

“The challenge of Ukraine was how can the U.S. give an enormous amount of aid and not wind up fighting this war. And that’s where I think the ideological bedrock is in this moment,” he said.

“No one wants us to put our troops on the ground in Ukraine. The United States, both the public and its leaders, has this wariness about getting too involved.”

In Nichols’ chapter on unilateralism, he traces this wariness to the nation’s founding.  From the beginning, presidents and other leaders have wanted the United States to prioritize its own interests, and not be constrained by agreements or ties with other countries.  Alexander Hamilton called it “the fatal heresy of a close alliance.”

In the early days of the American republic, unilateralism came from a position of weakness, Nichols said.  The United States wanted time to become stronger or at least not appear too fragile and vulnerable relative to European power in commercial and military areas.

After the United States became a global power, America often acted alone because it could – it had the strength to not need other countries to support its initiatives. That helped lead to policy stances like “America First,” which emphasizes nationalism and a self-interested “go it alone” approach to the world.

“Unilateralism seems to have come roaring back in the early 21st Century, but it has always been with us.  It is a powerful and enduring ideology in the United States,” Nichols said.

Other chapters in the book explore a variety of ideologies that influence foreign relations in the United States.

One chapter, for example, examines how the United States often acts much more out of fear in its dealings with the rest of the world than would be expected for a nation that is as powerful as it is.

Another chapter looks at how U.S. presidents have deployed “civilization” as a justification for various actions. Often the term is used to justify domination and violence in the name of preserving civilization.

While various facets of ideologies such as unilateralism and fear, keywords and concepts such as civilization and freedom, religious faith and exceptionalism, have been invoked at numerous times during the nation’s history, Nichols said they often aren’t fully articulated or discussed.

“U.S. leaders and citizens alike often don’t seem conscious of the ideologies at work in shaping their worldviews, or think that they aren’t being ideological at all,” he said.

But it is ideologies, Nichols said, that history shows help us to make sense of the complex world around us. They allow individuals, like nations, to arrange priorities, values, and assumptions into a coherent system to understand and the deal with the complicated realities of both the local and the global.

“One of the lessons from the book, therefore, is the vital importance of ideology in U.S. foreign policy – even when we don’t recognize it.”

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