Robert Kagan: Always Wrong about Everything?

I haven’t done the math, but it certainly seems as if every 4-5 years Kagan churns out another international-affairs manifesto. Each one seeks to capture the zeitgeist and define the terms of debate. Although he’s probably best known for Of Paradise and Power and its “America is from Mars, Europe is from Venus” catchphrase, “Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy” is Kagan’s best work. Since then, its been a downhill slide through each new gloss on neoconservative thought.

Kagan’s piece in the New Republic, called “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire,” continues this depressing trend. At least half of the essay is a rambling account of 20th-century US foreign policy. It has a decidedly “paint by numbers” feel. If you know where it is going – and, since this is Kagan, that’s not a big mystery – you pretty much know which textbook-level historical facts will appear and which theoretical flourishes he’ll name check along the way.

The essay isn’t really worth a serious intellectual engagement. The world is going to hell because of the declining US defense budget, Obama’s desire to improve decaying US infrastructure, and probably because we haven’t bombed anyone in a whole three years. If we don’t stand up now, pretty soon Putin will be celebrating Orthodox Easter in London because Hitler. The whole thing is held together with pixie dust, repurposed post-it notes, and a piece or two of trident chewing gum.

What is interesting about it? For one, realism seems to have firmly reemerged as the bête noire for neoconservatives. For another, Kagan continues his attempts to deflect attention from the myriad ways in which Iraq undermined US power and influence. He also rewrites a bit of his own history on the subject. Here’s what he says in The New Republic piece:

At the end of the day, George W. Bush’s decision to remove Saddam Hussein, whether that decision was wise or foolish, was driven more by concerns for world order than by narrow self-interest. Of all the American interventions of the post-cold-war era, only the invasion of Afghanistan could be understood as directly related to America’s own national security. 

Perhaps. But that’s certainly not how Kagan saw it at the time. For example:

He would be a greater threat to the United States even were the Americans and Europeans in complete agreement on Iraq policy, because it is the logical consequence of the transatlantic disparity of power. The task of containing Saddam Hussein belongs primarily to the United States, not to Europe, and everyone agrees on this — including Saddam, which is why he considers the United States, not Europe, his principal adversary. In the Persian Gulf, in the Middle East, and in most other regions of the world (including Europe), the United States plays the role of ultimate enforcer. “You are so powerful,” Europeans often say to Americans. “So why do you feel so threatened?” But it is precisely America’s great power that makes it the primary target, and often the only target. Europeans are understandably content that it should remain so.

Now, it is true that Kagan routinely invoked world-order issues in advocating for war with Iraq. But he never stopped there. To take another example:

NOR IS THERE any doubt that, after September 11, Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction pose a kind of danger to us that we hadn’t fully grasped before. In the 1990s, much of the complacency about Saddam, both in Washington and in Europe, rested on the assumption that he could be deterred. Saddam was not a madman, the theory went, and would not commit suicide by actually using the weapons he was so desperately trying to obtain. Some of us, it’s true, had our doubts about this logic. The issue seemed to us not so much whether we could deter Saddam, but whether he could deter us: If Saddam had had nuclear weapons in 1991, would we have gone to war to drive him from Kuwait?

But after September 11, we have all been forced to consider another scenario. What if Saddam provides some of his anthrax, or his VX, or a nuclear device to a terrorist group like al Qaeda? Saddam could help a terrorist inflict a horrific attack on the United States or its allies, while hoping to shroud his role in the secrecy of cutouts and middlemen. How in the world do we deter that? To this day we don’t know who provided the anthrax for the post-September 11 attacks. We may never know for sure.

What we do know is that Saddam is an ally to the world’s terrorists and always has been. He has provided safe haven to the infamous Abu Nidal. Reliable reports from defectors and former U.N. weapons inspectors have confirmed the existence of a terrorist training camp in Iraq, complete with a Boeing 707 for practicing hijackings, and filled with non-Iraqi radical Muslims. We know, too, that Mohamed Atta, the ringleader of September11, went out of his way to meet with an Iraqi intelligence official a few months before he flew a plane into the World Trade Center. As Leon Fuerth understates, “There may well have been interaction between Mr. Hussein’s intelligence apparatus and various terrorist networks, including that of Osama bin Laden.”

