In the movie Runaway Train, a masterpiece from 1985 by Andrei Konchalovsky, escaped convict Oscar Manheim hijacks a train in a last, desperate effort to escape the law. Something goes wrong and the train roars down the track, out of control, through a snowstorm, straight for a collapsed bridge.
Manheim climbs up on top of the engine. Determined to never be caught again, he howls into the storm as if liberated of all worldly confinements.
Inside the train is Mr. Ranken, the only man who can stop the catastrophe. But he is handcuffed to a pipe and cannot reach the engine turn-off switch. All he can do is watch as the train closes in on the inevitable.
The movie has nothing to do with politics, but its final scenes are eerily reminiscent of current events. On top of the train, like Jon Voight’s brilliantly played character, are the war hawks in Moscow and Washington. They are howling conflict-stirring rhetoric, almost as if they crave war in Ukraine.
Inside the locomotive are the cooler minds, urging peace and asking for reason to prevail.
Nobody knows the war hawks in Moscow better than the Ukrainians, living as they do in the ominous shadows of Putin’s birds of prey. But the Russians are not the only ones throwing war-stirring rhetoric around. On January 26th, Oleksiy Danilov, Ukrainian Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, criticized the West, including both Europe and America, for fomenting unmerited hysteria over a possible Russian invasion.
According to Breitbart, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has urged his people to “disregard agitated statements from the administration of President Joe Biden.” Secretary Danilov has made comments along the same lines.
That is not to say Russia could not invade Ukraine; the threat remains as long as the tensions over the country’s sovereignty and future remain high. However, there is a clear risk that U.S. war hawks have unintentionally destabilized the situation. On January 18th, President Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki stated that Russia could invade Ukraine “at any moment.” A day later, Yahoo News reported President Biden as predicting that Putin will invade Ukraine.
By contrast, on January 22nd, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Gutierres said he does not think a Russian invasion will happen. Four days later, the Associated Press reported that Ukrainian leaders tried to calm the country and reassure the Ukrainians that “an invasion from neighboring Russia was not imminent.”
At first glance, this contrast between the messages from Washington and Kyiv seems puzzling. It makes no sense that the Biden administration would heighten tensions in a country whose government is trying to soothe them.
This impression of the Biden administration lacking in logic is reinforced by the president’s odd comment regarding the scale of a possible invasion. He recently suggested that “minor incursions” by Russia would be met with less aggressive responses than a full-scale military invasion.
His comments were unhelpful for the Ukrainian government and painted a picture of America as being unreliable and lacking in purpose. It is almost as if Biden is tone deaf to the needs, wants, and thoughts of the government in Kyiv.
There is, however, an explanation of Biden’s apparently ham-fisted handling of the Ukrainian conflict. For the past half century, American foreign policy has been guided by a neoconservative ideological doctrine, according to which America has an almost administrative duty to act as a global police force.
This doctrine originates with journalist, editor, and publisher Irving Kristol, who was highly influential with the Republican political leadership. President Reagan as well as both Presidents Bush subscribed to the doctrine. Over time, Democrats have adopted it, with both Presidents Clinton and Obama practicing it at various levels.
President Biden shares the same view of America as a default global security force. Another ardent supporter is Congresswoman Liz Cheney (R-WY). A war hawk in her own right, Cheney is a consistent advocate of deploying American forces globally, under an open-ended commitment. Since first elected to Congress in 2016, Cheney has at every turn been supportive of the basic idea that “more is better than less” when it comes to American military activism.
In terms of Ukraine, Cheney has used the neoconservative doctrine to express a sense of consistency and commitment that President Biden struggles to convey. In a recent interview with a talk show on Fox News Radio, Cheney explained that the president is behaving more like a TV news commentator than the leader of a superpower.
Cheney elaborated on the neoconservative foreign-policy doctrine and its practical consequences: it is in America’s own security interest to “lead in the world.” She also criticized those who urge restraint on behalf of American military commitments for believing in “isolationism” and hoping “for the best.”
Few American politicians express neoconservative thought better than Cheney, and her words matter. She is likely going to run for president in 2024, either for her current Republican party or as an independent. She is a credible contender with significant fundraising capabilities and a vast network of influential contacts. Her comments on foreign policy are worth taking seriously, even to be considered an indicator of how America will behave on the global stage in the years to come.
Her firmness on America’s commitment to Ukraine is refreshingly clear, especially when compared to the messages coming from the Biden administration.
At the same time, her unwavering dedication to American military interventionism does come with significant risks, both for America and the country that America is aiming to help. Recent history shows how easily a legitimate effort to support a nation in need can morph into aimless permanence. The reason for this lies in the neoconservative foreign-policy doctrine that Liz Cheney relies on for her intellectual guidance, but she will not be the first American president to do so.
The invasion of Panama in 1989 was America’s first military conflict without an explicit aim to defend America’s founding values. The Gulf War of 1991 belongs in the same category. Then came the responses to 9/11, where the justifiable invasion of Afghanistan morphed into a perpetual, habitual military presence. A similar fate befell the American military presence in Europe: it was properly motivated by the aftermath of World War II and the Cold War, but lost its validity when the Berlin Wall came down.
