January 28, 2015

Arming Ukraine Would Be Folly

Ivo Daalder’s Financial Times op-ed yesterday (Arm Ukraine to show Russia conflict has a cost) constitutes one of the most ill-advised foreign policy recommendations I can recall in many years, and this during an era which has seen many. With European unity already at a delicate juncture given Syriza’s victory in Greece—and material cohesion risks looming across both the EU’s economic and foreign policies--now is not the time to throw more kindling on the fire. Mr. Daalder couches arming Ukraine—as good-hearted, liberal interventionists are wont to do--as only “enhancing Ukraine’s defensive capabilities.” Yet provision of anti-armour missiles to Kiev (or, eventually, collaborative paramilitaries) would be viewed as a virtual act of war towards Russian-affiliated proxies in the Donbass. This will be sure to earn the ire of The Kremlin precipitating not de-escalation, but precisely the opposite.

How did we get here? A Hitler-like madman on the loose, in the ribald telling of too many in the West, fueling a revanchist Russia that may show up at the gates of Prague before too long? Or through Russia’s steady humiliation (real or perceived) after the Cold War, whether via the relentless drum-beat of NATO expansion, EU enlargement or, relatedly, myriad ‘civil society promotion’ initiatives? Sentient, historically-cognizant voices would better recognize the latter as major contributory cause(s). When these forces coalesced in Ukraine--as they did in Georgia before it--they conspired so that the Russian side concluded red-lines had been crossed and essentially declared: ‘no more’. Or, as Putin memorably put in a major address last year after the Crimean incursion: “(if) you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard. You must always remember this.”

The most casual perusal of Russian history explains why Ukraine is of such immense import to Moscow. Historic Kievan Rus is the spiritual fountainhead of Russia’s very origins. As Georgy Fedotov once commented: “Kievan Christianity has the same value for the Russian religious mind as Pushkin for the artistic sense: that of a standard, a golden measure, a royal way.” Later, her wide plains led direct to the soft underbelly of the Russian heartland and saw Napoleon and Hitler’s (the real one) armies hold perilous, probing sway. Ukraine is thus something of a cordon sanitaire in the Russian worldview. More recently, there are also the legitimate grievances of Eastern Ukrainians whom felt deeply disenfranchised amidst the sturm und drang of Maidan, many of whom feel genuine ties of kinship to Mother Russia.

There is a conceit in some capitals like Washington DC that an age of unfettered, rules-based liberal internationalism is nigh, and that such interests are relics of a more primitive age of our remote ancestors. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry commented after the Crimean events (without a trace of self-knowing irony given the Iraq misadventure): “(y)ou just don’t in the 21st Century behave in 19th Century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped –up pretext.” But states retain key geopolitical strategic interests and are still quite galvanized to protect core ones. While Vladimir Putin is not desirous of a long war and costly occupation, he is a formidable strategist infrequently disposed to buckling under. Pressured more, he will call the West’s bluff, in the process causing more havoc for Ukraine.

What to do? The outlines of a deal are clear. First, most critically, Putin must be given face and room for a climb-down. A summit should be held with not only Chancellor Angela Merkel, but also President Barack Obama. Ukraine must agree to never join NATO. Federalization schemes and Russian-minority language rights must be brokered for Ukraine’s East. Sanctions must be reversed. In return, Putin must withdraw all military support from the Donbass, and exert robust political pressure on the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics to accept Kiev’s broad writ. While EU Membership need not be wholly taken off the table as like NATO, it is high time for the airy proselytization and cookie dispensations reminiscent of the ‘color revolutions’ to cease. (Crimea may contemplate an internationally-supervised referendum on its status a decade or so hence, but must be wholly ‘separate-tracked.’ In any event, and to the vast majority of Russians--including many resident in Crimea itself--Khrushchev’s gifting of it to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine smacks more of historical accident, with the recent re-incorporation of Crimea akin more to a ‘de-annexation’ in this view).

We may not like such realpolitik-style deal-making, with the hard-headed trade-offs it entails. Many in Kiev will grumble, but major economic aid from all the key protagonists should figure in any peace deal and help mollify sentiment. Regardless, such a resolution ultimately is preferable to a Novorossiya linked up to Trans-Dniester, say, with a land-bridge to Crimea and Odessa en passant in Russian hands. Beyond the risks of such greater Ukrainian dismemberment—or simply the pains of a long, drawn-out ‘partisan’ war--the alternative is likely a new Cold War II, and with it an increasingly fractured Europe. Mr. Daalder’s prescriptions badly fail on any serious measure tethered to the realities of the situation. Arming Ukraine would be a dangerous folly that none of us can afford. As a wise former American diplomat George Ball once commented about Vietnam: “(o)nce on the tiger’s back, we cannot be sure of picking the place to dismount.”

