David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor and Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford.
My life seems bracketed by international crises. I was a child at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the United States confronted the USSR regarding the nuclear missiles it had placed in Cuba, a mere 90 miles from the border of the United States. And now we find another possible threat of nuclear war, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Later I found out that the Cuban Missile Crisis was more complicated than I was taught. I was surprised to find out that the USSR was placing missiles in Cuba to no small degree because the United States already installed missiles in Turkey, aimed at Russia.
Make no mistake, I thoroughly condemn Russia’s blatantly illegal actions in Ukraine. In the same spirit, I condemn the act of any global hegemon that sacrifices the people of other states for its ambitions — such acts tend to mask expansionism and colonization as “security measures” or “reclaiming rightful territories.” I am speaking of Russia, China and the United States. China’s oppression of the people of Tibet and the Uyghur stand as examples; the U.S.-backed coups and other forms of intervention in Latin America (for instance, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras) as others.
As much as one should praise the courage displayed by Volodymyr Zelensky, captured in the photo of him wearing a flak jacket and wielding an automatic weapon to hold off Russian invaders, one should also praise the courage of Salvadore Allende, democratically elected president of Chile. In the last photograph of him alive, he is wearing a helmet and holding a machine gun, fighting against a CIA-sponsored coup in his country, one that put in place one of the most notorious dictatorships in history. To quote from Amnesty International’s report: “The 11 September 1973 Chilean military coup, which overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, heralded the implementation of a policy of systematic and widespread human rights violations under the government headed by General Augusto Pinochet. Thousands were detained without charge or trial, tortured, extrajudicially executed, ‘disappeared,’ abducted or persecuted on political grounds.”
What about democracy?
What commonly occurs with such acts of expansion and intervention is that even if there are authentic, popular grass-roots movements for democracy, they often are co-opted by ambitious politicians who come to place their loyalty to their people second to their willingness to listen to foreign leaders in Washington, Beijing or Moscow. The situation is ripe for massive corruption, violent suppression of dissent and the transformation of states into proxies for the “great powers,” which battle each other on the borders or within these states.
And it isn’t simply about individual states. During the Vietnam War — another crisis which I lived through as a high-school student and then as a college student — the war was presented by means of “the Domino Theory,” which held that if one state in Southeast Asia “fell” to Communism, the rest would follow suit. This caused immense destruction not only in Vietnam, but also Laos, Cambodia and elsewhere. What we saw in Vietnam was a civil war transformed into a battle between the United States and Communism; part of what we see in Ukraine involves a conflict between western regions which lean toward the United States and the European Union, and the eastern region that aligns with Russia. It is important to see these interlocking interests as we try to form opinions. Public opinions have public effects.
During the Vietnam era, young American men like myself, raised to value democracy, were asked to fight in Vietnam for an illegal war, unsanctioned by Congress (save for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which still did not declare a war). The U.S. had overthrown a democratically elected leader and backed a pro-U.S. leader, not out of regard for the Vietnamese, but for its own ambitions to stop Communism.
Decades later, Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense during Vietnam and one of the war’s chief architects, admitted he had “erred.” The New York Times noted, “Surely he must in every quiet and prosperous moment hear the ceaseless whispers of those poor boys in the infantry, dying in the tall grass, platoon by platoon, for no purpose. … What he took from them cannot be repaid by prime-time apology and stale tears, three decades late.”
It is terrible and horrific to see Ukrainians — both in the military and also civilians — having their lives destroyed. It’s also important to remember that Russia has mandatory military duty, and many Russian soldiers are very young men who are there through no desire of their own — think of the Russian father who asks why it is his son being killed, but not the Russian oligarchs who want this invasion. Ultimately, it is time to think of people — not regimes, alliances or the expansion of power for the already powerful, at deadly cost to everyone else.
What about ordinary people?
There is an expression: “When the elephants wrestle, it is the grass that is trampled.” I would add, “The grass allows this to continue because the elephants have convinced the grass that this is good for it.”
