Liberal Illusions Caused the Ukraine Crisis

The greatest tragedy about Russia’s potential invasion is how easily it could have been avoided.

By Stephen M. Walt, a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

Bill Clinton and Joe Biden  at a meeting of the U.S. Congressional delegation to the NATO summit in Spain on July 7, 1998.

JANUARY 19, 2022, 5:49 AM

The situation in Ukraine is bad and getting worse. Russia is poised to invade and demanding airtight guarantees that NATO will never, ever expand farther to the east. Negotiations do not appear to be succeeding, and the United States and its NATO allies are beginning to contemplate how they will make Russia pay should it press forward with an invasion. A real war is now a distinct possibility, which would have far-reaching consequences for everyone involved, especially Ukraine’s citizens.

The great tragedy is this entire affair was avoidable. Had the United States and its European allies not succumbed to hubris, wishful thinking, and liberal idealism and relied instead on realism’s core insights, the present crisis would not have occurred. Indeed, Russia would probably never have seized Crimea, and Ukraine would be safer today. The world is paying a high price for relying on a flawed theory of world politics.

At the most basic level, realism begins with the recognition that wars occur because there is no agency or central authority that can protect states from one another and stop them from fighting if they choose to do so. Given that war is always a possibility, states compete for power and sometimes use force to try to make themselves more secure or gain other advantages. There is no way states can know for certain what others may do in the future, which makes them reluctant to trust one another and encourages them to hedge against the possibility that another powerful state may try to harm them at some point down the road.

Liberalism sees world politics differently. Instead of seeing all great powers as facing more or less the same problem—the need to be secure in a world where war is always possible—liberalism maintains that what states do is driven mostly by their internal characteristics and the nature of the connections among them. It divides the world into “good states” (those that embody liberal values) and “bad states” (pretty much everyone else) and maintains that conflicts arise primarily from the aggressive impulses of autocrats, dictators, and other illiberal leaders. For liberals, the solution is to topple tyrants and spread democracy, markets, and institutions based on the belief that democracies don’t fight one another, especially when they are bound together by trade, investment, and an agreed-on set of rules.

After the Cold War, Western elites concluded that realism was no longer relevant and liberal ideals should guide foreign-policy conduct. As the Harvard University professor Stanley Hoffmann told Thomas Friedman of the New York Times in 1993, realism is “utter nonsense today.” U.S. and European officials believed that liberal democracy, open markets, the rule of law, and other liberal values were spreading like wildfire and a global liberal order lay within reach. They assumed, as then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton put it in 1992, that “the cynical calculus of pure power politics” had no place in the modern world and an emerging liberal order would yield many decades of democratic peace. Instead of competing for power and security, the world’s nations would concentrate on getting rich in an increasingly open, harmonious, rules-based liberal order, one shaped and guarded by the benevolent power of the United States.

Had this rosy vision been accurate, spreading democracy and extending U.S. security guarantees into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence would have posed few risks. But that outcome was unlikely, as any good realist could have told you. Indeed, opponents of enlargement were quick to warn that Russia would inevitably regard NATO enlargement as a threat and going ahead with it would poison relations with Moscow. That is why several prominent U.S. experts—including diplomat George Kennan, author Michael Mandelbaum, and former defense secretary William Perry—opposed enlargement from the start. Then-Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were initially opposed for the same reasons, though both later shifted their positions and joined the pro-enlargement bandwagon.

Proponents of expansion won the debate by claiming it would help consolidate the new democracies in Eastern and Central Europe and create a “vast zone of peace” across all of Europe. In their view, it didn’t matter that some of NATO’s new members were of little or no military value to the alliance and might be hard to defend because peace would be so robust and enduring that any pledge to protect those new allies would never have to be honored.

Moreover, they insisted that NATO’s benign intentions were self-evident and it would be easy to persuade Moscow not to worry as NATO crept closer to the Russian border. This view was naive in the extreme, for the key issue was not what NATO’s intentions may have been in reality. What really mattered, of course, was what Russia’s leaders thought they were or might be in the future. Even if Russian leaders could have been convinced that NATO had no malign intentions, they could never be sure this would always be the case.

