Adversaries of American foreign policy deliberately muddy the distinction between cause and effect to promulgate their isolationist ideology, bolstering and excusing our authoritarian foes in the process.
The Greek thinker Aristotle, one of the leading lights of the ancient world, was a ‘renaissance man’ thousands of years before the term was coined. His polymathic abilities ranged from biology to ethics to political science to philosophy. In his musings on theology, Aristotle coined one of the most famous arguments for the existence of God, using the fact that all effects have a cause to posit an original cause which itself had no precursors. This ‘unmoved mover’ was the deity (or deities) which created the universe in which we live; it is the cause of all other causes, and all effects could eventually be traced back to its divine spark. The ‘unmoved mover’ argument has been used by theologians in their treatises, philosophy professors in their classrooms, and college students in their late-night, alcohol-fueled discussions. (Not to speak from experience, or anything.)
Aristotle’s argument has resounded through the ages and influences a wide variety of fields and intellectual debates, even when it is not acknowledged as doing such. The idea of an underlying cause which animates the world and all events in it is a powerful one, and can be found just as commonly in malign conspiracy theories as in benign organized religion. In the realm of foreign policy, the proponents of the ‘unmoved mover’ argument are far closer to the former than the latter.
For some critics of American power abroad, the United States is the modern political equivalent of Aristotle’s ‘unmoved mover’; for them, nothing in the world happens without being caused, at root, by American influence. This profound Americentrism is most obvious in the members of what I’ve called the foreign policy horseshoe. I discussed this group of ‘thinkers’ in detail in my inaugural podcast episode, but here’s a brief summary. The tendency for clusters of people who are politically on the far-left and far-right to converge with their (purportedly) opposite number on certain ideas is known as the horseshoe theory. In foreign policy, this is especially pronounced, as isolationists and NatCons on the right tend to agree and sympathize with the ‘anti-imperialist’ (read: anti-Western and anti-American) progressive left. This foreign policy horseshoe – including prominent voices like Glenn Greenwald, Tulsi Gabbard, and Sohrab Ahmari – consistently denigrates American actions abroad, harms our ability to stand up for our national interests, and blames the United States for the world’s myriad ills.
One of the ways this group rationalizes (albeit poorly) their scapegoating of American policies for global problems is through a bastardized Aristotelian logic. No matter what the flavor of the month is for these critics – the Russian war in Ukraine, Western opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime, the belligerence of the Chinese Communist Party, the conflict in Yemen, and authoritarian overreach from leftist politicos in Latin America, just to name a few – they always find a way to pin the guilt on the United States and our allies. Nothing is untouched by the American leviathan, and only for the worse in their eyes. In the same vein, America cannot itself be cajoled or swayed to act – unless by an even more manipulative cabal of ‘elites’ (see my podcast episode on antisemitism for plenty of examples of this rhetoric). For the foreign policy horseshoe, America is the quintessence of the ‘unmoved mover’: instigating everything, being impelled by nothing. It is omnipresent and omnipotent. To paraphrase the villain Thanos from the Marvel movie series, America is inevitable.
As much as I’d love America to be the godlike, unstoppable, almighty power that it is portrayed as by its detractors, it isn’t. We are more often reactive than proactive, something which has been consistent in our last century of history. From Pearl Harbor to 9/11, the US has frequently been unprepared for major dangers and international schisms. We were caught by surprise in Korea in 1950, were far too trusting of Stalin’s promises on Eastern Europe at Yalta (and reaped the consequences), and were shocked when Afghanistan rapidly fell to the Taliban as we hastily withdrew in August 2021. The US has to persuade even its allies to join in its foreign policy, as we have seen with the example of Germany. Omnipotent we certainly are not. But that doesn’t stop the members of the foreign policy horseshoe from promulgating these erroneous beliefs in the pursuit of their flawed aims.
These sentiments are often espoused by the internet commentator Michael Tracey, who has seemingly never found an anti-American cause he couldn’t promote. He has been all over the Ukraine conflict, excusing Russian actions as provoked by the United States and NATO. For Tracey, America is the ‘unmoved mover’ behind this conflict, encircling Russia with military bases, harming it economically, peeling off its cultural brethren, and isolating it internationally for malign purposes. Of course, none of this is true. The US has consistently sought positive relations with Russia after the fall of the Soviet empire in 1991, trying again and again to reset the bilateral relationship – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even going so far as to bring a ‘reset’ button to her Russian counterpart. Vladimir Putin has stated himself, as the invasion commenced last February, that the conflict was not meant to push NATO back (the war has only brought NATO closer to Russia via Finland’s 1340km shared border), but to reconstitute a broader Russia with all of her historic lands. American interest in aiding Ukraine, from our support of the Maidan protests in 2014 to the invasion in 2022, has been driven by Russian actions. They have caused the issues here, not us. America – as is so often the case – was the moved, not the mover.
These facts haven’t stopped Tracey and his ilk from claiming that the invasion was caused by America and that any and all support for Ukraine is ‘escalation’ which may prompt world war. Now this misidentification of effect for cause has been applied to the issue of Taiwan. The tweet above, in which Tracey complains of the “Ukraine-ification” of Taiwan, is a case in point. To Tracey and the other denizens of the foreign policy horseshoe, China’s repeated belligerence, incursions into Taiwanese airspace, constant rhetoric of ‘reclamation’ of the sovereign island, and outright preparations for invasion are mere responses to the real key factor here: the United States. This attitude is entirely ignorant of history and of the present.
China’s desire to retake Taiwan and incorporate it into the territory governed by the Chinese Communist Party – which also now includes the occupied areas of Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong – has been as long-standing as the Party itself. America did not cause this issue. The recent belligerence on the part of the Chinese has been a policy of Xi Jinping’s government for years now, in concert with his aggressive attitude across the region and the world. Again, this imperial posture was not a creation of the Americans. What we have done is respond to this attitude. We have increased naval exercises in the region, have attempted to stabilize our defense partnerships in the Indo-Pacific, and have started properly arming our Taiwanese friends. Still, there is much to do. Our military is unprepared for a serious conflict in the Pacific with a near-peer adversary, we are deeply intertwined with the Chinese economy, and our regional partnerships are still more wobbly than strategists would like. Would an ‘unmoved mover’ really be so poorly prepared for a conflict which it is supposedly seeking to cause? (So much for omnipotence!)
As usual, the foreign policy horseshoe is dead wrong about international relations. Their root anti-Americanism blinds them to our nation’s history of unpreparedness and reaction to events. It also denies agency to the evildoers of the world, painting their actions as predictable responses to American provocations. This is a childlike and conspiracist view of the complexity of foreign affairs. Nothing is monocausal, much less everything. And the United States is absolutely not the cause of all global effects. There are no ‘unmoved movers’ in geopolitics; Aristotle himself knew that, and discussed it in his work on the subject of nations and states. America may be the hegemon, but we’re not God. We can be moved by the moves of others – although it seems to take far too long for those of us who are hawks.
The unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine and the potential of a future unprovoked Chinese invasion of Taiwan are both extremely moving events. Perhaps we should ask why the members of the foreign policy horseshoe are not moved? It sure as hell isn’t because they’re the ‘unmoved movers’; it is far more likely that they simply don’t find such egregious actions as moving when they’re not instigated by the United States. And that speaks to a profound moral and ethical flaw. You know, Aristotle could help with that one.