The truth is that Ukraine is not a sovereign country and has not been one since at least 2014 when the West, the CIA intervened and it was documented, they staged a coup and a color revolution and took over their government.

This is how Tucker Carlson recently described the national status of Ukraine around the time of the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution. Though, by saying “at least,” Carlson is likely implying Ukraine’s earlier Orange Revolution of 2005 was also illegitimate and so Ukraine has not had a real government in perhaps 20 years. Presumably Ukraine had a legitimate state in 1994 when the Budapest Memorandum, signed by Russia, America and the UK, recognized its sovereignty and territorial integrity. But what could have caused Ukraine to lose its status as a ‘real’ country?

The answer, whether Carlson is right or not, hinges on Ukraine possessing the consensus of national will to exercise a sufficient level of self-determination to be, at least in theory, free to make independent decisions without foreign intervention. In Carlson’s (and Putin’s) view, the Ukrainian state is controlled by outside powers at a fundamental level and so whatever it says or does cannot be said to represent the will of the Ukrainian people. 

Carlson’s reference to the CIA staging a coup is a familiar refrain for leftists critical of American clandestine operations in the Cold War, but activities like arming the Contras in Nicaragua is not what he’s referring to. Rather, he means to reclassify all American international influence as broadly sinister so that ‘democracy promotion,’ which 20 years ago would have been an anodyne term, is now fraught with negative implications. Similarly, the phrase “color revolution” is used to imply that, if a pro-democracy movement forms, it was only possible through American meddling. After all, if America is exercising influence in another country, who’s to say it’s with good intentions or support from the locals? 

Tucker, sophomorically, passes off the revelation that America exports its ideas abroad as a concealed-yet-uncovered and malicious truth, delighting in his transgressive recognition that the American-led international order can, with significant caveats, be described as ‘imperial.’ He’s wrong, but in a way that flattens a complicated and interesting discussion into a stale leftist anti-American bromide, repackaged for the populist right. He’s right that the United States, through public and private institutions, works to influence other countries to be more like us: democratic, liberal, capitalist. Yet he’s wrong to describe American internationalism, in this interview and elsewhere, as imperialism in all but name.

One response to Tucker could be that American policy, since coming on the world stage, has generally been to oppose imperialism under the British, French, Japanese, Germans, Austrians, Russians, Italians, and Turks in favor of self-determination, or at least more self-determination than before. Another answer could be that the American-led international order is, on balance, more beneficial to American and global security and well-being than multipolarity. Yet, there remains the complicated truth to deal with that, while America is not an imperialistic civilization, it is an evangelistic one, and the line between imperialism and evangelism can be blurry.

Ideas like democracy, Christianity, and socialism do not respect national borders but rather seek to remake the world in their own image. While it’s morally wrong for Beijing to ban missionaries, it’s also rational as an amoral maneuver for the CCP; if Christianity were to be broadly embraced in China, it might threaten the party’s stability. Whether it’s the CCP or the Soviets, authoritarian regimes must suppress alternative narratives about the world to shore-up their own power base against competition. With this in mind, Russia’s foreign agent law, designed to penalize individuals and NGOs with non-Russian sources of funding according to a purposefully broad definition of political activism, looks suspiciously like an anti-missionary law.

Continuing with the comparison of democratic ideas to religious ones, if people under authoritarian regimes begin to imbibe Christian or democratic thought, they can be conveniently delegitimized by blaming the CIA or other malign American influence. Such reasoning has served as partial justification for repression in Budapest in 1956, Prague in 1968, Tiananmen Square in 1989, and now Ukraine in the last decade. But there are at least two problems with simply blaming America for unrest in non-Western countries. 

Firstly, it denies non-Westerners the agency to learn what they can about different ideas and arrive at their own conclusions. Today the West is chagrined by how non-universal our democratic precepts have turned out to be; the Arab Spring failed, our nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan failed, and China and Russia remain closed societies. Even so, it would be a mistake to think democracy has no appeal outside the G7; 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Winner and democratic activist Liu Xiaobo did not spend the last decade of his life in prison for democratic ideals because the CIA brainwashed him. Secondly, it wildly overestimates the ability of America to engineer a soft power “color revolution” coup; if all it took to oust America’s enemies from power was a few million dollars funneled through NGOs, why do anti-American regimes still exist? 

One conclusion to arrive at is that there are serious limitations to what’s possible through the kind of soft-power infiltration Tucker describes. Even if America puts its thumb on the scale of another nation’s internal affairs, all the resources of the State Department and the intelligence community do not necessarily make a difference. At most, they can enhance existing pro-Western sentiments, but cannot manufacture the shared devotion necessary to really change a society. Conspiratorial thinking of this sort always belies that the most powerful people, those theoretically most capable of engineering regime change, are often shockingly incapable of achieving anything of substance abroad. But worse, it avoids dealing with the human, spiritual element of politics, which is irreducible to a science and thus can’t be manipulated by centralized technicians at the levers of power. 

The success of democracy in America was always going to, at some point, precipitate an ideological challenge to any regime that denies even the possibility of self-government. The US, thus, exerts this inescapable pull on people around the world who want to believe that history is not determinative, as Putin and Xi endlessly argue, but that something better is possible. This is the real source of public fervor that leads to mass protests as in Ukraine’s 2005 and 2014 revolutions, not the CIA. If all the United States can really do, short of invading, is help organize and publicize whatever grassroots pro-democracy energy already exists, is that an imperialist violation of sovereignty? 

The framers of the Constitution may not have envisaged American global hegemony two centuries after 1789, yet already in 1630 John Winthrop foresaw the United States as a city on a hill – a society that, by the universal nature of its founding creed, was always going to be a missionary nation, which is different from an imperial power in at least two ways. One is that the kind of democracy promotion America attempts to engage in is primarily bottom-up; contrast with how the British conquered South Asia by a few decisive alliances among Indian elites. Secondly, if America has an empire, it is primarily an empire of the mind, which is why the threat of democratic revolution is so omnipresent; no matter how powerful Putin or Xi’s nuclear arsenals, the spirit of the people could always turn against them.

Nations, like persons, have beliefs that lead them to pursue self-interest defined beyond exclusively material terms. Since Americans talk about democracy as a universal, objective good at home, such views can’t be entirely cordoned off from the international sphere; there has always been a strand of moralizing internationalism woven into the United States. While sometimes overreaching, America’s destiny to be a light unto the nations is not a new form of imperialism, but the fulfillment of our missionary heritage.