SO THERE IS no debate about the facts. No one doubts the nature of the threat Saddam poses. Most even agree that, as former national security adviser Samuel R. Berger says, “the goal . . . should be getting rid of Saddam Hussein.” Leon Fuerth recently wrote that Saddam “and his government must be ripped out of Iraq if we are ever to be secure and if the sufferings of the Iraqi people are ever to abate.”

Le sigh.

Deterring the Ukraineshluss?

Back at my old digs, Jeff Stacey wants the US and NATO to stop further Russian aggression against Ukraine:

Or has he? Will Putin seek further Ukrainian territory in the Russian-speaking east? Russian has had over 40,000 troops and sizable collection of military hardware massed near the border for weeks, and now a Russian fighter has buzzed a U.S. destroyer. It should now be clear beyond a reasonable doubt that western conventional deterrence has not been restored, and the mere threat of further sanctions is essentially meaningless at this stage.

Far more costly economic sanctions are called for, but in days not weeks western allies need to step up aerial patrols and stage a NATO ground exercise in Poland, in order to establish credible deterrence. A show of force is key to avoiding having to use force, and still achieve one’s objective.

Is military deterrence possible? Probably not.

First, the balance of interests clearly favors Moscow. At best, Ukraine constitutes a peripheral security interest for the United States. Russia, on the other hand, views Ukraine as part of its core: as a country of dubious legitimacy sitting on the symbolic homeland of the Russian nation. To consolidate  economic and military control over Crimea, it needs additional Ukrainian territory — or, at the very least, guaranteed access through eastern and parts of southern Ukraine.

Second, it isn’t clear to me what Jeff’s proposal for aerial patrols and military exercises will likely to achieve. Given the balance of interests — and the lack of existing security guarantees to Ukraine — the only way to make US and NATO deterrence at all credible is to put forces in harms way. Aerial patrols won’t do accomplish this goal, unless those patrols are over Ukraine itself. Even then, it would be relatively easy for the Russians to avoid engagement with NATO aircraft. The only serious step would be to significantly increase the risk of NATO personnel dying in the event of further Russian actions — such as placing  advisors or other limited forces in Ukrainian territory.

But creating the conditions for inadvertent escalation presents a dubious proposition. NATO would have to be serious about risking war with Russia. I don’t believe — and I don’t think there’s much chance of getting Moscow to believe — that any of the central players in NATO are willing to go to war over Ukraine.

And that leads directly to the second question: is it worth it? The answer is no. Ukraine is not worth war with Russia. Full stop. Indeed, taking steps to convince Moscow that NATO might go to war over Ukraine are likely to backfire. They increase the risk of Russia taking the whole of Ukraine. Moscow’s greatest fear is that Ukraine winds up a member of NATO. The more that NATO suggests it views Ukraine as worthy of military confrontation, the more Moscow will become convinced that an autonomous Ukraine — rump or otherwise — will someday become a member of the NATO alliance. The net result: escalating efforts by NATO at military deterrence actually increase the pressure on Moscow to take decisive action in the near term.

At the same time, a botched commitment to Ukraine poses significant downsides. The worst-case scenario? That NATO emerges looking like a paper tiger. In fact, NATO and the United States do have legal and consequential security commitments to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. This is where the alliance needs to draw its “line in the sand” against future Russian adventures, and where it needs to do so with as much credibility as possible.

This remains an achievable goal. The Baltic states are more peripheral to Russian identity and security than Ukraine. At the same time, they are former parts of the Soviet Union with significant — and not always well-treated — Russian populations. They are not capable of repelling a Russian military offensive. It seems to me that Moscow has voided whatever explicit and tacit bargains existed about permanent deployment of significant NATO troops in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — or, for that matter, in any of the NATO members that were once part of the Warsaw Pact. At the very least, the threat of such deployments does provide the US and NATO with some leverage over Russia.

