The Empire Factor: The Missing Piece in Narratives of the Ukraine War

EDITORIAL, 24 Jul 2023

#806 | Richard E. Rubenstein – TRANSCEND Media Service

Competing Narratives of the War in Ukraine

Those who study narratives of conflict understand that how the story is told reveals not only the narrator’s biases, but also the existence and limitations of his/her worldview. The opening of the narrative frames the story decisively: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” When it comes to the current war in Ukraine, the story commonly told in the United States, as well as in many European nations, begins “On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine.” This opening designates the parties (Russia and Ukraine), points to an aggressor (Russia) and a defender (Ukraine), leaves “outsiders” such as the U.S. and NATO out of the picture, and assumes the unity of each party. Moreover, the tale begins at Ground Zero with the Russian invasion, relegating earlier events to a shadowy, contestable, and still largely unknown past.

Even now, after so much blood and ink has been spilled, most Americans and many Europeans do not recall the rebellion in Kyiv eight years earlier that replaced an elected pro-Russian prime minister of Ukraine with a pro-Western leader. Nor do they recollect the civil violence in the ethnically Russian Donbass region that produced two treaties signed in Minsk but never implemented, or the eight years of bloody warfare that followed, with Russia recognizing and Ukraine refusing to recognize the “republics” declared in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.

Most important, perhaps, the commonly accepted narrative entirely omits the relentless NATO expansion of the prior several decades that moved Russia’s president Putin to demand new negotiations on the security architecture of Eastern Europe.  One could just as easily begin the story of this conflict in 2008, when the NATO parties declared their intention to admit Ukraine and Georgia to their militarized ranks; or in 2009 and 2012, when NATO ballistic missile bases were established in Poland and Romania; or in 2021, when U.S. Secretary of State Blinken baldly declared that President Putin’s proposal to negotiate was a “non-starter.”

To correct the standard narrative’s errors and omissions involves creating a counter-narrative, which is essentially what I have just done. But note that even if this counter-story accounts for more relevant data and is more complex and nuanced than the standard story, it can also be criticized for inaccuracies, omissions, and partisan oversimplifications.

For example, the story that begins “Once upon a time, the U.S. and NATO leaders decided to expand their territory” leaves out of account the fears of many people in the former Soviet states that unless they jointed NATO, Russian nationalist leaders would try to recreate the empire that largely disintegrated in 1989-1991. Moreover, the counter-narrative does not answer the question why the US and NATO would want to expand except by employing highly personalized, moralistic terms similar to those used in the original narrative, only with the “good guys” and “bad guys” reversed; i.e., NATO expanded because its masters and leaders were power-mad. Even if the anti-NATO narrative is more comprehensive and complex than the anti-Putin story, both narratives are essentially morality plays in which the moral character of the leader determines the virtuousness or viciousness of the party he or she represents.

Empire: The Missing Piece

What this melodramatic approach overlooks or obfuscates is the fact that decisions of leaders like Biden and Putin do not take place in a sociopolitical vacuum, but in the context of a structured international system. International politics cannot be reduced to a matter of good or bad intentions or ideologies. The world system is not anarchic, as many Realists hold, nor is it a benign “international community,” as some Globalists like to think. It is structured, and that the predominant form of structure in the modern era is the empire.

In a highly competitive neo-imperial system such as the one that now confronts us, violence often occurs in contested borderlands such as the border between Europe (a subsidiary of the U.S. empire) and Russia. To try to tell the Ukraine story without recognizing that the struggle there is a proxy war over territory claimed by the world’s most powerful empire and its Russian competitor immediately reveals the hollowness of the narrative.

Joe Biden and the European leaders are not arming the Kyiv regime to the teeth and fighting a war of attrition because they are power-mad aggressors or humanitarian angels, but because the system that they represent is imperial, and they believe that their hegemony is essential to international order. The Russians do not sacrifice tens of thousands of their soldiers in Ukraine because they are power-mad invaders or selfless protectors of the Donbass Russian-speakers, but because they also administer an empire that they believe is under serious attack by U.S. and NATO forces using Kyiv to promote their own imperial interests. To take empire out of the Ukraine narrative not only distorts historical reality, it also produces the false conclusion that if the hero wins and the villain loses, the conflict will be resolved. On the contrary, since imperialism is a system that generates conflict, the only way to terminate these struggles will be to alter the system.

