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Comment: Ukraine and the USA

Comment: Ukraine and the USA: A Different Relationship

Published on: 21 March 2022

The war in Ukraine has caused America to hesitate in its role as ‘leader of the free world’, writes Professor Susan-Mary Grant.

Those of us settling down in front of the television for some relaxing Sunday night drama to set us up for the working week might well be watching the remake of The Ipcress File, the remake of Len Deighton’s 1962 spy thriller whose central character, Harry Palmer, was first made famous by Michael Caine in the 1965 film. It is, and always was a reminder that the Cold War was not a two-act play between the United States and the Soviet Union. Other countries were involved.

This is not, however, a script that America itself followed over the period of the Cold War, or indeed since. The nation’s role as ‘leader of the free world’ was not entirely a self-appointed one. But it is one that America has seized, rhetorically if not in actual practice. America alone was the mission statement long before Donald Trump turned it into the more aggressive ‘America First’ promise to the nation’s more parochial citizens. And the inherent drama of America versus Russia has always appealed. The drama of ‘Operation Monopoly,’ the American attempt to tunnel under the new Soviet Embassy in Washington, had all the elements of a Deighton novel, including the existence of not just one but two double-agents who revealed its existence to the Russians.

But Russia achieved some leverage during the Cold War standoff between the two nations in America’s dire tradition of race relations. As a means of persuasion for post-colonial nations, Russia did not have to work hard to present communism as the better alternative to the compromised freedom perpetuated in America. And race, albeit differently articulated, has hampered America’s global security efforts at almost every point. Failing entirely to understand the social, class, political, religious and racial dynamics of those nations that it has invaded with a view to establishing democracy, America has suffered military defeats whose repercussions have had appalling consequences for the nations concerned, and for America’s diplomatic relations with the rest of the world.

The situation in Ukraine, however, has caused America to hesitate. More importantly, it has prompted the nation to negotiate with others, to build bridges undermined, if not entirely destroyed by its previous unilateral decisions regarding Afghanistan, or the reneged deal over nuclear submarines that, quite rightly, enraged France, the very nation that helped America secure its own statehood in the first place.

It was noticeable that President Biden, in his speech following President Zelensky’s address to Congress, invoked both the United States and the United Nations as beacons of liberty and freedom for the world. We are a far cry from George W. Bush’s overt military rhetoric (and dress). This is a new America. Its fears may partly be driven by the perceived risk from China, but even here Biden seeks negotiation.

All this careful diplomatic tightrope walking may not help Ukraine in the short term. But any overt military action from America will slot too easily into the Putin playbook of Russia versus America. And that would certainly make things worse in the long run. America still has the military might to go in mob-handed. But Biden understands that this is not the solution. His nation has always had the military might so necessary for the art of war. But now it needs to learn the art of the diplomatic manoeuvre. An entirely different ball game.

Susan-Mary Grant is Professor of American History 

Read our other commentary on Ukraine:

A turning point in in the German-Russian relationship 

Versions of history obscure Ukraine's rich and vibrant past 

Women are key to the resolution of the Russia-Ukraine war   

The invasion of Ukraine points to a colonial history 


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