VIII / The Return of the United States: Ukraine and the 'Rules-Based International Order’

by Daniel Bessner

​​The United States’ dedication to arming Ukraine in its​ ​attempt to repel the Russian Federation’s invasion presents a puzzle: why, exactly, has the ​nation been so committed to this effort?  

To answer this question, I explore how the Biden Administration—above all, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken—has talked about the US project in Ukraine. By ​analysing​ Blinken’s rhetoric, we are able to examine how US elites understand the conflict, at least discursively and in public settings, thus providing a first-run attempt at explaining the US ​​​decision​ to back the Ukrainian military and rally international support to its cause​. This analysis, in turn, provides important insights into the Biden Administration’s overall foreign policy strategy and goals.​​     ​ 

​​​A d​​etailed examination of Blinken’s speeches reveals that the United States remains dedicated to the war in Ukraine primarily because the Biden Administration views it as a means to shore up a weakening American hegemony. In effect, US rhetoric and actions serve to remind U​​S​ allies, partners, and even those not formally associated with the United States that US​ primacy remains the defining feature of international relations​. ​​​​​​​​In particular, the Biden Administration appears to believe that support for Ukraine is a primary means to restore the so-called ​‘​rules-based international order​’, which it came into power insisting was ​in crisis.  

Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency in 2017​ contributed to a ​​​significant uptick in chatter in Washington, D​C about the decline of th​e ‘rules-based international​​ order​’​.​ The ​just-so story​​ told by those who ​valorise​ such an order ​goes​​ as follows: after World War II, the United States, in concert with Western European allies, constructed an international system in which liberal norms of engagement and exchange, and ​institutions like international law and the United Nations, helped end major wars and ensure (relative) geopolitical stability. Though those who promote this tale often admit that mistakes were made in the Cold War and post-Cold War periods—the Korean, Vietnam, and Iraq Wars are usually highlighted as especially egregious errors—they nevertheless claim that, on balance, the rules-based international order ​proved a force for good in the world. 

Trump’s victory​ took the wind out of the sails of this triumphalist narrative. ​​The reality star’s willingness to​ openly​ critici​s​e his forebears’ ​launching​ of endless wars; his vulgarity and xenophobia; and his discursive insouciance toward traditional US​ ideas about global power and responsibility, generated an almost hysterical panic​ among​​ defenders of​ the liberal order. Trump, it seemed to many, was a harbinger of US​ hegemony’s end, or at least its attenuation. These anxieties were also held by U​S​ allies, especially in Western Europe, who likewise ​​fretted​ about the end of the era of U​S​ ‘leadership.’ 

When President Joseph R. Biden assumed office in 2021, his primary foreign​ policy goal​ was to reinvigorate the rules-based order by persuading allies that the United States was committed to ​​reinvigorating its​ ​‘​leadership.​’​ The war in Ukraine provided Biden, Blinken, and other​ key​ members of the administration with a​ ​​seemingly ideal​ opportunity to show the world that the United States wasn’t going anywhere. Unsurprisingly, the administration seized this opportunity with aplomb. 

​​​The ​​r​​​ule​​s-​​​b​​​ased ​​order ​​mythology​​     ​​ 

Even before the war in Ukraine began, Secretary of State Antony Blinken repeatedly claimed that supporting the ​defence​ of Ukraine was first and foremost about defending the rules-based international order. On February 22, Blinken​ ​​made a​n argument that he would repeat ad infinitum ​over ​​​the next year. Russia’s war, the secretary declared, presented ‘the greatest threat to security in Europe since World War II’ because Putin was ​‘​blatantly and violently breaking the laws and principles that have kept the peace across Europe and around the world for decades​’​.​​ Blinken affirmed that the invasion threatened not only Europe, but ​‘​nations everywhere that have been made safer and more secure by the international rules-based order​’.​​​  

​​This rhetoric indicates that for​ Blinken, and indeed the Biden Administration, the ​defence​ of Ukraine was about far more than​ just protecting​ one country; it was about, as the secretary declared in early March, 

principles like the notion that one country can’t simply commit acts of aggression on another, changing its borders by force; that one country can’t dictate to another its choices, its decisions, its policies, with whom it will associate; principles like one country can’t exert a sphere of influence to subjugate its ​neighbours​ to its will. 

Blinken warned ​​nations around the ​globe that if they ​failed to confront Putin in Ukraine,​ they ​​​​​​risked​ ‘opening a Pandora’s box in every corner of the world for this to happen again and again and again​’.​​​ ​​This rhetoric transformed ​support for Ukraine ​​​into​ support for the global order—and, implicitly, U​S​ hegemony—itself.  

