An article in Thursday’s New York Times by Peter Baker comes close to encapsulating everything that is wrong with American foreign-policy discourse today. In the words of his title, Baker’s piece summarizes the “Debate Over Who, in U.S., Is to Blame for Ukraine” following Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Crimea. According to Baker, many prominent politicians on the right contend that “Moscow’s land grab is President Obama’s fault for pursuing a foreign policy of weakness,” with Senator John McCain calling it “the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy.” Meanwhile, on the left, Rachel Maddow argued that the fact that the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 “on a trumped-up false pretext” made it more difficult for Washington to respond to Putin doing the same in Ukraine, a sentiment echoed by her fellow MSNBC host Chris Matthews.
Underlying all of this is one of the most common errors in U.S. commentary on international relations: the casual assumption that everything that happens anywhere in the world is ultimately about America, and that when anything bad happens anywhere, someone in Washington must ultimately be to blame. The story that Baker describes on the right—in which America’s failure to use military force in Syria and elsewhere spurred Putin to invade Crimea—has the benefit of being an easy-to-understand and politically convenient one for those who are opposed to the president. But there is simply no reason to think that it is true.
For one thing, Russia under Putin has often been predisposed to act aggressively to protect its perceived interests in its near abroad. Consider the 2008 Russia-Georgia war. At that time, there was a more muscular, interventionist American president in office. Yet, as Representative Adam Schiff puts it, Putin still “felt no limitation whatsoever on going into Georgia and essentially taking over two separate provinces.” Did that happen because Putin judged that George W. Bush was a weak leader?
Second, the existing social-science literature does not support the idea that what states do in a given situation stems from their assessment of others’ “credibility” based on how they approached past crises. Last year, both Jonathan Mercer in Foreign Affairs and Daryl G. Press and Jennifer Lind in Foreign Policy reviewed this literature and found that there is little to no evidence that this is how world leaders have generally operated in history. Rather, as Press and Lind wrote, “Power and interests in the here-and-now determine credibility, not what one did in different circumstances in the past.” We don’t have to take this conclusion as the gospel truth. But what it does mean is that the burden of proof is on those asserting that Putin is being motivated by American “weakness” and Obama’s lack of “credibility” to provide some real evidence for this conclusion—something that they have thus far failed to do.
Of course, none of this is meant to excuse or defend the invasion of Crimea. As Mark Adomanis wrote at Forbes, this act was an “egregious violation” of the norm that international borders are no longer to be redrawn through the force of arms. It therefore, as Adomanis recommended, merits a serious response that aims to impose real economic costs on Russia. Maddow’s and Matthews’s comments suggest that this task will be made more difficult as a result of the legacy of the Iraq War. Yet this also doesn’t seem to be true, beyond a certain surface-level plausibility. Other nations will surely bring up the Iraq example as a talking point in international forums, asking how America has the moral right to condemn Russia’s actions given its own history. But this tactic of “whataboutism” is unlikely to have any significant impact on how any country approaches the situation.
For example, one of the immediate decisions facing European countries now is whether and to what extent they are willing to place sanctions on Russia in response to the invasion. Many people in Europe are reluctant to do so. The reasons they are reluctant to pursue this course, however, have nothing to do with Iraq, or any previous wars of aggression launched by European countries. Rather, it largely stems from the fact that many European nations are heavily dependent on Russia for oil and gas, and so worry about the consequences of either the sanctions themselves or potential retaliation from Russia. In other words, these European states will make their own decisions based on the actual issues at stake, weighing their interest in checking Russia’s ambitions against the economic pain that sanctions might cause them.
The bottom line is that, while Washington has an interest (albeit a limited one) in the outcome in Ukraine, the ongoing crisis there is not about us in any real sense. The arguments that we invited it through our own weakness or that we have no moral right to respond due to our own previous wars just don’t hold up. Moreover, the basic framework that Baker describes—in which our reflexive response to any negative development around the world is to ask, “Who in America is to blame?”—is a deeply flawed and dangerous one. It causes us to misread foreign events and attribute more influence to ourselves than we actually have.
Baker compares what he calls the “who-lost-Ukraine debate” to the “who-lost-China” one that followed the Communist seizure of power in Beijing in 1949. (Leave aside, as Baker’s Times colleague Steven Lee Myers put it on Twitter, how bizarre it is to have this debate “even before it’s clear what’s lost.”) The vitriol of the China debate destroyed careers and had negative consequences for American foreign policy that lasted for decades afterward, all based on the mistaken presumption that China was ever “ours” to lose. Fortunately, that doesn’t seem likely to happen over Ukraine. But we should recognize now that having this debate under those same terms is just as foolish.
Image: Flickr/(vincent desjardins). CC BY 2.0.