Obama’s Tricky Balancing Act in Malaysia

The Buzz

This weekend, U.S. President Barack Obama will make a historic visit to Malaysia as part of his four-country, eight-day trip to Asia –a do-over of a regional tour he missed last October due to a government shutdown. While his visit, the first by a U.S. president in nearly half a century, is an occasion to cement cooperation with an emerging American partner, it is also an opportunity to speak honestly with Malaysian officials about the differences both countries have and to address the Malaysian people more generally in light of the country’s troubling domestic politics.

In 1966, when then U.S. President Lyndon Johnson visited Malaysia, the country was touted as a model nation which had successfully defeated a communist insurgency and embarked on the road to economic development. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, in a memo to the president prepared before the trip, called Malaysia “something of an economic and political showpiece in Southeast Asia.” Johnson himself, in a glowing tribute to the country at Subang International Airport, called it “a model of what may be done by determined and farsighted men in Southeast Asia and in other parts of the world.”

Nearly half a century later, Obama will have a harder time uttering those same platitudes with a straight face. True, Malaysia’s embattled prime minister, Najib Razak, has tried to reform the country and promote better ties with Washington in spite of the numerous domestic obstacles he faces. But Najib’s loss of the popular vote in controversial elections last May, his subsequent backtracking on several economic and political reforms, and the recent sentencing of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim for sodomy, have undermined the Obama administration’s narrative of Malaysia as a moderate Muslim country and successful democracy. Hence, Obama faces a tough balancing act in consolidating cooperation with a key partner in the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific while also engaging the Malaysian people, a majority of whom may not support the government. Failure to strike the right chord risks either undermining potential bilateral cooperation that would promote American interests or losing credibility among a younger generation of Malaysian voters for not living up to the values the United States espouses.

The administration’s narrative for the trip focuses on highlighting Malaysia’s credentials as a moderate Muslim-majority and successful democratic state as well as potentially elevating bilateral ties “to a new stage”, as U.S. deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes put it in a briefing last Friday. Statements like these from the Obama administration usually indicate the attempted signing of a ‘strategic partnership’ of some sort which formally institutionalizes and structures the existing relationship – something that Washington has already successfully pursued with other key countries in the region like Indonesia and Vietnam as it pursues its rebalancing strategy in the Asia-Pacific.

Forging such a partnership with Malaysia is a logical step in spite of the difficulties it entails. For all its limits, Malaysia is an important country striving to be both a developed nation by 2020 and an emerging middle power in the region and the world. Aside from its strategic location along the Straits of Malacca, which carries around 40 percent of the world’s trade, its role as a leader in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a mediator in disputes in southern Thailand and southern Philippines, and a global innovator in Islamic finance, are no small feats for a country of 30 million people. Malaysia’s international involvement is also set to increase in the following years with its chairing of ASEAN in 2015 – a critical year in the advancement of the ASEAN Economic Community – an added emphasis on its role in the Global Movement of Moderates (GMM), and a potential seat as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). To be sure, there is no shortage of troubling domestic trends in Malaysia that may undermine or even contradict these foreign policy aspirations, including the rising intolerance against non-Muslims, the crackdown on the opposition using state institutions, and the aversion of hardliners in Najib’s own party to reform and moderation. Nonetheless, the United States has an opportunity to support this vision for Malaysia and to hold its leaders accountable for it.

Furthermore, the United States and Malaysia already have a robust relationship which has strengthened significantly under Obama and Najib. Najib, with the help of his ambassador Jamaluddin Jarjis, took a series of bold first steps to boost U.S.-Malaysia ties early on, including tightening export control laws, sending non-combat personnel to Afghanistan and joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. While U.S.-Malaysia economic ties have been quite strong (Washington is now Malaysias fourth largest trading partner and its biggest foreign investor), the relationship has recently strengthened in other realms, whether publicly in the people-to-people dimension through an expanded Fulbright program or more quietly in the security sphere with greater intelligence sharing and naval visits, partly due to Malaysia’s growing anxiety about Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. Given this record of cooperation, it makes sense to try to both expand it as well as to formalize its various elements through institutionalized dialogues and working groups. Furthermore, enhancing cooperation with an emerging partner does not mean that both sides agree on all issues, or that differences cannot be honestly expressed.

