Foreign Policy

Ukraine – The War within American Foreign Policy

Source: Adobe Stock

Joe Biden arrived in Washington promising a plethora of conflicting foreign policy goals. Much was made of a new “foreign policy for the middle class”, which appeared to be a rejection of the old liberal hegemonic model of his predecessors Bush and Obama. Yet Biden also claimed “America is back” to being an international leader throughout the world.  Climate change also was supposedly a driver, as well as the old Obama Administration “pivot toward Asia”.   These priorities have now been eclipsed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Administration’s stated goal of weakening Russia. If Ukraine and Europe remain the top priority, this new priority will prevent any real progress on any other foreign policy goals.

The administration’s focus on defeating Russia in Ukraine conflicts with the rest of the world’s more pressing priority of ending the war as soon as possible.  For developing nations, the war is causing a hunger crisis that threatens their people’s lives and national stability. Russia and Ukraine supply 28% of the world’s wheat exports, 29% of barley and 15% of maize.  They are also leading exporters of potash and fertilizer, which allows other nations to grow their own food. Ukraine itself provides the calories necessary to feed 400 million people (see the recent leader in The Economist magazine “The Coming Food Catastrophe”). In response, India and other nations are embargoing the export of domestically grown wheat and other foodstuffs in a move reminiscent of protectionist measures taken during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Moreover, the call to uphold the international rule of order rings hollow with nations that experienced invasion and conquest by western nations in the past.  Whether it is China, India or other countries, they remember their colonial past and do not believe that they should sacrifice trade and other relations with Russia for a far-away conflict.  As I mentioned in this previous post, their past has made them the ultimate realists dedicated to preserving and building their own sovereignty against more direct threats. 

President Biden’s Russia-Ukraine myopia also weakens the effort to respond to more direct challenges. Japan, India, Indonesia and Southeast Asia nations are more concerned about the threat from China than Russia. They are undoubtedly wondering if the vaunted pivot to Asia has now turned 180 degrees towards Europe.  Latin America also needs our attention and is equally unconcerned about Ukraine. Indeed, Russia has threatened another Cuban missile crisis by proposing to station military assets with fellow anti-American authoritarian regimes in Cuba and Venezuela.  A policy centered on Ukraine may thus result in a direct strategic threat to the American homeland.

Washington’s obsession about Ukraine thus endangers its ability to achieve other critical foreign policy objectives. It makes it more difficult to recruit developing countries to fight climate change and protect America from real national security threats. Something will have to give. At this point, the climate change agenda is most at risk.  The only other way to accomplish all of these objectives is to paper them over with billions of American budgetary dollars.  Russia’s invasion highlights the need for increased domestic commitment on the American home front, but a spending spree of that scale currently lacks any real American public support and could endanger our own economic goals. If the Administration wants to take that road, it must prepare the American people to make significant sacrifices in taxes, spending and domestic policy.  The choices this may entail will be the subject of the next article in this series.  

Foreign Policy

Ukraine – The Future of European Security

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No sensible man will advocate our plunging rashly into a course of international knight errantry;…But neither will any brave and patriotic man bid us shrink from doing our duty merely because this duty involves the certainty of strenuous effort and the possibility of danger.

Theodore Roosevelt, America Part of the World’s Work, February, 1899

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a pivotal moment in modern European history.  The feared Russian military juggernaut that spawned one of the most successful military alliances in history has now been proven to be a shadow of the threat it was supposed to be. Moreover, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s recent comments about using the war to further weaken Russia means it will continue to bleed arms and men in a long war of attrition, absent escalation of the war by the use of WMD. The shock of the invasion has also prompted Western Europeans to finally start to step up in the defense of their continent (see this video about the impact on Germany). The US should harness their new-found resolve to end its unconditional commitment to the defense of Europe and to transition NATO to a European-only alliance.   

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) began as a stopgap measure to protect a socially and economically prostrate post-WWII Europe from the very real threat of a Stalinist Soviet Union.  Today, Western Europe has an economy that is 10 times the size of Russia’s and a larger military (for more background, see the analysis by Prof. Stephen Walt in this article).  Britain and France are also nuclear powers and are capable of expanding their strategic capability to adequately deter a Russian nuclear threat. The likely addition of Sweden and Finland to the alliance will add Swedish armaments and Finland’s experience to the alliance.  It also extends the NATO ‘s borders with Russia and forces it to dilute its force strength along that border.

In contrast, Russia’s failures in Ukraine shows its military currently lacks the capability of mounting a complex operation on a broad front.  It will take years for the Russians to learn the lessons of these failures and it is not clear that their sclerotic political system can do so.  Thus, the only likely real threat to Western Europe in the next five years would occur on a much narrower front such as the Baltic states, which could be defended by the current European membership plus the new Scandinavian members.