So I agree with Jeff that exercises in Poland might prove worthwhile. I would go further and suggest a more robust permanent military presence along Russia western borders. But I also suggest that NATO pursue an incremental course along these lines, with escalation of commitment dependent upon future Russian actions in Ukraine. Along with further economic sanctions, military deployments to NATO’s eastern flank provide a mechanism to punish Moscow for further aggression against Ukraine. These mechanisms have the virtue not only of serving core NATO security interests, but of making Moscow pay costs that do not involve incredible commitments to defend Ukraine itself.

Finally, let me suggest that any discussion about Russia and Ukraine needs to take place within the context of clearly articulated arguments about US grand strategy. Despite some genuflection in that direction, the tenor of debate so far — particularly from advocates of a more robust US response — involves vague handwaving toward ‘principles’ and broad ‘interests’ rather than anything resembling a sustained analysis. But that’s a topic for another day.

Blog Status

Hylaean Flow has been (mostly) down for the last few weeks. The problem seems to be the Duck of Minerva‘s processor usage. The Duck still lives on server space that I paid for back way back when. This blog is attached to the same account.

I’m going to give this another few days and see if things work now. If not, I’ll migrate Hylaean Flow. There’s no point in having a personal blog if I can’t update it and no one can actually read it.

“The Lessons” of an Unfolding Crisis: Better to be Boring than Delusional

The temperature in Washington, DC is set to bottom out at 8°F overnight. Meteorologists may point to “fronts” and “arctic air.” But we know the real reason: the Washington foreign-policy establishment is sucking all of the energy out of the atmosphere and converting it into delusional ramblings about the big lessons of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. No one should be surprised that the same Bush Administration officials who bungled US-Georgia relations are now beating the drum about how ‘if only the US bombed a few more countries, purchased a few more F-35s, and denounced Moscow every other day then Putin would never have dared to attach one of his neighbors.’ Or that George F. Will sounds more and more like Grandpa Simpson every day.  But the number of post-partisan luminaries lining up to make themselves look foolish is truly staggering.

Consider today’s unsigned Washington Post editorial. As far as I can tell, the editors believe that the US should return to a foreign-policy and military posture last seen under Ronald Reagan because otherwise bad things will happen in the world. They accuse the Obama Administration of living in a fantasy land, but the whole thing is a paean to the magical powers of the Resolve Fairy. We’ve seen this kind of reasoning before–and on the very same page.

We last saw David Rothkopf tweeting to Daniel Drezner that:

Today he presented us with a “big picture” piece befitting Parade‘s answer to Foreign Affairs. 

But, even while acknowledging all that, we can be relatively certain that one of the reasons that Putin has taken the action he has — why he has felt free to order troops into Crimea and indeed why he has felt so free to meddle in the affairs of Ukraine since the beginning of the current crisis — is because he has felt there would be no consequences — at least none serious enough to dissuade him.

This is the message that America’s recent foreign-policy actions — or rather its relative inaction and fecklessness — from Syria to the Central Africa Republic, from Egypt to Anbar province, from the East China Sea to the Black Sea, have helped to send. We have gone from Pax Americana to Lox Americana.

There are, in fact, some important lessons we can learn from what’s happened so far in Ukraine.

First, in the absence of robust external security guarantees, weak states are vulnerable to great powers. I admit that this is a pretty boring, incremental “lesson.” The US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan showcased much the same dynamic. As did the US bombing of Serbia. And the Russia-Georgia War of 2008.

Second, Russia’s Putin constitutes a difficult problem for the United States. Moscow remains committed to a worldview in which great powers preserve, maintain, and police “privileged spheres of influence.” For all its bluster, the regime’s actions suggest domestic fragility. Showcasing great-power status and attacking the United States provide well-rehearsed ways of enhancing its own prestige while delegitimizing its opposition.