The key caveat, though, is that President Obama needs to make these differences clear both in public and in private, and that he must do so in a calibrated manner. On the one hand, the leader of the free world cannot sidestep thorny democracy and human rights issues in a country where the majority of the population voted against the current government. As Joshua Kurlantzick at the Council on Foreign Relations rightly noted, that would not only disappoint young Malaysians but also play into a narrative that the Obama administration is paying little attention to these issues in Southeast Asia at a time when several countries, including Cambodia and Myanmar, are going through important transitions. On the other hand, however, heavy-handed criticism of the government could sink the visit and more importantly stifle potential bilateral cooperation that is vital to realizing U.S. interests in the region. This is not just an existential concern. When then U.S. vice president Al Gore visited Malaysia in 1998 and rebuked the Malaysian government in a public speech, the entire visit turned sour as Malaysian ministers roundly condemned his conduct and his comments eclipsed the announcement that the United States and Japan would jointly provide $10 billion to help countries weather the Asian financial crisis.

The White House at least seems to be trying to get this delicate balance right, though the devil will ultimately be in the details. In addition to a state dinner, a visit to the National Mosque and a working visit with Najib, President Obama’s itinerary reportedly includes a town hall event and speech at the University of Malaya as well as interactions with civil society leaders. The civil society leaders have so far remained unspecified, though the town hall event seems promising as it brings together youth from all ten ASEAN countries to launch a broader U.S. initiative to engage with young Southeast Asian leaders. Obama will not see Anwar himself, which will disappoint many who claim that the opposition is more representative of Malaysian aspirations than the ruling party. But national security adviser Susan Rice also indicated during the trip briefing at the White House last Friday that there may be “other engagements at other levels”. And while there is little to suggest that Obama will publicly criticize Malaysia’s political system the way Gore did, he is expected to at least address these issues publicly in some way. One would also hope that he will use his legendary chemistry with Najib to not just exchange pleasantries but to raise American concerns about troubling domestic developments.

Of course, no U.S. presidential visit can satisfy all Malaysians regardless of how delicately the White House treads. U.S.-Malaysia relations have been turbulent in the past amid disagreements on economic policy, human rights and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and lingering distrust along with current discontent means that protests and conspiracy theories will periodically surface as people vent their frustration and the Malaysian government reacts to it. Ludicrous conspiracies about the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA’s) role in the disappearance of MH 370 and the 9/11 attacks were published in a government newspaper, while around 100 Malaysian Muslim activists protested outside the US embassy last week, a sneak preview of a planned demonstration of “several hundreds” the embassy expects on Friday.

This should not detract from the main objective of Obama’s Malaysia visit, which is to both exploit the opportunities in cooperating with an emerging power in an important region while also addressing the challenges it faces both domestically and in its relations with the United States. It is a tough balancing act for the president, and one that Malaysians will be watching very carefully.

Prashanth Parameswaran is a PhD candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University and a Pacific Forum CSIS non-resident fellow now based in Washington, D.C. He has previously worked on Southeast Asia at several think tanks including the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). You can follow him on Twitter at @TheAsianist.

TopicsASEAN RegionsMalaysia

China's Taiwan Reality Check

The Buzz

Beijing has long needed a reality check on its Taiwan policy. Recently, that is what it got from both Taipei and Washington.

Massive Taiwanese protests against closer economic ties with China make it clear that peaceful unification under Beijing’s present rule will never be acceptable to the Taiwanese people. Having discarded an anti-Communist dictatorship, they have no intention of welcoming the Communist Party variety.

At the same time, the U.S. Congress celebrated the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). It reaffirmed America’s commitment to Taiwan’s security and continued existence as a free, democratic country. While the resolution does not have the force of law the iconic TRA does, it reflected Americans’ deep emotional and strategic connection to Taiwan. No U.S. Congress, with the power to authorize war, will ever tolerate a Chinese attack on Taiwan without mandating an overwhelming American response. Even a reluctant U.S. administration would be under enormous pressure to react with decisive military action—which, despite current budget constraints, it has the full capability to execute.

Strategic thinkers in Beijing—who are known for looking back centuries while planning decades ahead—need to return to the drawing board on China’s long-term relationship with Taiwan. The bottom line: China cannot be both “reunified” and authoritarian. It can choose to retain its current style of government and write off Taiwan as anything but a limited economic partner. Yes, that would be contrary to sixty-five years of Chinese dogma about Taiwan as an integral part of the People’s Republic.