So it concerns me when I see people rallying to the defense of Ukraine without seeing the larger context — that which neither the American nor Russian elephants want us to see. Democracy — true democracy, rather than democracy as an alibi — is endangered when we shift our vision away from the conditions that helped create this crisis. I am writing this opinion piece largely because, as of this writing, none of the experts The Stanford Daily has interviewed for insights into this crisis have mentioned these facts. While we should never take our eyes off Russian aggression, note that its aggression takes place within a more complex history.
NATO is referred to numerously in The Daily’s coverage. But it is a military alliance that continues to exist past its time — it was meant as a deterrent to the USSR, creating a federation of allies against that Soviet bloc. The Soviet bloc no longer exists, but NATO continues to. It has sought to expand.
From American and British media we know well-enough the Western narrative. But let’s also consider these facts:
At the April 2008 Bucharest NATO Summit, NATO announced that Georgia and Ukraine would become NATO states, effectively creating a NATO presence at the very doorstep of Russia. Remember Kennedy’s actions when the USSR moved armaments 90 miles away from Florida?
Before 2008, NATO had already incorporated Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in 1999, Romania and the Baltic States in 2004. Russia publicly drew a red line at Georgia and Ukraine; NATO did not recognize it. The 2008 announcement about Georgia and Ukraine brought a Russian response: in August 2008, Russia invaded Georgia.
In February 2014, there was a political crisis in Ukraine. A pro-Russia president was replaced by a pro-U.S. leader during a popular coup. The US supported this coup. Seeing this occur, Russia seized Crimea. Crimea is home to many who favor Russia; it also is home to a strategic naval base which Putin did not want to see fall into NATO’s hands.
Since then, Russia has fueled the conflicts in Ukraine, supporting pro-Russian fighters and sympathizers in the east. And the U.S. and NATO have rallied to support the Western part of Ukraine.
In the fall of 2021, the idea of Ukraine joining NATO was gone, but it had become a de facto NATO state. While Obama had refused to arm the Ukrainians, Trump began selling them arms, which has only intensified under the Biden administration. Turkey has also sold the Ukrainians drones. This all forms part of the bigger picture. It is unclear whether Putin’s actions are in reaction to these specific measures, or if he is simply seizing upon them as a pretext for doing what he has always wanted to do.
As of this writing, I am extremely concerned that, given Russia’s unbridled aggression and the U.S.’s and NATO’s refusal to establish a no-fly zone, Ukrainians, feeling the need to protect their country at all cost, may be pushed toward right-wing stances.
A view aside from politics
Now I am sure some experts will write in and say that I have my facts wrong — that’s fine. Give me yours and source them. I will also be told that, as a humanist and a literary scholar (not a political scientist), I have no business weighing in. I disagree. While political experts have their concerns and methodologies, humanists, and literary scholars in particular, are concerned about the human condition, the ways in which wars and all that lead up to them and lead out of them affect ordinary people who merely want to live and be left alone — or, better yet, live together in ways that extend absolute mutual dignity.
War is terrible — I have friends who died in Vietnam, all because of these kinds of machinations by global hegemons who care little about local, ordinary people (no matter what they say), and in fact not only delude them with misinformation and false promises, but enlist them as cheerleaders.
If the pandemic and the climate crisis have taught us anything, it is that we are all interdependent. No national boundaries, no alliances, can keep climate change, viruses or nuclear radiation from spreading (Chernobyl taught us that). And let us not forget that wars present a multitude of damages to the environment. It is clear that the current political system is incapable of seriously committing to lasting peace, a safe and sustainable environment, and a healthy planet. The system is devoted to special interests — its own.
One way to begin thinking beyond what we have inherited is to consider the power we have together, and to maintain an openness to learning and teaching what we know, and aspiring to discover what we want to know. In that, I am heartened by the anti-war protests in both the west and the east. It is highly doubtful that our so-called leaders are listening.