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January 18, 2015

Kissinger's "World Order"

Henry Kissinger’s “World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History” weighs in around 400 pages but the main substance of the book is contained in fewer than 50 pages (almost exclusively in the final two chapters: Chapter 9 on “Technology, Equilibrium, and Human Consciousness” and the conclusory Chapter 10 “World Order in Our Time?”). The remainder of the book is well-traversed terrain we have largely seen in previous Kissinger work, whether a tour d'horizon of the European balance-of-power system, discussion of Asian geopolitics, or the U.S.’s ostensible mission civilisatrice (additionally, and rather oddly, Kissinger devotes an entire chapter solely to Iran, beyond a broader one on Islamism).

While such production is well enviable in one’s nineties and Kissinger is doubtless the most substantial American national security player alive today, the book is not really a fount of fresh thinking and will hold little by way of blindingly new insight for most readers reasonably versed in international relations. There is also a frustrating aspect with Kissinger’s occasional succumbing to courtier-mode, as when he writes of George W. Bush: “…I want to express here my continuing respect and personal affection for President [Bush] who guided America with courage, dignity and conviction in an unsteady time.” Too often, this tendency to indulge in too ingratiating politesse mitigates the blunter-edged message Kissinger likely wishes to relay on topics such as the limits of American power (of which more below). Still, there is much here to reward the attentive reader, even if Kissinger does not attain the prophetic mantle of a George Kennan.

Kissinger begins World Order retelling how in 1961 as a “young academic” he called on Harry Truman asking the former President what had made him most proud. Truman responded: “(t)hat we totally defeated our enemies and then brought them back to the community of nations. I would like to think that only America could have done this.” This same introductory chapter is concluded with a vignette from a Kissinger-Zhou Enlai exchange, on the occasion of Kissinger’s first visit to Beijing in 1971. Kissinger stated to Zhou that “to the American delegation China was a ‘land of mystery’ “, to which Zhou responded: “You will find it not mysterious. When you have become familiar with it, it will not seem so mysterious as before.” These bookends to Kissinger’s introductory chapter not only capture some of the highlights of his life (few if any public personages captivated Kissinger like Zhou Enlai), but also presage tensions in Kissinger’s world-view: ultimately skeptical of American exceptionalism he nonetheless adopts Truman’s sense of America's singularity, albeit counterbalanced by his deep sense of the import of the historic and cultural realities of other great powers.

Before turning to a possible prescription for buttressing global order going forward, Kissinger engages in a thinly-veiled lament at the gross superficiality of much of today’s conduct of foreign policy. As something of a scene-setter, he quotes T.S. Eliot’s “Choruses from ‘The Rock’”:

Where is the Life we have lost in Living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

Essentially Kissinger is contending that the titanic reams of information we are bombarded with daily (see your putative Twitter feed) “shrinks perspective.” As Kissinger elaborates: “(b)ecause information is so accessible and communication instantaneous, there is a diminution of focus on its significance, or even on the definition of what is significant.” He goes on to caution that policymakers therefore might too frequently “regard moments of decision as a series of isolated events rather than part of a historical continuum” so that “manipulation of information replaces reflection as the principal policy tool.” One need look no further than the riotously adolescent policy adventurism around Libya (R2P histrionics with Benghazi as an incipient Srebrenica), Ghouta/Syria (almost full-bore into the Levant’s mire on a fuzzily, red-lined whim) or Russia (Pavlovian slap-stick sanctions post-Foggy Bottom egging on recklessly unmoored Ukrainian nationalism) as good examples of this phenomenon. As Kissinger writes: “the new diplomacy risks indiscriminate intervention disconnected from strategy.”

Similarly, we might recall the halcyon days of the early Arab Spring, when Western journalists parachuted into Egypt eager to chronicle the Google generation’s intrepid use of social media to magically catapult a pre-Enlightenment, economically underdeveloped region characterized by entrenched authoritarianism into the world of Montesquieu, Jefferson and Rousseau, seemingly solely on the strength of Tweets from Tahrir Square. Again, we have a superficial spectacle characterized by the “overriding imperative of endorsing a mood of the moment”—see Samantha Power or Susan Rice’s Twitter feeds for near daily, rich evidence of same—ignoring that “the affirmation of freedom should be elevated from a mood to a strategy”.