Although Moscow had little choice but to acquiesce to the admission of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic into NATO, Russian concerns grew as enlargement continued. It didn’t help that enlargement was at odds with U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s verbal assurance to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in February 1990 that if Germany were allowed to reunify within NATO then the alliance would not move “one inch eastward” (a pledge Gorbachev foolishly failed to codify in writing). Russia’s doubts increased when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003—a decision that showed a certain willful disregard for international law—and even more after the Obama administration exceeded the authority of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 and helped oust Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011. Russia had abstained on the resolution—which authorized protecting civilians but not regime change—and former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates later commented that “the Russians felt they had been played for suckers.” These and other incidents help explain why Moscow is now insisting on written guarantees.

Former NATO Secretary-General George Robertson, who had a cordial relationship with the Russian leader, recalls an era when Moscow wanted closer ties with the West.ANALYSIS ELISABETH BRAW

Had U.S. policymakers reflected on their own country’s history and geographic sensitivities, they would have understood how enlargement appeared to their Russian counterparts. As journalist Peter Beinart recently noted, the United States has repeatedly declared the Western Hemisphere to be off-limits to other great powers and has threatened or used force on numerous occasions to make that declaration stick. During the Cold War, for example, the Reagan administration was so alarmed by the revolution in Nicaragua (a country whose population was smaller than New York City’s) that it organized a rebel army to overthrow the ruling socialist Sandinistas. If Americans could worry that much about a tiny country like Nicaragua, why was it so hard to understand why Russia might have some serious misgivings about the steady movement of the world’s mightiest alliance toward its borders? Realism explains why great powers tend to be extremely sensitive to the security environment in their immediate neighborhoods, but the liberal architects of enlargement simply could not grasp this. It was a monumental failure of empathy with profound strategic consequences.

Compounding the error is NATO’s repeated insistence that enlargement is an open-ended process and any country meeting the membership criteria is eligible to join. That’s not quite what the NATO treaty says, by the way; Article 10 merely states: “The Parties may, by unanimous agreement, invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area to accede to this Treaty.” The key word here is “may”—no nation has the right to join NATO and certainly not if its entrance would make other members less secure. Details aside, shouting this goal from the rooftops was foolhardy and unnecessary. Any military alliance can incorporate new members if the existing parties agree to do so, and NATO had done just that on several occasions. But openly proclaiming an active and unlimited commitment to moving eastward was bound to further heighten Russian fears.

The next misstep was the Bush administration’s decision to nominate Georgia and Ukraine for NATO membership at the 2008 Bucharest Summit. Former U.S. National Security Council official Fiona Hill recently revealed that the U.S. intelligence community opposed this step but then-U.S. President George W. Bush ignored its objections for reasons that have never been fully explained. The timing of the move was especially odd because neither Ukraine nor Georgia was close to meeting the criteria for membership in 2008 and other NATO members opposed including them. The result was an uneasy, British-brokered compromise where NATO declared that both states would eventually join but did not say when. As political scientist Samuel Charap correctly stated: “[T]his declaration was the worst of all worlds. It provided no increased security to Ukraine and Georgia, but reinforced Moscow’s view that NATO was set on incorporating them.” No wonder former U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder described the 2008 decision as NATO’s “cardinal sin.”

The next round came in 2013 and 2014. With Ukraine’s economy staggering, then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych encouraged a bidding war between the European Union and Russia for economic help. His subsequent decision to reject an accession agreement negotiated with the EU and accept a more lucrative offer from Russia triggered the Euromaidan protests that ultimately led to his ousting. U.S. officials tilted visibly in favor of the protesters and participated actively in the effort to pick Yanukovych’s successor, thereby lending credence to Russian fears that this was a Western-sponsored color revolution. Remarkably, officials in Europe and the United States never seemed to have asked themselves whether Russia might object to this outcome or what it might do to derail it. As a result, they were blindsided when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the seizure of Crimea and backed Russian-speaking separatist movements in Ukraine’s eastern provinces, plunging the country into a frozen conflict that persists to this day.