If America was to commit forces to Ukraine, would they still be there 20, 30 years from now?
Only history will tell, but the question is highly merited given that Cheney likely will be a presidential frontrunner. Foreign policy will be her trademark issue; she is a conservative in general—her voting record in Congress overlaps with Trump’s at 93%—but she adamantly differs from the former president on foreign policy. She was, e.g., a strong opponent to Trump’s plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, voicing her disagreement on more than one occasion.
Cheney, in turn, was criticized by both Trump and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) for being a backer of “perpetual wars.” Senator Paul has also tied her enduring commitment to open-ended military interventionism to the neoconservative ideology. That philosophy, Senator Paul says, is “perpetual war.”
The difference between the two strains of conservatism is, in a sense, a difference on what it means to be an American patriot. To the Trump-leaning traditional conservatives, patriotism is about prosperity; a strong economy where working-class families can build a prosperous life is the well from which patriotism springs. This explains Trump’s desire to scale back America’s military’s presence abroad and his strong focus on reinvigorating the economy.
His definition of patriotism resonated with voters in 2016. At that time, American forces had been engaged in Afghanistan for a decade and a half. Voters suffered from war weariness, as explained in a research paper published at SSRN. Political scientist Douglas Kriner and law professor Francis Shen find statistical evidence that Hillary Clinton, Trump’s democrat opponent and ally with Liz Cheney on foreign policy, lost to Trump because of her commitment to more and longer military operations abroad.
Liz Cheney has criticized Trump’s prosperity-based concept of patriotism as “neo-Marxist.” Her definition of patriotism is Irving Kristol’s. In an article in Foreign Affairs in 1967 called “American Intellectuals and Foreign Policy,” Kristol defends the Vietnam War as a prime example of America’s role on the world stage. There is, Kristol explains, only one such role to play, namely that of military activism and intervention.
At the heart of Kristol’s doctrine lies the idea that foreign policy, unlike domestic policy, is not open for principled debate. Domestic policy is driven by the dynamics between competing ideological preferences, while foreign policy is an elaborate web of reactions to global events and the fulfillment of American international responsibilities. These responsibilities, says Kristol, are a direct consequence of the status as a superpower.
They are, he proclaims, matters of administrative fact and not up for debate. Since ideologies have no place in foreign policy, it is best left to those who are willing to administer global relations with vigor and commitment.
In the case of America, this means accepting the country’s global responsibilities, bestowed as they are upon America by virtue of its global dominance. Military intervention, such as the war in Vietnam, is just another cross to bear for a superpower.
The most immediate consequence of Kristol’s foreign-policy doctrine is that proponents of it are nothing more than selfless, dutiful administrators of a superpower’s inevitable responsibilities. Critics, on the other hand, are ideologues.
This is an absurd position to take, especially given that Kristol wrote his foreign-policy doctrine at the height of the Cold War. When the United States and Western Europe were staring down the Soviet Union and its empire on a daily basis, it was hardly a matter of administrative routine to decide whether or not America should be militarily involved around the world.
The war in Vietnam was not one of national security for America: it was a war between ideologies. American troops would not have been in Indo-China if the North Vietnamese forces had been ardent followers of Kant, Churchill, and Hayek instead of Marx, Lenin, and Mao.
Kristol’s cardinal error, which has reverberated through American foreign policy for half a century, is that by de-ideologizing foreign policy, he lumps together all military interventions under a bureaucratic banner. The war against Nazi Germany is morally equated with the Gulf War of 1991. But in reality, the former was a moral quest aimed to defeat an evil ideology and secure the victory of the values of Western Civilization; the latter was essentially a police operation, motivated by the Iraqi regime’s alleged sponsorship of terrorism.
The American people never grew tired of their country’s military commitment to Europe during the Cold War. It was easy to motivate that commitment with the contrast between American liberty and the totalitarianism of the Soviet empire. By the same token, it was easy to gain support for the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks.
Yet, it was far more difficult to motivate America’s continued military presence there; if the goal in Afghanistan had been the same as that which led America into Europe in World War II, then, by the same logic by which West Germany was rebuilt as a functioning democracy, the American mission in Afghanistan would have been to build a working democratic society, inoculated against atrocious tyranny.
No such democracy ever emerged. The reason, again, is that according to Kristol’s neoconservative foreign policy doctrine, America’s overseas military operations are simply a policing responsibility.
Will American troops in Ukraine come there on the same terms? The answer to the question is paramount for its success as well as for its future support from the American people. There is no doubt that the Ukrainian crisis is a bona fide example of a country struggling to protect its territorial integrity, but once the threat from Russia subsides, will the Americans leave again?
Sven R. Larson is a political economist and author. He received a Ph.D. in Economics from Roskilde University, Denmark. Originally from Sweden, he lives in America where for the past 16 years he has worked in politics and public policy. He has written several books, including Democracy or Socialism: The Fateful Question for America in 2024.