If the EU Steps Up (which it won’t), then Ukraine Need Not Undermine the US Pivot to Asia

ChinaThis is a re-post of an essay I wrote for 1945.com a few days ago. My argument is an expansion of what I complained about a few days ago: Europe, not the US, should be leading on Ukraine.

Yes, the US can do it, but that Europe can’t take care of security issues of medium-range right on its own doorstep is just embarrassing. It raises the obvious opportunity cost that deeper US involvement in Europe undercuts the pivot.

I am little skeptical of this overrating this fear, as I say in the essay, because the US spends so much on national security – the Defense Department budget, plus all the other defense spending we don’t run through DoD in order to make its budget look smaller than it actually is. That aggregate number is around 1 trillion USD, which should be enough to confront both Russia and China (especially given Russian weakness), except for open war with both simultaneously.

So we shouldn’t get carried away that Ukraine will stop the American re-balance against China. Biden is pretty clearly avoiding a major commitment to Ukraine to prevent this outcome.

But still, it is long overdue for the Europeans to get organized on common defense, especially when they complain about the US ignoring their opinions on issues like Iraq or Afghanistan. That’s what happens when you don’t spend on defense and implicitly expect the Americans to do the heavy lifting.

In fact, the an ideal world would be an integrated European Union defense identity which acted as a second liberal superpower, confronting Russia and Islamic radicalism in its region, while the US confronted China. What a huge advancement of liberal and democratic values that would be! But that’s decades away if ever…

Anyway, here is that 1945 essay:

As the Ukraine crisis heats up, its impact on the US effort to re-balance to Asia, specifically against China, has arisen. The consensus is that, for the most part, a renewed US focus on European security will pull US resources and policy-maker attention away from Asia and back toward Europe. In a similar manner, the US has hitherto struggled to focus on East Asia, as China took off in the last two decades, because of the war on terror. Yet China is of far greater import to the US in the coming decades than either Eastern Europe or the greater Middle East. On that, there is near consensus in the foreign policy community now.

The rest is available here.

Yes, Ukraine is a Crisis, but Mostly Limited to Eastern Europe and EU Ineffectiveness; Don’t Read it onto East Asia

UkraineThis is a re-up of a column I wrote for 1945.com recently. I find the hyperbole in Western media on Ukraine exhausting. As with the Afghanistan withdrawal commentary last August, the usual suspects of blob neocons and hyperventilating journalists are going bananas that nothing less than world order is on the line in Ukraine! Did you know we even have to fight a war with Russia? Did you know that war has been ‘imminent’ for, um, the last six weeks? *sigh*

All this is wrong, just like it was wrong last summer when the ‘it’s always the 1930s!’ crowd engaged in the same histrionics over Biden’s Afghan withdrawal. Here are two Twitter threads by me – on Ukraine and Afghanistan – about the neocon-blob-industrial complex’ impulse to read every challenge to the US everywhere in the most apocalyptic terms possible.

So yes, Ukraine is a crisis, but a limited one. It’s not going to bring down NATO or the EU or democracy and so on. And no, it’s not going to encourage China to attack Taiwan. Deterrence doesn’t work that way. It’s far more nuanced and local than whether or not a US president is seen as ‘strong’ or ‘weak,’ which is such a flexible, subjective criterion anyway, that it is analytically pretty useless. Not everything is about the US president’s reputation for toughness, and that US analysts so often come back to this point just shows you their parochialism: they don’t know much about the rest of the world so they read everything through the US politics lens they know. Bleh.

The real geopolitical take-away from the Ukraine mess is – besides the obvious looming  catastrophe for Ukraine and, somewhat also, for Russia – is the pathetic impotence of the Europeans on their own security even on their doorstep. Good grief. Anytime the Europeans want to step up and take responsibility for their own affairs would be great. Paul Poast and I have a piece coming in Foreign Affairs about US allies’ free-riding, and Ukraine is illustrating our argument every day.

Anyway, here is that 1945 essay:

Ukraine is a serious, but limited, crisis. For the Ukrainians living near Russia’s potential invasion points, the possibility of serious violence looms. And for Ukraine’s fledgling, unsteady democracy, such an invasion would be a disaster. Even Russia grey zone warfare – a mixed attempt at subversion and bullying without opening invading the country – would be terrible. It would set Ukrainian democracy back a decade or more, corrupt the government, and likely split the country. Russia clearly has the ability to enforce its will on Ukraine in the short-term, and there is little the West can do about it barring the risk of major escalation.

Read the rest here.

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 1945.com 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.