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.
Escalation or Negotiation? That is the question as the Russian invasion of Ukraine grinds on. Negotiation is still the better course as I previously argued, but it requires the participation of two parties willing to compromise. Ukrainian president Zelensky has already said that he is willing to accede to Russian demands to renounce any prospect of joining NATO and potentially accept the loss of the Donbass region and Crimea. These are the concessions that Russia sought before the war, yet Putin has not recognized them and agreed to a ceasefire. Recent reports about the negotiations are encouraging, but Russia still has not apparently dropped its contemptuous condition that Ukraine effectively surrender first by ceasing resistance to the Russian invasion. Putin apparently has yet to accept the reality of his mistakes, specifically
Russian military failure in the field due to continued logistical and operational failures and successful Ukrainian resistance
The ferocity and extent of Western economic sanctions and the resulting economic damage to the Russian economy
The success of Ukrainian information operations in rousing sympathy and international support.
A recent article applying relevant international relations theory to the war discusses, among other things, the “commitment problem” gripping Putin at this point. Having convinced both himself and most Russians of the necessity of the war (see this on the “Z “ campaign) , he cannot accept less than a victory, especially since failure would endanger him personally. If this is true, the current targeting of civilians and brutality may herald an escalation that endangers NATO members such as Poland and the Baltic states. Indeed, he may intend to convert the past failures into apparent strengths, to wit,
Since Russian forces thought the invasion would be easier, they refrained from using their best weapons and most sophisticated strategy, which was designed for a full-scale war with NATO. Thus, their capability in such a war may be more formidable than it appears now.
Putin has already called the Western sanctions an economic declaration of war against Russia. He could thus use them to rally the Russian people in support of a wider war.
The regular broadcasts of shelling and civilian deaths may sow fear among other nations of confronting Russia.
How will we know which path the conflict will take? If Putin abandons his unrealistic demand for unilateral surrender and agrees to a ceasefire, then a negotiated solution may be possible. If he fails to do so, the next breakpoint will be whether the Russians make good on their threat against the outside flow of weapons into Ukraine. If they escalate by attacking the supply lines in Poland, it will trigger NATO’s Article 5 obligation to defend Poland, probably by an air strike against the source of the attack. We would then have the right to escalate by declaring a partial no-fly zone over western Ukraine purely as a defensive measure. Russia would certainly hesitate to challenge the zone since it could lead to its expansion over all of Ukraine.
The key to ending the war lies, as usual, in both sides deciding to cut their losses and accept a difficult peace. The West will have to be ready to convince the parties to accept such a result by offering to lift the more onerous financial sanctions on Russia once such an agreement is reached. Ukraine would have to give up its dream of NATO membership and sovereignty over the Donbass and Crimea. Without such an agreement, the best case scenario may become the de facto creation of an East and West Ukraine reminiscent of Cold War East and West Germany. Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain. Russia’s invasion, the successful Ukrainian resistance, and the potentially catastrophic effects of the war on the rest of the world means the United States must finally recognize and prepare for a new upsurge in nationalism-based international relations. The next post will discuss the implications for us here in the US.