But you must believe me, one cannot have everything one wants—not only in practice, but even in theory. The denial of this, the search for a single, overarching ideal because it is the one and only true one for humanity, invariably leads to coercion. And then to destruction, blood—eggs are broken, but the omelet is not in sight, there is only an infinite number of eggs, human lives, ready for the breaking. – Isaiah Berlin
Friday, November 21 marks the one-year anniversary of the anti-government protests on Kiev’s Independence Square. Much has happened since then, nearly all of it detrimental to the deteriorating European economy and to U.S. and European security interests. The standard narrative of events which posits that the battle between pro-European Kiev and revanchist Russia is nothing less than a battle for the future, indeed, the soul of Europe, though widespread, is incorrect.
As is by now well known, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign a EU Association Agreement at last November’s EU summit in Vilnius was, of course, the spark that set off the conflagration. In a narrow sense, the aims of the Euro-Maidan protests have been met: Yanukovych was overthrown in February, a new government of an ostensibly pro-European cast was subsequently formed, a new President (Poroshenko) was elected in May, and he ultimately signed the Association Agreement in June. Yet all of this came at an enormous price. The long-term ramifications of Kiev’s “European choice” are still as yet unclear.
Since the mid-19th century, Russians—due to their tumultuous political history—have had cause to raise two particular questions in the aftermath of this or that debacle. In 1845 Alexander Herzen asked, “Who is to be blamed?” (Kto vinovat?), and nearly a generation later Nikolai Chernyshevsky asked, “What is to be done?” (Chto delat?).
In assessing the Obama administration’s role in the Ukraine crisis, perhaps it might be worth asking a number of questions along similar lines.
Was it worth it?
It would be difficult to answer in the affirmative. While the goals of the protesters in Kiev were indeed met, the aftermath suggests that an alternative solution similar to the one Vladimir Putin suggested to the German chancellor in the lead-up to the Vilnius summit could have and should have been pursued. On the one hand, Kiev got its Association Agreement. On the other hand, the costs of the ensuring crisis are staggeringly high: roughly 4,100 war dead, thousands more wounded, nearly 1 million people displaced, the loss of Crimea and the de facto partition of Ukraine. Further, a new Cold War between the U.S. and Russia is now well underway while intra-European comity is beginning to fray over whether or not to continue the sanctions regime against Russia.
Who in the Obama administration has been held to account?
For helping to engineer the worst foreign policy debacle since the second Iraq war, and possibly—though it is still too early to say—since Vietnam, not one of the President’s men or women have been called to account. As of this writing key members of the national security team and the principal architects of our Russia/Ukraine policy, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, UN Ambassador Samantha Power, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, and CIA Director John Brennan, remain firmly ensconced in their posts. And for his part, Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken was just promoted to Deputy Secretary of State.
Where do things stand now?
Three recent developments should concern us. First, the much-praised Ukrainian parliamentary elections that took place on October 26 have only served to strengthen the hand of the hardliners in Kiev. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s faction is ascendant; he will have a free hand to pursue projects like the building of his very own Berlin Wall between Russia and Ukraine. A project such as this, smacking as it does of Mr. Yatsenyuk’s latent authoritarianism, receives little to no coverage from our wondrously pliant media. Second, the Ukrainian crisis is splitting Europe. The governments of Italy, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovakia are turning against the sanctions. Serbia is, naturally, pro-Russian. Germany and France are increasingly ambivalent regarding the sanctions while Poland, the UK, Sweden, and the Baltics (no doubt with much American encouragement) are all for isolating and punishing Russia. Third, a renewed push to arm Ukraine will emerge as the GOP takes control of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees. This week the incoming chairman of Armed Services, Sen. John McCain released a joint statement with Sen. Lindsey Graham calling (again) for the Obama administration to send arms to Kiev.
Why did the Obama administration feel compelled to get involved in all of this?
This brings us to the introductory quote courtesy of Isaiah Berlin. A curious aspect to this whole affair is the seeming insistence on the part of policymakers and pundits alike that all of the foregoing is solely the fault of Vladimir Putin. Yet the question remains: why did the U.S. and EU think that Russia would stand idly by as it tried to wrench Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit? For 15 years, inordinately powerful neoconservatives and their liberal internationalist enablers have been comparing Putin to Stalin and/or Hitler. Did they not believe their own rhetoric?
Perhaps not. But as was too often the case in the blood-soaked 20th century, a set of particular (to say nothing of peculiar) set of ideas can sometimes become the driver of events, and in the case of the year-long Ukraine crisis, it has been the Washington establishment’s misguided and ultimately dangerous belief that “democracy” is some sort of panacea for what ails developing nations.
The Ukraine crisis illuminates a central problem of contemporary political theory and practice: the steadfast denial by policymakers and pundits of a certain stripe that something as seemingly virtuous as “democracy” could lend itself to destructive ends. Further, our elites have the sequencing backwards: democracy is not viable in the absence of accountable, stable, institutions, and a political culture that values the rule of law. Democracy is not a midwife to these things.
And even if Ukraine did possess the requisite institutions and political culture conducive to parliamentary democracy, we still lack both the right and the ability to transplant democratic norms elsewhere. Yet democratic peace theory, entrenched and sacrosanct, is a line of belief, to borrow a line from the eminent historian of Europe, that grows more dangerous the more sincerely it is believed.
What the last year has shown is that our foreign policy has become hostage to our illusions. And, tragically, for thousands of Ukrainians those illusions have proved to be fatal.
James Carden is a TAC contributing editor, and served as an advisor to the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the State Department from 2011-2012.