In Kissinger’s final chapter he attempts to sketch a strategic approach regarding advancing world order in this new century. We are embarking on an era beyond that which prevailed from the end of WWII to perhaps around 9/11: “when one could speak of an incipient global order composed of an amalgam of American idealism and traditional concepts of balance of power.” Kissinger does not quite say it directly but appears to believe the U.S. must more assiduously seek to unwind any post-Cold War hyper-power pretense that pointed briefly towards a unitary hegemon bestriding the globe unchallenged. Beyond China (whose rise Kissinger compares to 20th Century Germany’s in the context of presenting a “comparable structural challenge in the 21st Century”) Kissinger sees material challenges from Russia, the Middle East, and perhaps, a scuttled European project leading to unpredictable instabilities on the Continent. For Kissinger, the risk is less about increasing multi-polarity in and of itself, but rather “a world of increasingly contradictory realities”, one which we cannot assume “left unattended” will “reconcile automatically to a world of balance and cooperation—or even any order at all.”

What is to be done? Kissinger describes the essence of statesmanship as striking a balance between “the two aspects of order”, namely: “power and legitimacy”. Such an already challenging balancing act must be fashioned in the context of profound differences between the post-Renaissance Western tradition focused on reality "external to the observer" versus other great civilizations where reality is “conceived as internal to the observer, defined by psychological, philosophical, or religious convictions” (Chinese culture, Islam, Hinduism, and arguably, Russian Slavophilism). What is more, Kissinger sees four factors posing challenges to assembly of a 21st Century Order: 1) the state itself, the international system’s fundamental building-block, is under siege (pan-national projects like the Euro-zone, failed states, etc.); 2) economic globalization has outpaced political integration (see the financial crisis, or periphery contagion risks in Europe today); 3) unconvincing mechanisms for great power coordination exist which permit “little beyond designing a formal communique—at best, a discussion of pending tactical issues, and, at worst, a new form of summitry as ‘social media’ event”); and 4) American leadership being withdrawn from the international scene.

Putting aside aspects of the merits of this diagnosis: is it possible to reconstruct an international system in this challenging context (what Kissinger calls the “ultimate challenge to statesmanship in our time”)? Kissinger suggests—and this is arguably the most important and telling sentence of the book—that the “contemporary quest for world order will require a coherent strategy to establish a concept of order within the various regions, and to relate these regional orders to one another” [bolded portion emphasized in original]. In other words, Kissinger is politely sounding the death-knell for an age of American pan-regional supremacy all the while bemoaning the United States’ supposedly less engaged posture of late. Yet despite Kissinger’s thinly-veiled incantations for Washington to ‘step up’ (as Beltway simpletons often put it) he nonetheless evokes Edmund Burke urging us to disabuse ourselves of maximalist goals so as “to acquiesce in some qualified plan that does not come up to the full perfection of the abstract idea, than to push for the more perfect.”

I suspect Kissinger is suggesting as part of this regional ordering we must be more accommodative of powers like China and Russia (or, even, Islamist resurgence in some areas), whilst seeking, in turn, to then painstakingly work towards better integrating said regional orders into a revamped global international system. Acknowledging that “world order cannot be achieved by any one country alone” Kissinger suggests we need a “second culture that is global, structural, and juridical—a concept of order that transcends the perspective of any one region or nation.” A tall order: the closest Kissinger comes to a more concrete prescription is “a modernization of the Westphalian system informed by contemporary realities”, which leaves much to the imagination.

In the late autumn of his life, Kissinger tacks more modestly than the heretofore brash commanding heights of Nixon and Ford's Washington, concluding (in an apparent, en passant, rebuff to Francis Fukuyama): “(l)ong ago, in youth, I was brash enough to think myself able to pronounce on “The Meaning of History.” I now know that history’s meaning is a matter to be discovered, not declared.” Unsurprisingly, there is no specific roadmap contained in World Order that provides real comfort we will be able to avoid “the dogs of war” amidst the “rushing stream of history”. Perhaps one can only hope more subtle appreciation and understanding of other key powers’ differing cultural, historic, geopolitical and philosophical premises will better help create ‘zones of stability’ within regions. With the Panglossian figment of a providential Pax Americana fading into history, key international actors will need to embark on a difficult journey towards helping re-balance an international system away from the giddy American triumphalism of the post-War and post-Cold War eras. At minimum, one hopes the reader will come away hungering for more substance in foreign policy-making, married to greater humility of goals within more strategically disciplined and structurally sound approaches to staunching erosion of world order. With some luck, we might even espy the gradual creation of an updated Westphalian model which captures the hugely greater complexities of our globally interconnected time than existed in 17th Century Europe. However, a "Present at the Creation" leadership moment characterized by inspired Achesonian aplomb seems rather a stretch, and Kissinger inviting us to midwife more regionally-scaled blocs--at least on an interim basis--seems to acknowledge this reality.

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About Belgravia Dispatch

Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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