In the aftermath of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine, influential personalities in the United States have begun confidently inserting themselves into the debate on American foreign policy. Specifically, the aforementioned have been speaking with forthrightness on the territorial battles in Eastern Europe. Politicians, public intellectuals, academics, and policy wonks have been commenting publicly on an increasingly confrontational Russian policy as it relates to American power.
While some commentators have counseled a careful pursuit of a pragmatic, patient, and more methodical path in which to confront the rising influence of the Kremlin in the international system, others have sounded a clarion call for a more forceful course of action. Those proposing a more confrontational approach have only increased the volume of their calls in the wake of the disaster last week in Ukraine.
These competing camps are both seeking to confront a Russian foreign policy that has grown progressively more confident and assertive in projecting Russian power beyond its historic near abroad in the past decade. Each approach, though diverging from the other on important points of policy debate, carries with it risks and rewards for its implementation.
There are a number of consequences to consider when formulating policy responses to the issue of rising Russian influence. In this regard, it is essential to avoid overreaction and timidity. The consequences for unnecessary expense of soft power carry great cost for the future capabilities of our military to meet and eliminate threats to the national security of the United States.
Consideration of a more confrontational response to Russian intervention (specifically in Eastern Europe) largely relegates allies of the United States to wall decor. Those promulgating unilateral U.S. diplomatic action tacitly assign these European allies mere supporting roles in a play on a stage that exists on their own territory. This course of action often elicited adverse consequences during the decades-long Cold War, inspiring a backlash in public opinion in countries such as West Germany and catalyzing demands for removal of American military assets on the territory of key allies. In the context of recently strained ties between the governments of the United States and Germany over accusations that the U.S. spied on its German partners, it is especially important to be thoughtful about how responding to Russian aggression in Ukraine can adversely affect relationships between the United States and its allies.
Conversely, neo-isolationists (those calling for a reduced international profile for the U.S.) often mistake American influence around the world as malevolent and a catalyst for exacerbation of conflict and diplomatic tension. This is also a fallacy. United States diplomatic personnel and military forces are more often than not the only stabilizing force in keeping a semblance of peace between belligerents whose actions threaten to engulf entire regions in open warfare. Considering the consequences of inaction is as important as considering the consequences of action. Failing to respond quickly and assertively in confronting the aggressive actions of a geopolitical adversary can and often does have disastrous repercussions for the security interests of both the United States and its allies.
Among the more important lessons of the Cold War is one that clearly applies in the present conflict with Russia: anticipating and appreciating the implications that American foreign policy has on the domestic politics of allied nations. It will be important to consider the preferences and policies of these long-standing American allies, especially in Europe, as domestic politics in countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy will inevitably (and in a significant way) impact the ability of American policymakers to implement courses of action which ensure the security of U.S. interests while paying heed to the national interests of our allies. This is especially true when interests of those allies diverge with those of the U.S.
The approach of the U.S. in confronting intensifying Russian involvement in places such as eastern Ukraine will affect the approach by which leaders in allied nations establish policy and ensure the political capital necessary for public support for any action (diplomatic or military) against Russian involvement in places such as Ukraine, Syria, Egypt, and Iran.
At Foreign Intrigue last December, I wrote a four-part series which outlined the emergence of a more assertive Russian foreign policy under President Vladamir Putin. I examined The Putin Doctrine as understood by Dr. Leon Aron (a Russian policy expert) and assessed the likelihood that Russian policy makers in the Kremlin would assume a more self-confident position in asserting growing Russian influence and power around the world.
In my examination, I noted reasons for the argument against pursuing influence in Eastern Europe at the expense of a weakened Russian government, and warned that aggressive efforts to apply intensified American influence could have counterproductive consequences for American security interests. Specifically, the efforts to expand NATO into the former near abroad of the Soviet Union (and beyond) potentially impact both Russian domestic policy and Russian public opinion. In addressing the issue of Russian public opinion, I noted that it is important to anticipate a rise in Russian nationalism as outside powers begin to garner more and more sway in directing national policy in states formerly under the influence of Moscow.
This latent nationalism has since spurred on the willingness of the Kremlin and President Putin to invest Russian influence more forcefully in places such as Ukraine and nations in both the Baltics and Balkans. You can find that four-part series here:
- Part I (Overview)
- Part II (Outlining the Putin Doctrine)
- Part III (Domestic policy and the re-adjusted Russian foreign policy)
- Part IV (Conclusion)
In the weeks and months to come, issues such as the enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and plans for a missile defense shield will once again be front and center in the wider debate about the the role the United States should play within the international system. Specifically, calls for a renewed effort to project American power will find strong allies in key positions in Congress and among candidates for President. The fallout in political circles in the United States is beginning to reflect a reinvigorated sense of assertiveness among the more interventionist sectors of American politics.
