Chrystia Freeland joins in exaggerating the significance of protests in Ukraine:
But as in 1989 the most important fault line in the world [bold mine-DL] today runs through a cold, crowded, euphoric public square in Eastern Europe.
Freeland is wrong about this, but her op-ed is interesting as a window into the thinking of people that say such things. If one assumes that there is a “global struggle between democracy and authoritarianism” going on, and if one also believes that the competing factions in Ukrainian politics represent different sides in this struggle, it might almost make sense to think that the most important fault line in the world runs through Kiev. It would still be overlooking a number of more important and dangerous fault lines in East Asia or the Near East, but it would make a certain amount of sense. Since there is no such global struggle to speak of, and the different factions in Ukraine represent competing interests inside one country, all of this effort to impose a grand ideological interpretation onto these events is misguided and wasted.
If there is competition today between “democratic capitalism” and state capitalism, that is obviously a dramatically different kind of competition from the one between the U.S. and the USSR. Thinking of it as a continuation or extension of the latter, as Freeland does, is simply wrong. There is nothing like the Cold War going on today, nor is there even a “cool war” between two ideological camps. Democracy is not at stake in the contest in Ukraine, so we should stop pretending that it is.
Charles Krauthammer complains that Obama isn’t doing more about protests in Ukraine:
The U.S. response? Almost imperceptible. As with Iran’s ruthlessly crushed Green Revolution of 2009, the hundreds of thousands of protesters who’ve turned out to reverse this betrayal of Ukrainian independence have found no voice in Washington. Can’t this administration even rhetorically support those seeking a democratic future, as we did during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004?
It would be appropriate for the U.S. to warn Ukrainian authorities against using force against peaceful protesters, but beyond that there wouldn’t seem to be anything that the U.S. could or should do publicly in this instance. If there is one thing that the administration should have learned over the last four years, it is that Obama should not offer even limited rhetorical support to a foreign protest movement unless there is some intention to follow it up with real support. In the Ukrainian case, U.S. interference would be especially unwise. As corrupt and bad as Yanukovych and his government may be, they have been duly elected to their positions. It cannot be the role of the U.S. to take sides in purely internal political disputes in countries with elected governments. The protesters are currently seeking to force the removal of a democratically-elected president, so one could say that they are interested in a “democratic future” provided that the right people are in power.
At least in 2004, Yanukovych and his allies had reportedly rigged the election for their benefit, so there was potentially some justification for public criticism from Western governments. Nonetheless, it was still foolish for the Bush administration to interfere and take sides in Ukraine’s internal dispute, and it would be even more foolish for Obama to do it after having made so many unnecessary comments on foreign uprisings over the last few years. There is no reason for Obama or other U.S. officials to lend support, rhetorical or otherwise, to one side in a Ukrainian political contest. It would be wrong for the U.S. to express preferences for the outcome of an election campaign, and it would likewise be wrong for the U.S. to throw its support behind one political faction. Not only is it the wrong thing to do in principle, but it also will make it that much more difficult to deal with the Ukrainian government in the future while it is controlled by the party that the U.S. has publicly opposed.
Krauthammer wants the U.S. to throw a tantrum and then to throw some money at Ukraine. He asks, “Why not outbid Putin?” The better question is: “What conceivable U.S. interest is served in bribing the Ukrainian government to accept a trade agreement that will probably provoke a severe Russian response?” Krauthammer doesn’t bother considering the consequences of what he proposes, but just throws a fit about something that displeases him and then moves on.
Nikolas Gvosdev explains why the political turmoil in Ukraine would continue even if the anti-Yanukovych protesters prevailed:
But let’s assume for the sake of argument that all the demands of the so-called Euromaidan protesters are met: The decision on the EU agreement is reversed; the Rada (parliament) dissolves itself; and Yanukovych tenders his resignation. Would the crisis automatically be over?
There are several reasons to think it wouldn’t be.
Supposing that Yanukovych and his party were forced from power by the protests, it would likely produce a period of government paralysis and economic crisis. Gvosdev notes that the opposition would have difficulty advancing a coherent governing agenda because it is significantly divided on most other issues besides the association agreement and getting rid of the current president. In that scenario, Yanukovych’s party would have strong incentives to hamstring and embarrass a new government. Because Yanukovych has been able to exploit divisions in the opposing coalition before to maneuver his way back to power, it is conceivable that any success the opposition might have in gaining power could be very short-lived. Gvosdev also points out that a new government that rode the current protests into power and pressed ahead with the association agreement would also face the prospect of Russian retaliation, which would inflict substantial economic pain on the country that could turn the population sharply against the new leaders.
Because of that, substantial Western financial support would be critical to the survival of the new government. Gvosdev writes:
If the opposition were to come to power in Ukraine in the midst of a severe economic crisis, brought about by signing the EU accords, it would create the expectation of immediate Western assistance. If that aid did not materialize, it could pave the way for a second Yanukovych comeback, just as it did in 2006.
Western aid is unlikely to be forthcoming in the large amounts that Ukraine would require to counter the effects of Russian punitive measures. Western cheering for the protesters in Kiev isn’t likely to translate into much tangible assistance. If European governments weren’t willing to provide generous terms to Ukraine in the original agreement, why are they going to offer substantial aid later on? And if European governments aren’t willing to able to provide such aid, is there much chance that the U.S. is going to bear the costs of one of the EU’s projects? No, there isn’t. Western sympathizers with foreign protesters are great ones for encouraging uprisings and celebrating “revolutions,” but frequently lose interest in their cause as soon as the story fades from their view.
George Will’s column on Iran gets many things right, but he makes this odd assertion towards the end:
The agreement will not stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons; only a highly unlikely Iranian choice [bold mine-DL] can do that.
It’s true that the interim agreement already reached in Geneva won’t “stop” Iran if the Iranian government chooses to violate the terms of the agreement, and that is also true for any comprehensive agreement that Iran and the P5+1 reach. Then again, that’s true of all diplomatic agreements: they become useless if one party ignores its commitments. Having said that, the evidence suggests that the Iranian government has so far not yet chosen to build nuclear weapons, and under the right conditions it may never decide to do this. An Iran that possessed nuclear weapons could be deterred, but if Iran follows through on the initial commitments made in the interim deal it is not going to build any nuclear weapons. In other words, Iran claims to have already made the “highly unlikely choice” that Will thinks it won’t make.
Will presents war and containment as the only two options, but it is more accurate to say that the U.S. would be able to contain a nuclear-armed Iran with or without first attacking it. War with Iran would not eliminate or even reduce the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran, but would virtually guarantee it. Attacking Iran would give Iran a strong incentive and significant political cover to acquire nuclear weapons, which is why it is extremely misleading to talk about an attack on Iran as “preventive” war. “Preventive” war against Iran would likely cause rather than prevent Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. The real choice is between reaching a negotiated settlement with Iran that limits its nuclear program in a way that makes weaponization much more difficult and continuing on the dead-end path of coercion and threats that make both a nuclear-armed Iran and armed conflict with Iran more likely.
Raymond Sontag identifies a possible reason why European governments were taken by surprise by Ukraine’s about-face on the agreement with the EU:
The problem is that many in the West see “balance of power” and “spheres of influence” as antiquated and less-than-legitimate concepts and therefore largely ignore them. Rather than viewing international politics as driven by competing interests, they see it as driven by the process of ever more countries adopting Western-style democracy. Accordingly Western leaders assume that East European states integrating with the West is a natural process in the post-Cold War world and that anything running counter to this integration is a perversion of that process. This disregard for traditional power politics and the assumption that European integration is a natural development are significant blind spots for Western leaders. And these blind spots hamper their ability to realize the very worthy goals of European integration and democratization.
This may apply in some cases, but my impression is that American and European advocates for the eastward expansion of Western institutions and alliances are only too happy to see everything in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in terms of balance of power and spheres of influence. Many Westerners may ridicule the concepts by name, but they think in these terms just as much as anyone else. If that were not the case, there would not have been so many overwrought Western reactions to Ukraine’s decision.
If Ukraine turns down a deal with the EU that wouldn’t have given it very much in the near term, many Westerners treat this as an extremely meaningful event rather than the perpetuation of the status quo that it actually is. As Western institutions seek to expand their sphere of influence, Westerners are annoyed that there is any resistance to this, and they complain about Russian efforts to retain influence with lectures about the obsolescence of spheres of influence. However, the complaint isn’t so much that the Russian response is outdated as it is that it is at least temporarily successful. The real trouble is that many Westerners ignore the interests of the nations involved in the expansion process, and instead simply assume that their interests must align with those of Western institutions. When that proves not to be the case, they are left with little to do but splutter in frustration.
Today is the prelude of God’s goodwill and the heralding of the salvation of mankind. In the temple of God, the Virgin is presented openly, and she proclaimeth Christ unto all. To her, then, with a great voice let us cry aloud: Rejoice, O thou fulfillment of the Creator’s dispensation.
Gideon Rachman found Rubio’s speech in London too heavy in its emphasis on the “special” relationship:
The problem with the speech, as I saw it, was that it was too redolent of George W. Bush circa 2003. It was fully of windy tributes to Britain and America‘s shared tradition of fighting for liberty, Churchill and Roosevelt, the Special Relationship, the “will and moral courage of free men and women”, our best days lie ahead…etc, etc. I am sure it was all well meant. It may even have been sincere. But while, on one level, it was obviously flattering to a British audience, that kind of rhetoric is still suffering from Bush and Blair’s misuse of it, in the run up to the Iraq war. Perhaps there will soon be some global crisis – in which Britain and America once again stand shoulder-to-shoulder – and we can listen to the old numbers about the “special relationship” and the fight for freedom, without any sense of discomfort or irony. But that moment has not yet arrived. And I thought the audience’s tepid applause at the end of Senator Rubio’s speech, reflected that feeling [bold mine-DL].
The most jarring moment of the speech for the audience may have come when Rubio included the Iraq war on his celebratory list of the things that the U.S. and Britain had done together. Including the invasion of Iraq as one of the “vitally important achievements” of the U.S.-U.K. alliance would be tin-eared and clumsy if the speech had been in the U.S., and it was even more so in London. Most people in Britain and America probably look back on that debacle now as an example of how dangerous and harmful the “special” relationship between our countries can be. It is certainly not something that a British audience would want to be reminded of ten years after the invasion. Especially in Britain, the Iraq war represented everything unhealthy and lopsided in a relationship in which Britain joins the U.S. in foreign wars no matter how unwise or unnecessary they are and receives absolutely nothing in return. Rubio didn’t dwell on it, but the fact that he mentioned the Iraq war in a positive way underscores just how oblivious he was to how poorly the rest of the “special” relationship talk would be received. Considering how prominently resentments over Iraq figured in the British debate over intervention in Syria, the inclusion of the Iraq war as a highlight of U.S.-British cooperation in a speech given in Britain is the sort of thing that only a committed interventionist would do.
This description of Marco Rubio’s recent speech at Chatham House in London is quite misleading:
At a time of vigorous debate within the Republican Party about the United States’ global role, the first-term senator from Florida is articulating a worldview that places him neatly between the GOP’s tea-party-led isolationist wing and its more established interventionist wing [bold mine-DL].
That may be what Rubio would like people to believe about his foreign policy, but it’s not true. He sought to distinguish himself from both “isolationists” and “hawks” in his AEI speech earlier in the fall, but there is no good reason for the rest of us to accept his preferred rhetorical framing. Rubio may say that “hawk” is an obsolete term, but it is more accurate to say that he doesn’t want the baggage that is associated with the hawks in his party.
Reading through the latest speech, it is hard to miss that Rubio chooses to adopt very hawkish positions on almost every issue. He is predictably in favor of more Western meddling in Ukraine to oppose Russian influence, rejects the deal with Iran, wants more support for the “moderate opposition” in Syria, and complains once again about instability in Libya that resulted from the war he supported. Most of the speech is geared towards flattering his British audience by placing great emphasis on the alliance with the U.K. and the importance of NATO, and as such most of it is anything that a conventional hawk from either party might say, but at no point does Rubio find fault with other hawks in his party nor does he ever seem to disagree with them about anything.
