The Duck of Minerva

Reporters and Foreign Affairs Analysis: Ukraine Edition

2 March 2014

This is a guest post by former Duck of Minerva blogger Dan Nexon. It is cross-posted at his personal blog, Hylaean Flow.

One of the ongoing rationales for The Monkey Cage is that journalists do a poor job of covering US electoral politics. They focus on personality and style. They downplay the role of fundamentals, such as economic forces and the nature of the electoral system. The same is too often true in foreign-affairs reporting. Consider a recent piece by multi-award-winning reporter, Scott Wilson: “Ukraine crisis tests Obama’s foreign policy focus on diplomacy over military force.”

What is Wilson’s argument? A sample:

Now Ukraine has emerged as a test of Obama’s argument that, far from weakening American power, he has enhanced it through smarter diplomacy, stronger alliances and a realism untainted by the ideology that guided his predecessor….

“If you are effectively taking the stick option off the table, then what are you left with?” said Andrew C. Kuchins, who heads the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I don’t think that Obama and his people really understand how others in the world are viewing his policies.”

And another:

The signal Obama has sent — popular among his domestic political base, unsettling at times to U.S. allies — has been one of deep reluctance to use the heavily burdened American military, even when doing so would meet the criteria he has laid out. He did so most notably in the aftermath of the U.S.-led intervention in Libya nearly three years ago.

But Obama’s rejection of U.S. military involvement in Syria’s civil war, in which 140,000 people have died since he first called on President Bashar al-Assad to step down, is the leading example of his second term. So, too, is the Pentagon budget proposal outlined this past week that would cut the size of the army to pre-2001 levels.

Let’s consider a bit of history.

  • In April of 2008, President George W. Bush pushed hard for a Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Georgia and Ukraine at the Bucharest NATO summit. Germany and France balked, for both self-interested and prescient reasons.
  • In August of 2008, Russia baited Georgia into invading South Ossetia. At the key principals meeting in Washington, no one was willing to risk war with Russia over Georgia.
  • In 2009, Yanukovich and his Party of Regions wrested power from the unruly and ineffectual Orange coalition that had ousted him in 2004. Yanukovich adopted a pro-Russian tilt. Although he was more than happy to leverage Moscow against Brussels, under no circumstances was he going to make a serious push to bring Ukraine into NATO.
  • While Georgia is a small country on the Russian Federation’s periphery; Ukraine is a large country of significant affective and geo-strategic significance to Russia.

See the problem? There’s no obvious counterfactual set of Obama policies that would better position the United States to handle Russia’s gambit in Ukraine.

The Bush Administration launched two major invasions and occupations. Its relations with the Kremlin were even worse than those between Washington and Moscow during some periods of the Cold War. Moscow concluded that it could get away with invading Georgia.

The Obama Administration normalized relations with Russia, bombed Libya–but not Syria. Moscow concluded that it can get away with invading Ukraine.

In other words, this does not seem to be a very good test of variation in US foreign-policy principles across recent administrations. Indeed, this lack of any correlation between American ‘resolve’ and Russian aggression is, in fact, pretty consistent with the evidence from international-relations scholarship. That evidence suggests that a government’s display of resolve in one setting has, at best, a rather attenuated relationship with later estimates of its willingness to use force.

Wilson also focuses on Obama’s preference for “American Values” over geopolitical calculation:

But Putin’s quick move to a war footing suggests a different view — one in which, particularly in Russia’s back yard, the Cold War rivalry Putin was raised on is thriving.

The Russian president has made restoring his country’s international prestige the overarching goal of his foreign policy, and he has embraced military force as the means to do so.

As Russia’s prime minister in the late summer of 2008, he was considered the chief proponent of Russia’s military advance into Georgia, another former Soviet republic with a segment of the population nostalgic for Russian rule.

Obama, by contrast, made clear that a new emphasis on American values, after what were perceived as the excesses of the George W. Bush administration, would be his approach to rehabilitating U.S. stature overseas.

Obama took office with a different Russian as president, Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s choice to succeed him in 2008.

Medvedev, like Obama, was a lawyer by training, and also like Obama he did not believe the Cold War rivalry between the two countries should define today’s relationship.

Those two outlooks have clashed repeatedly — in big and small ways — over the years.

The Obama administration began the “reset” with Russia — a policy that, in essence, sought to emphasize areas such as nuclear nonproliferation, counterterrorism, trade and Iran’s nuclear program as shared interests worth cooperation.

But despite some successes, including a new arms-control treaty, the reset never quite reduced the rivalry. When Putin returned to office in 2012, so, too, did an outlook fundamentally at odds with Obama’s.

Yes. That’s right. Wilson did, in fact, argue that Medvedev’s Presidency marked a period in which Putin wasn’t running Russian foreign policy. I know that this is hard to overlook. But just try for a moment. Because there’s something else worth talking about here.

Wilson’s correct about the mismatch between Washington’s vision of the world and Moscow’s embrace of nineteenth-century power-political logic. But the same was true under Bush and Clinton. All three administrations have had difficulty looking past their own commitment to liberal order and their faith in US benevolence to appreciate how their actions interfaced with Russia’s strategic ambitions. Whether or not it translated into policy, many of those involved in Russian policy during the Obama Administration have been acutely aware of this problem.

At the same time, it isn’t clear that adopting a more “realist” posture points in the direction Wilson thinks it does. After all, the baseline realpolitik approach would be to let Russia have its sphere of influence in Ukraine and the South Caucuses. Wilson, on the other hand, seems to think the test here is whether the Obama Administration is insufficiently aggressive when it comes to liberal-democratic enlargement and a commitment to aggressive hegemonism.