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Even though American policy could take a significantly different turn after Donald Trump becomes president, it’s all too likely that U.S.-Russia relations will continue heating up to worrisome temperatures for the foreseeable future. And although much American rhetoric on the subject has veered into hysteria, there’s no shortage of real-world obstacles to any new White House hopes for a cool-off – mainly Moscow’s undeniable determination to expand its influence along in Europe, where it now directly borders the U.S.-led NATO alliance. There’s also abundant (though not yet conclusive) evidence that Russia’s government tried to interfere with the 2016 American presidential election.

Russian president Vladimir Putin is by no means solely to blame for rising bilateral tensions. As I’ve written previously, much and possibly most of the problem stems from the American decision – supported by presidents and Congresses of both parties – to expand NATO right up to Russia’s doorstep after the end of the Cold War. And facing up to this wholly unnecessary, gratuitous effort to capitalize on Russia’s post-1990 weakness looks to me like the key to a genuinely successful reset of bilateral ties.

But ultimately, just as important for the United States as dealing with this urgent short-term problem is learning a lesson about how to think about its national interests that sadly was missed after the decades-long superpower struggle ended. The lesson: The key to foreign policy success is basing actions on identifying overseas interests of intrinsic, material importance, rather than on assumptions about actual or potential adversaries.

During the Cold War, American foreign policymakers across the board used both sets of criteria as lodestars – and created big, unnecessary trouble for the nation as a result. Washington reasonably treated the security of, for example, Western Europe and Japan as vital interests of the United States – because these regions were reasonably judged to be centers of critical economic and therefore military capability and potential. Losing them to Soviet influence could indeed have tilted the balance of global power against the United States in genuinely damaging ways. Moreover, an equally reasonable determination was made that Western Europe and Japan could be defended at acceptable cost and risk to America.

Tragically, however, this form of “interest-based” thinking was not applied to much of the developing world. In these regions of Latin America, Asia, and Africa, major defense commitments were taken on even though the countries in question were typically of little or no intrinsic interest to the United States – in terms of their actual or (realistically potential) wealth or military power, their raw materials, or even their location.

Instead, Washington based policy on the type of threat it concluded was posed by these countries, by ascendant forces within them, or by Soviet or Chinese designs on them or activity within their borders. Therefore, as I’ve written, Americans consumed themselves with debates over subjects like:

>whether rival superpowers’ activity in these areas was fundamentally offensive in nature or defensive;

>whether the relationships between these rival superpowers and local forces were simply alliances of convenience that meant little in the long run and could be easily broken up with appropriate U.S. overtures, or whether they were strongly ideological ties with real staying power; and similarly

>whether the local forces themselves should be seen simply as Soviet of Chinese pawns (and therefore needed to be fought on some level), or whether they were fundamentally nationalistic and on “the right side of history” (and therefore needed to be accepted and cooperated with).

These are all fascinating questions, and the resulting debate made fascinating reading – at least from an academicky or purely rhetorical standpoint. But they were dangerously off-base as fundamental determinants of American policy. The main reason: They all presented supposed answers to questions that are virtually unknowable – unless we imagine that certain foreign policy-makers and analysts are mind-readers or have highly reliable crystal balls. Disaster in Vietnam – a war never consistently, or even often, justified for intrinsically important reasons – reveals the price America can pay for indulging in these fantasies.

Defining specific, concrete U.S. interests is no science, either. But answers here are relatively knowable. Sure, subjectivity can’t be avoided. But Americans depend on our government to make judgments like this all the time. If the nation has decided otherwise, then it’s hard to make the case for any government at all.

How should this argument affect how Americans think about the new Russia challenges in Europe? Principally, they should stop focusing on whether Putin is a new version of the Soviet leaders who many thought aimed at worldwide dominion, or simply a nationalist feeling besieged by the West and seeking greater security along Russia’s frontiers. And they should start focusing on the intrinsic importance of the countries that Putin seems to be threatening.

In other words, how has Washington viewed Ukraine or Georgia or Moldova? What about new NATO members such as Poland or Hungary or the Baltic countries? Have they ever been placed in the category of vital interests, either from a national security or economic standpoint? Have U.S. leaders ever been willing to risk war on their behalf, even when the United States enjoyed a nuclear monopoly or overwhelming superiority? If the answers here are “No” (Spoiler alert: It is.), then has anything about these countries and their concrete and even perceived value changed since the end of the Cold War? In fact, has anything about them economically or strategically changed other than new NATO membership in some cases?

In my view, history makes obvious that the answer to those latter questions is “No” as well. Further, nothing has happened either in these parts of Europe, or in the American or Russian militaries, that has made them more easily defended by the West with conventional weapons alone than during the Cold War.

So it’s easy to see how more threat-based thinking can too easily lead Washington into a corner in which its only choice to defend all of its new treaty allies from some new form of Russian hegemony is to threaten nuclear war more loudly; and how interest-based thinking can lead to the alternative of offering to recognize how geography inevitably (however sadly) relegates these countries to a Russian sphere of influence, and seeking the best possible arrangement for them. And it’s even easier to see which alternative, however imperfect, is vastly superior.

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