No war in Ukraine demonstration in Germany

Demonstrators in Hamburg, Germany at a rally on Spielbudenplatz hold signs reading "No War. 4ever Peace" and "Stop War! Stop Putin!" on Thursday, March 3, 2022.

(Photo: Daniel Reinhardt/picture alliance via Getty Images)

The 2024 Implications of US Involvement in Ukraine and Gaza

America’s leadership in the world is being undermined and its domestic political cohesion is being fractured.

This era’s wars in Ukraine and Gaza are having a more dramatic impact both on global alignments and US politics than the wars in Vietnam and Iraq had in their respective eras. And this is happening without any American troops directly engaged in either conflict.

The war in Vietnam was fought at the peak of the Cold War during which time global alliances were largely set in stone as the “West” and its allies were confronting the Soviet bloc and the national liberation movements they were supporting. The non-aligned movement of countries who claimed independence from both blocs was largely dismissed by the US as being influenced by the Soviets and China. Despite representing a humiliating American defeat, the Vietnam war concluded without any significant changes in global alliances.

The real impact of Vietnam was felt within the US as divisions over the war and the military draft of millions of young people spurred mass protests. The resultant broader social discontent ultimately contributed to the breakdown of the dominant culture that had taken hold since World War II. What emerged in its wake was a counter culture that expressed itself in a range of protest movements—cultural, social, and political—that led to “challenges to authority” on all levels.

The intense opposition to Vietnam tore apart the Democratic Party, resulting in a chaotic 1968 Democratic Convention, and ultimately brought down Lyndon Johnson’s presidency.

The war on Iraq, occurring in the post-9/11 period, had less of a domestic impact despite mass protests. But as divisive as the war was to some, it took years before the US was forced to withdraw from Iraq—which it did without declaring victory or acknowledging defeat. Despite its costs, in lives and treasure, the war wasn’t transformative to the political culture and had no significant impact on the national debate. Though a majority of Americans from both parties became weary and wary of new wars as a result of the failed and costly efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, there still has not been a calling to account for the lies that led us into these wars or the behavior of US forces or intelligence agencies in combat or the “war on terror.”

If anything, the toll of the Iraq war was felt internationally. The arrogant unilateralism of the Bush administration alienated some European allies and caused other nations to question the US’ coercive behaviors. We squandered both the political capital we had secured at the end of the Cold War and the sympathy we gained after the horrors of 9/11. Instead of a nation to be admired, we came to be seen as a bully to be feared.

Now to the present.

The wars in Ukraine and Gaza are each negatively impacting the US’ global standing in different ways. To be fair, the seeds of the unraveling of US standing in the world predated these wars, going back at least to the turn of the century. Despite our obvious strengths, the damage done by the failed adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, the chaotic twists and turns in our approaches to the rest of the world from Bush to Obama to Trump and now Biden, and our persistent deference to Israel’s interests instead of the pursuit of a just Israeli-Palestinian peace—all have taken a toll on the respect other nations have for us. They’ve also contributed to strengthening China’s role, together with other nations demonstrating more independence from the US in world affairs.

America’s European allies were shocked by Russia’s assault on Ukraine and largely supportive of the US-led effort to punish Russia and support Ukrainian sovereignty. They agreed to expand NATO, embraced US sanctions against Russia, and boycotted Russian imports. Two years into this war, that support is fading. Several months back, French President Macron asked whether it was wise to continue following the US lead in foreign affairs. When we polled public opinion in seven NATO member nations, we found that majorities everywhere agreed that their countries should not. There are signs of this playing out across the continent. With the US Congress unable to pass a new aid package for Ukraine, there are signs of restiveness in some European countries about their continued levels of support.

For its part, Russia has found workarounds to US-led sanctions that the Biden administration believed would bring the country to its knees. Instead, Russia has strengthened economic ties with China and Iran, both of which have also been contending with US imposed sanctions, and with countries in the Global South that have been unwilling to allow US dictates to trump their self-interests.

The Biden administration’s handling of Israel’s war on Gaza has taken an even greater toll on US leadership. Not unlike the Bush administration’s response to 9/11, Israel squandered widespread support following the Hamas attack of October 7th by launching a genocidal assault on the Palestinian population. For months, the US has repeatedly blocked international appeals for a ceasefire and, despite its feeble calls on Israel to protect civilians, the Biden administration has resisted taking effective measures to restrain Israeli actions, increasingly isolating the US not only in the Global South but also from many of its closest European allies.

There are differences in the domestic reactions to the US role in these two wars. While a significant minority of Republicans and Democrats are resisting budget outlays for continuing to arm Ukraine, the administration’s backing for Israel has the support of Republicans but is contributing to fracturing the Democrats. Like Vietnam, this internal dissent has resulted in mass protests and various expressions of opposition in local communities across the country.

Because opposition to the administration’s policies have extended well beyond the Arab community, with many young, Black, and progressive Jews joining the fray, there is a real possibility that this will lead to mass protests at this summer’s Chicago Democratic convention, like the anti-Vietnam protests that rocked the 1968 convention.

The bottom line: America’s leadership in the world is being undermined and its domestic political cohesion is being fractured by the direction of our involvement in wars in Ukraine and Gaza. While these transformations have roots in past American failures, these wars have only served to accelerate the negative trajectory of our position in the world and our politics.

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