  • The Bush Administration’s record strongly suggests that neither US military adventurism nor outright hostility to Moscow will change Russia’s power-political repertoire.
  • Obama’s Reset policy demonstrated the possibility of achieving limited win-win outcomes with Moscow, such as on Afghanistan, Iran, and New START. But some of its architects understood that its ultimate goal was a long shot. It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to persuade Russia that it could enjoy status as a great power without dominating its neighbors. The Reset ground to a halt long before getting within the same universe as that objective.
  • Although US enlargement strategies–with respect to both the liberal-democratic zone and NATO–surely created a well of lasting resentment in Russia, it is difficult to blame them for Moscow’s reliance on the same power-political scripts it has used for, well, since it was a Duchy.

Third, Europe faces hard choices. There exist real incompatibilities between its preferred outcomes on its peripheries and those of the Russian Federation. Germany, in particular, needs to decide what it stands for and whether it is ever willing to jeopardize relations with, and exports to, Russia.

I’m afraid these are all pretty boring. I guess that’s because I’m an academic.

Reporters and Foreign Affairs Analysis: Ukraine Edition

One of the ongoing rationales for The Monkey Cage is that journalists do a poor job of covering US electoral politics. They focus on personality and style. They downplay the role of fundamentals, such as economic forces and the nature of the electoral system. The same is too often true in foreign-affairs reporting. Consider a recent piece by multi-award-winning reporter, Scott Wilson: “Ukraine crisis tests Obama’s foreign policy focus on diplomacy over military force.”

What is Wilson’s argument? A sample:

Now Ukraine has emerged as a test of Obama’s argument that, far from weakening American power, he has enhanced it through smarter diplomacy, stronger alliances and a realism untainted by the ideology that guided his predecessor….

“If you are effectively taking the stick option off the table, then what are you left with?” said Andrew C. Kuchins, who heads the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I don’t think that Obama and his people really understand how others in the world are viewing his policies.”

And another:

The signal Obama has sent — popular among his domestic political base, unsettling at times to U.S. allies — has been one of deep reluctance to use the heavily burdened American military, even when doing so would meet the criteria he has laid out. He did so most notably in the aftermath of the U.S.-led intervention in Libya nearly three years ago.

But Obama’s rejection of U.S. military involvement in Syria’s civil war, in which 140,000 people have died since he first called on President Bashar al-Assad to step down, is the leading example of his second term. So, too, is the Pentagon budget proposal outlined this past week that would cut the size of the army to pre-2001 levels.

Let’s consider a bit of history.

  • In April of 2008, President George W. Bush pushed hard for a Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Georgia and Ukraine at the Bucharest NATO summit. Germany and France balked, for both self-interested and prescient reasons.
  • In August of 2008, Russia baited Georgia into invading South Ossetia. At the key principals meeting in Washington, no one was willing to risk war with Russia over Georgia.
  • In 2009, Yanukovich and his Party of Regions wrested power from the unruly and ineffectual Orange coalition that had ousted him in 2004. Yanukovich adopted a pro-Russian tilt. Although he was more than happy to leverage Moscow against Brussels, under no circumstances was he going to make a serious push to bring Ukraine into NATO.
  • While Georgia is a small country on the Russian Federation’s periphery; Ukraine is a large country of significant affective and geo-strategic significance to Russia.

See the problem? There’s no obvious counterfactual set of Obama policies that would better position the United States to handle Russia’s gambit in Ukraine.

The Bush Administration launched two major invasions and occupations. Its relations with the Kremlin were even worse than those between Washington and Moscow during some periods of the Cold War. Moscow concluded that it could get away with invading Georgia.

The Obama Administration normalized relations with Russia, bombed Libya–but not Syria. Moscow concluded that it can get away with invading Ukraine.

In other words, this does not seem to be a very good test of variation in US foreign-policy principles across recent administrations. Indeed, this lack of any correlation between American ‘resolve’ and Russian aggression is, in fact, pretty consistent with the evidence from international-relations scholarship. That evidence suggests that a government’s display of resolve in one setting has, at best, a rather attenuated relationship with later estimates of its willingness to use force.