It is commonplace in the West to defend NATO expansion and blame the Ukraine crisis solely on Putin. The Russian leader deserves no sympathy, as his repressive domestic policies, obvious corruption, repeated lying, and murderous campaigns against Russian exiles who pose no danger to his regime make abundantly clear. Russia has also trampled on the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which provided security assurances to Ukraine in exchange for its relinquishing the nuclear arsenal it inherited from the Soviet Union. These and other actions have raised legitimate concerns about Russian intentions, and the illegal seizure of Crimea has turned Ukrainian and European opinion sharply against Moscow. If Russia has obvious reasons to worry about NATO enlargement, its neighbors have ample reason to worry about Russia as well.

But Putin is not solely responsible for the ongoing crisis over Ukraine, and moral outrage over his actions or character is not a strategy. Nor are more and tougher sanctions likely to cause him to surrender to Western demands. Unpleasant as it may be, the United States and its allies need to recognize that Ukraine’s geopolitical alignment is a vital interest for Russia—one it is willing to use force to defend—and this is not because Putin happens to be a ruthless autocrat with a nostalgic fondness for the old Soviet past. Great powers are never indifferent to the geostrategic forces arrayed on their borders, and Russia would care deeply about Ukraine’s political alignment even if someone else were in charge. U.S. and European unwillingness to accept this basic reality is a major reason the world is in this mess today.

That said, Putin has made this problem more difficult by trying to extract major concessions at gunpoint. Even if his demands were entirely reasonable (and some of them aren’t), the United States and the rest of NATO have good reason to resist his attempt at blackmail. Once again, realism helps you understand why: In a world where every state is ultimately on its own, signaling that you can be blackmailed may encourage the blackmailer to make new demands.

To get around this problem, the two sides would have to transform this negotiation from one that looks like blackmail to one that looks more like mutual backscratching. The logic is simple: I wouldn’t want to give you something you want if you were threatening me because it sets a worrisome precedent and might tempt you to repeat or escalate your demands. But I might be willing to give you something you want if you agreed to give me something I wanted just as much. You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours. There’s nothing wrong with setting a precedent like that; it is, in fact, the basis for all voluntary economic exchanges.

The Biden administration appears to be attempting something along these lines by proposing mutually beneficial agreements on missile deployments and other secondary issues and trying to take the question of future NATO enlargement off the table. I have considerable respect for U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s toughness, savvy, and negotiating skills, but I don’t think this approach is going to fly. Why not? Because in the end, Ukraine’s geopolitical alignment is a vital interest for the Kremlin and Russia will insist on getting something tangible. U.S. President Joe Biden has already made it clear that the United States will not go to war to defend Ukraine, and those who think it can and should—in an area that lies right next door to Russia—apparently believe we are still in the unipolar world of the 1990s and have a lot of attractive military options.

Yet with a weak hand to play, the U.S. negotiating team is apparently still insisting that Ukraine retain the option of joining NATO at some point in the future, which is precisely the outcome Moscow wants to foreclose. If the United States and NATO want to solve this via diplomacy, they are going to have to make real concessions and may not get everything they might want. I don’t like this situation any more than you do, but that’s the price to be paid for unwisely expanding NATO beyond reasonable limits.

The best hope for a peaceful resolution of this unhappy mess is for the Ukrainian people and their leaders to realize that having Russia and the West fight over which side ultimately gains Kyiv’s allegiance is going to be a disaster for their country. Ukraine should take the initiative and announce it intends to operate as a neutral country that will not join any military alliance. It should formally pledge not to become a member of NATO or join the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. It would still be free to trade with and welcome investment from any country, and it should be free to choose its own leaders without outside interference. If Kyiv made such a move on its own, then the United States and its NATO allies could not be accused of giving into Russian blackmail.

For Ukrainians, living as a neutral state next door to Russia is hardly an ideal situation. But given its geographic location, it is the best outcome Ukraine can realistically expect. It is certainly far superior to the situation Ukrainians find themselves in now. It is worth remembering that Ukraine was effectively neutral from 1992 until 2008—the year NATO foolishly announced Ukraine would join the alliance. At no point in that period did it face a serious risk of invasion. Anti-Russian sentiment is now running high in most of Ukraine, however, which makes it less likely this possible exit ramp can be taken.

The most tragic element in this whole unhappy saga is that it was avoidable. But until U.S. policymakers temper their liberal hubris and regain a fuller appreciation of realism’s uncomfortable but vital lessons, they are likely to stumble into similar crises in the future.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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