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.
Anatol Lieven is Director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He was formerly a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and in the War Studies Department of King’s College London.
Left-to-right: Senator-elect Ted Budd (R-N.C.); Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Minority Leader; Senator-elect Katie Britt (R-AL); and Senator-elect J.D. Vance (R-OH) pose for a photo before meeting in Leader McConnell’s office, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, November 15, 2022. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)
The so-called GOP “civil war” over the role the United States should play in the world made headlines earlier this week when the Senate finally passed a national security supplemental that provides $60 billion in aid for Ukraine and $14 billion for Israel.
The legislation, which was supported by President Joe Biden and the overwhelming majority of the Senate’s Democratic caucus, proved more controversial among Republicans. Twenty-two GOP Senators voted in favor of the legislation, while 27 opposed it.
An analysis of the votes shows an interesting generational divide within the Republican caucus.
Each of the five oldest Republicans in the Senate — and nine of the ten oldest — voted in favor of the supplemental spending package. Conversely, the six youngest senators, and 12 of the 14 youngest, opposed it.
Equally striking was the breakdown of votes among Republicans based on when they assumed their current office. Of the 49 sitting GOP Senators, 30 were elected before Donald Trump first became the party’s presidential candidate in 2016. Eighteen of those 30 supported the aid legislation. Of the members who came to office in 2017 or later, only four voted to advance the bill, while 15 voted against.
The difference in votes among those elected since 2016 is likely partly attributable to Trump’s unconventional approach to foreign policy. The Republican party establishment during the Cold War and Global War on Terror is often associated with hawkishness, including towards Russia. While the party has always carried some skepticism toward foreign aid, some of the most significant spending increases have taken place during the presidencies of Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Trump, however, won in 2016 in part for his open disdain for mission creep after the GWOT, what he called the failed war in Iraq, and foreign aid he believed made countries dependents rather than reciprocal partners and allies.
“[Trump] certainly created the cognitive space,” Brandan Buck, a U.S. Army veteran and historian of GOP foreign policy, tells RS. “He's more of an intuitive thinker than a person of principle, but I think him being on the scene, prying open the Overton window has allowed for a greater array of dissenting voices.”
Others have argued that the trends are perhaps also indicative of the loyalty that Republicans who assumed their offices during the Trump presidency feel toward him. Trump spoke out forcefully against the legislation in advance of the vote.
“WE SHOULD NEVER GIVE MONEY ANYMORE WITHOUT THE HOPE OF A PAYBACK, OR WITHOUT “STRINGS” ATTACHED. THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA SHOULD BE “STUPID” NO LONGER!,” the former president wrote on the social media platform Truth Social the weekend before the vote.
The vote cannot only be explained by ideology, as some typically hawkish allies of Trump, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) ultimately voted against the package. Graham is a staunch supporter of Israel, has voted for previous Ukraine aid packages, and in the past called aid for Ukraine “a good investment” and “the best money we’ve ever spent.” By the time the vote on the most recent spending package came around, Graham was lamenting the lack of border security provisions and echoing Trump’s argument that aid to Ukraine should be a “loan.”
Meanwhile, Senators took note of the generational gap, and the debate spilled over into the public. .
“Nearly every Republican Senator under the age of 55 voted NO on this America Last bill,” wrote Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), 48, on the social media platform X. “Things are changing just not fast enough.” Schmitt was elected in 2022.
“Youthful naivety is bliss, the wisdom of age may save the west,” retorted Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) “Reagan may be dead, but his doctrine saved the world during less dangerous times than these. If the modern Marx (Putin for the youngsters) restores the USSR while we pretend it’s not our problem, God help us.” Cramer, 63, was sworn in in 2019, making him one of the handful of recently elected senators to support the aid legislation.
“I like Kevin, but come on, man, have some self-awareness,” Sen. J.D. Vance fired back. “This moment calls out for many things, but boomer neoconservatism is not among them.”