What follows in the wake of disasters such as that which has occurred in Donetsk will be a battleground of ideals. In pushing for the absorption of more former Soviet near abroad nations such as Georgia, NATO risks escalating the crisis between The West and Russia. Interests are currently colliding along a collection of fracture points, to include contested areas and regions occupied by foreign troops. Americans will once again be beset upon by television pundits, politicians, and assorted public intellectuals who will note the sudden importance of specific foreign regions.
Both The West and Russia will apply pressure and influence upon those strategic areas. Regions such as Abkhazia, Găgăuzia, the former Yugoslavia, and the Caucasus will once again be the subject of debate and prognostication. The Kremlin has also rekindled its historical ties with the government of Cuba in an effort to galvanize support in the western hemisphere and seeks a strategic balance to the encroachment of NATO into the Russian near abroad. Their importance, even in spite of the hand-wringing, cannot be understated. I will be addressing these topics in greater detail in subsequent articles both at Foreign Intrigue and here at SOFREP.
Neoconservatives, preoccupied with asserting American power forthrightly throughout the contested areas of the world, will find ideological foes among the Realists who warned of imperial overstretch in the years following the attacks by Al Qaeda on New York City, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. This battle of ideals is likely to intensify in short order, impacted by the approaching campaign season and the presidential election in 2016. Candidates will seek to establish their bonafides to be Commander in Chief by assuming stronger and more combative postures towards Russian policy, and will make the Kremlin a major enemy on which to project American power.
While public statements will not necessarily reflect a change in American foreign policy, such rhetoric can have a negative impact on policy. As the American public has vacillated between aggressive interventionism and back towards neo-isolationism on both ends of the proverbial political spectrum since 2001, so has the rhetoric of American politicians reflected these changes.
Make no mistake: this is not an either/or proposition in establishing the direction that will define the future of American foreign policy. No single event or series of events should have the sway over the direction of policy. The direction of American policy should be defined by the future best interests of the United States. In this ideological battle, the resurgence of interventionist-minded neoconservatives will be pitted against the Realism and pragmatism.
The solution exists in the area at which these two often competing viewpoints conflate. However, it is essential to the safeguarding of our security interests to remain strongly engaged. This involves an assertive implementation of American power in conflicts where vital American interests are at stake. These interests exist in Ukraine for several reasons, all derived of geopolitical value. The future of European economic and security strategy relies largely on the support of the United States. Consequently, the future of American security interests relies heavily upon the support of our allies in Europe, especially in the East. Therefore, it is essential that the Obama Administration remain strongly engaged in establishing U.S. support for self-determination in Ukraine and repelling the latent influence of the Kremlin in fomenting conflict and fracturing the country.
As is often the case with ideologues, those propagating an either/or option remain so tightly focused upon ideological goals that they fail to address the causes of the conflicts, thus ensuring the perpetuation of the conflict. There are hybrid solutions to be found in compromise between the two camps. Failing to address what is catalyzing conflict ensures the perpetuation of conflict. This perpetuation can draw the U.S. further into international conflict and drain essential national resources. However, ignoring the conflict and withdrawing from confrontation under the guise of prioritizing domestic concerns over those of foreign policy interests is equally as disastrous as leaping into confrontation without an understanding for the potential consequences for action.
The conflict in Ukraine, specifically the incident involving Malaysia Flight 17, requires a methodical approach that considers all consequences for action and inaction. These consequences will largely define the success or failure of U.S. pursuit of its interests in the coming decades. America has a role in sorting out this conflict. It is likely that emerging European nations, those such as Poland and the Baltics, will be very supportive of American involvement in the effort to facilitate a resolution to the conflict. However, the American response must take into consideration the effects that action and inaction will have on both American interests and those of our European allies. It is essential that thoughtful minds counsel against rash action in lieu of methodical, decisive consideration of the consequences for American involvement for the future of American foreign policy.
American policies implemented as responses to events such as the downing of the airliner in Donetsk will be important components of the defining aspects of the future path of American national security strategy. Public blustering does little to further substantive debate on topics of national security interest and U.S. foreign policy. Those issuing calls for immediate military response and diplomatic disengagement with self-serving political rhetoric do little to further substantive debate and consequently do significant damage to the ability of policymakers to establish courses of action that serve the interests of U.S. policy.
It is important to assess the consequences for each option and to assess the likelihood for successful strengthening and furthering of American interest. That requires patience and a methodical, careful, and thoughtful examination of the potential ramifications for each course of action.
(Featured photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)