It’s Too Late to Turn Ukraine Into a Buffer State

The skyline of Kiev, Ukraine, January 15
The skyline of Kiev, Ukraine, January 15 (Sergey Galyonkin)

Since the start of the Ukraine crisis, scholars who associate with the realist school of international relations have suggested turning the country into a neutral buffer state between East and West. It’s probably too late for that.

John J. Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, most recently made the case in The New York Times, arguing that Russia can never accept a Ukraine that is aligned to the West. Rather, “It should look like Austria during the Cold War” — culturally and economically Western but unaligned to either bloc.

Toward that end, the West should explicitly take European Union and NATO expansion off the table and emphasize that its goal is a nonaligned Ukraine that does not threaten Russia.

Former American national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski first suggested in the Financial Times last year that Ukraine should imitate Finland’s Cold War experience, meaning “mutually respectful neighbors with wide-ranging economic relations with Russia and the EU; no participation in any military alliance viewed by Moscow as directed at itself but expanding its European connectivity.”

One of Brzezinski’s predecessors, Henry Kissinger, agreed, writing in The Washington Post that Ukraine “should pursue a posture comparable to that of Finland.”

Kissinger recognized that Ukraine was a divided country: a largely Catholic and Ukrainian-speaking west favored integration with the rest of Europe while the largely Orthodox and Russian-speaking east preferred closer relations with Russia. Efforts by either side to impose their will on the other part of the country marked Ukraine’s post-independence politics. The West, he argued, should “seek reconciliation, not the domination of a faction.”

Share of Ukraine's ethnic Russian population per region, according to 2001 census.

But Russia’s meddling in Ukraine’s affairs has changed the situation profoundly. Since the majority of the Crimea’s residents voted in a referendum to join the Russian Federation last year, public opinion in the remainder of the country has turned decidedly against Russia. Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly for parties that advocated European Union and even NATO membership in an election in October. The Ukrainians made clear they don’t want to be “Finlandized.”

If Kissinger still believes that “Ukraine should have the right to choose freely its economic and political associations, including with Europe,” he cannot hold at the same time that “Ukraine should not join NATO.”

Of course, it’s up to existing NATO member states to decide if they want to let Ukraine into their alliance and doing so now would be problematic. What matters in this context is that by far most Ukrainians want to become part of the West in a broader sense, having witnessed, once again, that the alternative is subjugation to Russia.

Russia cannot allow a neutral Ukraine slowly tilting toward the West, like Austria and Finland did, for the very reasons Mearsheimer, Brzezinski and Kissinger pointed out: It regards Ukraine as vital to its national security. Russia must dominate Ukraine to defend its heartland against an imagined Western threat and in order to project power into the Black Sea and beyond. Having a nation of forty million on its frontier nominally neutral but clearly more interested in joining the West than serving its interest — which is the result of its own actions — won’t do.

Syrian Intervention Would Upset World Order: Kissinger

Military intervention in Syria would undermine the supremacy of national sovereignty, the former American secretary of state Henry Kissinger warns.

Writing in The Washington Post, the veteran diplomat observes that the uprisings in the Arab world have replaced the Westphalian principles of territorial integrity — named after the 1648 Peace of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years’ War in Europe — with a generalized doctrine of humanitarian intervention, also known as “responsibility to protect.” Read more “Syrian Intervention Would Upset World Order: Kissinger”

The Geopolitics of China’s Rise

Will the twenty-first century belong to China like the twentieth belonged to the United States and the nineteenth century belonged to the British? The world is very much divided on this question as are key American policy and opinion makers.

Two recent books have tried to understand China’s rise. One, On China (2011), was authored by former secretary of state Henry Kissinger; the other, Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011), by historian Niall Ferguson. Read more “The Geopolitics of China’s Rise”

Henry Kissinger on China

Former national security advisor and secretary of state during the Nixon and Ford Administrations, Henry Kissinger, appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe Wednesday to promote his book On China (2011) and discuss the future of what is probably the most important bilateral relationship in the world today.

One of the dissonances in the Sino-American relationship that fuels tension and mistrust is each country’s very different approach to foreign policy. As Kissinger explained during President Hu Jintao’s state visit to Washington DC earlier this year, the Chinese don’t understand how American strategies are often generated by individual pressures and pressure groups. “They put them together as if they were part of an overall design.”

The Chinese have a very unemotional view of international relations by contrast. “They tend to connect the dots.” When America is simultaneously selling weapons to Taiwan and urging China to appreciate its currency, hardliners interpret that as an attempt to deceive China — prompting shows of strength in East Asia which, from the American perspective, seem at odds with the country’s self-proclaimed “peaceful rise,” thus further eroding trust. Read more “Henry Kissinger on China”

Hu Cares? What a State Visit Can Yield

Chinese president Hu Jintao’s state visit to the United States would appear to have yielded few actual results. Although the White House boasted that business deals worth several billions of dollars were signed during the visit and although President Barack Obama said, at a joint press conference, that he wants to sell the Chinese even more stuff, significant differences of opinion remain on economic and monetary policy as well as security in East Asia. Even if no progress was made on any of these issues, the visit was useful, according to two American foreign policy veterans.

On CNN’s GPS this Sunday, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who, as national security advisor to President Richard Nixon in the early 1970s, was one of the first American dignitaries to visit Red China, stressed the importance of image and atmospherics as opposed to public opinion which, in both China and the United States, is increasingly skeptical of — if not outright hostile to — the relationship. Read more “Hu Cares? What a State Visit Can Yield”

The New Atlantic Order

The financial collapse of 2008 and the subsequent global economic downturn have left American prestige badly damaged. For years its free-trade rhetoric dominated debate within fora like the World Trade Organization and urged second-rate powers to privatize and reduce tariffs. Whatever its political course, American economic leadership seemed unchallenged. It was the era of the Washington Consensus.

Today, the American economy lies in shambles and eight years of George W. Bush have obliterated a great amount of the international leverage and respect that the country could previously count on. American management of globalization is contested as is American predominance on the world stage. Rising powers as Brazil, China and India and old world players as Europe and Russia all demand a place in the Obama Administration’s “multilateral” game.

Serious attempts are made in that direction. The G20 is a fine example of what Henry Kissinger called for last January in “The chance for a new world order“: “creating an international political regulatory system with the same reach as that of the economic world.” A promise that the United Nations has never been able to fulfill, the G20 now revives by shaping the political and financial framework of the future. Read more “The New Atlantic Order”

Be Nice to China

In The Washington Post, Robert Kagan and Dan Blumenthal describe the Obama Administration’s new approach toward China as “accommodating”. What this entails precisely, no one knows, but what we do know is that the White House likes to call its policy “strategic reassurance,” or: convincing the Chinese that they’re really not out to bomb Bejing any time soon. It’s about time.

Up until now, Washington still seemed to consider China a future rival more than anything. The previous administration did very little to change that view. Quite to the contrary, it launched a partnership with Australia, India and Japan to counterbalance China’s growing naval potential; a potential that is greatly overestimated anyway. Moreover, China is virtually ignored when it comes to Afghanistan although it has shown itself able and willing to contribute to the economic reconstruction of the country.

In a speech this summer before the Council on Foreign Relations, American secretary of state Hillary Clinton finally appeared to put some distance between the Sinophobia of the previous years and her own approach. She wants to encourage all rising powers to become “full partners” in her multilateral world while acknowleding China’s economic significance to the United States. Read more “Be Nice to China”