The Blindness of Blinken
Many of the usual suspects who upheld America’s unwise wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan—and its ill-considered interventions in Yugoslavia, Syria, and Libya, with their destabilizing refugee flows—are predictably upholding Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s pre-Russian invasion intransigence with regard to possible NATO membership for Ukraine. Blinken, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, are devoted Clintonistas who fully bought into the Clinton-Albright NATO expansion project opposed by George Kennan, William Perry, and others.
Acquiescence in Putin’s objections to Ukraine’s inclusion in NATO, it is said, would have been “appeasement” leading to further demands. Russian claims should not have been examined on their merits.
But as Learned Hand once said, “People do not take sides so much because of their economic interests as because of some wounding of their self-esteem.” The nation that did most to win World War II was described by a feckless recent president as a mere “regional power.” Given his country’s economic interests, Putin’s nationalist demagoguery appears to us not that of a rational actor, but we should have recognized that many of his countrymen are susceptible to it. Hitler’s stock in trade was constant harping on the “war guilt” clause of the Treaty of Versailles and its reparations and disarmament provisions. Germany suffered little from either; Western loans more than offset reparations and the disarmament provisions were almost immediately successfully flouted, but the Allies withheld from Muller and Bruning concessions that they made to Von Papen when it was too late.
The postwar settlement originating at Tehran and Yalta contemplated a Holy Alliance of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, not a world government founded on the equality of states, like the League of Nations. Such an arrangement, followed by the Concert of Europe and the Conference System, produced a hundred years free of major wars. The U.N. was a focus of Roosevelt’s at both Tehran and Yalta, as shown in Robert Divine’s Roosevelt and World War II (1970) and Frank Costigliola’s Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances (2013). The last work depicts an inarticulate Roosevelt, who did not fully communicate his vision to the public, as alone in the White House after the death of Missy Le Hand and the illness of Harry Hopkins, his principal aides—Admiral William Leahy and Judge Samuel Rosenman being well to his right and left respectively.
Roosevelt’s vision of “Five Policemen” acting either in concert or within defined spheres of interest, was accepted by congressional opinion and his last secretary of state, Edward Stettinius, in 1945-46, but foundered on Stalin’s insistence on satellites and not merely spheres of interest. The latter were still recognized, after a fashion. The United States did not support postwar revolts in East Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia nor that in Greece.
Later, the Soviet Union abandoned its missiles in Cuba and the United States, reciprocally, its missiles in Turkey. Norway and Denmark joined NATO only after giving assurances, applicable to this day, that they would not harbor permanent foreign military bases or nuclear armaments. The Russians had promptly withdrawn after the war from Norwegian Finnmark and Danish Bornholm. In 1955-56, Russian troops and bases were withdrawn and Austria and Finland effectively neutralized.
Against this background, some of Putin’s claims seemed reasonable. NATO expansion rested in part on Russian interference in the Baltics in 1940, in Poland in 1940, 1956, and 1981, in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Romania and Bulgaria, NATO members and former German allies which Russia now seeks to partially neutralize like Norway and Denmark, have no comparable claims; still less have Ukraine and Georgia.
Russia seeks assurance of NATO non-membership not from Ukraine but from the Western powers. Germany and France have in the past forestalled membership for Ukraine and no doubt will continue to do so. It is hard to see what was at stake here.
Russia’s armed intervention in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine was an offence against international order. But no foreseeable Russian government—czarist, communist, democratic, or authoritarian—is likely to relinquish the Crimea. The former proceedings of the Ukranian parliament resembled a rugby match more than parliamentary deliberations. The United States interfered in the Ukraine in its support of the Orange Revolution and the ouster of the elected President Yanukovich. Russia appears to have worn out its welcome in the Eastern Ukraine. Plebiscites or arbitration under U.N. auspices in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine could be the way out from a situation in which one of the Five Policemen is currently sought to be put in permanent coventry through economic sanctions. Our effort to prevent a pipeline transmitting Russia’s principal export, natural gas, was not a measure short of war but would have been characterized by the knowledgeable Herbert Hoover as a measure of total war.
Article 19 of the League of Nations Covenant secured by Lloyd George after his subordinates remonstrated against the draconian provisions of the Treaty of Versailles allowed revision of treaties with the consent of the League of Nations Council, which in its early days arbitrated a number of disputes including one between Greece and Bulgaria. It would not be a great stretch to allow the U.N. Security Council to do the same thing.
The fundamental insight here, when our justified indignation at Putin’s brutality has subsided, is that a Pax Americana is no longer sustainable. “We cannot be the policemen of the world,” Andrew Bonar Law said in saving Britain and Turkey from a disastrous war in 1920. We no longer live in the world of the ’50s, in which all the other great powers had bombed each other into smithereens. The Permanent Members, the institution we designed to preserve world order, must be respected in that role and the recognition of reasonable spheres of influence is part of that. The Ukraine, under duress, now seems willing to renounce its quest for NATO membership. In the Minsk agreement it conceded substantial autonomy to a defined part of Donetsk and Luhansk.
To this observer, it seems unlikely that Russia will attempt to conquer and permanently subordinate the Ukraine. The costs to it are far higher than it anticipated; after a decent or indecent interval, Putin’s adventurism will be rewarded by Khrushchev’s fate. The Russians have probably not forgotten that it required several years and several thousand lives to subdue a Western-aided insurgency in the Ukraine in the wake of World War II. The Russian regime, deplorable as we may find it, is not a personal dictatorship like that of Saddam or Qadaffi; it has probably been a mistake on our part to pretend otherwise.
Putin’s demise is unlikely to be the product of a popular uprising. There is gratitude for his producing order out of chaos; it will take time for new conditions to produce chaos out of order. The instruments of repression available in the age of computers and face-recognition devices and dependence on internet networks strengthen governments. It is more likely that he will fall victim to a palace coup. In modern revolutions, Hannah Arendt observed, power is not seized, it is left lying in the street. Russia’s military and economic administrators will have lost confidence in a policy of adventurism focused on the game of nations and on blustering in place of statesmanship.
It will remain for us to defenestrate Blinken and Sullivan. It is worth remembering that their counterparts, Rusk and Bundy, derided Adlai Stevenson for his early advice to trade Russian missiles in Cuba for American missiles in Turkey. That was precisely the deal to which the blusterers ultimately agreed, after coming within a hair’s breadth of precipitating a nuclear exchange, though concealing the fact for several years in deference to the political ambitions of Robert Kennedy. Rusk and Bundy survived in their offices, to the nation’s subsequent regret in Vietnam. Blinken and Sullivan should not be allowed to do likewise.
George Liebmann is the president of the Library Company of the Baltimore Bar, is the author of works on diplomatic history, including Diplomacy Between the Wars: Five Diplomats and the Shaping of the Modern World and The Last American Diplomat: John D. Negroponte and His Times, 1960-2010, both published by Bloomsbury.