THE WAR over Ukraine has exposed two blind spots in U.S. foreign policy that endanger its success going forward. The first is Washington’s apparent unwillingness to acknowledge that U.S. actions contributed to the crisis, and may well prolong it and exacerbate its consequences. This has been most evident in the vehemence of the rejection by many of the idea that U.S. support for NATO expansion was one of the drivers of Putin’s decision to attack Ukraine. NATO expansion, of course, did not justify his brutal invasion, which has been a horrific overreaction to both real and perceived Western disregard of Russian threat perceptions. Putin obviously had other, more reasonable options for dealing with Moscow’s accumulated post-Cold War historical grievances.
But that does not eliminate NATO expansion as an important contributing factor. Indeed, I believe that Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine—taking into account its other drivers—probably would not have happened in the absence of NATO’s expansion to include former Soviet republics, and particularly Washington’s promotion of Ukrainian membership. The fact that Kyiv was unlikely to secure NATO membership in the foreseeable future does not nullify what the prospect represented to Moscow. It clearly would reinforce Russian perceptions that NATO expansion had adopted the goal of targeting and isolating Russia—contrary to the longstanding view in Moscow and elsewhere that what is needed instead is a European security mechanism that includes Russia. The key factor was the convergence of Kyiv’s desire to exit the Russian sphere of influence and Washington’s inherent endorsement of that desire. A careful reading of Putin’s own statements strongly suggests that his ultimate decision to attack Ukraine came only after he concluded that the United States and NATO had dismissed Moscow’s perspective and were determined to incorporate Ukraine into the Western sphere of influence. Again, this did not warrant and does not excuse his subsequent actions, which have been monstrous. But it does indicate that Washington’s support for Ukraine’s NATO candidacy was a key factor in Putin’s decision to act, even if it obviously was not the only one.
Denying that U.S. policy choices since the Cold War contributed over time to Moscow’s strategic perceptions and Putin’s own policy choices ignores the underlying interactive dynamic in the U.S.-Russia relationship. It also reflects the absence of any effort toward strategic empathy. This is only compounded by the U.S. embrace, following Putin’s setbacks on the Ukrainian battlefield, of the notion that Russia can and must be soundly defeated and left permanently weakened. As gratifying as that might be, it would not address—let alone resolve—the underlying historical problem of Russia’s long-term relationship with Europe, any more than Germany’s defeat in World War I settled its long-term relationship with Europe. On the contrary, it would reinforce Russia’s sense of resentment and vulnerability, and thus almost guarantee the persistence of strategic hostility in Central Europe and in East-West relations.
The United States needs to overcome this blind spot by taking steps not only to help secure the restoration of peace and sovereignty in Ukraine, but also to address the fundamental underlying dilemma of Russia’s place in Europe’s security architecture. The latter will not be resolved by further expansion of NATO, and especially not if the assumption persists that NATO exists for the same reason it did during the Cold War: to contain Russia. Failure or refusal to recognize this will only deepen—and perhaps expand—the conflict in Ukraine, and heighten the risk of another prolonged cold war with Russia.
The second American blind spot is the presumption that Washington’s success in mobilizing the coalition to punish Putin and aid Ukraine has validated U.S. global leadership in the struggle between democracy and autocracy, and in defense of the “rules-based order.” The fact is that the war in Ukraine has simultaneously revealed some of the limits on U.S. global influence. Many countries, especially outside Europe, have neither condemned Russia nor joined the sanctions regime against it. This is partly because many of them agree with Moscow that NATO expansion was ill-advised or poorly executed, and believe that a U.S. strategy that continues to disregard Russian security concerns and focus on weakening Russia will be counterproductive to ending the crisis.
Moreover, many countries are highly ambivalent about the Biden administration’s emphasis on a global struggle against authoritarianism, and its characterization of the war in Ukraine as a front line in that contest. Perhaps most importantly, many countries—including U.S. allies both inside and outside Europe—remain uncertain about the reliability and credibility of American leadership despite the transition from Donald Trump to Joe Biden. In short, the world is not necessarily ready or eager to bandwagon with Washington’s approach to dealing with Russia or with other global issues, or to embrace its preferred version of the “rules-based order.” China, meanwhile, is seizing every opportunity to capitalize on this international ambivalence about the United States and to score points against Washington in the competition for global influence—despite Beijing’s own discomfort with the nature and extent of Putin’s assault on Ukraine.
Washington should recognize and confront these blind spots as it endeavors to reorient American foreign policy and formulate strategies for pursuing U.S. interests in the wake of the war in Ukraine. The United States will need to take into consideration historical shifts in the balance of power and influence in the world, and acknowledge its own accountability for the strategic circumstances—and strategic dilemmas—that prevail in both Europe and East Asia. America cannot presume that it still enjoys the same leverage, international support, and moral authority that it possessed a generation ago.
Paul Heer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for the National Interest and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia from 2007 to 2015. He is the author of Mr. X and the Pacific: George F. Kennan and American Policy in East Asia (2018).