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Why Does American Folly March on in Ukraine?

Russia looks ready to negotiate—so why escalate?

Zelensky with Austin
Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

In his memoir, A Life in Our Times, the venerable economist John Kenneth Galbraith noted that he came to view politics not as the “art of the possible” but rather as a choice “between the disastrous and the unpalatable.” 

As things stand today, a similar choice—between a disastrous escalation or an unpalatable settlement—appears to be the only one on offer for Ukraine. And thanks to a number of developments over the course of the past two weeks, it is becoming clear that Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky and his sponsors in Washington are increasingly intent on choosing the former over the latter—even as it has come to light, courtesy of a May 24 report from Reuters, that Putin himself “is ready to halt the war in Ukraine with a negotiated ceasefire that recognizes the current battlefield lines.”


As the tide of the war has turned, perhaps permanently, in Russia’s favor (itself an entirely foreseeable development despite the wishful thinking that has characterized too much of what passes for informed analysis here in Washington), Ukraine’s Western sponsors find themselves scrambling to find a way to halt Russia’s momentum. For their part, Biden, Blinken and Sullivan have decided to reverse course—despite public assurances to the contrary—by secretly sending long range ATACMS to Kiev and lifting the (wise) prohibition against the use of American weapons to strike inside Russian territory—a prohibition Germany has likewise lifted

Additionally, it was reported on May 30th that Washington will soon offer Kiev a bilateral security pact, said to be “the most significant in a series of deals Ukraine has struck with Nato countries” with Washington agreeing to provide long term military and financial assistance to Kiev, including, according to the Financial Times, military training, intelligence sharing and economic assistance.

Still more, it is expected that France will soon put “boots on the ground” in Ukraine in the form of military trainers. This news comes as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Charles Q. Brown Jr., has begun publicly laying the groundwork for what he has said will be the eventual deployment of American military trainers to Ukraine. Biden and his top advisers seem to have internalized the wishes of those—like the disgraced former general and CIA director David Petraeus—who have called for the administration to “to stop temporizing” and to “get on with it.” Meanwhile, departing NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg last Friday called on NATO members to pony up $43 billion a year to arm Ukraine.   

Amidst this flurry of activity, no one, from Sullivan to Stoltenberg on down to their stenographers at the Washington Post and Foreign Affairs can explain in clear, unambiguous language why the matter of who governs Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk, Donetsk (or even Odessa and Kharkiv) is worth a direct, possibly even catastrophic confrontation with Russia. How and when did it become a paramount national security objective of the United States and NATO to help Galician ethno-nationalists regain control over a people they neither desired nor valued?

As it happens, the (non)reasons for our decade-long involvement  in Ukraine are not much different from the (non)reasons behind the American misadventure in Vietnam. In The March of Folly, historian Barbara Tuchman relays the response of a White House official who, when asked how American interests in Southeast Asia was defined in 1961, answered that “it was simply a given, assumed and unquestioned.” 


Likewise the (alleged) American interest in Ukraine: given, assumed, and unquestioned.

Indeed, missing—and crucially—from the discussion of the recent spate of initiatives designed to prop up  Ukraine is that of US national interest. In her history of political folly, Tuchman asked, “Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why do intelligent mental processes so often not function?”

Part of the answer, Tuchman found, lies in a phenomenon she labels “wooden-headedness,” or self-deception, which, in her telling,

consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts. It is epitomized in a historian’s statement about Philip II of Spain, the surpassing wooden-head of all sovereigns: “No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.”

Yet in the face of repeated and public warnings from the Russians, we persist in our folly—in essence, playing chicken with a nuclear armed power over a country of absolutely zero strategic significance to the United States.