When Rubio says that “talk of hawks and doves is 20th century Cold War language that no longer applies,” he is just trying to obscure the fact that in virtually every debate he comes down reliably on the side of hawks. When asked where he falls on a spectrum between Paul and McCain, he avoids the question because the answer (McCain) is obvious and politically toxic. He may not always adopt the most hawkish position possible in every debate, but he can be counted on to insist that the U.S. pursue an activist and meddlesome foreign policy. He is firmly in the interventionist camp, but based on his more recent speeches he evidently doesn’t want to be perceived as a hawkish caricature. Rubio would like to be on the record in favor of more aggressive policies almost everywhere, but he still wants to be thought of as the more reasonable alternative to reflexively hawkish members of his party.
National Review‘s editors suggest an implausible response to Ukraine’s protests:
“Europe” should therefore make every effort — and offer every financial, economic, and political guarantee — to persuade Yanukovych and his supporting cast of oligarchs to break with Putin’s Russia and sign onto an association agreement with the European Union that will more than compensate them for Putin’s threatened trade war [bold mine-DL].
As Julia Gray mentioned in the post I linked to earlier, trade with Russia accounts for approximately one-fifth of the country’s GDP. The EU has so far shown no interest in providing remotely enough compensation to begin to offset the effects of lost trade with Russia, and it is doubtful that most Ukrainians would favor the “decisive separation” from Russia that the editors see as the ultimate goal of all this. Indeed, the more that trade with the EU has been cast in terms of being a “civilizational choice,” the less attractive it has appeared to Ukrainians that might otherwise see the benefits of it. It is impractical at best to seek a “decisive separation” between two countries that have been bound together both culturally and economically over such a long period of time. Like the misguided idea of bringing Ukraine into NATO, it substitutes the preferences of hawks in the West for what most Ukrainians want.
The other major flaw with this proposal is the assumption that Ukraine represents a “major” strategic prize. Mark Adomanis reviews the numbers and reaches the opposite conclusion:
Ukraine is not a “prize,” it’s a rapidly aging society that is one of the most demographically unstable in the planet.
As he said in an earlier post, “winning” Ukraine would mean taking on a new burden:
An objective look at the numbers tells you that Ukraine is not an asset but a major liability, a country that is likely to need massive infusions of resources just to stay on its feet.
Considering the EU’s recent problems, it makes little sense for them to make the larger commitment that NR’s editors want. It isn’t just a “long shot,” as they say. It is a seriously flawed policy that is likely to increase regional tensions to no one’s benefit.
What’s at stake in the streets of Kiev is the future of the European continent — and American prosperity and security. An inward-looking America is averting its attention from its own most important interests and highest ideals.
It would be easy to laugh this off as typical hawkish overreaction, but the assumption that something extremely important is at stake for the U.S. and the world in Ukraine’s protests is one that seems to be all too widely-held. It’s simply not true. First, Ukrainian political independence is not imperiled, and European security certainly isn’t. It should go without saying that American prosperity and security are not involved, but it has to be said. Ukraine’s economic dependence on Russia would not have been ended by the EU’s association agreement, and it was this dependence that ultimately made it impossible for Ukraine to finalize the agreement over Russian opposition. More to the point, as Mark Adomanis points out, “the idea that Ukraine is the secret to some geopolitical great game is anachronistic nonsense.” The only thing at stake in this dispute is whether Ukraine opted for a closer relationship with the EU at very high short-term cost or accepted something very much like the status quo for the foreseeable future. It’s just not that dramatic or significant for any countries except Ukraine and perhaps its immediate neighbors. The “future of the European continent” definitely does not hang in the balance.
For a much more balanced and reasonable interpretation, I recommend Julia Gray’s commentary. She explains why Ukraine is currently caught in limbo between the EU and Russia, and why it is likely to stay there in the near future:
When Ukrainians took to the streets almost a decade ago, they probably thought they were choosing a future that put them more firmly in line with Western Europe. But the current government probably sees that it’s gotten as far as it can feasibly go down that road [bold mine-DL]. EU enlargement is not likely to materialize any time soon, and Russia is happy to make life worse for Ukraine in any way it can.