Alternatively, Beijing can finally emulate Taiwan, South Korea, and other modernized Asian societies and embark on the path to democratization. Only then will Taiwan’s population take a serious look at possible political union. By then, an elected Chinese government might not even care as much about the issue. Unlike present rulers, it would not need to rely on nationalist passions to earn popular legitimacy.

Either policy course will be monumentally difficult for China’s leaders. Renouncing the use of force against Taiwan would alienate hard-liners and jeopardize their one-party rule; democratizing, by definition, would end it. But, as Taiwan’s experience shows, a reformed, once-authoritarian party can return to power democratically.

In any event, both changes can be accomplished in a measured, protracted way over, say, the next decade, to minimize political disruption and trauma.

No less an authority on the Chinese-Taiwanese issue than Richard Nixon imparted wise counsel to Beijing and Washington twenty years ago. The ultimate political realist, who created the original opening to China in 1972, wrote in 1994, even before Taiwan’s democratization process was complete: “The situation has changed dramatically since the Shanghai Communique. Realistic reappraisals of U.S. relations with Taiwan...and between Beijing and Taipei are overdue...The separation is permanent politically, but they are in bed together economically.” With the emergence of subsequent democratic Taiwanese generations, and China’s rigid adherence to authoritarian governance, the political divergence is even wider today.

In Beyond Peace, Nixon urged U.S. policy makers to strongly support Taiwan’s membership in international economic organizations—today that would be the Trans-Pacific Partnership—and to “extend to Taiwan’s Government officials the diplomatic courtesies that the leaders of one of the world’s major economic powers deserve.”

He also expressed confidence that Beijing would ultimately not resort to force over Taiwan: “The Chinese will not launch a military attack against Taiwan as long as Beijing knows such an action would jeopardize their relationship with the United States.”

Unfortunately, despite Nixon’s optimism, Chinese leaders have found reason to harbor new doubts about executive branch commitment to Taiwan. Within two years of his book, Washington introduced the concept of “strategic ambiguity,” saying a U.S. response to Chinese aggression against Taiwan “would depend on the circumstances.”

That policy vagueness has encouraged China to build an arsenal of attack submarines and antiship ballistic missiles to deter a future U.S. intervention on Taiwan’s behalf. And it invites the kind of strategic miscalculation that resulted in the Korean War. If and when an attack on Taiwan occurs, Congress will not allow this or a future administration to equivocate. It is better for China to understand that now rather than later by heeding the message Congress sent recently.

The administration can reinforce that message, and eliminate dangerous ambiguity, by finally moving ahead on a stalled submarine program for Taiwan and by selling it the advanced F-16s it needs for self-defense. Those actions would meet the letter and spirit of the venerable Taiwan Relations Act and help ensure the regional peace and stability it was intended to serve.

Joseph A. Bosco is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He served as China country desk officer in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and taught a graduate seminar on US-China-Taiwan relations at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service.

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

The Need for Iranian Oil and Gas

Paul Pillar

Deliberations about imposing costs on Russia for undesirable behavior in Ukraine quickly run into several snags, among which is that any sanctions that would significantly hurt Russia would also hurt countries that impose them. Potential sanctions that immediately come to mind involve energy, given that exports of oil and gas provide Russia with nearly two-thirds of its export earnings and about one-half of its government revenues. But interference with those exports would also interfere with the energy supply of countries of the European Union, which get about one-third of their oil and gas from Russia. The United States, no matter how much shale it fracks, could do little to help, such as through exporting liquid natural gas (LNG).

A big elephant in the room in any discussion of oil and gas supplies is Iran. It has the world's fourth largest oil reserves and is second only to Russia in reserves of natural gas. But of course we have been sanctioning the heck out of Iran, and the world does not have full and ready access to Iranian oil and gas, which the Iranian government would be happy to pump and sell lots more of. Admittedly, substitutions for European energy supplies cannot always be made quickly and easily, because of how distribution networks are laid out (in the case of gas) and refineries are set up (in the case of oil). Nonetheless, unshackling Iranian hydrocarbons would be one of the best medium-term solutions to any European energy pinch, whatever its cause. An existing pipeline to carry Iranian gas to Turkey could be the first stage in further distribution of that gas elsewhere in Europe. Such arrangements, in addition to any exports of LNG from Iran, would increase options and lower risk for the West in any sanctioning, or threat of sanctions, against Russia. Increased Iranian export of oil, which is a more globally fungible product with worldwide prices, would reduce Russia's revenue because of downward pressure on the price of its oil, even without any sanctions.

