Before allowing pride to further cloud sound judgment in global engagement, it is critical for America to bring back into balance an appropriate recognition of our country’s strengths – and a sober recognition of its weaknesses – while also treating other nations with equality and respect. Our own economic success and national security may depend on getting it right.
The most recent manifestation of misplaced hubris is the current crisis involving Russia, Ukraine and the Crimea. A popular theme quickly emerged from many opinion leaders in Washington that the state of Russia merely exposed its latent tendencies to conquer, and only the weakness of the current occupant of the White House emboldened the Kremlin to strike now.
What’s needed, claim many, is for the U.S. government to “get tough” with Moscow, a sort of reprise of Ronald Reagan’s “peace through strength.” Unfortunately, this rendering of events wholly eliminates more than two decades of U.S. missteps – from both Republican and Democrat administrations and Congresses – that have contributed to the current crisis. If we fail to recognize and admit that our collective actions have contributed to the current state of affairs, the risk of further instability increases.
When the U.S. was pushing for the expansion of NATO in 1997, 50 foreign policy experts, including Susan Eisenhower and former Sens. Sam Nunn and Gary Hart, wrote an open letter to President Bill Clinton arguing against NATO expansion, warning of the potential for future consequences to America. The letter claimed that NATO expansion would “decrease allied security and unsettle European stability” and presciently warned that “in Russia, NATO expansion, which continues to be opposed across the entire political spectrum, will strengthen the nondemocratic opposition, undercut those who favor reform and cooperation with the West, bring the Russians to question the entire post-Cold War settlement, and galvanize resistance in the Duma to the START II and III treaties.”
Virtually every one of their concerns came to pass, as START II never went into effect and START III was never completed, directly attributable, in part, to NATO expansion.
Our proclivity to disregard Russian concerns continued. In the run-up to the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the United States, Britain and Spain sought a new United Nations Security Council resolution that could be construed as authorizing force against Iraq. The foreign ministers of France, Germany and Russia released an extraordinary declaration stating that the U.N. inspections were making progress and should be given more time. “In these circumstances,” the statement read, “we will not let a proposed resolution pass that would authorize the use of force. Russia and France, as permanent members of the Security Council, will assume all their responsibilities on this point.” That same day, the Guardian reported that then-Secretary of State Colin Powell said that “the US was prepared to lead a war against Iraq, with or without the consent of the UN.” When it became clear such a resolution would not pass, the U.S. withdrew the request and moved ahead irrespective of concerns regarding international law or the views of other major powers, and plunged the region into war.
Five years later, and after nearly a decade of conflict following the initial breakup of Yugoslavia, the U.S. and the West again declared their unilateral interpretation of international law in the recognition of Kosovo independence and in justifying the bombing of Serbian forces. Russian protests of the illegality of the actions were summarily dismissed, while the rights of self-determination for Kosovo were lauded. In early 2008 the Guardian reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin “yesterday accused Europe and the United States of double standards over their support for an independent Kosovo, and warned that any declaration of statehood by Pristina would be ‘illegal, ill-conceived and immoral’” and quoted him as announcing, “Other countries look after their interests. We consider it appropriate to look after our interests. We have done some homework and we know what we will do.”
We ignored Putin’s words then. It appears he has made good on them now.
Though many American and Western pundits pin all the blame for the current crisis in the Ukraine on Putin, it is clear that our hands are not clean. The fact is that the current situation is dangerous and Russian actions are indeed destabilizing. Having inflamed nationalist inclinations in Crimea, Russia appears to be sending agents into numerous parts of eastern Ukraine. Because of historic fears of Russian aggression, Poland and the Baltics (among others) have understandable concerns and are seeking greater military contacts with NATO and are planning bilateral military exercises with American troops. Statements coming out of Moscow seem to justify this concern.
But if American policy continues to place all the blame on Russia for this current crisis without accepting any responsibility for our actions over the past two decades, the danger of escalation rises. The longer this deteriorating situation persists, it is clear that all sides will suffer increasing economic loss.
Effectively navigating through the international environment is challenging under the best of circumstances. There are many different cultures and political systems through which effective foreign policy must be conducted. But finding policy that benefits our country is complicated when we refuse to admit when we have made mistakes. Cooperative international engagement in an atmosphere of mutual respect, with a healthy dose of humility, will go far to increase our chances of fostering a stable international environment.