Foreign Policy as Staring Contest

Thomas Friedman declares victory for America in Ukraine. The crisis there pitted “the 21st century versus the 19th,” he writes.


Certainly the West and China/Russia, as Friedman says, are operating on different assumptions about the world’s political order. The twentieth century saw a complete collapse in world order (1914-1945), followed by the Cold War, in which two countries engaged in an all-encompassing, worldwide competition. When the West won the Cold War, it assumed that the world will indefinitely look like it did in the 1990s, with almost no power competition.


But Russia and China seem to believe that this condition was a product of U.S. hegemony- there was no competition because nobody could compete with the hegemon. They seem to assume that this was an anomaly; the world would return to the nineteenth century system of spheres of influence and a balance of power. There wouldn’t be ideological competition and ambitions of world domination, but rather limited means devoted to securing limited aims. The world’s great powers can hopefully have aims that are compatible enough if they understand their own and each others’ interests, and lesser countries will have to live with the world these powers shape. Ukraine and Georgia matter more to Russia than they do to the U.S. or Europe, so Russia intends to do what it wants in these countries.


From the perspective of the U.S. or Europe, the West isn’t seeking to expand to Russia’s borders. Rather, countries want to be part of NATO and other organizations, and we let them in. Russia has no right to a sphere of influence that contradicts the rights of the countries within that sphere. There is no need to preserve a balance of power, because the U.S. and Europe would never threaten Russia or China, and Putin is paranoid and delusional, out of touch with reality, to think otherwise.


So can the U.S. vision of the 21st century survive now that U.S. hegemony is weakened? Has the world become such that nineteenth century geopolitics just won’t work anymore? Friedman thinks so: “the world of the 21st century is not just interconnected but interdependent and either you play by those rules or you pay a huge price.” What rules are those? And whose rules? And what do they have to do with interdependence? Friedman’s answer to this last question is that Russia is vulnerable to Western sanctions. That’s true if Russia is more dependent on the West than the West is on Russia, which of course is the case. It’s a question of leverage and power, just like in the nineteenth or any other century. The concept of “interdependence” tells us nothing about who is going to win such a struggle. In any case, Friedman tells us that Russia turned to China to replace the Western market- he just got a worse oil deal than he otherwise might have gotten, due to Chinese leverage.


Friedman also charged that Putin misunderstood the world because “spheres of influence” have been replaced by “people of influence”; the Ukranians exercised their own agency in their desire to join Europe. Putin “underestimated Ukranian patriotism.” But Nationalist stirrings against the Powers happened all the time in the nineteenth century. There is nothing new that would suggest the world has become inhospitable to nineteenth century geopolitics. Putin’s response was simply to foment Russian nationalism in East Ukraine. And in Friedman’s story, is it interdependence or nationalist independence that is supposed to uniquely characterize the twenty-first century and save us from the nineteenth?


Here’s how Friedman envisions Ukraine’s future: “not only a new Ukrainian president, but a new Parliament, a new constitution and an engaged network of civil society groups able to hold Kiev’s all-too-often corrupt leaders to the rule of law and to the standards of governance being demanded by both the E.U. and the I.M.F., in return for aid.” So much for an end to foreign meddling! Especially since “With Ukraine’s economy closely tied to Russia’s — Kiev owes Russia $3.5 billion in gas bills — Putin still has enormous power to squeeze Ukraine. The goal of the West should not be to prevent Putin from having any influence in Ukraine. Given all the links, that is not possible or healthy.”


Regardless of Friedman’s theory as to why Russia’s seizure of Crimea isn’t supposed to happen in this day and age, it did happen. What are we to make of that? How do we get the U.S. vision for the 21st century triumphing over Russia/China’s vision of a return to the nineteenth century?


Friedman’s solution is to declare that Putin backed down, proving that the realities of the 21st century world are too much for him to overcome. But maybe he quit destabilizing Ukraine because he got what he wanted! When Ukraine leaned toward Europe, he became a revisionist, sacrificing stability to get the bit of Ukraine that he cares about most. Now that he’s got that, he’s a status quo power and wants stability. Such a thing was not unheard of in the nineteenth century; it was the norm. You fought limited wars with limited aims; Bismarck did it in Austria. For that matter, China did it in Vietnam in the 70s, and GHWB did it against Iraq.

Russia seized Crimea. The U.S. imposed sanctions. Friedman declares victory because Russia hasn’t seized anything more.


Again, what can we conclude? We can make fun of Putin for not understanding how the world works or being out of touch with reality, but he is part of how the world works and part of reality.


Foreign policy attitudes are often an extension of domestic political battles. Neither liberals nor conservatives in America like Putin. However, conservatives often see him as a tough and formidable opponent and strategic mastermind, forever exploiting a weak and naïve Obama. In doing so they excessively personalize foreign policy. They mistakenly believe another leader could have forced Putin out of Crimea.


To liberals, conservatives’ respect for Putin at the expense of Obama is evidence of admiration for him. In fact, Putin for them represents Republicanism- with his macho act, his anti-gay policies, his foreign policy aggression, and his rejection of liberal values in favor of Russian nationalism and cultural conservatism. Thus, for them the U.S.-Russian rivalry is an extension of domestic liberal-conservative rivalry (in Friedman, the contest is “Obamaism versus Putinism,” and, again “19th century against 21st century). Thus they turn to the same weapons, ridiculing Putin and making clear to him that they consider him uncool and backward, and declaring him out of touch with the way the world is today. Meanwhile, as Friedman and others depict it, the smart and secretly tougher Obama coolly outmaneuvers the blustering guy Putin and turns out to be secretly tougher (“Putin blinked.”)


Speaking of the reduction of policy to personal qualities, and left-of-center mythologizing, Friedman analogizes the confrontation over Ukraine to (you’ll never guess!) the Cuban missile crisis, relying on a Kennedy-lionizing anecdote that has apparently been debunked.