The sanctions campaign against Iran, which has gone on so long with such automaticity that means have become confused with ends, has been carried out with little regard for the damage the sanctions inflict on our own interests. Now with the standoff against Russia over Ukraine, another form of such damage should be noted: the sanctions against Iran reduce our leverage against Vladimir Putin.

At the convergence of issues involving Russia and Iran, there has been misplaced fear about how any Russian weakening or evasion of anti-Iranian sanctions would supposedly weaken the West's position in bargaining over Iran's nuclear program. We ought to be worried instead about the opposite: that Russia might, in the interest of preserving its own export earnings and leverage in the energy sector, be tempted to screw up the negotiations so that sanctions stay in place and Iran is kept out of full participation in the oil and gas markets. Fortunately, so far Russia has not succumbed to any such temptation, evidently continuing to see that conclusion of a nuclear agreement with Iran would be in its own larger interests as well as everyone else's.

The United States and its western partners already had good and strong reasons to see the negotiations through to a successful conclusion, especially because a negotiated agreement with Iran provides the best assurance that its nuclear program will stay peaceful. Now the impasse with Russia over Ukraine has provided an additional reason.

It is hard to try to wage economic warfare against two different adversaries at once. The United States should have learned that lesson when Thomas Jefferson imposed an embargo in 1807 on both Britain and France, thinking that this would get the two warring European powers to leave the United States alone. The embargo was a miserable failure, causing significant damage to the U.S. economy while having little desired effect on British and French behavior. Some things never change, even after growing to a superpower and becoming allies of the Europeans.

TopicsSanctions RegionsUnited States

Aleppo: Syria's Stalingrad?

The Buzz

The battle for Syria’s biggest city has entered a new phase. In the last few weeks, the situation in Aleppo has rapidly changed. Under a newly unified command, a new alliance of rebel groups now threatens to cut off the half the city that the Assad regime controls. This fight won’t be over soon, but for the first time since the start of the battle for this city in July 2012, one side may be gaining a clear upper hand.
The key to the recent rebel successes has been the formation of the “Ahl Al-Sham Operations Room”, a joint command of all the main rebel groups fighting in the city. Ahl Al-Sham commands some of the most powerful rebel units in Syria: Aleppo –based units of the Islamic Front (a coalition of Islamist rebel groups), the large, well-equipped Jaish Mujahideen, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Chechen foreign fighter group Jaish al Muhajireen wa al-Ansar (JMA). The Syrian Revolutionary Front, a more secular-nationalist group of independent brigades, has been cooperating closely with Ahl Al-Sham command. Since the creation of the Ahl Al-Sham joint command in February 2014, the size and sophistication of rebel operations in the Aleppo theater has clearly increased. Combined with the expulsion of ISIS from the city, and the consequent end of debilitating tensions between ISIS and rebel groups, the strategic situation has improved for the rebellion in Aleppo.

The current rebel offensive began on 18 March, when Islamic Front rebels detonated explosives in a tunnel beneath the old Palace of Justice courthouse in Old Aleppo. The building had been turned into a fortress by regime troops, and with its destruction, the rebels quickly advanced into more of the city center. Then, on 21 March, several Islamist groups, including the Islamic Front and Jabhat al Nusra, mounted a surprise offensive over 100 km away from Aleppo, capturing the mountainous coastal district of Kessab. This predominately Christian and Alawite area is “home-turf” for the regime, and its mountain ridges overlook the port city of Latakia and the surrounding area, Assad’s heartland. With its core supporters suddenly under the threat of Grad rockets, the government was forced to draw reserves from around the country to mount counterattacks on the rebels in the highlands that have so far been largely fruitless.

