The Duck of Minerva

Ukraine, Progressive Internationalism, and the Restraint Coalition

13 May 2022

Back in September of 2021, I participated in a roundtable called “Turning Restraint Into Reality: Connecting Grand Strategy to Policy Change.” I started, but never finished, a piece about it. Given intervening developments, I decided to revisit and update post.

As I wrote at the time, my relationship to the restraint community is… complicated. I agree that the United States needs to reduce its reliance on military tools of statecraft. I agree that it should set for itself an extremely high threshold for the use of force. But I’m also not a fan of many of many restraint-flavored grand strategies, such as offshore balancing. I’m convinced that overseas deployments in Europe and Asia are a net positive for American interests; I don’t embrace Emma Ashford’s proposal for a “compromise” among restrainers on the matter of NATO, which entails “drawing down U.S. troop levels over” the next “decade” in Europe with the aim of de facto or de jure leaving the alliance.

Restrainers need to be very careful about assuming that if A caused B, reversing A will reverse B

In general, I’m uncomfortable with suggestions that progressives should deemphasize policy goals for the sake of holding together some kind of broad “restraint coalition.”

Defense cuts aren’t intrinsically valuable; I don’t see the point of burning political capital to decrease defense spending if all that does is enable further tax cuts for wealthy Americans. There’s also nothing inherently virtuous about reducing the U.S. military footprint in a country or region; progressives should judge such proposals in terms of whether they achieve substantive goals, like net reductions in imperialism and the risk of wars.

In other words, restraint should be a means for progressives, not an ends.

I was too exhausted to know how my presentation at the roundtable went. I can say that the other panelists gave me a lot of think about.

Here are the takeaways that I originally wrote down:

  • Rachel Odell provided a very useful overview of the range of restraint positions on Taiwan, and I’d like to see more of this. There are a lot of reasons for advocates of restraint to emphasize common purpose, but at some point it becomes counterproductive. Among other things, it makes it easier to criticize them for lacking concrete policy recommendations or to claim that they’re all just a bunch of isolationists.
  • Advocates of restraint in general — and realist ones in particular — make better arguments when they accept that “regime survival” rather than “state survival” typically drives foreign policy. This is certainly the case with Russia; focusing on standard realist conceptions of state interests often leads restrainers to overestimate the degree that problems in US-Russian relations are rooted in traditional security-dilemma dynamics. Drawing down the U.S. presence in Europe won’t make a broad array of non-military U.S. policies – including anti-corruption measures – less of a threat to Russia’s governing regime. It won’t address the ways in which the European Union poses a challenge to Moscow.
  • Restrainers need to be very careful about assuming that if A caused B, reversing A will reverse B. It’s not at all clear that major cuts in the defense budget, or a U.S. drawdown from Europe and the Middle East, will reduce the scope of the national-security state or make the US less militarist. If Washington is ready and willing to reduce militarism, then it could probably do so without, for example, moving military assets currently in Europe offshore.

That’s as far as I got.

What do I make of this now?

Ukraine and the U.S. commitment to Europe

First, as far as I’m concerned, the evolution of the Ukraine crisis – from its origins in negotiations over an EU-Ukraine association agreement, to Putin’s gross miscalculation in ordering a full-scale invasion of the country, to the dynamics that will likely to determine when and how the war eventually ends – underscores the importance of focusing on regimes rather than states.

It’s hard to look at variation in Russian behavior toward Ukraine – especially in the context of broader policy toward Moscow’s so-called “Near Abroad” over the last 20 years – and conclude that Moscow is driven by an ‘objective’ state-level interest in maintaining a “buffer state” against future NATO invasion.

The same considerations also suggests that NATO expansion was no more (or no less) than a background condition for the invasion. It mattered, but it was neither necessary nor sufficient for Moscow to seek to politically or militarily dominate its neighbors. Restrainers – including offshore balancers and anti-entanglers (who categorically oppose overseas U.S. security commitments) – can, of course, always argue counterfactuals. Perhaps Central and Eastern Europe would be peaceful, either under or absent Russian domination, had NATO not expanded?

Maybe. As Cheryl Rofer reminds us, we’re dealing with very high levels of uncertainty.

Second, the invasion has implications for the case for ‘offshore Atlantic, onshore Pacific’ that’s relatively common among realist advocates of offshore balancing – a position that never made a ton of sense to me.

