A US arms shipment destined for Ukraine. Image: Screengrab / CNBC

On August 23, it was reported that the US will be sending yet another multibillion-dollar aid package to Ukraine. This time it’s $3 billion in “security assistance” including six additional National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (NASAMS); laser-guided rocket systems (Raytheon’s M982 Excalibur); 245,000 rounds of 155mm artillery ammunition; and 65,000 rounds of 120mm mortar ammunition.

That would bring total US lethal and non-lethal aid to Ukraine to  $57 billion since the war began six months ago.

America’s seemingly unconditional support for Kiev’s maximalist war aims, which include the recapture and reincorporation of Crimea and the Donbas, leave one with the distinct impression that the West’s policy is evolving toward one of unconditional surrender on the part of Moscow – or, better yet from the perspective of Washington, regime change.

This seems especially true when one takes into account the US-led sanctions regime that has sought to collapse the ruble and crush the Russian economy. Indeed, the US and its NATO allies seem to be pushing the current proxy war between Russia and the West into a total one.

Kiev’s maximalist war aims have won easy US support in part because maximalism has long been a feature of American foreign policy.

Writing in the late 1990s, columnist William Pfaff noted that “the overall conception of American foreign policy in modern times ultimately derived from a Protestant conception of the United States as the secular agent of God’s redemptive action.”

Both Pfaff and the scholar-diplomat George F Kennan have criticized Woodrow Wilson’s maximalist conception of America’s involvement in the First World War. Pfaff described Wilson’s identification of the Great War as “the war to end war” as a “goal of such moral absolutism as to abolish the possibility of compromise.” 

Kennan was of a similar cast of mind. Writing a half a century before Pfaff, in 1951, he noted that as World War I progressed, it “did not bring reasonableness, or humility, or the spirit of compromise to warring peoples. As hostilities ran their course, hatred congealed, one’s own propaganda came to be believed, moderate people were shouted down and brought into disrepute, and war aims hardened and became more extreme all around.”

Worryingly, the rhetoric of American leaders has become saturated with the language of maximalism. Recall that in March, President Joe Biden publicly called for a change of regime in Moscow, telling an audience in Poland, “For God’s sake, this man [Vladimir Putin] cannot remain in power.” 

Biden and his national-security team have repeatedly warned the American people that, in the president’s words, “We need to steel ourselves for the long fight ahead.”

Biden’s undersecretary for policy at the Pentagon, Colin Kahl, said the new aid package was “aimed at getting Ukraine what they’re going to need in the medium to long term…. It is relevant to the ability of Ukraine to defend itself and deter further aggression a year from now, two years from now.” Note the expectation here is that the war will continue a year or two into the future.

Kiev’s maximalism is pushing the US, bit by bit, up the escalatory ladder. As Kennan noted, “A war fought in the name of high moral principle finds no early end short of some form of total domination.”

Though he did not live to see the hysteria that marks the current moment, Pfaff, who passed away in 2015, observed that Wilson’s legacy among the American foreign-policy elite was secure. And this troubled him.

“It is hard to explain,” he wrote, “why Wilson’s fundamentally sentimental, megalomaniacal, and unhistorical vision of world democracy organized on the American example and led by the United States should continue today to set the general course of American foreign policy under both Democrats and Republicans, and inspire enthusiasm for American global hegemony among policymakers and analysts.”

The unthinking maximalists of the US foreign-policy establishment discount the escalatory risks that Biden’s rhetoric and the billions of dollars in lethal aid carry in large part because of the messianism that has imbued the American foreign-policy tradition for much of the past century.

They play down, even outright dismiss, even the possibility of diplomacy with Moscow, all the while certain in the rightness of their crusade.

We’ve been here before.

James Carden

James W Carden is a former adviser to the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the US Department of State. His articles and essays have appeared in a wide variety of publications including The Nation, The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, The Spectator, UnHerd, The National Interest, Quartz, the Los Angeles Times and American Affairs.