How to Talk about Empire

This conclusion points us toward a difficult question of communication: how to change the commonly accepted narrative to incorporate critically important structural factors such as empires and their competition. When conflicts are presented as moralistic melodramas, people are trained to applaud the hero, hiss the villain, and not spend time worrying about context or environment.  Introducing structural factors tends to move the narrative toward tragedy as well as to complexify it. How, then, to talk about empire without boring or mystifying the listener?

I want to suggest two strategies that aim to make the topic of empire discussable, interesting, and important:

First, it is useful compare the current competition between empires in regions like Ukraine and East Asia to prior imperial systems with which many people are familiar.

Modern empires are not identical to ancient empires – a case made strongly (if too angularly) by commentators like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. But they remain controversial for many of the same reasons enunciated by critics of ancient empires like Isaiah, Jesus of Nazareth, and St. Paul, and defenders like Cyrus the Great of Persia and Caesar Augustus of Rome. On the one hand, they are inherently violent structures that impose the will of great powers on smaller powers, generate high-intensity rebellions and campaigns of repression, and induce other great or semi-great powers to compete for global dominance, sometimes to the point of participating in world wars. On the other hand, they sometimes achieve enough control of the international environment to proclaim that a “just peace” has been achieved, and that without them the world would again descend into anarchy and insecurity.

One goal of peace advocacy is to bring such controversies over the costs and benefits of empire fully into public view, and to invite interested citizens across the political and social spectrum to discuss them.  This is difficult to achieve but not unrealistic, since at certain crucial moments in history, such dialogues have taken place. Toward the end of the Vietnam War, for example, discussions of the costs and benefits of empire flourished in the U.S. and Europe, contributing to an aversion to foreign intervention that President George H.W. Bush disparagingly termed “the Vietnam syndrome.” Perhaps because ruling classes often find open debate of these issues discussions dangerous to their interests, they often try to make the topic of empire taboo, but taboos are basically consensual and last only so long as people are willing to submit to them.  Peace advocates might think now about the sort of documentaries, dramas, and other cultural productions that would help their fellow citizens to overcome the anti-empire taboo.

Second, people will generally not change a conflict-producing system unless they understand its impact on their own lives and values. We need to describe the impact of imperialism not only on its victims and supporters abroad but on residents of the imperial centers.

The world’s most powerful empire is powered by the world’s largest military-industrial complex (MIC), commanding a federal budget that now amounts to almost $1 trillion. Weapons manufacturing is America’s most successful industry, and weapons are its most profitable exports.  European arms manufacturers have also profited greatly from the enormous in-pouring of high-tech weaponry, training, and intelligence into Ukraine and the rearming of NATO. The questions this raise is who benefits from the economic underpinnings of empire and who suffers.

Defenders of the imperial system in the U.S. are quick to point out that the MIC, with assets of more than $700 billion, creates some 3.5 million civilian jobs and is a prime source of “development” for local communities, especially in certain areas of the country.  Some economists describe the role of this sector as essential to late capitalism, since military spending is used to prop up aggregate demand and to offset declining rates of profit. Others have described the beneficial effects of military R&D on the development of new technologies and products that produce civilian value (for example, the internet).  Far more quietly, a few have also noted the colossal salaries and exorbitant rates of return earned by MIC executives and stockholders.

What is seldom discussed, however, are the costs imposed by this system on non-favored groups and on the society as a whole. Clearly, with the U.S. national debt at an all-time high of about $32 trillion and war spending soaring, there is no chance of redeeming promises long unfulfilled to rebuild this nation’s impoverished cities and rural areas, modernize its decayed industrial and transportation infrastructure, prevent further declines in the quality of public education, and solve the myriad social problems that have plunged the U.S. lower and lower on the scale of industrial nations with respect to health, welfare, life expectancy, educational achievement, public safety, and mental health. That the growth of radical social inequality in the metropolis parallels the growth of the empire globally is not a coincidence. The peace advocate’s job must include showing in a convincing way that the psychological benefits offered to frustrated, insecure citizens by jingoist leaders (“We Are Number One!”) are a poor substitute for the satisfaction of genuine human needs.

Meanwhile, official estimates of the total number of soldiers and civilians killed and wounded in the Ukraine conflict now approach the ghastly figure of 500,000. The U.S. imperialists have supplied the Kyiv regime with cluster munitions, and the Russian imperialists are threatening to blockade civilian shipping on the Black Sea – both violations of international law and moral standards. As the conflict escalates, veering dangerously close to triggering an even wider war, we need to understand that it is not just bad leaders who do this sort of reckless killing but bad systems – and that the imperial system, in history and at present, is one of the worst.

