As the Russo-Ukrainian War continues, Washington is calling on the world to pick sides in the dispute. President Joe Biden in particular has used highly-charged language to frame America’s opposition to the war, Russia, and Vladimir Putin—at times even outpacing official U.S. policy. He has pushed the rhetoric of a new Cold War, called for regime change, and gone so far as to declare that Russian actions constitute “genocide.” In that respect and others, the crisis is reminiscent of President George W. Bush’s moralistic rhetoric following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
When Bush announced a “global war on terror” and vowed vengeance against the perpetrators of the 9/11 terror attacks, he also gave the world an ultimatum: “you are either with us, or you are with the terrorists.” September 20, 2001, thus marked the beginning of what turned out to be Washington’s global endless war campaign. The United States had the goodwill of the world. Its civilians had been cruelly killed. America was in the right. Yet, even states historically allied with the United States—e.g., France and Germany—were taken aback by Washington’s unbounded militarism, eventually vying to resist Washington’s strong-arming rather than acquiescing. The Bush administration’s Manichaeism and hawkish, if utopian, adventurism in the Middle East and elsewhere diminished American standing and security, empowered regional rivals like Iran, and created new security challenges.
This was the critical moment, both because the president guaranteed that America would commit itself to regime change, nation-building, and unwinnable wars in the Middle East, and because it made clear to states around the world that cooperation with the United States might not be desirable or even possible on certain issues. Decades later, in the wake of Moscow’s atrocious war on Ukraine, Washington’s largely vacuous rhetorical posturing on the crisis (led by many of the same architects of the 2003 Iraq War) looks eerily familiar.
This time around, however, winning the “moral outrage” war will be of little practical and strategic significance. America has changed. The United States lacks the interest, the will, and the bandwidth to deploy America’s military might to Ukraine, even if some in the establishment might very well desire such an intervention. The world has changed. Pax Americana is at its end, and the international system is more multipolar than before. What’s more, the challenges an idealistic approach to geopolitics would create for Washington look to be much more substantial, given the rise of middle powers in the intervening years. Anchoring the world’s various regions, these civilizational states were far less influential at the height of American global primacy in 2001.
Middle Powers on the Rise
A recent report from the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy offers an important framework for assessing this issue. Entitled “Middle Powers in the Multipolar World,” the report argues for the centrality of middle powers, noting that they “occupy an inherently dynamic position in the emerging geopolitical mandala.” Though they are confined to particular regions by their “geographic rootedness” and other historical and cultural reasons—which also inform and limit their strategic goals—they are especially influential in their respective regional security complexes (RSCs) due to their comparative power vis-á-vis their neighbors which they leverage to achieve their objectives.
The upshot is that middle powers within RSCs are both difficult to coerce and subdue, as they tenaciously pursue their concrete interests within their spheres. And they have the power to either help uphold the existing order (status quo) if they find it advantageous or to challenge it if they don’t (revisionist). The bottom line is that while middle powers must be accounted for by their neighboring peers, the more distant great powers looking to encroach on these faraway RSCs must also recognize the strategic autonomy of these core states. In short, middle powers demand attention and deserve serious consideration by U.S. policymakers.
The war in Ukraine has dispelled the myth of Russia as a great power—a major bias remaining from the Cold War era. In reality, Moscow is a clear middle power—perhaps the most powerful middle power—with immense resources, a sizable military arsenal, and the ability to escalate in its sphere, but with clear limitations and an inability to project power globally à la the Soviet Union. Yet, despite its status within its RSC, Washington imprudently did not acknowledge that reality. Consequently, it refused to give Moscow any sort of deference at any point over the decades-long slouch towards war in Ukraine.
Russia is a long-standing regional power with deep cultural ties to its neighboring states, many of them Orthodox and Slavic. When Moscow articulated its clear red lines, Washington should have listened. In not recognizing or addressing Russia’s security concerns (e.g. NATO expansion), the United States and its close European allies made a grave error—a miscalculation for which innocent civilians are now paying as Putin forewent diplomacy and invaded Ukraine.
Liberal Idealism Is No Substitute for Strategy
The United States is still shell-shocked that Russia invaded, and it remains unwilling to acknowledge why it did so. To be sure, any war is a terrible thing, and the Kremlin bears responsibility for the invasion. That said, America could have more effectively pursued its national interest if it had been more mindful of the dynamics Russia responds to within its respective RSC. Furthermore, other middle powers were also paying close attention to the U.S. handling of the Ukraine crisis and the West’s stubborn insistence on NATO’s open door.
Following the invasion, Washington expressed moral outrage at Putin and sought to enlist its allies to amplify its protests. The United States was surprised to learn that many countries, including partners, took a more ambivalent stance rather than rally to Washington’s side. Upon closer examination, what unites many of these non-aligned states—India, Brazil, etc.—in their refusal to bandwagon with Washington in condemning Russian aggression or joining Western sanctions is their structural peership: they are all middle powers.
The reality is that middle powers have independent security, economic, and regional interests (among others) that cut against America’s Manichean worldview and abstract objectives. They view great power meddling in distant RSCs with concern. After all, these states no doubt noticed how the United States ignored Russia’s security concerns for decades while nudging Ukraine—a supposed partner—into a dangerous, escalatory situation that led to a destructive war from which Kiev may never recover. Today, it is Russia, tomorrow it may be them. Such a precedent is not one they wish to encourage.
For both allied, status quo middle powers (Brazil) and revisionist ones (Turkey), as well as others that fall somewhere in between (India), Washington’s actions concerning Moscow and Kiev send clear signals. Apropos of Russia, these actions show that the United States will not take the interests of middle powers seriously in their RSCs (unless they happen to overlap with Washington’s own narrow viewpoint). With regard to Ukraine, America’s behavior—nudging a weak state towards disaster to advance its utopian, strategically dubious goals—is equally instructive to lesser powers such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE that traditionally act as “regional balancers” against their neighboring middle powers like Iran and Turkey. Since the February invasion, these states have watched as the West’s quixotic, if well-intentioned, support to Ukraine has amounted to the effective prolonging of a war the U.S.-backed side cannot reasonably win.
Taken together, Washington’s coercive tactics and the reluctance of many middle powers to follow the United States’ lead suggest a general strategic pattern for middle powers: that achieving essential strategic objectives in one’s RSC trumps the ensuant cost to one’s relationship with Washington. As for the peripheral or fault line states, their takeaway is that learning to live with, and work alongside, proximal regional powers is preferable to blindly following the American line. For Washington, the lesson should be that diplomacy should be the first (and perhaps only) strategy for contending with middle powers in their RSCs.
The Need for Strategic Empathy in the Multipolar World
In 2022 as in 2001, the United States—engaged in a boisterous crusade for justice—sacrificed necessity and America’s national interest while pushing middle powers together in opposition to its liberal internationalist designs. Washington contributed to the crisis and then compounded its mistakes once the war began by loudly presenting the conflict in simple black-and-white terms, to which other states—middle powers among them—have thus far responded with realism and nuance, undercutting Washington’s idealistic, binary approach.
What makes the present situation different and riskier is that, unlike in 2001, the international system is now multipolar, with China rising as a great power and a civilizational state able to capitalize on America’s hubris and strategic overreach. Already, Beijing is arranging a new, parallel financial system that could benefit Russia and undermine the U.S.-led sanctions regime. These developments will boost China’s economy and global clout; middle powers frustrated with the United States would also benefit from a financial pivot to Beijing and will be more tempted to do so the more the Washington establishment insists on weaponizing the dollar—possibly even sacrificing dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency long-term—in pursuit of its liberal delusions.