Vance, who at 39 is the youngest Republican member of the Senate, noted in his post that “the fruits of this generation in American leadership is: quagmire in Afghanistan, war in Iraq under false pretenses.” He said younger Americans were disillusioned with that track record.
Buck, who served several tours in the Afghanistan war, and whose research includes generational trends in U.S. foreign policy thinking, pointed out that there is strong historical precedent for believing that age and generation affect how members of Congress view America’s role in the world.
“It's certainly not unusual for there to be generational trends in foreign policy thinking, especially within the Republican Party,” Buck told RS. Following the end of World War II, he said, it took “a full churning” of the conservative movement to replace old-school non-interventionist Republicans and to get the party in line with the Cold War consensus. “I think what we're seeing now is something similar but in reverse with a generation of conservatives.”
He added that the failures of the War on Terror resulted in a deep skepticism of the national security state and the Republican party establishment. Opinion polling and trends show that the American public that grew up either during or in the shadow of the disastrous military campaigns in the Greater Middle East is generally opposed to military intervention and more questioning of American institutions.
“All the energy on FP [foreign policy] in the GOP right now is with the younger generation that wants fundamental transformation of USFP [U.S. foreign policy],” noted Justin Logan, director of defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, on X. “The self-satisfied, insular neocons who loathe their voters’ FP views are a dying breed.”
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Volodymyr Zelensky speaks at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 17, 2024. (David Hecker/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY — If U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris dominated the first day of the Munich Security Conference with her remarks, today it was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s turn.
It was not only Zelensky who understandably devoted his whole speech to the Ukraine War but also Scholz, too. The German Chancellor, while boasting that his country will devote 2% of its GDP to defense expenditures this year, remarked that “we Europeans need to do much more for our security now and in the future.”
In a brief but clear reference to Trump’s recent statements on NATO, Scholz said, "any relativization of NATO’s mutual defense guarantee will only benefit those who, just like Putin, want to weaken us.” On the guns and butter debate, which is particularly relevant in Germany due to negligible economic growth, Scholz acknowledged that critical voices are saying, “should not we be using the money for other things?” But he chose not to engage in this debate, noting instead that “Moscow is fanning the flames of such doubts with targeted disinformation campaigns and with propaganda on social media.”
The Russian capture of the city represents the most significant defeat for Ukraine since the failure of its counter-offensive last year. On the loss of Avdiivka, Zelensky said that Ukraine had lost one soldier for every seven soldiers who have died on the Russian side. This, however, is difficult to reconcile with the reports about the rushed Ukrainian retreat, with a Ukrainian soldier explaining that “the road to Avdiivka is littered with our corpses.”
Throughout his speech, Zelensky repeatedly referred to the importance of defending what he called the “rules-based world order” by defeating Russia. If there was one take-away that Zelensky wanted impressed on this audience: “Please do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself why is Putin still able to continue it.”
He also seemed to suggest that it was not a lack of available weapons and artillery but a willingness to give them over to Ukraine. “Dear friends, unfortunately keeping Ukraine in the artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in deficit of artillery and long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war,” Zelenskyy said. “The self-weakening of democracy over time undermines our joint results.”
The future of NATO was one of the main topics of the day. European leaders were in agreement that Europe needs to spend more on defense, and occasionally appeared to compete with each other on who has spent the most on weapons delivered to Ukraine or in their national defense budgets.
With NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in attendance, one of the panels featured two of the most talked-about names to replace the Norwegian politician in the 75th-anniversary summit in Washington in July: EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. According to a report by the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, President Joseph Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken favor the German leader, but in Paris, London, and Berlin, the Dutch politician is preferred.
The participation of the Netherlands in the initial U.S.-UK joint strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen on Jan. 11 was read in some quarters as a sign of Rutte’s ambitions. The Netherlands was the only EU country to join these initial attacks.
