The two biggest events of the past few days have, of course, been the Super Bowl and the crisis in Ukraine. I turned on the Super Bowl but after a while drifted off to Turner Classic Movies where I spent a delightful time watching that grand old film The Music Man starring Robert Preston, Shirley Jones, and Buddy Hackett. I have a special fondness for Shirley Jones films because I appeared with her in summer stock in the summer of 1956 (I am vastly exaggerating my role, it goes without saying, but I really did spend two weeks in the pit chorus of a summer stock traveling performance of The Beggar’s Opera in which Shirley Jones starred. The pit chorus never got on stage and I never met Jones but I did honest to God appear with her in the production. My proudest dramatic moment.) But all of that is neither here nor there. Today I want to say a few words about the Ukraine crisis. Let me begin with a disclaimer: I have never visited any of the territories implicated in the crisis and I do not read, write, or speak any of the relevant languages so take what I have to say with the appropriate grain of salt.
There are two basically different Imperial models which we can think of as the Chinese model and the British model. The Chinese Empire, when the central government was strong, expanded its control west, north, and south into such areas as Mongolia and Tibet. When the central government was weak, it contracted in upon itself. All of this is discussed elegantly in a wonderful old book called The Inner Asian Frontiers of China by Owen Lattimore. Even at its height, the Chinese Empire did not seek to conquer lands not contiguous to the homeland. The British model, by contrast, was based on overseas colonies stretching around the world. This model was also the basis for the French, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, and German empires.
Russia followed the Chinese model in its modern expansion. At its height, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics stretched from the contiguous far eastern territories of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Khirgizia, Tadjikistan, and Turkmenistan all the way to the north western republics of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, to Georgia, White Russia (or Byelorussia – Belarus, as it is now called), and to Armenia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan in the south. The Soviet Union rarely if ever sent its troops to a land that was not contiguous to the homeland. Its most disastrous effort was of course in Afghanistan (interested parties can watch the third Rambo movie for details of the ways in which Americans stood up the Taliban with shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles to defeat the Russians.)
The United States has followed a mixed Imperial model over the course of its several hundred year existence. It started with the Chinese model, expanding westward into spatially contiguous areas, which it incorporated into itself. Unlike the Chinese and the Russians, the United States chose to exterminate the populations of the territories it conquered, confining those it could not kill on “reservations.” To be sure, there were overseas imperial adventures which resulted in the acquisition of Puerto Rico, the domination for a while of Cuba, the acquisition of Hawaii and Alaska and such minor territories as Guam. But it was not until after the Second World War that the United States fully embraced the British model of worldwide imperial expansion through a combination of military force and alliances.
Hitler’s disastrous decision to invade Russia resulted not only in his ultimate defeat but also in the enormous expansion westward of the Soviet Union. At its height, the Soviet Union controlled, in addition to its Eastern European Soviet Socialist Republics, the entire territory of what came to be called the Warsaw Pact, including Romania, Bulgaria, and Poland.
With the collapse and breakup of the Soviet Union, the United States and its Western European allies were able to establish on the Central European plain the control that had eluded them at the close of World War II. Little by little, the United States has been taking advantage of Russia’s relative weakness to push eastward, seeking even to control in one way or another territories that were originally Soviet Socialist Republics.
All of this has nothing whatsoever to do with freedom, democracy, the fundamental principles of national independence or anything of the sort. It is simply late 20th century and early 21st century imperial struggling and positioning in an ever-changing world.
Vladimir Putin is attempting to reverse somewhat this expansionist thrust of the United States and its allies, aided by an extremely powerful military and the advantage of sizable oil and natural gas resources. There is no neutral objectively correct distribution of geographic control among competing imperial powers. There is simply an endless struggle for position and control.
Whose side am I on? Well, I am certainly not on the side of Vladimir Putin, and I very much approve of Joe Biden’s decision not to put American troops at risk to maintain the independence of Ukraine. Beyond that, I confess I have no settled convictions in the matter.