The Blob has won the Ukraine framing war
The trouble with the ‘democracy vs. autocracy’ narrative
The Ukraine war is a long way from over, but in one sense its outcome is clear: The Blob has won. The framing of the war preferred by the Blob—a framing that I think could have enduringly bad consequences for America and the world—has prevailed.
This first occurred to me a couple of weeks ago as I was listening to one of America’s few anti-Blob foreign policy podcasts, Crashing the War Party (hosted by Kelley Vlahos and Daniel Larison). The guest was Kelsey Atherton, a journalist who covers military affairs. Like most of the podcast’s guests, he isn’t himself a blobster. That’s why, when something he said indicated that the Blob’s framing of the war had insinuated itself in his brain, I knew it was game over.
What he said may strike you as unremarkable and unobjectionable; to the untrained eye, the insidious signs of Blob brain infiltration are hard to discern. I’m here to help you with that.
The telltale sign came when Atherton was taking issue with people who reject the idea of a negotiated end to the war and insist that Ukraine keep fighting until it has chased the Russian army back to Russia. He prefaced his objection by saying that he shared their condemnation of the Russian invasion. These people, he said, “passionately feel that armed invasions by authoritarians are wrong, which—agreed—but…”
Stop right there. Note the word “authoritarians.” Why is that there? Aren’t armed invasions wrong, period—regardless of whether they’re conducted by authoritarians? I mean, that’s what the UN Charter says: No sovereign nation can invade any other sovereign nation. So, shouldn’t Russia’s violation of that fundamental tenet of international law be enough to justify siding with Ukraine?
Apparently not. It has become standard procedure, in mainstream discourse, to cast the invasion of Ukraine as an assault on democracy and freedom and to cast the case for helping Ukraine in terms of defending those things—and, what’s more, defending those things as part of a global struggle against autocracy and authoritarianism. There is meaningful ideological diversity within the Blob, but on this theme pretty much all blobsters seem to agree.
Thus, on the one hand, you have Anne Applebaum, who is often characterized as a neocon or at least neocon-adjacent, declaring that, “In the centuries-long struggle between autocracy and democracy, between dictatorship and freedom, Ukraine is now the front line—and our front line too.”
On the other hand, you have Obama speechwriter Ben Rhodes, who is not considered a neocon and in fact is considered pretty progressive, also buying into this “front line of democracy” framing. He has tweeted, “One thing the world could do for Ukraine as it bears the cost of being on democracy's front line: cancel Ukraine's debt.”
And President Biden has not only adopted this framing of the Ukraine war but has turned it into the keystone of his foreign policy. He tweeted a couple of weeks ago: "We are engaged anew in a great battle for freedom. A battle between democracy and autocracy. Between liberty and repression. This battle will not be won in days or months either. We need to steel ourselves for the long fight ahead."
One thing people sometimes ask me is, “Why are you on such a crusade against the Blob?” Another thing they sometimes ask me is: “What exactly is the Blob?”—which is a fair question since, though the standard thumbnail definition is “the US foreign policy establishment,” a fuller answer would be more nuanced than that.
The issue of the framing of the Ukraine war offers a good vehicle for addressing both questions. The widely accepted idea that we should think of the war as part of a grand struggle against autocracy and authoritarianism highlights key features of the Blob, including features that drive me crazy. And it helps explain why I think the Blob, left to its own devices, could bring the world to ruin.
One way to convey what I mean is to lay out six big problems I see with this idea that America is fighting a global war on behalf of democracy and freedom. Here goes.
1. It’s a lie.