​Intriguingly, Blinken rarely discussed why, exactly, the world required US​ ‘leadership​’.​​ As far as I can tell, he only did so in the immediate period after the conflict began. According to the secretary, ‘one of the principles’ that the Biden Administration has been ‘animated by, is that … when the United States is not leading … then one of two things​’​​ ​ occurs:

Either someone else is [leading] and doing things in a way that may not actually advance the interests of the American people or the values that we hold, or maybe no one is and then you tend to have vacuums and chaos and that usually has a way of coming back and biting us. 

​​As presented by Blinken, the nations of the world were faced with a stark choice: either they submit to U​S​ hegemony and live in peace, or they accept that, absent the United States, international relations will become far more dangerous and unstable. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the secretary insisted, was a harbinger of what would happen in a world in which the United States retreated from ​​its role as international leader​. Simply put, the choice was between Hobbesian chaos and American imperialism.​​​ 

Ukraine and the ​​r​​​eassertion of American ​​leadership​

Despite ​​​the fact​​ that​​ it was Russia which had trampled on the liberal order’s rules​, for Blinken, the ​main​ threat facing the United States, and the world, was China, which ​he claimed​ would ​‘​fil[l] the void​’​ should the nation surrender its hegemony. From the war’s ​onset​, Blinken​ frequently ​​critici​s​ed China. In early March 2022, the secretary informed CNN’s Jake Tapper that he told Wang Yi, China’s then minister of foreign affairs, that the United States ‘would​​ ​expect China … to stand up and make its voice heard’ by condemning Russia’s aggression​.​​​​​ ​Just over a​ week later, after China did not condemn Putin’s invasion, Blinken told CNN’s​ ​Wolf Blitzer that ​‘​the fact that China has not denounced what Russia is doing in and of itself speaks volumes​’​; it was not genuinely committed to the rules-based ​order and​ was, as a result, not genuinely committed to peace.  

Beyond​ criticising China’s foreign policy​​​, ​​​on more than one occasion​​ Blinken ​​attacked​ the People’s Republic ​on moral grounds​​​. In mid-March, he told NPR’s Steve Inskeep that China was ‘already on the wrong side of history when it comes to Ukraine’, and in an April talk at the University of Michigan​,​ he remarked that condemning Russia was ‘not about siding with the United States. It’s about siding with right versus wrong​’.​ As this indicates, the secretary framed China’s decision not to reproach Russia as an immoral one​ ​(​The hypocrisy of an American official who works for a government that supports wildly oppressive regimes from Saudi Arabia to Djibouti castigating a nation for immoral behaviour hardly needs to be pointed out.​)​​     ​ 

To demonstrate to the world what would happen if a nation ​dared to challenge​ perceived U​S​​ interests, from the war’s start the Biden Administration ​intended to make​ Russia​ ​pay an enormous price for its aggression. On the day the invasion began, Blinken informed CBS’s Norah O’Donnell that the administration desired to ​‘​inflict maximum pain on Russia​’.​ A little over two months later, Secretary of ​Defence​ Lloyd Austin declared that the United States hoped ​‘​to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine​’.  

​​But what did ​any of ​this actually mean in practice? ​First, ​ the United States made a concerted effort to wean its European allies off Russian energy. Since the war’s beginning, Blinken declared that the nation retained ​‘​a strong interest … in degrading Russia’s status as a leading energy supplier​’​​​ and hoped to ​enable ​Europe​ to​ ​‘​accelerate its diversification away from Russian gas​’.​ ​​​ 

​​​​​The United States thus encouraged Germany to close the Nord Stream 2 pipeline;​ ​​​sent significant quantities of liquified natural gas to Europe; ​‘​den[ied] critical technologies to Russia for further energy exploration​’; and stabili​s​ed oil markets by releasing part of its Strategic Petroleum Reserve and increasing its own oil production. ​This​ effort ​proved​ remarkably successful. By late June 2022, the European Union had decided ​‘​to cut Russian oil imports by 90 percent by the end of the year and to ban EU firms from carrying Russian crude [oil]​’​ and by September the United States was the ‘leading supplier’ of liquified natural gas to Europe. 