Wilson also focuses on Obama’s preference for “American Values” over geopolitical calculation:

But Putin’s quick move to a war footing suggests a different view — one in which, particularly in Russia’s back yard, the Cold War rivalry Putin was raised on is thriving.

The Russian president has made restoring his country’s international prestige the overarching goal of his foreign policy, and he has embraced military force as the means to do so.

As Russia’s prime minister in the late summer of 2008, he was considered the chief proponent of Russia’s military advance into Georgia, another former Soviet republic with a segment of the population nostalgic for Russian rule.

Obama, by contrast, made clear that a new emphasis on American values, after what were perceived as the excesses of the George W. Bush administration, would be his approach to rehabilitating U.S. stature overseas.

Obama took office with a different Russian as president, Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s choice to succeed him in 2008.

Medvedev, like Obama, was a lawyer by training, and also like Obama he did not believe the Cold War rivalry between the two countries should define today’s relationship.

Those two outlooks have clashed repeatedly — in big and small ways — over the years.

The Obama administration began the “reset” with Russia — a policy that, in essence, sought to emphasize areas such as nuclear nonproliferation, counterterrorism, trade and Iran’s nuclear program as shared interests worth cooperation.

But despite some successes, including a new arms-control treaty, the reset never quite reduced the rivalry. When Putin returned to office in 2012, so, too, did an outlook fundamentally at odds with Obama’s.

Yes. That’s right. Wilson did, in fact, argue that Medvedev’s Presidency marked a period in which Putin wasn’t running Russian foreign policy. I know that this is hard to overlook. But just try for a moment. Because there’s something else worth talking about here.

Wilson’s correct about the mismatch between Washington’s vision of the world and Moscow’s embrace of nineteenth-century power-political logic. But the same was true under Bush and Clinton. All three administrations have had difficulty looking past their own commitment to liberal order and their faith in US benevolence to appreciate how their actions interfaced with Russia’s strategic ambitions. Whether or not it translated into policy, many of those involved in Russian policy during the Obama Administration have been acutely aware of this problem.

At the same time, it isn’t clear that adopting a more “realist” posture points in the direction Wilson thinks it does. After all, the baseline realpolitik approach would be to let Russia have its sphere of influence in Ukraine and the South Caucuses. Wilson, on the other hand, seems to think the test here is whether the Obama Administration is insufficiently aggressive when it comes to liberal-democratic enlargement and a commitment to aggressive hegemonism.

Russia in ‘the Borderland’: Interests and Affect

russian empire 2
As the Russian parliament makes official Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine, I pass along some relevant comments on the subject of interests and emotions. The first, from an exchange between Gerard Toal and Josh Tucker:


The second, from a close friend:

On the comparison with Georgia: from the Russian point of view, Georgia is periphery. Ukraine is core (note irony that Ukraine essentially means “borderlands”). This is a really important difference.

This combination does a fair amount of explanatory work for why Russia changed the facts on the ground so quickly. It might also be helpful to keep in mind that popular Russian understandings of developments in Ukraine are pretty incommensurate with those in Europe and North America.

But the importance of affect and identity doesn’t mean that Moscow’s actions should be characterized as “rash” or “irrational.” Indeed, a good description of the intervention might be “efficient, effective, fast, and deliberate.”

With Russian military forces in place to “protect Russian citizens,” Crimea can declare independence, federate with Russia, or do whatever it wants. Meanwhile, it will be very hard for the EU and the US to make any argument against Crimean self-determination that doesn’t reek of hypocrisy. While I don’t find the Kosovo analogy compelling, it provides Russia with a pretty big rhetorical stick. And as Obama put it in his statement yesterday:

Now, throughout this crisis, we have been very clear about one fundamental principle: the Ukrainian people deserve the opportunity to determine their own future.

Moscow might aim to turn Crimea into a permanent lever over Kiev, support its independence and de facto annexation, or for formal federation via future plebiscite. All three might easily reflect the fundamental principle that “the Crimean people deserve the opportunity to determine their own future.”