According to Mearsheimer and Walt:

Washington would rely on local powers to contain China, but that strategy might not work. Not only is China likely to be much more powerful than its neighbors, but these states are also located far from one another, making it harder to form an effective balancing coalition. The United States will have to coordinate their efforts and may have to throw its considerable weight behind them. In Asia, the United States may indeed be the indispensable nation.

In Europe, the United States should end its military presence and turn nato over to the Europeans. There is no good reason to keep U.S. forces in Europe, as no country there has the capability to dominate that region. The top contenders, Germany and Russia, will both lose relative power as their populations shrink in size, and no other potential hegemon is in sight. Admittedly, leaving European security to the Europeans could increase the potential for trouble there. If a conflict did arise, however, it would not threaten vital U.S. interests.

Developments in Ukraine do, of course, strengthen the claim that Russia isn’t in a position to establish hegemony over Europe. What about the threat that Russia poses to overall European stability and security? That’s more ambiguous. The invasion itself seems like a pretty big threat to European stability and security; it remains unclear what would have happened if Moscow had pursued a sounder approach to Ukraine, or that Russia couldn’t have – and in the future won’t be able to – take on a Baltic state or three.

It remains unclear what would have happened if Moscow had pursued a sounder approach to Ukraine

The invasion might also be playing out very differently if NATO – and specifically the United States – failed to provide such substantial direct and indirect support to Ukraine. I’m skeptical that a cohesive, militarily strong Europe emerges in the majority of counterfactual worlds in which the United States moved offshore in Europe in 2016 – when Mearsheimer and Walt wrote the paragraphs above – or in prior years.

(The assumption that U.S. withdrawal produces a more capable European defense arrangement anchors much of the case for pulling out of the region.)

I’m even less convinced by the idea that proximity makes balancing comparatively easy in Europe and difficult on Asia. The logic of offshore balancing presupposes that increasing geographic distance makes states less threatening to one another. This explains why rising powers will drive other states in their region to align with an offshore balancer.

It implies, ceteris paribus, that:

  • The more distant a contender for regional hegemony the less that other states will perceive it as a threat – which should make it more difficult to form a counterbalancing coalition; but also that
  • The more distant a potential ally the less would-be balancers will perceive it as a threat – which should make it easier to form a counterbalancing coalition.

I don’t see how we can, in the absence of additional information, decide which effect of will prevail. In fact, I’d wager that other factors – including collective memory and political ties – matter more than distance qua distance. Tokyo and Seoul might have something to say about this.

I am reasonably confident, however, that careful reconstruction of the Ukraine crisis will likely underscore contemporary accounts which stress the importance of an onshore U.S. European presence for coordinating deterrence. In other words, that what we’ve seen so far suggests that U.S. involvement via NATO, not structural factors, explains why Europe’s alliances are more robust than the ones we see in Asia.

What about the claim that a conflict in East Asia presents a greater threat to U.S. interests than one in Europe. Sure, the center of economic and military gravity continues to shift toward East Asia and away from Europe. But so what?

  • The EU is still one of the three largest markets in the world;
  • No power in western or eastern Eurasia is a serious threat to invade the continental United States; and
  • Perhaps conflict in East Asia would drive the United States to reduce its economic dependence on the region – a policy that would hearten many supporters of offshore balancing.

Ukraine and the Politics of the Restraint Coalition

Even if the Russian invasion of Ukraine doesn’t actually create substantive problems for restrainers, it does create practical problems.

Ukraine isn’t exactly great optics for restraint – nor is the response of many restrainers . These too often come across as “force Ukraine to give up territory in exchange for peace” and “limit material support because reasons,” with some scattered efforts to blame the United States still in the mix.

(Note that I’m linking to some of the most reasonable, measured, and factually grounded restrainers; as far as I know, we’re not talking here about the anti-imperialist left or paid propagandists.)

This may be a case where it’s wise to pick battles. Restrainers – progressive or otherwise – should continue to oppose measures that greatly, and unnecessarily, increase the risk of escalation by requiring direct U.S. military intervention. Otherwise, why not focus on what the conflict may tell us about Europe’s capacity to deter Russia on its own? Maybe it shows that the U.S. can interdict major bids for expansion without putting boots on the ground?

Finally, the Russian invasion of Ukraine puts a spotlight on the U.S. commitment to NATO. This issue – perhaps more than any other – separates left-liberals and progressive internationalists from the broader “restraint coalition.” If it helps restrainers figure out how to better navigate that divide, more the better. If it encourages the core of the restraint community to make NATO a litmus test for membership, which will have the practical effect of enhancing the position of the anti-imperialist left among restrainers, then it’s going to be bad for everyone involved.