[As it turned out, normal life returned to Watertown earlier than I had anticipated and I have a chance to do this post.]
This week I listened to this streamed discussion from the Quincy Institute about the Ukraine situation. It features a Russian and an American academic, Fyodor Lukyanov and Thomas Graham, and Lukyanov in particular was very informative. Putin, he argued, does not want to invade Ukraine, but he does want to alter the balance in the European security situation, both by barring Ukraine from joining NATO and by persuading NATO to take other steps to reduce its presence in Eastern Europe. The United States, Putin apparently believes, created that situation to fill the vacuum left behind by the collapse of the USSR and its eastern European empire, and it should now give way to something new reflecting a different balance of power. Putin has mobilized more than 100,000 troops, Lukyanov argued, because nothing less had succeeded in getting NATO's attention and starting any serious negotiations. I thought Graham was less interesting because he immediately fell into the trap that ensnares most contemporary academics, talking about what should happen instead of what is happening or is likely to happen. I thought however that both of them might be too optimistic, because Putin's aims cannot, in my opinion, be reconciled with the thinking of the US foreign policy establishment, which includes all Biden's senior aides. Here I will return to some issues I addressed a few weeks ago, but with a sharper focus.
Until early in the 20th century the government of the United States, mindful that it had different domestic principles and institutions than most of the great powers, pursued policies based on legal principles in international relations. It pledged fidelity to treaties and international law, tried to resolve any disputes by negotiation, and simply sought compensation when Americans abroad or on the high seas suffered damages. Under Theodore Roosevelt and especially Woodrow Wilson, the United States began involving itself in overseas quarrels--but with the specific goal of making the international community adopt new principles of conduct, and even new domestic institutions, that would allow US principles to prevail worldwide. That led to the creation of the League of Nations, but when the Senate refused to approve it, subsequent administrations returned to the previous, strictly legalistic approach. When dictatorshps threatened the peace in the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt warned the nation that it could not stand aloof, and by the time the United States entered the Second World War he had committed us to a new world organization. The United Nations resulted.
It fell to Presidents Truman and Eisenhower to explain to the American people that the UN could not play the role of the arbiter of international conflict because the Soviet Union would not cooperate. By 1949 Truman had helped create NATO, an alliance of the US, Canada and western European nations to defend their territory against Communism. West Germany joined NATO in 1955. Twice, in 1950 and 1991, the UN has authorized wars in defense of aggression, first in Korea (because the USSR was boycotting the Security Council at the time of the attack) and then to liberate Kuwait. In general, however, it has failed to serve as a mechanism for implementing American principles. In response, the Eisenhower Administration repeatedly insisted that it could not undertake any serious political negotiations with the Soviet Union until the Soviets accepted NATO's goals. Those included the unification of Germany via free elections, with the new Germany remaining in NATO if it desired, and the end of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. The Soviets, not surprisingly, refused. Not until 1975, in the détente era, did NATO and the Warsaw Pact accept one another's existence and the existence of two German states. Even then, the Helsinki Agreement was merely a political agreement, not a treaty with the force of law.
The collapse of Communism in 1989 allowed the West Germans and Americans to realize their 40-year old dream of a reunified Germany within NATO. Unfortunately, dazzled by dreams of "the end of history" and worldwide US hegemony, the Clinton and Bush II administrations went further, adding most of the states of Eastern Europe to NATO, including three former Soviet Republics, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. NATO also fought a brief war to liberate Kosovo from Serbia in 1999--a war which the UN would not authorize. And in 2008 the Bush Administration invited both Georgia, in Central Asia, and Ukraine to join NATO. This, Russia immediately made clear, it would not accept, starting a brief war with Georgia. Russian and the United States competed for influence in Ukraine in the next two decades, and Russia in 2014 annexed Crimea and began supporting a separatist war across the Ukrainian border.
Putin has now asked not only for promises that Ukraine will never withdraw NATO, but for a broadly defined pullout of NATO from Eastern Europe. This could mean anything from a restriction on what kind of weapons NATO would station there, to a complete withdrawal of US and western European troops from the region, to insisting that some of these states must leave NATO. Of those three options I do not think there is the slightest possibility of the US and its allies accepting any but the first--in exchange for some Russian restrictions on armaments aimed at western Europe. Such a deal could not be negotiated very quickly.
President Zelensky of Ukraine has now made clear that he feels NATO is being too alarmist about the troop build-up and pushing the risk of confrontation too far. I think that he probably can do the most to avoid war, simply by announcing that Ukraine has no intention of joining NATO. That would enable NATO leaders to affirm that they understand his position and that the issue is no longer live. NATO could also agree to multilateral talks with Russia on new European security arrangements, without committing itself to any result.
Alas, I would have to agree that Putin would use any deal he would agree to to try to extend Soviet influence, and perhaps even Soviet sovereignty, further west. NATO would find itself in a new Cold War, parallel in many ways to the immediate post-1945 period, in which the contest was largely political, with the winning victories in Austria and partially in Finland while the Soviets took over in Hungary and Czechoslovakia by political means. This might be an opportunity for the United States, at long last, to turn European security over to the western and Central Europeans and let them take the political initiative, at least, while remaining within the alliance. That in fact was Eisenhower's dream, and he was willing to give the Europeans nuclear weapons to help achieve it. I think the American people are more than ready for that, but the foreign policy establishment is not, and Donald Trump is the only President in the post-1945 era who has ever really challenged the assumptions of the foreign policy establishment.
That establishment continues to believe that we must take maximum political positions on issues like Ukraine and Taiwan and use all means short of war, including economic sanctions, to try to secure our goals--whether they are likely to work or not. For the time being there seems to be no possibility of either Russia or China accepting our view of the world and our proper role in it. That calls for some kind of accommodation of the kind that the Nixon administration achieved with those nations in the 1970s, but I don't see the leadership that would attempt it now.