The US and the EU don’t actually see the orientation of Ukraine in geopolitical terms. Until yesterday they played a different game than Russia. But  Moscow has forced a clarification of the rules. The US and the EU now have little choice but to think in realpolitik terms. How much is Crimea worth? How much is the rest of Ukraine worth? Is secession really intolerable? Are there Pareto-improving outcomes relative to the status-quo? Recall that the fate of Ukraine is of great symbolic and practical significance to at least four NATO member-states: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.

Notes on Ukraine

Joshua Tucker provides “5 reasons for everyone to calm down about Crimea.” These amount to arguments for why invading Ukraine would undermine Russian interests. In some respects, I think he misses the point. We are currently witnessing a massive coercive-diplomacy effort by Russia with no obvious purpose except altering the facts on the ground in Crimea. This effort quite likely includes moving troops outside of Russian bases under the cloak of (im)plausible deniability offered by unmarked uniforms. Even in the absence of an overt display of force, we are talking about serious steps being taken by one sovereign state against another.

Of course, there isn’t much that the United States, NATO, and the European Union can do by way of a military response that passes the prudence test. The Ukraine–let alone the status of the Crimea–simply isn’t worth a military confrontation with  the Russian Federation. Moreover, the Russians know this. That’s not a recipe for making credible threats of force.

But it doesn’t follow that the US and the EU are impotent. Obama’s warnings recalls those issued by US and European leaders during the 2008 Russia-Georgia war. These likely impacted Russian calculations. And, in that conflict, Georgia was almost certainly the proximate instigator of hostilities. So far, the regime in Kiev, aware of the precedent, seems reluctant to let Moscow bait it into starting a war.

Regardless, I don’t entirely agree with Tucker’s reasoning. It isn’t that he’s wrong, per se. Moscow has good reasons to avoid conflict. But the long road of prognostication past runs through the graveyard of “objective regime interests that preclude what looks like a very bad foreign-policy decision.” For a good example of why not to bank on that kind of reasoning, see “Iraq, US invasion of.”

What concerns me the most is something that I’ve already suggested: Moscow’s actions seem completely inconsistent with any objectives that would allow for a return to the status-quo ante of 23 February. Moscow might be seeking a change in the status of Crimea, hoping to collapse the new regime, encouraging instability, or some combination thereof. Perhaps Moscow aims to transform Crimea into a a kind of frozen conflict. After all, Moscow has long leveraged secessions–and threats of secession–to coerce policy compliance from recalcitrant regimes in its putative “sphere of privileged influence.” On a side note, someone should write a book on Russia’s limited power-political repertoire.

Even if Putin has less expansive objectives in mind, what’s happened so far is very serious business indeed.

Is “Theory” the 5th Debate?

That’s one of Brian Schmidt’s takeaways in a recent post at E-International Relations:

As evidenced by the wide range of reactions to the intriguing question “the end of International Relations Theory?” the contours of an emerging new debate are not difficult to discern [12]. There is no doubt that debate about the status of IR theory is underway today. This is hardly surprising as the field’s history is characterized by an endless debate about its identity that periodically gives rise to disciplinary crises.  Theory, in one form or another, has been perceived as the answer to what ails the field. It is no different today and only time will tell if future disciplinary historians will chronicle the latest episode of disciplinary angst as another great debate.

I think Brian’s emphasis isn’t quite right. The dominant position in the field emphasizes middle-range theory over capital-t theory. We still privilege theoretical explanations–understood, more or less, as well-developed casual narratives with specific mechanisms. But the advocates of Theory–particularly in is scientific-ontology, normative, and meta- variants–that fight a rearguard action.

Put differently, ascendent intellectual currents see too much theory as what ails the discipline. By and large, the resulting ‘debate’ occurs amongst proponents of Big Theory; much of the field simply ignores them. Or they feel content to exhaust the discussion with reference to a rather small canon of writers. In any event, that doesn’t make for a terribly ‘great’ debate.