David Brooks thinks he has discovered the reason why Americans want the U.S. to mind its own business:
It’s a radical belief that the nature of power — where it comes from and how it can be used — has fundamentally shifted, and the people in the big offices just don’t get it.
It’s frankly naïve to believe that the world’s problems can be conquered through conflict-free cooperation and that the menaces to civilization, whether in the form of Putin or Iran, can be simply not faced. It’s the utopian belief that politics and conflict are optional.
Brooks is making such sweeping, general statements that it’s impossible to tell who is supposed to be adhering to this “radical belief.” There are not many people that think that “politics and conflict are optional” or that it is desirable simply to ignore threats. Divergent interests and some degree of conflict are unavoidable in international affairs, and those aren’t ever going to be eliminated from the world. In order to have successful cooperation in anything, it is necessary to manage and contain the conflicts that inevitably crop up between different states or different interest groups. “Conflict-free cooperation” has never existed, and no one is more aware of that than the people that are trying to negotiate the compromises and agreements needed to make cooperation possible.
If most Americans are more aware of the limits of power generally and U.S. power in particular, I’d say that is a very sensible reaction to more than a decade of overreach and absurd ideological projects, and a very healthy backlash to the delusions of Bush’s Second Inaugural. The U.S. has suffered from an absurd overconfidence in the efficacy of hard power for more than a decade (and really ever since the Gulf War), and Americans have been recoiling from the costs and failures associated with that. I imagine that many Americans are fatigued by being told constantly how vitally important U.S. “leadership” in the world is, and how imperative it is that the U.S. “act” in response to this or that crisis. That fatigue is bound to be encouraged when Americans justifiably have little confidence in political and media classes that have presided over a series of major debacles since the start of the century. That makes it much easier to dismiss alarmism from politicians and pundits, including overblown claims about “menaces to civilization,” but that is not the same as ignoring real threats. Because of recent experiences, Americans have much less reason to expect competence from their political leaders. After watching nearly thirteen years of desultory foreign wars, Americans may have reasonably concluded that their leaders have been both too ready to rely on military force as their preferred option while being far too confused about how the military should be properly used. If Americans are now much less willing to be “summoned” by their leaders, it is because they have been so badly and irresponsibly led for so many years.
Michael Gerson makes a silly claim:
Over the past few years, Reagan’s internationalism, moralism and strategic aggressiveness have been out of favor in much of the GOP.
The first thing we must understand is that Gerson is abusing Reagan’s reputation to vindicate the shabby and discredited record of George W. Bush. Reagan’s “internationalism, moralism and strategic aggressiveness” have not been out of favor. Bush’s disastrous abuse of American power, his ignorance about the rest of the world, his contempt for allies that refused to participate in his foolish and ruinous plans, and his reckless and self-destructive behavior are out of favor. The two really have nothing in common, but it is useful for Bush’s flunkeys to claim that they are one and the same. Wrapping their errors in Reagan’s mantle makes them seem a little less egregious and harmful, but it can’t erase their huge and costly errors.
One of Bush’s flaws is that he governed as more of a hard-line ideologue than Reagan ever pretended to be, and another is that he claimed to be an internationalist while making a mockery of America’s reputation in the world. Republicans should not be deluded into thinking that they are obliged to follow Bush’s example in order to honor Reagan, but neither should they feel compelled to respond to contemporary events as if nothing had changed in the last thirty years. It would also serve them well to remember that Reagan did not govern as the combative ideologue that sometimes came across in his speeches. It is far from certain that Reagan would sympathize with the knee-jerk hawkish views that Gerson is trumpeting, but the world is so different from the Cold War era that it isn’t all that relevant. In the end, that is what hawks have to offer right now: a distorted, reductionist idea of “what Reagan would do” and a dangerous, confrontational approach to relations with other major powers that Reagan didn’t always follow when he was in office.