Beyond punishing Russia, the United States hoped to use the war to ​consolidate​ Ukraine’s status ​as an​ American client. In September, Blinken affirmed that the nation was committed to helping Ukrainians develop ‘a strong defensive and deterrence system that makes it less likely in the future that Russia will act aggressively toward Ukraine​’.​​ This would, of course, take years, which was just fine with Blinken, who had declared in early March that the United States was in the war for ‘the short-run, the medium-run, the long-run​’.​ U.S. support for Ukraine was obviously not only about repelling Russia, but ​also about​ making the country ​​even more​ economically and militarily dependent on the United States than it already was.  

To justify the United States’​​ increasingly hands​​-​​​on role in Ukraine,​ ​​Blinken repeatedly attempted to place Russia beyond the geopolitical and moral pale. Before the war began, the secretary affirmed in no uncertain terms that Russian actions vis-à-vis Ukraine had ​‘​never been about Ukraine and NATO [expansion] per se​’.​​​​​ This ​​idea​, Blinken told Wolf Blitzer, was simply ​‘​a lie​’.​​​According to Blinken, NATO was a mere defensive alliance that ​‘​never sought and will not seek conflict with Russia​’.​​​​​ Putin was thus not reacting to U​S​ encroachment on Russia’s southwestern border. Rather, Blinken avowed, the invasion was primarily ​‘​about conquest​’,​​​​​ ​‘​[Putin’s] conviction that Ukraine is not a sovereign, independent country​’​,​ and ​‘​reconstituting the Russian empire or, short of that, a sphere of influence, or, short of that, the total neutrality of countries surrounding Russia​’. ​​​While​ there is some truth to Blinken’s claims about Putin’s goals and his intentions on Russia’s western borders, the secretary refused to acknowledge that the Russian president might have had any legitimate concerns about his nation’s security, especially given the repeated Russian experience of being invaded by Western and Central European powers. Strategic empathy, it seems, is not Blinken’s strong suit. 

​​In a further effort to depict Russia as a ​so-called ‘rogue ​​nation’​, Blinken ​​consistently referenced​ Russia’s​ ​untrustworthiness and barbarism. In February, he argued that Putin’s ​‘​complete abdication of Russia’s commitments under the Minsk Agreements is just the latest demonstration of Russia’s hypocrisy when it comes to the agreements that it claims to seek and to uphold​’.​​​ He also repeatedly brought up past Russian war crimes. ​During ​the invasion​’s first week​, for instance, Blinken declared that Russia used ‘grisly tactics before in Syria, in Chechnya​’,​​ and it would likely do so again in Ukraine. ​​​ 

After the war broke out, Blinken made it a point to underline Russia’s many war crimes, avowing that the United States was documenting these ​‘​to ensure … that there’s accountability​’​ so ​​​‘​that Russia cannot escape the verdict of history​’.​ Of ​course, this is not ​​​to deny the​ terrible human rights abuses committed by Russia in Ukraine​ and elsewhere; these are numerous and brutal, and those who perpetrated ​them should​ be investigated and put on trial. But it is hardly unique for crimes to be committed in war—the United States and its allies have ​committed their fair share—and Blinken’s emphasis on human rights primarily served as a means to ​exorcise​ Russia from the international community​ by​​ transform​ing​ it into an outcast​. This exorcism, predictably, also had the benefit of ​​reinforcing​ ​the necessity of U​​S​ hegemony.​     ​​ 

American ​​h​​​egemony is ​​b​​​ack​​     ​​ 

For the United States, the most important effect of the war was that it allowed the nation to reassert ​and consolidate ​its ‘​​​leadership’ over Europe​. Since the invasion began, NATO, under U​S​ direction, ​‘​activated and deployed parts of its response force​’​; Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and the United Kingdom ​‘​sent troops and aircraft and ships’ to NATO’s ‘eastern flank’; every member of NATO  ‘provid[ed] either military or humanitarian aid to Ukraine​’; and the European Union, for the first time ​in its history, began​ ​‘​financing the purchase and delivery of military assistance to a country under attack​’. The war in Ukraine ​​​​​reinvigorated the U.S.-Europe relationship by allowing countries to ​commit to a common project. Without a doubt, the response to the invasion was the most important post-Trump reaffirmation of North Atlantic solidarity.  

Outside of​ Europe, Blinken used the war to encourage other nations to remain in or join the U​S​ orbit. When the secretary ​trave​​​​led​ to Algeria in late March, ​for example, he reminded Algerians that nations in the so-called MENA region ‘have experienced themselves the consequences of Russian military campaigns before – for example, in Syria and Libya, where Russian military and paramilitary forces exploited conflicts for Moscow’s gain, with deadly consequences for citizens and communities​’.​ This, Blinken maintained, was happening again, ​‘with ​rising food prices, especially [the price of] wheat​’,​​​​ being the latest instance of Russia negatively ​​impacting​ the Muslim world. The only way to avoid such pain in the future, of course, was to line up behind the United States.  

