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The “Emboldening” Fantasy

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.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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