Who Benefits from the Myth of Pro-War Consensus?

Who Benefits from the Myth of Pro-War Consensus?

The consensus thesis allows pundits to settle into the comfortable role of brave prophet standing alone against the warmongering tide.

Members of U.S. Congress watch a video of an explosion in Ukraine during an address by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on March 16, 2022. (Sarah Silbiger/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

“At this point a [U.S.] shooting war with Russia seems inevitable,” Tucker Carlson assured his viewers in mid-March. “How could a war with Russia not be inevitable? Virtually everyone in power is for it.”

Even for those of us gravely concerned about the dangers of escalation with Russia, Carlson’s claim was laughable. Yet it does reflect an important tendency in the current debates over Ukraine. In the telling of a prominent subset of self-styled noninterventionists, there are in fact no debates at all, for the most hawkish viewpoints are hegemonic and unchallenged. “It is genuinely hard to overstate how overwhelming the unity and consensus in U.S. political and media circles is,” Glenn Greenwald claims. “It is as close to a unanimous and dissent-free discourse as anything in memory, certainly since the days following 9/11.”

This style of commentary invites a few questions. Are these claims of a unanimous consensus in favor of escalation and war with Russia true? If not, do such claims—though false—nonetheless serve the interests of U.S. foreign policy restraint in some way? And if not, whose interests do they serve?

Carlson’s own motives are not mysterious. In the early days of the Ukraine crisis, he committed to a set of views that have already aged remarkably poorly, beginning with the memorable Putin-never-asked-me-for-my-pronouns rant that will surely be pored over by future historians of the American right-wing psyche circa 2022. It is only natural for him to want to move the debate to safer ground. Instead of relitigating his suggestions that the Zelensky government is not the elected leadership of a sovereign country but rather “a pure client state of the U.S. State Department,” or that the Biden administration intentionally provoked the Russian invasion, or that the invasion was a response to the threat of Hunter Biden–funded Ukrainian bioweapons labs, we can instead ask whether the United States and Russia should fight a shooting war, with Carlson casting himself as the lone brave voice against thermonuclear apocalypse.

Claims of consensus around Ukraine are correct in one respect. While there is a great deal of disagreement about how to respond to the Russian invasion, there is wide consensus across the U.S. political spectrum that the invasion should be understood as a Russian war of aggression. This consensus is understandable and in fact correct: the invasion is indeed a Russian war of aggression. But it’s easy to see why the handful of commentators who deny this basic point bridle at the existence of such a consensus and seek to reframe the debate as one about the desirability of world war.

Recognizing the current conflict as a Russian war of aggression is a necessary but not sufficient condition for formulating an adequate response to it. Similarly, in 2003 no one who failed to recognize the invasion of Iraq as a U.S. war of aggression could arrive at an adequate understanding of the conflict, but this basic recognition did not itself provide much guidance for how other countries should respond. It is undeniable that many politicians and media commentators have offered belligerent and reckless proposals for responding to the Russian invasion. The most prominent such proposal has been a no-fly zone, a legitimately dangerous idea. Yet the debate around a potential no-fly zone has offered a clear indication of the pitfalls of the consensus thesis.

Writing in the new self-described “radical American journal” Compact, post-liberal pundit Sohrab Ahmari pronounces it “clear that a deep consensus is in formation” in favor of a no-fly zone. The sole evidence cited for this “deep consensus” is a single opinion piece in the Guardian by a little-known academic researcher. The countervailing evidence is rather stronger. It’s not just that the Biden administration and its European allies have persistently rejected a no-fly zone from the beginning of the invasion. Hostility to the proposal extends deep into the hawkish right: Marco Rubio, the leading champion of neoconservative foreign policy in the Senate since the death of John McCain, flatly declared that a no-fly zone “means starting World War III.” The fact that one especially reckless response is off the table is hardly a cause for self-congratulation. But if we are genuinely concerned to prevent a no-fly zone, it might seem useful to cite the widespread opposition to it ranging from Bernie Sanders on the left through Biden in the center all the way to Rubio on the right. Why pretend that this opposition doesn’t exist?

The likely answer has less to do with Ukraine and more to do with ideological branding and factional infighting within the United States. Ahmari is only one of the ever-growing number of media figures whose brand depends on opposition to “establishment” opinion, however defined. To pronounce one’s agreement with the establishment’s rejection of a no-fly zone does nothing to further this brand; thus if a “deep consensus” in favor of the policy doesn’t exist, one must be invented. For those of us without much investment in such mercenary considerations, it is very doubtful that this approach is a useful way to prevent further escalation. On the contrary, if the Compact crew ever succeeded in convincing the public that the only people opposed to a no-fly zone are either Catholic integralists or anti-woke Marxists, the main result would probably be a large uptick in support for this misbegotten policy.

