“The process of coming to grips with one’s limits is never easy,” Henry Kissinger once wrote about the American experience in the late 1960s. “It can end in despair or in rebellion; it can lead to a self-hatred that turns inevitable compromises into a sense of inadequacy.” However, to avoid the kind of hubris and overreach that led to the Vietnam quagmire, the former national security advisor and secretary of state argued: “One must come to grips with the fact that not every option is open any longer.”
Over a half century later, America’s foreign policy leaders still don’t understand Kissinger’s counsel. Today, the Washington consensus is that the United States, notwithstanding the post-9/11 debacles of Iraq and elsewhere, can impose its will and influence across the world. True, the language of the 1990s and early 2000s has changed: no one seriously proclaims a “New American Century” or “benign global hegemony.” But the instincts of American global leadership remain the same.
Nothing better demonstrates this than the U.S. response to the Ukraine crisis. Underlying Vladimir Putin’s miscalculated invasion in February, there is a banal truth at issue: Russia is not going to end its campaign to wreck its neighbor until Washington rules out NATO membership for Ukraine. That perspective, however, is at odds with the prevailing Western consensus, which says the crisis has little to do with NATO or EU expansion and the so-called color revolutions and almost everything to do with Putin’s expansionist goals in Eastern Europe.
It’s surely a more complicated matter, and to understand Russia’s strategic sensibilities about its near abroad, it is worth going back a quarter century to the great debates in Washington over NATO expansion.
One leading critic was Owen Harries, a former Cold Warrior and co-editor with Robert W. Tucker of this journal. The NATO alliance, he argued, was a magnificent achievement in containing Soviet power. But the Soviet Union no longer existed, and the proposed expansion of NATO was a bad and dangerous idea, not least because there was no clear and present danger to justify it. As the Cold War ended, Moscow voluntarily, if grudgingly, jettisoned its empire—even though it still viewed Ukraine and the Baltics as a necessary zone of protection. To expand a military alliance in these circumstances was a provocative act and violated the wise principle enunciated by Winston Churchill: “In victory, magnanimity.”
At the time, Russia was no threat—incapable of purposeful and serious military action. But if humiliated further and made desperate, Harries warned, it could be dangerous in the way that a wounded animal can be dangerous and it still had an enormous arsenal of nuclear weapons. In such circumstances, NATO expansion would eventually elicit payback from Moscow.
Harries was hardly alone in voicing his opposition: other esteemed critics included Paul Nitze, Robert Conquest, George F. Kennan, James Schlesinger, Robert Ellsworth, and Thomas Friedman. However, although they predicted that NATO’s encroachment into Russia’s space would lead to worsening relations between the world’s two great nuclear powers, they did not reflect the prevailing sense of exceptionalism—the belief that the United States is fundamentally different from other nations in its motives, intentions, and behavior.
It’s been thirty years since the collapse of the Soviet Empire, yet Washington’s foreign policy elites subscribe to the same kind of strategic mindset that is less relevant in a world that is no longer unipolar. In response to Putin’s aggression, Washington has on a broadly bipartisan basis proclaimed its solidarity with Kiev and deplored the interference of Moscow, legislating a whopping $54 billion package to aid the Ukrainian military campaign. Taken together with the prospects of more NATO/EU expansion, U.S. policy is seen by Moscow as an existential danger, forcing the Kremlin to double down on its campaign to create a buffer from the Donbas in the east to the Crimean Peninsula in the south.
But U.S. power to change Moscow’s thinking is limited. Not only is NATO unlikely to achieve an outright victory in Ukraine—just as there was no way to win in Afghanistan—those commitments have helped divert attention from Asia, where U.S. interests are more directly affected.
Unlike Russia, China is a rapidly rising power asserting a sphere of influence across areas on which its future prosperity and security depend: whereas Ukraine has exposed Russia’s strategic limits, China is bent on upsetting the Asian status quo, challenging and eventually replacing U.S. military power in the region. Consequently, states from India to Vietnam are clamoring for U.S. security guarantees in the face of a threatening China. Unlike Finland and Sweden, Taiwan and Japan are vital U.S. interests.
What, then, should Washington do? As a long-time admirer of America, this Australian realist thinks it should be more selective in its involvement around the world. Discrimination should take precedence over consistency whenever resources are limited, which is virtually always. Hopes and desires should not be confused with U.S. interests, which are paramount. Focus less on the Persian Gulf and Eastern Europe and more on East Asia. As Kissinger argued in his memoirs, the reordering of priorities in favor of greater discrimination “can inspire a new creative impetus, less innocent perhaps than the naïve exuberance of earlier years, but more complex and ultimately more permanent.”
Tom Switzer is executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies and co-editor, with Sue Windybank, of Prudence and Power: The Writings of Owen Harries (forthcoming, Connor Court Australia).