The False Religion of Unipolarity

On Tuesday, Victoria Nuland resigned her post as under secretary of state for political affairs and as the Biden administration’s pointwoman on Ukraine. As Compact’s Sohrab Ahmari has noted, Nuland’s career exemplifies the hubris and lack of accountability that characterize many Washington hawks. Determined to stuff the world’s complex realities into a simplistic good-versus-evil binary, Nuland and like-minded figures in her orbit have left a vast wreckage in the wake of their actions, stretching from Iraq to Ukraine and beyond. 

Nuland shows no sign of rethinking her ideological commitments, however. A few weeks ago, in a speech at the Center for Security and International Studies marking the second anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s invasion, she declared: “Our continued support for Ukraine tells tyrants and autocrats everywhere … that we will defend the rights of free people to determine their own future … and that the world’s democracies will defend the values and principles that keep us safe and strong.”

Such rhetoric shouldn’t be dismissed as pure posturing. Rather, proponents of realism and restraint in foreign policy must reckon with the fact that statements like these reflect the hawks’ deep-seated, immensely consequential convictions about America and its place in the world. Put another way: Nuland & Co. really do mean it when they say such things—and that lack of cynicism is precisely what makes them so terrifying. Their conception of foreign policy as an endless international crusade against ideological enemies, rather than a tool for realizing state interests, fails the American people and risks bringing the world to the precipice of catastrophe. 

In framing their actions today, the hawks often refer back to the Cold War. That conflict was, in form and partly in essence, a confrontation between competing value systems: Western capitalist democracy and Soviet Communism. Yet this framing obscures the reality that the two superpowers not only tolerated, but sought out unique territorial arrangements, such as Germany’s postwar division and the partition of the Korean Peninsula. These accommodations responded not to ideological imperatives, but to pragmatic geopolitical calculations. Washington and Moscow generally respected each others’ core spheres of influence in Europe and East Asia, even as they vigorously competed for influence in other parts of the world; both were also surprisingly tolerant of neutral or non-aligned states under certain conditions. The bipolar character of midcentury international politics had a disciplining effect on both sides, forcing American and Soviet leaders into strategic approaches informed by prudence.