Empire is the missing piece in most narratives of the war in Ukraine. We would do well to give it a central place in our thinking and action.


(1) With the imperial determinants of the conflict in mind, one would also describe the enormous in-pouring of weaponry, training, and intelligence into Ukraine by the U.S. and NATO members, and the effects of these exports on the economies and job markets of the Western parties, with a parallel description of the effects of military production and the military campaign on Russian society.


Richard E. Rubenstein is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and a professor of conflict resolution and public affairs at George Mason University’s Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution. A graduate of Harvard College, Oxford University (Rhodes Scholar), and Harvard Law School, Rubenstein is the author of nine books on analyzing and resolving violent social conflicts. His most recent book is Resolving Structural Conflicts: How Violent Systems Can Be Transformed (Routledge, 2017).

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 24 Jul 2023.

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3 Responses to “The Empire Factor: The Missing Piece in Narratives of the Ukraine War”

  1. PanatomicX says:

    Where were the peace dividends following the Vietnam War, which was often described by opponents as imperialistic? The 1970s were years of no jobs, no sales, gas lines, stagflation and outrageous interest rates. It’s true that fiscal spending on the MIC has a tremendous impact on the domestic economy, but government cannot spend its way into domestic productivity and out of inflation, which is really a choice that falls on the motivations and aggregate decisions of the people in a free society. It can, however, buy war materiel to bolster a lagging economy. So the peace dividend argument is difficult at best.

    While US machinations leading to the War in Ukraine cannot be fully condoned, Mr Putin’s declared intentions for the reconstruction of the USSR were followed by invasions of Georgia, Chechnya and now Ukraine. So despite underhanded and misguided CIA involvement in the Maidan Revolution, Russian hegemony could not be ignored. But instead of characterizing it as American imperialism per se, “reluctant Pax Americana” is more appropriate.

    Although US foreign policy has surface earmarks of imperialism, it is a mischaracterization because the ultimate goal, going back to Woodrow Wilson, has always been for international peace and not exploitation. The American people pay the price, shed their blood and do not benefit from these conflicts; no taxes are collected, nor is there permanent martial governance installed. Can you honestly call that “imperialism”?

    A peaceful world is the only real dividend of Pax Americana. What we do with that is up to all of us and how we see the world colors our choices. So let’s just stick with Pax Americana, okay?

  2. Nick Marconi says:

    Unfortunately, once again, Mr. Rubenstein’s article is long on description and too short on prescription. I happen to agree, though, with his idea that we are witnessing an “imperial” conflict centered in Ukraine. And, elsewhere as well I want to add. It doesn’t matter how we define precisely what we mean by “imperialism”, though; what matters most is that the institution of war that most of our leaders world wide are committed to, is once again being used as a way to resolve conflict. It can’t do this. War is not the problem and this is what this article is all about. The problem is our commitment to a narrative that the author rightly points out includes war as a way to achieve resolution to conflicts and peace. The outcome of war can neither result in genuine resolution or peace simply because the premise of war is the prevailing of the most powerful and not the supposedly most “righteous and virtuous”. I completely disagree with any idea that sees war as a part of attaining peace and that includes a Pax Americana version.

    I became a radical pacifist inside the belly of US Army when I was 21 in 1975. I applied for conscientious objection status as a way to get out of the military because I had come to a deep understanding that war was and is universally wrong! My captain believed in me and helped me apply. I was honorably discharged and my discharge form, I’m proud to say, states that “Private Marconi could be a good soldier, but he doesn’t believe in the concept of war.” Precisely. It can be done. It would take leaders bold enough with deep hearts to help more of us to sign up like I did instead of waiting for mainstream leaders who seem more beholden to economics and politics as usual to step forward and do this.

  3. Ragnar Naess says:

    I follow Mr. Rubenstein in his emphasis on the existence of two opposite narratives, this is a very clear characteristic of the debate here in Norway. The “Russia attacked…” narrative is of course the dominant and is proclaimed with moral or moralistic fervor. However, as we discussed in the 70-ies, ethics can be defined in terms of values and norms on the one hand and in terms of consequences of given actions on the other. In a conflict between to less than moral protagonists it may be more constructive – and hence moral – to advocate compromise rather than to dwell on the question of the moral status of the protagonists. – Only one comment on Mr.Rubenstein’s comment on Mearsheimer: I believe he in several discussions has used the term “Regional Hegemon” as a term almost equivalent to Mr. Rubinstein,s “Empire”.