In a similar vein,​ during a visit to India in April,​ ​Blinken​ praised the nation​ (and Russia’s fellow BRICS partner)​ for its ​‘very strong statements … condemning the killing of civilians in Ukraine’​.​ While Blinken declared that he appreciated that ​‘India’s relationship with Russia has developed over decades at a time when the United States was not able to be a partner to India​’​,​​ he ​also ​averred that ​‘​times have changed​’​—the United States was now ​‘​able and willing to be a partner of choice with India across virtually every realm – commerce, technology, education, and security​’.​​​

Put in cruder terms, U​S​​ leadership was back, baby. Better get behind Uncle Sam. 

​​​The ​​s​​​trategic ​​l​​​ogic of US ​​f​​​​oreign ​​p​​​olicy ​​ 

The most significant​ example of the United States’ successful effort to get Europe to affirm all of its strategic priorities was the June 2022 NATO Strategic Concept.​ ​This paper endorsed all of Blinken’s arguments and preferences​:​​ I​t insisted that ‘a strong, independent Ukraine is vital for the stability of the Euro-Atlantic area’; claimed that ‘Moscow’s behaviour reflects a pattern of Russian aggressive actions against its neighbours and the wider transatlantic community’ that could not be ignored; ​warned that Putin might ‘attack … Allies’ sovereignty and territorial integrity’; and, in an obvious nod to American rhetoric, avowed that Russia had revealed its desire to ‘undermine the rules-based international order​’. Strikingly, the Strategic Concept further asserted ​NATO’s continued​ commitment to an ‘Open Door policy’, avowing that NATO members remained dedicated to ‘the decision we took at the 2008 Bucharest Summit and all subsequent decisions with respect to Georgia and Ukraine​’.​​ NATO expansion, ​​a significant cause of the war, was thus rearticulated with relish. 

Even more tellingly, the Strategic Concept ​also​ ​expressed a deep hostility toward China. For the first time in its history, NATO declared that China’s ‘stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values​’.​ China, the report maintained, ‘employs a broad range of political, economic and military tools to increase its global footprint and project power’​; uses​ ‘confrontational rhetoric and disinformation [to] target Allies and harm Alliance security’; and ‘seeks to control key technological and industrial sectors, critical infrastructure, and strategic materials and supply chains​’.​​ As such, it was clear to NATO members that China ‘strives to subvert the rules-based international order​’.​​ What this document represented was nothing less than​ NATO’s endorsement of the United States’ effort to prevent China from challenging its hegemony. Europe, it seemed, was just fine being the United States’ lackey. ;

The Strategic Concept ​​seems to have​ ​significantly emboldened Blinken​. ​After its release, the secretary adopted a more aggressive attitude toward China’s behaviour with regards Ukraine, declaring ‘that it’s pretty hard to be neutral when it comes to this aggression’:  

There is a clear aggressor.  There is a clear victim.  There is a clear challenge not only to the lives and livelihoods of people in Ukraine, but there is a challenge to the international order that China and the United States as permanent members of the Security Council are supposed to uphold. 

According to Blinken, China’s support of Russia in the United Nations, combined with the fact that it had ‘amplified Russian propaganda’ and ‘announce[d] the ‘no limits partnership’ with President Putin​’,​​ ​​demonstrated​​ that the People’s Republic was ‘shirking its responsibility’ to defend global peace.​  

Put another way, the nations of the world could only rely on one country: the United States.  

In October 2022, the Biden Administration released its National Security Strategy. In effect, the NSS codified the arguments that Blinken had been making since the war’s outbreak. It maintained that the United States was ‘in the midst of a strategic competition to shape the future of the international order​’;​ ​ proclaimed that ‘the need for American leadership is as great as it has ever been’; insisted that ‘Russia poses an immediate threat to the free and open international system’; and affirmed that the ‘most consequential geopolitical challenge’ came from China.

