The Ukraine Mess is about Putin’s Post-Imperial Hangover, Not NATO Expansion, ‘Weak’ Biden, etc…

RussiaThis is a re-up of an essay I wrote recently for about Ukraine. I say badly what Cheryl Rofer and Francis Fukuyama say much better than me, namely that:

Russia would probably not have respected Eastern European sovereignty had NATO not expanded, so it is a red herring to blame NATO expansion for Putin’s current bullying of Ukraine. Realists and restrainers have been arguing this for a while, including Stephen Walt who summarizes it all nicely here:

Had the United States and its European allies not succumbed to hubris, wishful thinking, and liberal idealism and relied instead on realism’s core insights, the present crisis would not have occurred. Indeed, Russia would probably never have seized Crimea, and Ukraine would be safer today. The world is paying a high price for relying on a flawed theory of world politics.

The idea that Russia wouldn’t be bullying Ukraine without NATO expansion turns on two highly contestable ‘realist’ assumptions, it seems to me:

1. It somehow was a ‘liberal illusion’ (Walt) to pull Eastern Europe into NATO when we had the chance.

Wait, isn’t it also realist to grab a power advantage when one has the chance? Why is it liberal fluffery to bring a huge swathe of sympathetic states into the Western community, improving Western power, when given the chance? Realists say the West took advantage of Russian weakness to expand NATO, as if realist paradigmatic priors of perilous, self-help anarchy suggest we should have left Eastern Europe unaligned. But that’s wrong; realism says the opposite: we should have – and did – screw the Russians when we had the chance, because, hey, anarchy is a tough, dog-eat-dog world and grabbing a big advantage at low cost (Russia was weak and the threat of conflict was low) is exactly what egoistic states do. (I dislike this argument myself. I supported expansion for more liberal reasons, because the Eastern European states so obviously wanted to join. My point rather, is it’s hardly ‘realist’ to pass over a huge, possibly one-time, opportunity to improve Western power.)

2. Russian behavior toward Eastern Europe would be more restrained, more liberal, and less neo-imperial had NATO not expanded.

Does anyone really believe this? Consider Russia’s long history of dominating and bullying its ‘near-abroad’ neighbors. Consider Putin’s obviously revanchist temperament and huge, chip-on-his-shoulder imperial hangover. He clearly misses the Soviet Union and its influence in the world and insatiably craves the perception of parity with the US. I suppose it’s possible Putin would have behaved better, but I’d say the counterfactual that he’d be bullying non-aligned Poland or the Baltics right now – with Ukraine already subverted and controlled – is just as credible if not more.

Anyway, here’s that 1945 essay:

A Russian invasion of Ukraine would be a disaster for Russia. It would obviously also be a disaster for the Ukrainian population, but geopolitically it is hard to see how Russian President Vladimir Putin would escape either the international isolation which would ensue, or win the war itself with manageable costs.

Read the rest here.

North Korea’s Goals are Limited: It couldn’t Absorb S Korea even if it Won a War

Image result for north korea invasion

This is a local re-posting of an article I wrote for The National Interest last week.

Basically, I am continuing to bush back on all this insane talk that we are on the verge of a conflict, can’t live with a nuclear North Korea, and are imminently threatened with a North Korean nuclear strike. None of that is true, and all the alarmism from the bomb-them-now ultras is just making this all worse.

So to keep the wingers happy, here is a worst case scenario, in which North Korea somehow levers the US out of the region AND defeats South Korea on the battlefield. This is already so unlikely that the ultras should be somewhat embarrassed we have to game this out, but fine, whatevs. And what happens after the supposedly long-sought unification under the Kims? The implosion of North Korea, because there is no way it could manage a hugely expensive, widely resisted, easily corrupted occupation even bigger than US post-Civil War Reconstruction. So forget it. Unification would blow-up the North’s extremely unique and rigid system. They don’t want it. (What they do want is a pseudo-confederation that gets South Korea paying their bills semi-permanently without actually having to change politically, but that’s for another column.)

The essay follows the jump…

South Korean Security in the Trump Era


This is a local re-post of a piece I wrote a few weeks ago for The Korea Times. Basically my concern in the Trump period is, how will Trump and Moon Jae-In, the likely winner of the upcoming May 9 election, get along? Or not?

Trump doesn’t care about Asia, except for trade with China. His security concerns turn on Islam, and he was elected for that in foreign policy. His and Bannon’s clash of civilizations frame only works so-so out here. Huntington’s argument required putting China, Japan, and the Koreas into one Confucian civilization, but it was so obvious that they didn’t get along that Huntington was forced to pretend that Japan was its own civilization. Without this frame, I wonder if Trump the non-reader can figure out an approach?

The other thing which worries me is the burden-sharing fight. If Trump presents the ROKG with a bill like he did Merkel, the SK press will go ballistic. Trump might not care though, so ultimately I suggest that it would likely be a good idea for SK to pay a little more so that the issue can ultimately be dropped.

The full essay follows the jump:

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