There’s a lot wrong with Roger Cohen’s complaint about the “limits of American realism,” but these statements stood out as the most obvious errors he made:
There is little doubt that President Vladimir Putin would today have overrun at least one of the Baltic countries, absent their NATO membership.
Putin has created havoc precisely in the no man’s lands — Georgia and Ukraine — rather than in the NATO lands.
It is extremely doubtful that Russia would bother with overrunning any of the Baltic states if they weren’t part of NATO. By bringing them into NATO, the alliance has made them into front-line states and targets when they would otherwise not be. Even if that weren’t the case, the fact remains that their inclusion in the alliance has not made the alliance stronger or more secure, and that is supposed to be the purpose of adding new allies. Adding new dependents and liabilities would be a bad idea even if it didn’t antagonize Russia, and doing it while souring relations with Russia is even more foolish.
Why did the 2008 August war happen? It wasn’t because Georgia was a “no man’s land.” It happened in large part because NATO had recklessly extended a promise to them at the Bucharest summit that Georgia and Ukraine would join the alliance in the future, and because the U.S. had provided military aid and support to their government such that Saakashvili wrongly expected Western intervention on their behalf in the event of a conflict with Moscow. Believing that the U.S. and its allies would bail them out, Saakashvili escalated a conflict he couldn’t win, and in the process gave Russia the pretext it needed to ensure that Georgian membership in NATO would become practically impossible thereafter. The Ukrainian case was somewhat different, but not that much. It was the perceived Western-backed overthrow of Yanukovych that first triggered Russian intervention. It was the ill-conceived, short-sighted attempt to pull Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit that led to the conflict that has done so much damage to Ukraine. In both countries, Western governments favored governments that took an overtly anti-Russian line, and then feigned surprise when Russia responded angrily to those moves. These were all things that realists and non-interventionists warned against to no avail.
These episodes have shown that the U.S. and its allies aren’t prepared or willing to defend the countries that they were considering for future alliance membership. The alliance has been forced to realize that they brought in vulnerable states in eastern Europe without thinking through the significance of the commitments they had so carelessly made. What Cohen calls “the cynicism and smallness inherent in realism” is rather evidence of realists and non-interventionists’ good judgment in that they refuse to make risky promises because they have bothered to think through the worst-case scenarios of what those promises entail.
As for Syria, which Cohen uses as his main indictment against realism, the counter-argument is fairly simple. It is neither moral nor wise for the U.S. to pick sides in a foreign civil war, and virtually all realists warned against U.S. involvement from the start. It is even more irresponsible to pick the weaker side and thus prolong the conflict and extend the suffering of the civilian population. Far from being a realist policy, Obama’s policy in Syria has been a half-hearted interventionist one that endorses regime change while doing just enough to make the conflict worse by providing additional weapons. Obama isn’t a realist (and his foreign policy isn’t a restrained one), and it is not credible to lay the failures of his Syria policy at the feet of people that have opposed it for four and a half years.