Since the Kessab offensive sucked away the government’s reserves, the rebels have methodically advanced western Aleppo. The comparatively effective and dedicated Chechen jihadis of the JMA spearheaded assaults that culminated in the capture of Tel Shuwehneh on March 22, a strategic hill with commanding views over the outskirts of NW Aleppo. By April 17, steady rebel advances in the southwest of the city had captured most of the Ramouseh industrial district, and were pushing into once-secure regime areas like the Zahraa district in the west. The Ramouseh advance effectively cut off the regime-held western half of the city. Regime supporters admit that the government forces opposing the offensive were mostly poorly-motivated militiamen uneager to fight, held together by smaller numbers of Hezbollah fighters. At this point, rebels closed all crossing points between the two halves of the city, turned off electricity to western Aleppo and have sporadically cut off running water. The government has since managed to open an improvised, dirt-road supply line that skirts rebel-held territory around the south limit of the city, but it is precariously held.

The government’s position in western Aleppo depends on a series of “strongpoints”: large fortified complexes that dominate the areas around them with firepower. The rebels are attempting to slowly encircle and bombard these strongpoints into submission, one by one. In the northwest Aleppo, the Military Research Center and the Air Force Intelligence Headquarters are both surrounded on three sides and under constant fire. In the center of the city, the Hanano Military Barracks was attacked with another massive tunnel bomb, although the subsequent attempt to storm it was repulsed. If any of these falls, we could see a collapse of regime forces in that sector.

The patient encirclement of west Aleppo and the use of tunnels and siege tactics against government strongpoints recalls a battle for a medieval castle. It’s fitting that regime forces are surrounded inside the 14th century citadel at the city’s center. Like a medieval siege, this battle will be a race against time: can the rebellion starve out west Aleppo and seize the strongpoints before the government can find enough reinforcements from the rest of Syria to restore their supply lines? This strategy holds risks for the rebellion: the sieges-within-sieges of the strongpoints can take months to complete, and cutting off supplies to west Aleppo risks unfavorable comparisons to the regime’s free use of starvation as a weapon elsewhere. In the meantime, civilians continue to suffer terribly. Thousands were killed in since January by regime barrel bomb raids on eastern Aleppo, and rebel artillery has killed hundreds in government-held areas. The Ahl Al-Sham joint command issued a statement ordering its units to be more careful with their aim, but they’re not stopping the bombardment. With just a few more advances, the rebellion can impose a complete siege on west Aleppo. A successful siege would be the rebels’ biggest victory of the war.

Jack Mulcaire is a Center for the National Interest researcher.

Image provided by author.

TopicsSecurity RegionsSyria

Twists of History and Interests in Ukraine

Paul Pillar

Imagine that the collapse of Soviet communism more than two decades ago had taken a different form than it did. It might have done so, if the dramatic and fast-moving events of 1991and key people who participated in them had taken a few different turns. Today we associate the collapse with the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. and its replacement by fifteen independent republics. But the break-up of that union did not need to be part of the failure and demise of the Leninist method of organizing politics, economics, and society that we came to know as Soviet communism.

It is true that separatist sentiment had become by early 1991 a significant part of the growing political crisis in the Soviet Union, with the Baltic republics and Georgia making declarations of independence. Even then, however, the break-up of the union was by no means certain. The center was using military force to try to bring the Lithuanians back in line and Mikhail Gorbachev was supporting the adoption of a new charter, to replace one from 1922, aimed at mollifying sentiment in the non-Russian republics while preserving some sort of union.

The career track of Boris Yeltsin had as much as anything else to do with the political shape events in the Soviet Union would take later in 1991. Yeltsin had risen to senior posts in the union power structure before having a falling out with Gorbachev and others in the Soviet regime. He happened to make his political comeback in the government of the Russian republic, and was elected president of that republic in mid-1991. Thus Yeltsin was in that position when he climbed atop a tank to face down the Soviet hardliners who attempted a coup in August while Gorbachev was vacationing at his dacha in Crimea. This meant that once the coup was defeated and Gorbachev's power waned as Yeltsin's waxed, power went from the union government to the Russian republic. Yeltsin scooped up union ministries and made them Russian ones, and when Gorbachev resigned as the last Soviet president later in the year there was barely a shell of a union government left.

It is plausible to imagine a different scenario in which the government structures that emerged from the wreckage of the U.S.S.R. would have looked substantially different. Suppose Yeltsin had taken his defiant, tank-climbing action not as president of the Russian republic but as a reformist party chief of the Moscow region—a job he had once held, along with sitting on the politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Perhaps this would have meant significant power remaining at the level of a reconstituted union.

