The Real Solution to the Ukraine Crisis (And It Doesn't Involve Arms)

Here's how to settle this issue once and for all...

Providing lethal military hardware to the Ukrainian government would be a qualitative escalation in the means we have been using to achieve our objectives in that country. It would move us a significant step closer to the possibility of a direct military confrontation with the world’s other nuclear superpower. It is not a step that we would have considered taking during the Cold War in that part of the world. Why are we thinking of doing it now?

Ideally, foreign-policy decisions should flow from a clearly articulated and widely accepted view of the country’s fundamental national interests. The country’s objectives in particular situations should defend or advance those interests, while at the same time being scaled to the resources we are willing to bring to bear to achieve the objectives. The reality normally falls well short of that, but we should push for the highest standard possible, particularly on matters of war and peace.

Vital national interests are usually defined as those you are prepared to go to war to defend. In democratic societies, partisan politics ought to be about defining means and objectives within a framework of common understanding about American vital interests, but in contemporary U.S. politics, that is not necessarily the case. For a couple of centuries, Britain had a powerful, clear-eyed, fundamentally simple definition of its vital national interests that transcended party interests: 1) prevent the emergence of any dominant land power on the European continent; 2) obtain and maintain British naval dominance. I suggest that America’s vital national interests can also be succinctly defined: 1) prevent an attack on the homeland; 2) enhance the stability of the international system; 3) fulfill our security-alliance commitments. The first of these is presumably clear enough in principle; the second and third perhaps less so. We want to maintain the stability of the international system, because we are the most powerful state in it and its structure is advantageous to us. If we are perceived as unwilling or unable to maintain our security-alliance commitments, that will have a profoundly destabilizing effect on the international system.

There are some high-level objectives that flow from this definition of our national interests. One of the most significant is to encourage the spread of our political and social values, since an international system whose participants generally accept those values is not one likely to threaten our vital interests. The reality of the world today, however, is that an injudicious pursuit of that objective can produce conditions that threaten, rather than advance, our fundamental interests. So we deal with, rather than oppose, authoritarian regimes of varying kinds in all parts of the world. In some cases, we do it because we believe that to do otherwise would increase the instability of the system. In other cases, we do it because we are not prepared to employ the resources (means) necessary to effect fundamental change. We deal with the Saudi monarchy and the Egyptian military because our security interests trump our human-rights objectives, and because we are not prepared either to employ the means or incur the risks necessary to replace them.

The protection of our interests and the pursuit of our objectives do not occur in a vacuum. They require us to consider the interests and objectives of other states. This is where the relationship between means, objectives and interests becomes crucial. We have a tendency in situations where our vital interests are not at stake to nevertheless articulate objectives that are too grandiose for the means we are willing to bring to bear to achieve them. That can have a variety of negative effects, but two stand out. First, it can get a lot of people killed who believe that we are willing to walk the walk, as well as talk the talk. This happened in Bosnia in the early 1990s. Second, and in contradiction to the first, we can become so enamored by our own rhetoric that we overcommit ourselves, to the detriment of our fundamental interests. Our foreign policy becomes the prisoner of our press releases instead of our press releases being an instrument of our foreign policy. From Vietnam, where we saw nonexistent dominos falling, to Iraq, where we saw nonexistent weapons of mass destruction being built, we have committed inordinate amounts of blood, treasure and tears to pursuing objectives that we wrongly persuaded ourselves were necessary to protect our vital national interests.