Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Putin, Ukraine, and an Abysmal Failure of US Foreign Policy

It did not have to be this way.

Today, Vladimir Putin's forces hold the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, part of the sovereign nation of Ukraine.  Barack Obama looks weaker than ever, his presidency's previous shambles even look good by comparison.  Pundits decry the loss of US influence.  The stark truth is that there is little that the United States can do to alter the situation.

But why?

First, Putin actually has defensible reasons to enter Ukraine.  This is not to say that he could not have achieved better results with a less dramatic move.  But a border country approaching chaos gives Russia a powerful excuse to protect Russian ethnics and Russian facilities there.  What if Mexico devolved even more into violence and instability?  At some point in the near future, US forces may have to occupy parts of that country to bring stability and protect Americans living there.  Before criticizing others, a nation must consider what it would have to do in a similar situation.

The West failed in Ukraine because the United States abdicated its role, dating back to the Treaty of Versailles, to bolster free societies and free markets around the globe.  US policy has, at times used the Franklin Roosevelt philosophy of "he's a sonofabitch, but he's our sonofabitch" in backing friendly authoritarian regimes.  But the overall goal has always been transition into free societies with economic opportunity.

That does not happen by dumping money or bombs on a nation.  It comes from a consistently articulated vision by the US foreign policy establishment that natural rights, free markets, rule of law are essential to human happiness and world peace.  Praising democratic friends, such as Britain and Israel, helps to broaden the "city on the hill" ideal articulated by Democratic and Republican presidents alike in different ways.

The vision does not just come from talking about freedom.  Diplomatic, other government, and private groups must engage fragile societies to help educate and develop faith in the essential aspects of freedom and prosperity.  Internationalize the values that Americans and others take for granted.

Instead, Obama tore apart the fabric.  He blamed the United States for the trouble in the world, never realizing that wise use of American power and influence more often puts us in the referee role.  We are keeping more conflicts apart than anyone realizes.  Until the influence and respect dissipates and the world runs riot.

We are not the world's policeman, nor should we be.  But constant engagement of rhetoric, policy, and economic influence has helped to keep the world at peace.  Obama could not see the overall benefit of US power, only the rare times that it has not turned out right.  He tore it down and now instability hits one country after another.

Power seeks a vacuum,  Obama created one.  Putin and China have been happy to step in.

And so you get what we had here last week.  Which is the way he wants it.

As for Putin, he is more Bismarck than Stalin.  He's willing to bend his own region to his economic and security goals, use social issues to rally his supporters and alienate his political opponents.  Russia's sudden worry about gays smacks of Bismarck's kulturkampf against political Catholics.  But Bismarck did not want to completely revise the international system, just strengthen Germany's position within it.  The Russian Czars acted in the same way.  Russia traditionally seeks security on its borderlands and will aggressively move to ensure it.

Had the United States remained engaged in Ukraine and kept its near century old commitment to supporting freedom, that country may have solved its own problems.  It may have remained solid enough to deter Russian fears or thoughts of aggrandizement.

China is more worrisome for a number of reasons.  As is Iran.  Both countries have more revisionist fantasies.

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