In the decade following the Bush administration’s ill-starred adventure in Iraq, the U.S. was routinely, and with some justification, accused of imperial overreach. The hoped-for change from an interventionist foreign policy did not materialize with the advent of the Obama administration in 2009. The Afghan surge and an undeclared drone war which stretches from the plains of the Maghreb into the heart of mountainous South Central Asia have put paid to those hopes.
Europe, too, has not been immune to bouts of imperial hubris, as the 2011 intervention in Libya showed. Yet with the exit of the interventionist Nicolas Sarkozy from the Elysee Palace in 2012, there was perhaps cause to hope for a return to a European foreign policy that was at once both prudential and ethical. Yet the continuing crisis taking place in Kiev indicates that European foreign policy has, again, abandoned prudence and accommodation in favor of a zero-sum mentality that may well anticipate an era of conflict and competition with Russia over the states of the former Soviet bloc.
The crisis which has unfolded in the streets of Kiev since November has its roots in the diplomatic maneuvering of European diplomats as far back as 2008. In May of that year, the foreign ministers of Poland and Sweden, Radek Sikorski and Carl Bildt, proposed the formation of an Eastern Partnership (EaP) which was to serve as a forum for the discussion of, inter alia, free trade and visa agreements between the EU and the presumably aspirant nations on Europe’s southeastern periphery.
The Partnership spoke of “shared values” such as respect for human rights and the rule of law, and promoted the concepts of “good governance” and “sustainable development” in the region. According to Minister Bildt, the EaP was not about “spheres of influence,” which is an interesting assertion in light of the events of the past few months.
Consider the comments of European Commission President Manuel Barroso. In a press conference held in Milan on December 9, Barroso twice appealed to Ukrainians to “have the courage and go out and fight.” Remarks from high ranking European officials (to say nothing of the contributions of American officialdom) have been dutifully echoed in the Western media which portray the strife in Kiev as the manifestation of a clash of civilizations, Russian and European, in what some have taken to call, “the heart of Europe.”
Rhetoric of this sort is a striking departure for postwar European diplomacy, which generally had been a reliable cultivator of consensus and rapprochement in and around its immediate neighborhood. It has, with the notable exception of the United Kingdom, tried to act as a brake on some the more sanguinary tendencies of American foreign policy. Now the EU seems to be picking up some of the American foreign policy establishment’s bad habits.
Though one of the architects of the EaP, Sikorski was forced to admit recently that “…the EU seriously overestimated the attractiveness of its offer,” a report in February 3rd’s New York Times indicated that, rather than leave well-enough alone, American and European diplomats are planning to counter Russia’s bailout package while Vladimir Putin is distracted by the Sochi Games.
If that’s the plan, it indicates that these diplomats are making two very dubious assumptions. First, they seem to believe, against all evidence: historic, economic, and otherwise, that the Ukrainian people are united in their desire to join Europe. Manual Barroso, who should know better, claimed in the aforementioned press conference that it simply wasn’t true that the protests against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych were only taking place “in the Western part of Ukraine.” Ukraine, to be sure, is one country but it is made up of two civilizations, one that looks to Russia, and one that looks to the West. They speak different languages and have had, as recently as the century just past, different historical experiences.
Consider the fates of Kharkiv in the East and Lviv in the West. On the eve of the First World War, Kharkiv (then Kharkov) was situated firmly within the Russian Empire; Lviv (then Lwow) was part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. In the interwar years, Lwow was part of the Second Polish Republic while Kharkiv lay within the newly formed USSR. During the Second World War, Lwow became Lemberg which experienced the horror of life under the German General Government, while Kharkiv was occupied, liberated, re-occupied, and re-liberated from the Reichskommissariat Ukraine by the Red Army. It was with the establishment of Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe that both Lviv and Kharkiv found themselves under the flag of the USSR.
Second, the idea that Putin will be so distracted by the Olympic Games that a renewed approach to Ukraine by the EU would go unnoticed betrays a deep misunderstanding as to what Russia’s political elite will countenance. To Russia this is not simply an economic issue, but one with profound security implications as well. And for very good reason.
The EU-Ukrainian Association Agenda which came into effect last summer has a specific Foreign Policy and Security Protocol in which the EU and Ukraine are to “further strengthen convergence on regional and international issues, conflict prevention, and crisis management.” They are to work together to “increase interoperability” and “explore further concrete ways of achieving higher convergence in the field of foreign and security policy.” In other words, the EU is preparing Ukraine for eventual accession to NATO.
If the idea of NATO extending its front line into the heart of Slavic civilization strikes you as exceedingly reckless, it should. In his book Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives , the historian Stephen F. Cohen writes that if the neoconservative project of expanding NATO to include Ukraine succeeds:
The Kremlin has publicly warned that the West’s ‘relations with Russia will be spoiled once and for all’ and ‘the price to pay will be high.’ Privately, it is said that it would be seen as a ‘declaration of war.’
And so for admirers of the EU’s postwar record of building a prosperous and socially just society through negotiation and compromise, the current urge to expand ever Eastward is both a puzzlement and a concern. Is it so impossible to imagine that over the long run the European Union might be able to establish a modus vivendi with a Eurasian Customs Union? Putin seems to think that that’s a possibility, why do European leaders foreclose the idea of such an outcome? Is there any reason to suppose the EU will somehow falter unless it continues to incorporate the majority of the states of the former Soviet Union?
The last thing we should want is for the Europeans to start picking up the expansionist foreign policy habits of the Washington establishment at the price of their own peace, prosperity, and security. Several years ago the eminent scholar of Europe, David P. Calleo, wrote that “…today’s EU needs institutions that will allow them to co-habit amicably with their giant Eastern relation. Otherwise there seems scant hope for a happy European future.” It was true then, and it remains true today.
James Carden served as an advisor to the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the State Department from 2011-2012.