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Liberal illusions caused the Ukraine crisis

Updated: Aug 7

-The greatest tragedy about Russia’s potential invasion is how easily it could have been avoided.

The situation in Ukraine is bad and getting worse. At the moment of release of this article, Russia was poised to invade and demanding airtight guarantees that NATO will never, ever expand farther to the east.

Negotiations do not appear to be succeeding, and the United States and its NATO allies are beginning to contemplate how they will make Russia pay should it press forward with an invasion. A real war is now a distinct possibility, which would have far-reaching consequences for everyone involved, especially Ukraine’s citizens.

The great tragedy is this entire affair was avoidable. Had the United States and its European allies not succumbed to hubris, wishful thinking, and liberal idealism and relied instead on realism’s core insights, the present crisis would not have occurred. Indeed, Russia would probably never have seized Crimea, and Ukraine would be safer today. The world is paying a high price for relying on a flawed theory of world politics.

At the most basic level, realism begins with the recognition that wars occur because there is no agency or central authority that can protect states from one another and stop them from fighting if they choose to do so. Given that war is always a possibility, states compete for power and sometimes use force to try to make themselves more secure or gain other advantages.

There is no way states can know for certain what others may do in the future, which makes them reluctant to trust one another and encourages them to hedge against the possibility that another powerful state may try to harm them at some point down the road.

Liberalism sees world politics differently. Instead of seeing all great powers as facing more or less the same problem—the need to be secure in a world where war is always possible—liberalism maintains that what states do is driven mostly by their internal characteristics and the nature of the connections among them. It divides the world into “good states” (those that embody liberal values) and “bad states” (pretty much everyone else) and maintains that conflicts arise primarily from the aggressive impulses of autocrats, dictators, and other illiberal leaders.

For liberals, the solution is to topple tyrants and spread democracy, markets, and institutions based on the belief that democracies don’t fight one another, especially when they are bound together by trade, investment, and an agreed-on set of rules.

After the Cold War, Western elites concluded that realism was no longer relevant and liberal ideals should guide foreign-policy conduct. As the Harvard University professor Stanley Hoffmann told Thomas Friedman of the New York Times in 1993, realism is “utter nonsense today.”

U.S. and European officials believed that liberal democracy, open markets, the rule of law, and other liberal values were spreading like wildfire and a global liberal order lay within reach.

They assumed, as then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton put it in 1992, that “the cynical calculus of pure power politics” had no place in the modern world and an emerging liberal order would yield many decades of democratic peace. Instead of competing for power and security, the world’s nations would concentrate on getting rich in an increasingly open, harmonious, rules-based liberal order, one shaped and guarded by the benevolent power of the United States.

Had this rosy vision been accurate, spreading democracy and extending U.S. security guarantees into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence would have posed few risks. But that outcome was unlikely, as any good realist could have told you. Indeed, opponents of enlargement were quick to warn that Russia would inevitably regard NATO enlargement as a threat and going ahead with it would poison relations with Moscow.

That is why several prominent U.S. experts—including diplomat George Kennan, author Michael Mandelbaum, and former defense secretary William Perry—opposed enlargement from the start. Then-Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were initially opposed for the same reasons, though both later shifted their positions and joined the pro-enlargement bandwagon.

Proponents of expansion won the debate by claiming it would help consolidate the new democracies in Eastern and Central Europe and create a “vast zone of peace” across all of Europe. In their view, it didn’t matter that some of NATO’s new members were of little or no military value to the alliance and might be hard to defend because peace would be so robust and enduring that any pledge to protect those new allies would never have to be honored.

Moreover, they insisted that NATO’s benign intentions were self-evident and it would be easy to persuade Moscow not to worry as NATO crept closer to the Russian border. This view was naive in the extreme, for the key issue was not what NATO’s intentions may have been in reality. What really mattered, of course, was what Russia’s leaders thought they were or might be in the future. Even if Russian leaders could have been convinced that NATO had no malign intentions, they could never be sure this would always be the case.

Although Moscow had little choice but to acquiesce to the admission of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic into NATO, Russian concerns grew as enlargement continued. It didn’t help that enlargement was at odds with U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s verbal assurance to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in February 1990 that if Germany were allowed to reunify within NATO then the alliance would not move “one inch eastward”—a pledge Gorbachev foolishly failed to codify in writing. (Baker and others dispute this characterization, and Baker has denied that he made any formal pledges.)

Russia’s doubts increased when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003—a decision that showed a certain willful disregard for international law—and even more after the Obama administration exceeded the authority of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 and helped oust Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011.

Russia had abstained on the resolution—which authorized protecting civilians but not regime change—and former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates later commented that “the Russians felt they had been played for suckers.” These and other incidents help explain why Moscow is now insisting on written guarantees.


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