Not all analysis in this vein can be dismissed so easily. Although it is silly to pretend that there is broad consensus in favor of a shooting war, it would also be wrong to deny the wide support on the center-left and center-right for sanctions and other forms of punitive action against Russia (notwithstanding some welcome mainstream attention for critical views on sanctions). Liberal hawks have been emboldened, and the left has often been tentative in response. In New Left Review, Alexander Zevin critically examines responses to the war among U.S. liberals and leftists, who he declares have “failed to think beyond a liberal interventionist framework.” Zevin’s leftist version of the consensus thesis is far more analytically acute than the right-wing versions just surveyed. For that reason it merits closer inspection.

Much of Zevin’s indictment of mainstream responses to Ukraine is hard to fault. The widespread outpouring of cultural Russophobia deserves to be remembered with the same scorn as the Iraq-era jingoism that gave us “Freedom Fries.” Segments of the foreign policy commentariat seem far more eager to use the war to bleed Russia (down to the last Ukrainian life, if necessary) than to end the bloodshed. And whatever potential arguments might be made for sanctions in some form (narrowly targeted and explicitly tied to Russian withdrawal from Ukraine rather than regime change in Moscow), we now have broad-based sanctions with no clear off-ramp that threaten to immiserate the Russian population into the indefinite future.

Do U.S. interests militate straightforwardly in favor of an extended shooting war in Ukraine and an endless economic blockade of Russia, as Zevin implies? This is murkier, even setting aside the potential for a wider war that promises a cataclysmic outcome for the United States along with everyone else. Biden’s presidency is currently on the rocks due largely to the economic aftermath of the COVID-19 shock, and the Russian economy cannot be pulverized the way that Iran’s and Venezuela’s were without wider global fallout. It’s not at all clear that a global commodity crisis and an intensification of inflationary pressures suits Biden’s interests in even the most cynically narrow terms. But there is nonetheless a significant chance that this is the future we will get, for in a situation where U.S. interests appear ambiguous and contested there is no strong likelihood that the irenic ones will win out.

Far less successful is Zevin’s attempt to cast the bulk of the U.S. left—what he mockingly calls the “respectable” or “non-tankie left”—as liberal-interventionist wolves in sheep’s clothing. (One of the examples singled out is Gregory Afinogenov’s piece for this magazine.) The main problem with the argument is that most of the figures he denounces (including Afinogenov) have explicitly rejected broad-based sanctions and other forms of escalation. As a result, Zevin’s critique focuses less on actual substantive differences than on rhetorical intonation, as various left commentators come under attack for “trumpeting their condemnation of Russia” or for unseemly attempts to “distance” themselves from so-called “tankies.” But the bare fact of recognizing the invasion as an act of Russian aggression does imply a distance from those self-proclaimed leftists who would deny or obfuscate this fact (call them tankies if you like), and there’s no reason to think that condemning the invasion in tones that Zevin personally disapproves of implies a capitulation to broader interventionist policies. The main substantive disagreement he points to concerns NATO expansion. But his argument for the importance of NATO expansion in the genesis of the current crisis—plausible, if rather familiar by now—never addresses the key point under dispute, which is whether this background fully explains (let alone justifies) Putin’s actual decision to invade. One strong indication to the contrary is that the analysts most critical of NATO expansion, and most sympathetic to Russian complaints about post–Cold War U.S. policy, also tended to be the least likely two months ago to think that the invasion would happen.

Zevin ends, rather anticlimactically, by urging the U.S. left to “call on its own government to de-escalate, pursue direct and indirect talks, to trade guarantees of neutrality for a ceasefire and troop withdrawal.” It’s hard to imagine that many of the leftist targets of his critique would disagree with these anodyne proposals, which do however leave some lingering questions: what if Putin isn’t content with Ukrainian neutrality that doesn’t come with Ukrainian territory, and what if Ukrainians aren’t willing to cede him this territory? If the notion that Biden has a single overriding interest in escalation is simplistic, the notion that Putin has a single overriding interest in de-escalation is naive. While pushing as hard as we can for a mutually acceptable settlement, we must also allow for the grim possibility that there might not be a mutually acceptable settlement on offer right now, and recognize that there are stark limits to the power of the United States or any other outside actor to dictate the subsequent course of the war. In his apparent belief that the war’s outcome will be entirely determined by decisions made in Washington, it is Zevin who remains stuck in the premises of the “liberal interventionist framework.”

The consensus thesis is unpersuasive as a mapping of current foreign policy debates. The fact that it is wrong might be forgiven if it were useful, if it helped produce a less bellicose U.S. foreign policy—but there is little indication that it does that, either. Instead, it looks mostly like a way for certain pundits to settle into the comforting (and occasionally lucrative) role of brave prophet standing alone against the warmongering tide. In the Trump years, many noninterventionists convinced themselves that their views were ascendant. This was always dubious—Trumpism has no opposition to war as such, but only to wars coded as touchy-feely humanitarian endeavors—and over the last year, the combined domestic fallout of the Afghanistan withdrawal and the Ukraine invasion have put paid to such delusions. In such circumstances it’s tempting to pivot back into romantic despair. But those hoping for a saner U.S. foreign policy are better served by a continued careful effort to map and exploit the fault lines that underlie it.

Daniel Luban is a researcher in politics at Oxford.