Those who criticize the US for expanding NATO eastward overlook the right of all people, including Ukraine, to democratically choose their own destiny

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Who bears the blame for the war in Ukraine?

Is Vladimir Putin alone at fault—was it the irrational, unpredictable whim of a tyrant? Or did the US provoke him, so that in some sense we share the responsibility?

There are some on the left who hold the latter opinion, like the Democratic Socialists of America. When Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was underway, the DSA issued this statement:

The Democratic Socialists of America condemns Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and demands immediate diplomacy and de-escalation to resolve this crisis…

DSA reaffirms our call for the US to withdraw from NATO and to end the imperialist expansionism that set the stage for this conflict.

On Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine.” Democratic Socialists of America, 26 February 2022.

Although the DSA statement condemns Russia’s aggression, it asserts that the U.S. bears some of the blame. It implies that the choice to expand NATO into eastern Europe motivated Putin’s attack (“set the stage for this conflict”), and argues that if NATO were dissolved, the world would be a safer place.

This is a disastrous error, and I can’t let it pass without response. There may be other actions that NATO deserves criticism for, but in this case, it’s proved its value. For the U.S. to withdraw from NATO right now would make the world more violent and dangerous, not less.

The U.S. isn’t the only imperialist power

I’m not saying this because I feel antipathy for the DSA’s mission. If anyone has reason to doubt my socialist bona fides, I wrote an entire novel critiquing capitalism. I criticize the DSA for the same reason progressives criticize America: not because we hate it and want it to fail, but because we want it to do better.

Also, it’s not just leftists who say that expanding NATO was an aggressive move and that Putin’s invasion was an understandable response to the threat of encirclement by an American empire. The same argument can be heard from some centrists, like the political scientist John Mearsheimer:

“My argument is that the West, especially the United States, is principally responsible for this disaster. But no American policymaker, and hardly anywhere in the American foreign-policy establishment, is going to want to acknowledge that line of argument, and they will say that the Russians are responsible.”

Why John Mearsheimer Blames the U.S. for the Crisis in Ukraine.” The New Yorker, 1 March 2022.

I’m not a war hawk, nor am I arguing that the U.S. is always a force for good. However, the blind spot in the DSA/Mearsheimer analysis is its assumption that only the U.S. has agency. Whether they realize it or not, they’re starting from the stance that America is the prime mover and everyone else is passively reacting to us.

The reality is that the U.S. isn’t the only imperialist power. Other large and powerful states, like Russia and China, have their own imperial ambitions, their own aggressive nationalist movements, and their own vain and ruthless leaders. They’re every bit as capable of harboring desires to dominate and colonize their neighbors.

For example, Vladimir Putin has said explicitly that his goal is to reassemble the Russian Empire of the tsars. He claims that Ukraine is an illegitimate fiction of a state and its people rightfully belong under Moscow’s control. As part of his religious nationalist agenda, he hungers to control Kyiv, which is of spiritual importance to Orthodox Christianity. None of these arguments have anything to do with choices made by the US.

Ukraine was right to want to join NATO

It’s an absurd misreading of history to say, as the DSA does, that NATO presence in Eastern Europe constitutes “imperialist expansionism”. Countries like Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania weren’t dragooned into NATO. On the contrary, they wanted to join, precisely because they feared and distrusted what Russia might do. They spent years lobbying to be admitted, overcoming the reluctance of existing members.

It’s clear that NATO has served its intended purpose of keeping the peace in Europe. The only tragedy is that Ukraine was outside its circle of protection.

And Russia’s attack on Ukraine proves the wisdom of that choice. It’s a dramatic demonstration that their fear of Moscow was well-founded. Indeed, you could make a case that NATO didn’t expand fast enough. It’s no coincidence that Vladimir Putin hasn’t invaded Poland or the Baltic states. If Ukraine was a member of NATO, Russian bombs wouldn’t be falling on the Ukrainian people right now.

It’s clear that NATO has served its intended purpose of keeping the peace in Europe. The only tragedy is that Ukraine was outside its circle of protection. If the US were to withdraw or NATO were to dissolve, who’s to say where Putin’s ambitions would point him next? He’s proven he can’t be trusted, and his inner circle has, for example, cast covetous eyes toward Poland.

The theory that Russia invaded Ukraine because it was “threatened” by NATO encroachment never made any sense. Russia is a nuclear power! It has no reason to fear foreign invasion. Even if it did, this argument has no explanation of how invading Ukraine would make it safer from other NATO states that are already on its border. This is just the right-wing “stand your ground” doctrine applied to international politics: if you claim to feel threatened by the other guy, you can shoot first.

Is the US a friend or a foe of democracy?

When judging the US record, nuance is essential. The paradox is that America has been, in different times and places, both a friend and an enemy of democracy.

In World War II, we crushed the tyranny of the Axis and rebuilt West Germany and Japan as democracies. During the Cold War, we offered a haven for defectors and refugees escaping the Iron Curtain. While our human-rights record is far from spotless, we genuinely did uphold free speech, freedom of movement, and democracy in a way that the Soviet Union didn’t.

Socialists should have no problem with the conclusion that all people deserve to freely and democratically choose their own destiny.

On the other hand, the US has often acted as a bully and an interloper, hypocritically toppling democratic governments when they wouldn’t do our bidding. For example, in Guatemala, the US overthrew the liberal government of Honduras and installed a military dictatorship to protect the profits of the United Fruit Company, giving rise to the term “banana republic”.

In Iran, the US cast out the democratic government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and enthroned the Shah, an absolute monarch, to keep the oil flowing. Popular outrage over this foreign meddling led to the Islamic Revolution and the theocratic regime of the ayatollahs, a disaster that both the US and the Iranian people are paying a bitter cost for to this day.

Socialists should have no problem with the conclusion that all people deserve to freely and democratically choose their own destiny. It’s wrong to trample on another nation’s sovereignty, to push them around because we dislike the choices they make. The American coups in Guatemala and Iran, among other places, were a flagrant violation of that right.

But if that’s true, don’t we also have to respect the sovereignty of the people of Ukraine and the other nations of Europe? Don’t they have the right to make their own decisions, and specifically to join NATO or the EU if they wish to? Where is their agency in the DSA/Mearsheimer critique?

Just as Russia can have its own imperial ambitions that have nothing to do with us, smaller democracies are capable of making their own decision to seek American protection. It’s not because we strong-armed them into it, but because they genuinely prefer to be allied with the West.

I’m a humanist, and as such, I believe that when someone asks you for help, you should give it if you can. That’s why I’m in favor of peace, but not isolationism. It would be nice to believe that all disputes can be resolved through diplomacy. But the painful reality is that, if democracies lay down their arms, authoritarian regimes will treat it as permission to seize whatever they want. There’s much that the US deserves criticism for, but a world dominated by Vladimir Putin would be immeasurably worse.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...