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US non-intervention in Nagorno Karabakh was the one thing it got right

But for many in Washington, the idea of ‘doing nothing’ about some far-off conflict or regional issue is heresy.

The latest war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in Nagorno Karabakh — waged in 2020 and brought to an end by a ceasefire and new territorial division brokered and enforced by Russia — is replete with lessons for U.S. foreign and security policy. The most important of all is the one expressed to me by a Chinese official (in a different context) many years ago: “If you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything.”

This is advice that the U.S. foreign policy establishment finds very hard to accept. The notion that the United States has a universal right of influence and intervention irrespective of circumstance, and that U.S. “credibility” (Washington-speak for “prestige”) depends on this, is deeply embedded in that establishment’s collective bipartisan dogma.

It’s also seemingly impossible for the U.S. establishment to accept an extension of that wise Chinese advice: “If you don’t know what to do, don’t say anything (or write anything).” The idea that in many situations, the West has nothing useful to say, and that many “experts” would do better to spend more time with their families or engaging in harmless hobbies is a heresy so frightful that it cannot be allowed to approach their minds. By talking constantly about American (and European) “responsibility” for places and issues in which their countries and publics in fact have very little interest, these pundits create an unnecessary sense of humiliation when the West does not in fact take responsibility for them.

In the echo-chamber of Western think tanks, these illusions are often encouraged by people from the regions themselves, recipients of (for them) lavish Western grants and fellowships who know very well what their Western donors do and do not want to hear. In the case of Nagorno Karabakh and Armenian security, on occasions over the years I was approached by young Armenians on NATO or European Union fellowships seeking quotes from me that would confirm their argument that Armenia should abandon its security alliance with Russia and rely instead on the West to defend Armenia and bring about a (naturally) pro-Armenian settlement in Nagorno Karabakh.

When I pointed out the extreme unlikelihood of the West ever sending troops to defend Armenia or Nagorno Karabakh, they could only sigh in agreement. Yet their Western donors continued to plug this line and pay Armenians to support it. The idea that the West would send troops to defend Armenia also never made any headway with Armenian governments, which have had a grimly realistic sense of their geographical and geopolitical position, burned into the collective Armenian consciousness by the horrors of the first quarter of the 20th century and the rigours of the war of 1991-95.

Such words are idle; but they are also often poisonous. The poison comes from the combination of bitter U.S. partisan politics (the principle that “politics stops at the water’s edge” was buried long ago) with the obsession with U.S. universal primacy, and with hostility to rivals who might threaten this primacy. In the case of U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, attempts at a sensible discussion of U.S. interests, goals, and capabilities there have had to struggle to be heard in the teeth of a howling storm of partisan opportunism and personal and institutional buck-passing. In Afghanistan, as on a smaller scale in Nagorno Karabakh, U.S. withdrawal or failure to intervene has become grounds for accusations of weakness, apathy, and failure to lead on the part of the present administration — or the last administration — or anyone else.

The craziest claim of all has been the suggestion that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and failure to intervene in Nagorno Karabakh has given some kind of free geopolitical present to Russia and/or China. This is a demonstration of U.S. establishment addiction to the kind of “zero-sum” thinking that it alleges is characteristic of other states. The reality is that being mired militarily in Afghanistan is the sort of “present” you might want to give to your worst enemy; and if Afghanistan could serve as the indigestible main course, Nagorno-Karabakh could be thrown in as a particularly poisonous pudding.

What’s less dangerous but even sillier than advocating for U.S. military intervention has often been the suggestion that louder and more insistent U.S. diplomacy can get local actors to abandon their most deeply-held principles and goals, when the United States has neither the force nor the incentives to get them to do so. Thus Ian Kelly, former U.S. ambassador to Georgia and negotiator on Nagorno-Karabakh, recently wrote:

“[T]he reluctance of the White House and the Élysée to be engaged in the mediation process. Prior to the eruption of the most recent conflict, diplomats from the U.S. and France had tried for years to involve their own leaders in getting the presidents of the two conflicting sides to make peace, yet successive American and French administrations have declined to do so. Both President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump were unwilling to commit to the kind of back-and-forth and head-knocking cajoling needed to reach agreement.”

This belief that local actors are essentially irresponsible children who can be “cajoled” into surrender was characteristic of the spirit in which Richard Holbrooke and his admirers approached negotiations with the Taliban — with results (or lack of them) that are now obvious.

Nationalism, history and geography combined to make Nagorno Karabakh an intractable issue even by the melancholy standard of worldwide ethnic conflicts over territory. The United States and the West had no “solution” to this conflict. For more than 25 years they tried intermittently to reach one through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Minsk Group — and failed every time.

Nor did Russia have any more success over the years in bringing Armenia and Azerbaijan to a compromise. The difference between Russia and the West however was that there was never any realistic chance of U.S. (let alone NATO) military intervention. Quite apart from the West’s commitments elsewhere and Western publics’ aversion to any more military interventions, such an intervention would have met with the hostility from all three major regional powers Russia, Iran, and Turkey. In military terms, this would have been an appallingly risky endeavor. Russia by contrast had troops on the ground in Armenia, could back them up from Russia itself, and has good working relations with both Iran and Turkey.

Moreover, the situation on the ground in Nagorno Karabakh meant that any conflict would begin with an attack by Azerbaijan. Once the Azeris began to gain ground, any outside military intervention had only two options: to allow them to reconquer certain territories (above all Armenian-occupied Azeri territories outside Nagorno-Karabakh itself) and then impose a ceasefire and new territorial division; or to counter-attack, defeat the Azerbaijani army and reconquer the whole territory for Armenia. The first option for the United States would have been ruled out by outraged pressure from the Armenian domestic lobby in the United States. The second would have involved America in a war against Azerbaijan and possibly Azerbaijan’s backer Turkey, in a de facto American alliance with Armenia, Russia, and — Iran!

This hypothetical situation resembles the amazing tangle in which the United States became entwined in Syria (and only escaped infinitely worse entanglement thanks to the wisdom of Barack Obama): fighting against the Islamic State, while at the same time supplying arms to Islamist groups that were allies of the Islamic State, and bitterly opposing the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian backers, which were the only really effective barrier against the Islamic State.

The cases of Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh illustrate a wider point about U.S. policy in various parts of the world: that if for whatever reasons the United States has decided to withdraw from a conflict, or not to intervene in the first place, then it should not only accept but also support interventions and initiatives by regional states, where (as in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh) these have a rational basis, have sufficient regional and local support, and do not threaten the United States. Not to do so is both pointless and unethical. It involves the United States playing the role not of an international security provider but a “spoiler” — a crime of which U.S. officials constantly accuse Russia and Iran.

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