The NSS also emphasi​s​​ed the importance of the U​S​-Europe relationship. Europe, the report declared, was ‘our foundational partner​’,​​ and as such the United States was devoted to ‘broadening and deepening the transatlantic bond—strengthening NATO, raising the level of ambition in the U​S​​-EU relationship, and standing with our European allies and partners in defence of the rules-based system that underpins our security, prosperity, and values​’.​​  

When it came to Ukraine​, the NSS unsurprisingly adopted a​n​​ aggressive tone, insisting that the United States would not only support Ukraine in the war, but ‘will encourage its regional integration with the European Union’​.​ Beyond Ukraine, the report announced that the United States would also ‘support the European aspirations of Georgia and Moldova​’.​​  

All told, the NSS revealed that the United States’ primary goal was ‘to prevent competitors from altering the status quo​’.​​ 

​​But, ironically, the report itself demonstrated ​that if any nation wanted to transform ​​the status quo, it was the United States.​Specifically, the NSS avowed that the Biden Administration intended to ‘place a premium on growing the connective tissue … between our democratic allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific and Europe​’.​​ In this way, the Biden Administration announced its desire to construct a genuinely integrated global structure that would enable it to combat Russia and, more importantly, China, thus ensuring U.S. hegemony in the coming decades.  

One of the more unexpected consequences​ of the war is that it appears to have engendered a shift in the Biden Administration’s rhetoric concerning the ​supposed Manichean​ struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. Biden, Blinken, and the rest of the administration’s foreign policy team entered office claiming they were committed to shoring up democracy in its international fight against autocracy. In fact, in Biden’s first speech about the Ukraine war, he explicitly framed U​S​ support for Ukraine in the context of this struggle. ‘Today’s fighting in Kyiv and Mariupol and Kharkiv​’,​​  the president averred, ‘are the latest battle​ (sic) in a long struggle’ between Western democracy and Russian authoritarianism that previously encompassed ‘Hungary, 1956; Poland, 1956 then again 1981; [and] Czechoslovakia, 1968​’. ​​​​​​​​In other words, the United States’ support for Ukraine was a continuation of its Cold War struggle against Soviet tyranny. ​

Nonetheless, in September 2022, the president gave a speech before the UN in which he softened his ‘democracy versus autocracy’ framing​​. In this speech, Biden noted that ‘the United Nations Charter was not only signed by democracies of the world, it was negotiated among citizens of dozens of nations with vastly different histories and ideologies, united in their commitment to work for peace​’. He continued:  

To stand against global politics of fear and coercion; to defend the sovereign rights of smaller nations as equal to those of larger ones; to embrace basic principles like freedom of navigation, respect for international law, and arms control — no matter what else we may disagree on, that is the common ground upon which we must stand. If you’re still committed to a strong foundation for the good of every nation around the world, then the United States wants to work with you. 

Beyond this ​speech, the administration’s National Security Strategy declared that the United States ‘will partner with any nation that shares our basic belief that the rules-based order must remain the foundation for global peace and prosperity​’.​​ In short, the war in Ukraine helped the Biden Administration identify its primary goal: to retain, and perhaps​ even​ ​​​expand​​​, U​S​ hegemony, regardless of who it needed to ally with to do so. 

The Biden Administration’s efforts have been ​rather​ successful in shoring up U​​S​ ‘leadership’, especially in Europe. In January 2023, Biden elucidated the many ways in which European countries had aided the war effort: 

The UK — the United Kingdom — recently announced that it is donating Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine. France is contributing AMX-10s, armoured fighting vehicles. In addition to the Leopard tanks … Germany is also sending a … Patriot missile battery. The Netherlands is donating a Patriot missile and launchers. France, Canada, the UK, Slovakia, Norway, and others have all donated critical air defence systems to help secure Ukrainian skies and save the lives of innocent civilians who are literally … the target of Russia’s aggression. Poland is sending armoured vehicles. Sweden is donating infantry fighting vehicles. Italy is giving artillery. Denmark and Estonia are sending howitzers. Latvia is providing more Stinger missiles. Lithuania is providing anti-aircraft guns. And Finland recently announced its largest package of security assistance to date. 

The United States and Europe are​ now​ united in a way they have not been in years. 

Simply put, the war in Ukraine has​ so far proved a remarkably​ effective means for the United States to rearticulate the reasons for its primacy and to encourage allies and partners to line up behind its goals. Ironically given Putin’s desire to challenge U​S​ hegemony, the major consequence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been the reaffirmation of both American power ​and the transatlantic alliance. From this perspective, the war has been a strategic disaster for Russia and has done little but weaken Putin’s position.  


Daniel Bessner

Daniel Bessner is​ ​an associate professor of international studies in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. He is the author of Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the ​Defense Intellectual (Cornell University Press, 2018) and co-editor, with Nicolas Guilhot, of The Decisionist Imagination: Sovereignty, Social Science, and Democracy in the Twentieth Century (Berghahn, 2019). Daniel is also an Alameda associate.


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