What Is the American National Interest in a Clash Between Pro-Russia and Pro-Ukraine Forces?

A woman gives flowers to an armed Pro-Russia man riding an armored personnel carrier during celebrations to mark Victory Day in Slaviansk, eastern Ukraine. Baz Ratner/Reuters

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Answer from Dan Holliday.

The same interest Russia has in maintaining strong ties with Cuba and Venezuela: soft and hard power. Many people use right and interest interchangeably. "What right does the U.S.A. have in doing X?" and "What interest does the U.S.A. have in doing X?"

First, nothing about international politics is about idealism or "right." It's about utilitarianism. "What actions are perceived to result in the most beneficial situation for this nation?" The moment you allow your desires for a specific outcome to factor into how you comprehend international diplomacy, you lose. Most idealists cannot set their ideals aside for long enough to understand that (a) they certainly aren't operating on enough information to make an informed judgment of what's going on, (b) what is right by their ideals isn't necessarily right overall and certainly not right for X country involved and (c) may be so lofty that they are laughable to those with either academic or real-world experience in the affairs of international diplomacy. 

Neither the U.S.A. nor Russia are "right" to meddle in the affairs of Ukraine or Syria or wherever. And if you want to have a discussion about what is right or wrong, we'd need to establish clear metrics of right and wrong, justify those metrics and disambiguate every last factor of why you chose those metrics and not some others. And that would be a discussion for another time (one which I wouldn't bother with because everything becomes so arbitrary, that ultimately it boils down to, "I'm right. You're wrong."). 

But, if you wanted to understand on an informative level why a nation like the U.S.A. has an interest in what goes on in Ukraine, then we really can uncover what's going on and why the U.S. does it. And there isn't just one thing. There are multiples of them. And uncovering those "things" you have to understand that those "things" aren't any more right or wrong than the "things" that France wants or Russia wants or China wants. The only difference is that the U.S.A. is the biggest guy on the block and that—in the eyes of many people—automatically makes them worse than tyrannical, murderous regimes like Assad, Putin or the Chinese Communist Party. 

But I'm not going to make a value judgment. If you want to do that, have at it. For the U.S.A., the first interest is herself, her second interest is in securing the interests of her allies. Most of the time those needs align, sometimes they differ. When they differ, the U.S.A. generally sides with her own interests, though sometimes caves to the pressures of her European allies. 

• The U.S. government is obsessed with zeroing out her trade balance. One of the most powerful tools in effecting this is stepping up energy production as quickly as possible. China and India need energy and the Mideast can only supply so much. Russia is an energy competitor with Europe and elsewhere. The more the U.S.A. can keep Russia focused on her own backyard, the quicker the U.S.A. will be able to secure energy export deals with key nations around the world.

• Russia is, in fact, waging a sub-rosa and cyber-war against the U.S.A. Whether or not the U.S.A. is doing the same thing is inconsequential from the American perspective. Neither nation can unilaterally disarm, and this conflict is just the physical manifestation of a larger electronic conflict that the U.S.A. will not and cannot walk away from. The U.S. has every obligation to strike every blow possible against the Russian state in this essentially trillion-dollar, bloodless conflict. 

• Russian attitudes on hegemony are slowly waking up and Russia is asserting itself. American allies are greatly concerned in Europe and have long enough memories to know that it's never best to allow sleeping dragons to lie and better to either contain them or defeat them.  

• By keeping Russia out of Europe, it leaves her with only Asia as a place to create a hegemony. This has largely worked. Russia is impotent against Europe except as an energy provider. Since Russia needs to wave her flag, she's going to do it in Asia. By pivoting Russia away from Europe and into Asia, it puts her potentially on a collision course with China and India who are the world's potential "next" superpowers.  China may be there somewhere around 2040; India somewhere after 2060 (if ever).

• Since Russia has dreams of continental hegemony, it means that China—at the very least—will need to maintain a massive land-based military apparatus in concert with her police state. This keeps them both financially strapped away from building a navy to counter the U.K.-U.S.A. Agreement nations, which keeps the dominance of the seas, including enforcement of the Laws of the Seas, safely in the hands of the English speaking world (see: U.K. and U.S.A.).

• Lastly, from a global policy standpoint, just because all of the above bullet points seem Machiavellian, doesn't mean that the U.S. doesn't genuinely want to see a free and democratic Ukraine. Since the end of the Cold War (before which the U.S.'s record on democracy was sketchy—for various reasons that don't matter to this discussion), the U.S. and U.K. have openly pushed for and supported the dismantling of tyrannies of all kinds. Far from being an altruistic goal (though, there's is the fact that—on a simple humanist level—most democracies are just better for people), democratic/representative nations with "rule of law" are more peaceful, prosperous and good for trade. The West genuinely sees a pattern and acknowledges that where freedom prospers, people are better off on the whole.

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