We don’t write the rules anymore, and when we try, we make things worse
Ukraine has been very much on my mind. I have written little on it because I want to avoid being swept up in the emotionality of war and suffering and the fool’s gold of chest thumping patriotism.
In my view, we need to start preparing for the war to end and what should happen next. The direction policy is going now risks creating an end-game that will only increase insecurity in Europe.
Let me put that in context. I have been arguing for at least three decades that U.S. primacy in the world is fading. The signs of this relative decline have been clear for all that time: in China’s rise, in the emergence of international institutions the U.S. does not “control” — like the Shanghai Regional Cooperation Organization and even the G-20 — in the inability of the U.S. to impose its will in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Nowhere is the trend toward contradictions I wrote about last week more obvious than in the inevitable rise of other regional and global powers: China, India, Turkey, Brazil, and even Germany. Economic growth would inevitably bring new powers onto the global stage. Resentment about American moralism and its self-asserted status as an “exceptional nation,” the inevitable conflict between the American military and the peoples of other lands who did not want their nations to be “rebuilt” by the United States, all these contradictory trends have surged, especially in the last two decades.
For some commentators, the Ukraine war offers an opportunity to “restore” American power, global primacy, and leadership. NATO is “back.” The “West” is unified. The “rules-based international order” is being restored. Trump’s rejection of U.S. global leadership was a one-off, an aberration; at last, America is back.
And yet, and yet. In the rush of fervent moralizing about Russian military actions in Ukraine (and they are plenty awful), few Americans look seriously at how our failure to see that the world was changing, our blindness about our presumption of inevitable leadership, contributed to Russian, especially Putin’s, angst about security. I am not going to argue this case yet another time. John Mearsheimer has put a clear, if somewhat strident, face on that argument.
If there is truth to this claim (and I believe there is) this is a classic case of the U.S. asserting its leadership by creating a set of political realities that backfired. Rather than welcome Russia into a new framework for European security in the 1990s, the U.S. stiffed them. This action backfired because the U.S. does not run the international system, does not make the rules any more. A contradiction emerged directly from NATO expansion and the unwillingness to take Russian security concerns seriously. One does not have to like Putin or his regime to accept that Russia, like other nations, like the U.S., has serious security concerns. Recognizing this backfire will be important to working through the end-game of the Ukrainian war and helping create conditions to ensure it does not happen again.
Right now, the American position on the end of the war seems to be the same as it was with NATO expansion. The Russians only understand force, the argument goes, so it is time to expand NATO further, bulk up its military capability, lay the groundwork for a militarized confrontation with Russia going forward.
We know this war will end at some point. It might end with a Ukrainian victory, pushing the Russians out of their country, retaking the Donbas and Crimea, and teaching Putin a lesson. Hearts leap in NATO breasts at this prospect. I consider it unrealistic; Russia is likely to stay in the Donbas.
It might end with a Russian victory, taking Kyiv, throwing Zelinsky out, absorbing much of the country into Russia. Military events and the clear Ukrainian dedication to defending their country says this is unlikely, too.
So we will be left with option three when the shooting stops — a stalemate. Russia holding Crimea and Mariupol, as well as much of the eastern Donbas region. It’s the same situation we were in before the shooting started — half the country occupied, Russia prepared to make more trouble, the U.S. and NATO funneling more arms to Kyiv, and even more fervent dedication to arming up at the borders. Not a recipe for long-term regional stability.
This is the point at which the rules need to change; where the U.S. needs to recognize the need for new rules, new solutions if the region is to have a stable security regime. Right back to where we were in the 1990s when we decided to stiff the Russians and fold the former Warsaw Pact countries into NATO. But under worse conditions — no Yeltsin who wants to talk to the U.S. and NATO, a bruised, paranoid, and shamed Russia, no agreements that limit conventional weapons in central Europe, no forum to discuss these issues. Armed up following the prescription Polish Prime Minister Andrzej Duda offered recently: “Only brutal strength, brutal power, is able to stop Russia.”
Will we make the same mistake twice, with even more disastrous consequences?
The issue is European security, as it was in the 1990s. But, of course, talking about a framework for Europe-wide security, means the rules have to change. The insecurities of all European countries need to be taken into account. This means thinking outside the box the U.S. and NATO built so intentionally 25 years ago. Only a Europe-wide arrangement will ensure that all of the countries feel genuinely secure.
This means taking the age-old Russian insecurity about its borders into account, something we did not do in the 1990s. The NATO countries need to be inside the Russian head to understand that what looks like non-threatening alliance activity to us looks like a military threat to them. We may not believe NATO looks threatening; it doesn’t matter. The Russians do, and Putin has successfully milked that sentiment to his advantage.
Here are a few elements worth cogitating on, as opposed to arming both sides to the teeth in preparation for the next confrontation. It is important that any such discussion recognize that the national interests of all the countries need to be understood and taken into account.
The security of all will require a new framework for conventional military forces in Europe. This could build on the framework provided by the now-discarded Conventional Armed Forces in Europe treaty, with new targets limiting conventional forces, especially in border zones.
There would need to be a new agreement on intermediate-range nuclear weapons, restricting Russian deployments within range of its neighbors and possibly including a U.S. pledge to withdraw its tactical nuclear weapons from Europe, something the Russians have sought.
There would need to be new confidence-building measures — inspections, observers, notifications of military deployments and exercises, and information exchanges.
There could be a dispute-resolution process for contested areas like the Donbas, Transnistria, even Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Most important, the Europe-wide security arrangement would need a new institution. This means really thinking outside the box. It could be a major renegotiation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which might replace the NATO alliance. I can hear boots quivering now; give up our precious NATO? It’s an option we should have thought through more seriously in the 1990s.
We are in a different world now. The U.S. does not write the rules and when it tries, it creates inevitable resistance. We can cruise along, rollicking down the road of the past, with limited success, creating blowback, or we can start inventing. Not just the U.S., but all the European countries.
It would not be easy; no real substantive change in global politics has ever been easy. And the conditions are less receptive than they were, given the last 20 years. But the world has changed and trying to piggy-back a reversal of this trend on the Ukrainian war is likely to send us down the increasingly self-defeating course we have been on for two decades, with no gains in global security.
The Ukraine war could provide us with an opportunity to rethink the approach to security in Europe. I am not optimistic that it will, given the emotional hand-waving about Russian behavior. The alternative, however, does not promise greater security in the long run.
This article was republished with permission from Sheathed Sword.