Rand Paul has joined the “punish Russia” chorus:
It is important that Russia becomes economically isolated [bold mine-DL] until all its forces are removed from Crimea and Putin pledges to act in accordance with the international standards of behavior that respect the rights of free people everywhere.
Sen. Paul makes several proposals in his article, most of which seem unworkable or irrelevant, but this is the one that has the least chance of succeeding on its own terms. Russia has the eighth-largest GDP in the world. Even if it were somehow politically possible to get all of its major trading partners to agree to “isolate” it, it would be economically ruinous for many of them to do so. No matter how assertive or bold the U.S. might be, there is no real chance that Russia will be isolated economically, and even less drastic punitive measures could have very undesirable effects.
Paul Pillar observed recently that the costs and consequences of sanctions are often overlooked in these debates:
The multiple drawbacks and limitations of economic sanctions are too infrequently considered before sanctions are enacted. These include issues of who exactly in the target country will be hurt, and who might actually benefit. They also include consideration of counterproductive political reactions, including resistance to be seen buckling under pressure [bold mine-DL].
The costs, including economic costs, to ourselves of sanctions we impose are insufficiently acknowledged. In some situations trade patterns are such that the costs to ourselves may be minimal, but in those circumstances, and for that very reason, the desired impact on the target country is likely to be minimal as well. This may be the case with Russia today, with which the European Union has much more trade than the United States. Unilateral U.S. sanctions are thus likely to be ineffective with regard to Russia, while being needlessly disruptive to cooperation and common purpose with regard to the Europeans.
If the situations were reversed and a number of foreign governments sought to use economic sanctions to compel the U.S. to withdraw from territory that it had invaded, we can be reasonably sure that our leaders would react very badly to the attempt. Even if those leaders could be persuaded that they had erred by invading, they would be reluctant to give in to foreign pressure and could easily become even more intransigent in the face of such pressure. If there were no recognition of error, and our leaders believed that they were in the right to act as they did, they would be even more likely to respond to sanctions with punitive measures of their own. Sanctions are generally useless in achieving anything desirable, but they are frequently not harmless, and they can make the targeted regime even more determined to persist in the course of action that prompted them. While it may be satisfying and politically convenient to impose sanctions as a punishment, it usually doesn’t produce in the change in behavior that the U.S. wants, and it could very well contribute to a dangerous increase in tensions that will make the larger crisis harder to resolve.
John Yoo uses the current debate over Ukraine as an excuse to revive one of the more foolish ideas of this century, the League or “Concert” of Democracies:
The U.S. cannot alter the United Nations Charter on its own. But it can join with its NATO allies to establish a true international alliance to defend the peace and simply ignore the U.N.’s paralysis. A Concert of Democracies could coordinate the use of force by the U.S., NATO, and their Asian allies to prevent great harms to global welfare and stability.
In practice, this mission of “preventing” great harm would mean that the U.S. and its allies routinely ignore international law just as blatantly as Russia has done in the last few weeks. I doubt very much that there would be many takers for this idea among our European and Asian allies, since they are normally not looking for a way to get into new wars without U.N. authorization. There would be a significant number large democracies that would want nothing to do with this, since they don’t share the obsession with interfering in other states’ internal affairs. The U.S. ignores international law and the U.N. Charter often enough as it is, but forming an institution for the explicit purpose of evading the requirements of both would thoroughly discredit U.S. actions in most other countries. It would be quite useful to the Russian and Chinese governments to have a permanent “coalition of the willing” waging illegal wars around the world, since they would use them to dismiss all Western criticisms of their actions and cite them as excuses for their own behavior.
But let me conclude with one that seems a little more likely: a rerun of Bush’s 2000 path, in which Marco Rubio wins by uniting religious and moderate conservatives.
Rubio had a tough 2013, thanks to his unsuccessful immigration push, and he lacks the ideologically committed support of a Paul or Cruz or Huckabee. But his domestic-policy forays (first on poverty, soon on taxes) have gotten smarter since the immigration debacle, and events in Venezuela and Crimea may be making his hawkish foreign policy vision more appealing to conservatives.
Douthat isn’t predicting that this will happen, nor does he think Rubio is a favorite to win, but it’s still a scenario worth thinking about a little more. Does it make sense that Rubio would appeal to “somewhat conservative” (or “moderate conservative”) voters? These are the voters that have reliably supported the eventual nominee in recent decades, and they represent, as Olsen puts it, “the bedrock base of the Republican Party.” It might be helpful to review what it means for a voter to be “somewhat conservative.” This is how Olsen described this group:
They like even-keeled men with substantial governing experience [bold mine-DL]. They like people who express conservative values on the economy or social issues, but who do not espouse radical change. They like people who are optimistic about America; the somewhat conservative voter rejects the “culture warrior” motif that characterized Pat Buchanan’s campaigns. They are conservative in both senses of the word; they prefer the ideals of American conservatism while displaying the cautious disposition of the Burkean [bold mine-DL].
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Olsen’s description is right. Does it sound as if Rubio would be the sort of politician to win over these voters? Based on what we have heard from Rubio since he entered the Senate three years ago, I think the answer is no. While his immigration waffling might not put these voters off, he seems likely to drive these people away with much of what he has done since being elected. It’s debatable whether he could be called “even-keeled,” but I don’t think anyone will try to argue that he has substantial governing experience. Rubio’s views on foreign policy don’t seem likely to appeal to people that value a cautious disposition, since those views are more likely to be reckless and confrontational in nature.
The conservatives that might find Rubio’s pugnacious rhetoric on foreign crises attractive are also likely to view his fumbling on immigration with the least sympathy, while many of those that might cut him slack on the latter are likely to regard his foreign policy worldview with a mixture of bewilderment (how can anyone believe this nonsense?) and horror (imagine the damage he could do if he were president). This might not be as much of a problem if Rubio had been in office longer, or if he were well-known for anything other than pushing an unpopular immigration bill and demagoguing foreign disputes, but he hasn’t and he isn’t. He has the liabilities of Bush in his second term–identified with an unpopular position on immigration and an expensive, ideological foreign policy–without most of the advantages that Bush had as a candidate the first time.
Fred Kaplan identifies the contradictions in the Obama administration’s response to Russia:
At a press conference in Kiev, he proclaimed American solidarity with Ukraine’s aspiring democrats. But he also acknowledged that Russia has vital interests in Ukraine, waived any desire for confrontation, and called for mutual “de-escalation.”
But then, President Obama announced sanctions against Russia, banning travel of key officials, freezing assets, and suspending international forums. The question that no one appeared to acknowledge, much less ask or answer: How is it possible to do escalation and de-escalation at the same time?
Kaplan cites this as proof of the clumsiness of the U.S. response, and he has a point. That said, we all understand the reason for the confusion. The first part of the response–correctly emphasizing de-escalation–is attempting to avoid unnecessary conflict and reduce tensions, and that is a defensible and responsible way to handle the situation. Unfortunately, the administration seems to think that it can’t really defend this sort of response in the current climate, and so has to indulge in punitive measures to demonstrate just how “tough” it can be on Russia. The second, punitive part serves no constructive purpose, and it actively undermines the effort to reduce tensions. It is being done all the same to satisfy hawkish critics at home, and they are most interested in punishing Russia even if it makes things worse.
Dan Drezner has explained why U.S. economic sanctions would be of no use in compelling Russia to withdraw from Crimea, but goes on to say that they should be imposed nonetheless. While it’s possible that imposing sanctions could give U.S. and European leaders something to bargain with in the future, as Drezner says, there is clearly no appetite among most Western governments to pursue this course. Imposing sanctions now puts the U.S. at odds with the governments whose cooperation it most needs for a coordinated and unified response.
In general, trying to bludgeon another government into changing its behavior very rarely achieves anything positive, and the danger in trying this against a larger power is that it could then retaliate with punitive measures of its own. That would make the crisis harder to resolve and inflict damage on Western economies in the process, which would in turn spur demands for still harsher measures. Russia is already threatening to block inspections for the current arms reduction treaty, and it could choose to make things more difficult for the U.S. on other issues as well. Many Westerners seem very eager to demand economic punishment of Russia, but I suspect very few actually want to pay the price that could be associated with it.
Condoleeza Rice rehearses some boilerplate rhetoric:
These global developments have not happened in response to a muscular U.S. foreign policy: Countries are not trying to “balance” American power. They have come due to signals that we are exhausted and disinterested. The events in Ukraine should be a wake-up call to those on both sides of the aisle who believe that the United States should eschew the responsibilities of leadership. If it is not heeded, dictators and extremists across the globe will be emboldened.
Rice’s op-ed incorporates every stale, hawkish cliche that has been used in connection with recent events, and in so doing serves to remind us how mistaken or meaningless these arguments are. One of the most common and annoying claims in every hawkish argument regardless of subject is the warning that a lack of “leadership” will “embolden” other actors. No one ever has to prove that such “emboldening” has occurred, and there is no attempt to account for the agency and priorities of other governments. If another state does something Washington opposes, it is simply taken for granted that this is because the U.S. somehow encouraged it by not being activist and aggressive enough. If this claim is put under any scrutiny, it quickly falls apart.
The first error that hawks make is to pretend that foreign governments perceive U.S. actions in the same way that they do. If the U.S. falls short of their maximalist preferences in one or two places, they conclude that the U.S. appears “weak,” but this is usually not how everyone else see things. If they believe that the U.S. has been insufficiently “active” in Syria, for example, they assume that adversaries and rivals perceive the U.S. role in the same way, but that isn’t the case. If anything, Russia and Iran tend to imagine an American hand behind events whether it is there or not, and they usually overstate or invent the American role in developments that they oppose.
What Rice et al. perceive as “inaction” in Syria, Russia and Iran likely perceive as ongoing interference and hostility to their interests. The crisis in Ukraine also looks very different to Moscow than it does to the Westerners that have been agitating for an even larger and more active U.S. role. Western hawks were frustrated by how slow their governments were to throw their full support behind the protesters, and as usual wanted the U.S. and EU to take a much more adversarial and combative approach with Russia because they see Western governments as being far more passive than they want. However, Moscow doesn’t perceive the U.S. role in Ukraine to be a limited or benign one, and the toppling of Yanukovych has been fitted into their view that the protests were a Western-backed plot from the beginning. The idea that Russia would have responded less aggressively to the change in government if the U.S. had been giving the opposition even more encouragement and support is dangerously delusional, but that is what one has to believe in order to argue that the U.S. “emboldened” Moscow in Ukraine.
This account of the Russian decision to intervene suggests that it was a sudden, ad hoc reaction to events in Ukraine and a response to unwelcome U.S. and EU actions:
An examination of the seismic events that set off the most threatening East-West confrontation since the Cold War era, based on Mr. Putin’s public remarks and interviews with officials, diplomats and analysts here, suggests that the Kremlin’s strategy emerged haphazardly, even misleadingly, over a tense and momentous week, as an emotional Mr. Putin acted out of what the officials described as a deep sense of betrayal and grievance, especially toward the United States and Europe [bold mine-DL].
Obviously, that still doesn’t justify what Russia has done, but it would be a horrible mistake to conclude that these things happened because the U.S. was perceived as being insufficiently meddlesome and aggressive around the world.
Needless to say, the last person who should be giving advice on how to manage relations with Russia successfully is the former Secretary of State from an administration that oversaw one of the worst periods in bilateral relations.
Today is the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the first Sunday in Orthodox Great Lent, which commemorates the Triumph of Orthodoxy and the restoration of the icons in 843 after the second period of Iconoclasm:
The Uncircumscribable Word of the Father was circumscribed when He took flesh of thee, O Theotokos; and when He had restored the defiled image to its ancient state, He suffused it with divine beauty. As for us, confessing our salvation, we record it in deed and word. ~Kontakion of the First Sunday of Great Lent
What is Russia trying to accomplish? Dmitri Trenin tries to make sense of Russia’s actions in Ukraine:
In Moscow, there is a growing fatigue with the west, with the EU and the United States. Their role in Ukraine is believed to be particularly obnoxious: imposing on Ukraine a choice between the EU and Russia that it could not afford; supporting the opposition against an elected government; turning a blind eye to right-wing radical descendants of wartime Nazi collaborators; siding with the opposition to pressure the government into submission; finally, condoning an unconstitutional regime change. The Kremlin is yet again convinced of the truth of the famous maxim of Alexander III, that Russia has only two friends in the world, its army and its navy. Both now defend its interests in Crimea.
What will it cost Russia? Peter Baker reviews the limited options that the U.S. has to penalize Russia for its incursion. Helena Yakovlev-Golani and Nadiya Kravets run through different scenarios for Crimea’s future status (annexation, independence, status quo) and what each one will cost Russia over the long term.
What the U.S. should and shouldn’t do in response. Greg Djerejian offers some excellent advice. Michael Brendan Dougherty advises Americans not to panic. Thomas Graham proposes some possible constructive options.
Is a multipolar world emerging? Steven Metz discusses what a future multipolar order would look like.
If Scotland becomes independent, what happens to the British flag? Matt Ford looks at some of the possibilities for a new U.K. flag.
The New York Times reports on Rubio’s renewed effort to remind us why he should never be president, namely his bad and outdated views on foreign policy. For example, it quotes part of a recent speech he gave at CPAC:
“There is only one nation on earth capable of rallying and bringing together the free people on this planet to stand up to the spread of totalitarianism,” Mr. Rubio told attendees of the Conservative Political Action Conference, offering a tour d’horizon of affairs in China, North Korea, Iran, Venezuela and Russia.
First, totalitarianism isn’t spreading. Insofar as there are still genuinely totalitarian regimes in the world, they control very few countries, and they are not gaining new followers. They shouldn’t be ignored or dismissed, but the danger from them needs to be kept in perspective. Across most of the globe, totalitarianism is nowhere to be found, and that sort of political system has been thoroughly discredited in the eyes of almost all nations since the collapse of the USSR. Some authoritarian regimes are becoming more repressive than they were in the recent past, but in general they are not expanding or increasing their influence. Thinking about the U.S. role in the world as the only country “capable of rallying and bringing together the free people on this planet to stand up to the spread of totalitarianism” might have made sense thirty years ago, but today it is at best a silly anachronism and at worst a profound misunderstanding of the world today. If Rubio genuinely believes that totalitarianism spreading in the world today, he’s simply wrong, and that misunderstanding is bound to warp the rest of his foreign policy views.
For some reason, many Republicans seem to think that Rubio is helping himself to recover politically inside the GOP by emphasizing his hard-line credentials on foreign policy. No doubt there are some hard-line pundits and foreign policy professionals that like what he’s saying, but I don’t understand who else would be both interested in these topics and likely to agree with Rubio’s stale ideas. In addition to offering mostly bad or unworkable ideas in the case of Ukraine, he gives skeptics no reason to trust that he isn’t just a new McCain or Santorum. Here is his weak attempt to reassure his audience that he isn’t a knee-jerk interventionist:
Mr. Rubio seemed to acknowledge this reluctance in his CPAC speech, assuring conservatives that he did not want America “to be involved in 15 wars” and conceding that the country could not resolve every conflict around the globe.
So Rubio is against involvement in 15 wars, but overall he leaves you with the impression that he would have no problem if the U.S. were involved in five or six.