Such speculation does not say anything about the relative likelihood of the scenario being posited, although the scenario can be the basis for a useful thought experiment if it is at least plausible. Nationalist sentiment in the constituent republics would always have been a significant factor to be reckoned with. Probably what is most implausible about any continued post-Soviet union would be inclusion of the Baltic republics. They alone among the republics of the U.S.S.R. had a history as independent states as recently as 1940. The United States and the West never recognized their annexation by Moscow, and the Baltics' westward orientation has always been strong.

The relevant thought experiment worth doing is to ask: if some sort of union (even without the Baltic states) had endured, how would we in the United States have assessed the events back in the 1990s, and how would we see our interests in that part of the world today? There still would have been sufficient basis on which to say that the Cold War was over and that our side had “won” it. Moscow had already lost its Eastern European empire, and the Warsaw Pact was gone. Although there would not have been as distinctive a dissolution of the U.S.S.R. as in fact happened with the creation of 14 independent states plus the successor state of Russia, the collapse of Soviet communism and the Leninist system would still have been readily apparent. The collapse would have been memorialized in a new name for the union, because it no longer would be calling itself “Soviet” or “socialist”; the name picked for the new union charter that was being negotiated in Gorbachev's time was “Union of Sovereign States”. Creation of a bunch of new, completely independent, Eurasian nation-states was not intrinsic to winning the Cold War, any more than were the later divorce of Czechs and Slovaks or the break-up of Yugoslavia.

George Kennan in his “X” article, the playbook for containment of the U.S.S.R., did not address the issue of nationalities or dissolution of the union. The article uses “Soviet” and “Russian” almost interchangeably. He left open a variety of possible successful outcomes of Cold War containment, stating that the self-destructive forces he perceived in the Soviet Union “must eventually find their outlet in either the breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.”

Other considerations also should be kept in mind when answering the thought experiment's question. One is that the political histories of several of the non-Russian former Soviet republics can hardly be said to constitute victories for Western-style freedom and democracy. Thus neither, in this particular respect, was the break-up of the Soviet Union. A current reminder that is geographically close to the West is the strident authoritarianism of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. In several of the republics, independence meant that regional Communist Party bosses clung to power as presidents. Two of those bosses, Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, are still in power today. Another one of them, the late Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, created a cult of personality that rivaled those of Stalin and the Kim family of North Korea. Even some of these strongmen, including Lukashenko and Niyazov, opposed the break-up of the U.S.S.R. at the time.

All of this is relevant to how the United States should perceive its interests today regarding the crisis in Ukraine. If there now existed a Union of Sovereign States, Russians in Moscow would lead it and Ukraine would be a part of it. We in the United States would still be proud winners of the Cold War, happy to see Marxism-Leninism having been discredited and communists in that part of the world reduced to a political opposition. Living with that arrangement would not be a major issue for the vast majority of U.S. and Western observers.

Of course, actual events, rather than hypothetical alternative histories, affect interests and how they ought to be conceived as well as how they actually are conceived. In the Ukrainian situation, the interests chiefly involved concern upholding international norms, especially the norms of non-aggression and respect for state sovereignty. The events of 1991 did not change facts of geography and demography that, whether we like to think this way or not, mean Russia has substantially greater strategic interest in the distribution of power in and around Ukraine than the United States does.

We do not like to think that way, partly because the events of 1991 gave us a bonus to our Cold War victory in the form of the outright dissolution of the U.S.S.R. and a sudden, drastic contraction of Russian influence. Anything that is perceived as a loss for our side (as any reassertion of Russian influence in this area would be), whether what is lost started out as a bonus or not, is harder to take than not having won it in the first place. This is a good illustration of prospect theory, but it is not a good basis for defining national interests and making policy.

The best, and probably only feasible, resolution of the crisis over Ukraine remains a Finlandized Ukraine for which joining any military alliance is firmly ruled out and significant power has been devolved from the central government to the regions. Keeping in mind how the history of the U.S.S.R. could have taken another track will help to remind us of how good an arrangement that would be for our side, as well as for Ukrainians. It also will help us to achieve greater clarity—which is sorely lacking in much of the American debate over Ukraine—in defining our interests and objectives as we decide on the next moves in jousting with one of Boris Yeltsin's other major legacies: his hand-picked successor as president of Russia.

TopicsGreat Powers RegionsRussia