Americans Should Reject Hawkish Attitudes Toward China, Russia

In a text conversation I had this year with a very liberal high school friend, he admitted that the Russian invasion of Ukraine had majorly shifted his foreign policy views.

“I’m not sure if this is good or bad, but that invasion has made me significantly more of a defense hawk,” he said. 

My friend’s change in outlook mirrors that of many Americans, particularly liberals, who were the harshest critics of the Global War on Terror and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Yet they now cheer as ballistics roll off the assembly line to be shipped to Ukraine, and the new aggressive outlook doesn’t stop with Russia. In the same conversation, my friend said he was glad President Joe Biden was taking a hard-line approach against China’s encroachments on Taiwan. Americans increasingly see China as an existential threat instead of as a disagreeable partner, the once prevailing view. 

As the war in Ukraine enters its second year and the grim anniversary is commemorated by another wave of media attention, we should think critically about how the war has changed how we see the world. On one hand, Americans’ outpouring of support for the Ukrainian people in the face of horrific circumstances has been instrumental in Ukraine’s survival. However, the war has also revived ugly Cold War politics that increase the danger of violent conflict between major powers. I fear the conversion of Americans like my friend may lead us into a new cold war or — worse — a destructive, violent conflict. 

 Biden has continually framed the war in Ukraine as an inflection point in a global fight for democracy. At this year’s State of the Union Address, he described the invasion of Ukraine as a test for America and commended the United States’ role in the war, saying, “Would we stand for the right of people to live free from tyranny? Would we stand for the defense of democracy?” 

While this rhetoric sounds benevolent, it hearkens to a troubling past. Framing regional conflicts as global battles for democracy led to the justification of ill-advised military action in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Ukraine differs from these other situations in that the Ukrainian government and the majority of the Ukrainian people want the assistance of the U.S., but the portrayal of Russia as an evil empire that must be defeated by the liberal West is reminiscent of the imperialist view that the U.S. should act as a “global policeman” and promote Western democracy everywhere. The U.S. should be very clear what its goals are. Ending the war in Ukraine and alleviating suffering is a noble goal. Weakening Russia for the sake of wiping out “the evil empire” is not. 

For a look at how zeal for Russia’s defeat has entered the mainstream, consider Late Show host and comedian Stephen Colbert’s commentary on the war. Following the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Colbert mercilessly mocked the Kremlin and Russia. In one segment, a parody of a Coca-Cola ad suggested that Russian citizens enjoy a “carbonated borscht” in the aftermath of the company suspending business in Russia. Reducing an entire nation, culture, and people to crude stereotypes because the actions of its government is unjust. To be fair to Colbert, the segment also implied that Russian people hated President Vladimir Putin for separating them from Western commodities, but there was still no consideration of the genuine hurt Russian citizens are feeling because of the sudden economic and cultural isolation imposed by the West. Colbert’s commentary shows how American opinion on the Ukraine war can transform quickly from solidarity with the Ukrainians to anti-Russian schadenfreude.

Belligerent attitudes toward Russia have real effects on policy. In October, members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus released a letter calling on Biden to engage in direct diplomacy with Putin. Less than 24 hours later, after receiving backlash from other Democrats, the Progressive Caucus rescinded the letter, claiming it had not been properly vetted. This wariness to criticize the status quo is dangerous. Similarly, there has been little debate in Washington on the ethics and efficacy of the sanctions the U.S. has placed on Russia. While the U.S. understandably does not want to bankroll Putin’s war machine through international trade, there should also be acknowledgement of the economic hardship sanctions cause to Russian citizens. 

Similarly, little consideration is given to how our rhetoric and attitudes affect our relationship with the People’s Republic of China. During and since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese government and people were frequently scapegoated in the U.S. Americans have a right to be concerned about how the Chinese Communist Party has become increasingly militaristic and nationalistic under President Xi Jinping; the balloons that floated into U.S. airspace in recent weeks are the latest in a series of increasingly hostile actions from the PRC. However, viewing China as an enemy is unrealistic given that hostilities have amounted to little more than saber-waving. 

The prospect of conflict between the two nations is dangerous. Last May, President Biden told a reporter that the U.S. would use military force to defend Taiwan should the PRC threaten the island nation’s sovereignty, despite the fact that the U.S. has no obligation to do so. This major break in diplomatic precedent is troubling. Once again, there is too little debate in Washington and among the general public about the form our foreign policy is taking. An underlying fear of appearing weak and sympathetic toward the “them” limits criticism of reckless actions. Military action to defend Taiwan would mean direct conflict between two nuclear powers. Americans do not take this reality seriously enough.

If Americans view China and Russia as enemies rather than difficult global neighbors, tensions will continue to escalate and will inevitably boil over into violent conflict. The Cold War between the U.S. and the USSR cost the lives of millions in Vietnam, Korea, and elsewhere, and the Cuban Missile Crisis brought humanity within a hair’s breadth of nuclear annihilation. We should avoid the fear and enmity that fuels cold and active wars. Americans have a duty to support the people of Ukraine in their fight for peace and independence, but we also have the responsibility to tread lightly and practice restraint.