In fact, Europeans already have such an alliance in the European Union.  The Treaty of Maastricht creating the EU has a counterpart to the Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which requires members to treat an attack on one member as an attack on all. Specifically, Article 42.7 of the Maastricht Treaty says

If a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with article 51 of the United Nations charter”.

Thus, the real purpose of NATO is to commit American troops and potentially our own homeland to the risk of defending Europeans.

This commitment dilutes our ability to respond to more direct and immediate threats. First, we have serious domestic social and economic needs that demand our time and attention here at home. Moreover, as both a Pacific and an Atlantic power, the United States has crucial geopolitical interests in Asia as well as in Europe.  No institutional equivalent of NATO exists in Asia to counter the challenge of China and North Korea. Those security threats will have to be managed with an active diplomacy involving the Pacific Rim nations and India.  Finally, we must address threats in our own hemisphere where China is seeking influence and immigration from failed states in Latin America is threatening American opportunity here at home. 

It will take at least five years for Europe to build its defense capability to the point where it can defeat a Russian attack even on a narrow front.  The U.S. should increase the number of troops in Europe to prevent Russian intimidation during that transition.  At the same time, we should announce our intention to end our Article 5 defense commitment as part of a restructuring of NATO.   After the five-year transition, American troops should be withdrawn from Europe and reassigned to other potential threats.

While Theodore Roosevelt called America to fulfill its duties at home and abroad, his caution against engaging in “knight-errantry” calls us to stay focused on the proper priorities and live within our national means. The US formed NATO to meet a critical post – war duty, but it is now fulfilled and it is time to should move on to address new duties and challenges.  

Foreign Policy

Ukraine – The Weeks to Come

Russia’s announced strategy of re-orienting its Ukraine invasion to “liberating“ the Donbas region and its withdrawal from Kyiv appears on the surface  to be a humiliating climb down from the original goal of “denazifying” the entire country. The horrifying war crimes disclosed as they withdraw will stiffen Ukrainian’s fight against the brutal invasion. Ukraine has shown throughout this war the kind of iron will and mettle that Theodore Roosevelt admired and embodied. At the same time, negotiations continue between the two sides.  We are now at a transition in the conflict that poses serious questions for all concerned, including the United States.

First, Vladimir Putin’s past and his apparent obsession about Ukraine suggests that he is more likely to escalate than accept a defeat.  Thus, the “re-positioning” of Russian forces may be a crafty way of escalating the conflict by prolonging it to a point where it is unsustainable for both Ukraine and the west. The continued shelling of cities may mean that Putin plans to hold on to current territory, expand in the Donbas and then hunker down to avoid combat casualties while bombarding the country often enough to prevent any reconstruction effort. In addition to prolonging Ukrainian suffering, this strategy holds the world economy hostage by preventing wheat planting and production of fertilizer and minerals such as nickel, an important element for electric batteries.  The bet is that the West and the rest of the world cannot maintain the level of economic sanctions and/ or he can find ways to evade them.

More ominously, there is an important national Russian holiday that may force Putin to engage in a more dramatic escalation. Russians celebrate their victory in World War II (or as they call it, the Great Patriotic War)  on May 9.  A  defeat in Ukraine, or just the absence of a clear victory, by that day could spell the end of Vladimir Putin’s rule.  If Putin believes he may not at least achieve control of the Donbas by that holiday, the risk of escalation grows, which includes the use of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

Theodore Roosevelt’s famous maxim “speak softly and carry a big stick” summarizes the best strategy for preventing such a disastrous scenario. Since the primary purpose of sanctions on Russia should be to force a lasting end to the war, NATO should be telegraphing to Russia via diplomatic back channels that the more onerous sanctions would be lifted if it reaches a peace treaty with Ukraine that both legally and practically accepts its sovereignty and independence. This would not prevent the U.S. and other Western nations from continuing some sanctions in light of Russian atrocities. At the same time, the West should both continue their military aid and broaden the type of aid to include offensive as well as defensive weapons. NATO can also telegraph the potential costs of an escalation to WMDs by discussing in public the potential deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to Eastern Europe.  Indeed, a Polish leader’s recent statement that it would “be open” to hosting tactical nukes already presents that possibility to the Kremlin.

The next few weeks could determine the future of not only of Ukraine, but also American foreign and defense policy for years to come. One of the most important elements of that strategy is the extent to which Europeans will step up to be the world power they claim to be. They have both the economic and structural tools to assume the responsibility of defending Europe and potentially Ukraine as well. My next post (if events allow) will detail why and how they could meet that responsibility.