A G7 meeting of foreign ministers also took place Saturday on the sidelines of the conference. In a press briefing that followed, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani — who currently presides the G7 — reiterated the group’s support for Ukraine. The current situation in the Red Sea, as is often the case in the West, was presented by Tajani as a topic divorced from the Gaza Strip. The Houthis started their campaign against ships in the Red Sea after the beginning of the war in Gaza, claiming they want to force an end to the conflict.
There is no certainty that the end of the war in Gaza would put an end to Houthi attacks, but presenting the situation in the Red Sea as being nothing but a threat to freedom of trade is considered by experts to be a a myopic approach.
Nevertheless, Italy will be in command of the new EU naval mission ASPIDES, to be deployed soon in the Red Sea. The mission is expected to be approved by the next meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers on Monday. When asked whether he could ensure that ASPIDES would remain a defensive mission, the Italian Foreign Minister said ASPIDES aims at defending merchant ships and that if drones or missiles are launched, they will be shot down, but no attacks will be conducted.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing and is being updated.
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Vice President Kamala Harris at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 16, 2024. (Lukas Barth-Tuttas/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY – The 60th year of the Munich Security Conference opened today with much of the early energy surrounding remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The vice president noted that it was nearly two years since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She said that when Putin unleashed his troops along different fronts in February 2022, “many thought Kyiv would fall within a day.” It is also true, as she pointed out, that “Ukraine has regained more than half the territory Russia occupied at the start of the conflict.” (Russia held about 7% before the invasion, 27% right after, and about 18% today.)
However, by choosing the first months of the war as the starting point of her speech, Harris sought to avoid the obvious. Namely, that in the year that has gone by since her last visit to Munich, the Ukrainian army has been losing ground. Yet, her remarks regarding Ukraine today did not differ much from her speech in 2023.
Harris seemed dedicated to keeping to the administration’s recent script, which is warning against heralding in a new era of “isolationism,” referring to President Biden's likely presidential election opponent, Donald Trump.
As president Biden and I have made clear over the past three years, we are committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.
As I travel throughout my country and the world, it is clear to me: this approach makes America strong. And it keeps Americans safe.
Interestingly, the U.S. has been accused of thwarting "international rules and norms" in its unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed upwards of 29,000 Palestinians, mostly of them civilians, since Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and hostage-taking. Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, asked Harris whether a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was achievable. Harris answered that “the short answer is yes… but we must then put the discussion in context, starting with October 7.” Not 1948, not 1967, but October 7, 2023.
Her prepared remarks on the situation were very brief, overall, saying:
In the Middle East, we are working to end the conflict that Hamas triggered on October 7th as soon as possible and ensure it ends in a way where Israel is secure, hostages are released, the humanitarian crisis is resolved, Hamas does not control Gaza, and Palestinians can enjoy their right to security, dignity, freedom, and self-determination.
This work — while we also work to counter aggression from Iran and its proxies, prevent regional escalation, and promote regional integration.
October 7 was the topic of a conference side event hosted by Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for Hostages and Missing. In his opening speech, he called for a Global War on Kidnapping inspired by George Bush’s War on Terror. Hirsch was short on the specifics, and Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz did not develop the concept further when he followed Hirsch at the podium. During the event, several hostages released during the short ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2023 described their harrowing experiences in captivity. Relatives of the remaining hostages accompanied them.
Meanwhile, in a morning event, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed how to increase defense spending in a time of economic stagnation. Mitsotakis, whose country has always spent significantly more than the expected 2% of the GDP required by NATO, stated that defense policy cannot be done on a budget. Lindner, meanwhile, remarked that Germany is on the way to spending 2% of its GDP on defense. Economic prosperity, the German Liberal minister noted, should avoid tradeoffs between social and defense policies. This is certainly a difficult equation to square since the German government just announced it was reviewing its forecast for GDP growth in 2024 from 1.3% down to 0.2%.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing.