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 the 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

Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger during a meeting at the Pentagon in Washington DC, November 29, 2011
Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger during a meeting at the Pentagon in Washington DC, November 29, 2011 (Department of Defense/Glenn Fawcett)

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.”

In this context, civil conflicts are viewed internationally through prisms of democratic or sectarian concerns. Outside powers demand that the incumbent government negotiate with its opponents for the purpose of transferring power. But because, for both sides, the issue is generally survival, these appeals usually fall on deaf ears. Where the parties are of comparable strength, some degree of outside intervention, including military force, is then invoked to break the deadlock.

This happened in Libya last year where Arab and NATO countries intervened on the side of anti-government fighters to topple the regime of dictator Muammar Gaddafi — much to the chagrin of China and Russia, which regarded the mission as a breach of Westphalian principles and therefore now block intervention in Syria with their vetoes in the United Nations Security Council.

Kissinger laments that the doctrine of humanitarian intervention explicitly eschews appeals to national interest or balance of power. “It justifies itself not by overcoming a strategic threat but by removing conditions deemed a violation of universal principles of governance.” That’s all good and well, but what of the consequences?

If adopted as a principle of foreign policy, this form of intervention raises broader questions for US strategy. Does America consider itself obliged to support every popular uprising against any nondemocratic government, including those heretofore considered important in sustaining the international system? Is, for example, Saudi Arabia an ally only until public demonstrations develop on its territory?

It is not as though traditional strategic imperatives have disappeared. The United States could surely benefit from the fall of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, who is an ally of Iran’s, but “not every strategic interest rises to a cause for war,” Kissinger warns.

The more immediate worries in Syria include the risk of military overstretch on the part of the United States, further erosion of prestige in the case of failure and the very real possibility of replacing one unstable regime with another as different groups would vie to take over once Assad is deposed.

In the longer term, Kissinger sees even greater cause for concern. The United States “cannot afford to be driven from expedient to expedient into undefined military involvement in a conflict taking on an increasingly sectarian character,” he believes.

In the absence of a clearly articulated strategic concept, a world order that erodes borders and merges international and civil wars can never catch its breath. A sense of nuance is needed to give perspective to the proclamation of absolutes.

As it happens, this is the very argument that China and Russia are making, except they are vilified for it by Western powers.

Barack Obama’s Prime Minister

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talk with Prime Minister Singh of India at the White House in Washington DC, November 24, 2009
President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talk with Prime Minister Singh of India at the White House in Washington DC, November 24, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

While campaigning for the presidency in 2008, Barack Obama was asked about his future administration and promised that he would form his own “team of rivals.”

Team of Rivals was a 2005 volume by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin which described how President Abraham Lincoln included political adversaries in his cabinet and steered the union to victory in the Civil War.

When Obama assumed the highest office, it wasn’t the best of times for the United States to lead in the world. In Lincoln’s spirit though, he kept on Republican Robert Gates as defense secretary and asked his primary rival Hillary Clinton to lead the State Department. With the president campaigning for reelection, it’s worth evaluating her tenure as the nation’s secretary of state.

Clinton’s tenure as the nation’s chief diplomat is on par with that of several of her illustrious predecessors and head and shoulder above her contemporaries. She ranks among the nation’s greatest secretaries of state which include William Henry Seward, Cordell Hull and Henry Kissinger.

Seward was widely expected to be nominated by the Republican Party for the presidency in 1860 but had to tolerate Abraham Lincoln as the party’s standard-bearer. He agreed to become secretary of state reluctantly and the two men needed considerable time to overcome their differences of character and opinion. However, as the Civil War dragged on, Seward came to be perceived as Lincoln’s prime minister. The two led the Northern states to victory against the Confederate South and it was Seward who predicted soon after Lincoln’s assassination that the president would be remembered as one of the greatest leaders the United States had ever known.

Cordell Hull was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s chief diplomat and the longest serving secretary of state of America. He was the architect of the United Nations and recognized for this effort with the 1945 Nobel Peace Prize.

Henry Kissinger served first as national security advisor and later as secretary of state under Richard Nixon. He negotiated the end of the Vietnam War and “opened up” China in order to balance against Soviet expansionism. Kissinger understood the balance of power and how to ensure it perhaps more than any other secretary of state in modern history.

Unlike these three stalwarts and her immediate predecessor Condoleezza Rice, Clinton had no formal background in international relations when she became secretary. As President Bill Clinton’s wife and a senator, she did gain tremendous experience in the field before running for the presidency herself in 2008. As Barack Obama’s secretary of state, she has traveled around the world almost nonstop and like her predecessors Seward, Hull and Kissinger, pulled chestnuts out of the fire to secure diplomatic victories in trying times.

Under Clinton’s stewardship, American foreign policy has witnessed a paradigm shift from the neoconservative objective of creating allies by military force from positioning the United states an an “offshore balancer” in the Asia Pacific. She has helped reduce the negative impact of American warmongering in the Middle East to improve the nation’s standing in Africa, Central Asia and Europe.

It is largely because of Clinton’s initiative that China’s neighbors in the West Pacific, including Vietnam, are prepared to live under America’s defense umbrella. She has also reset relations with Great Britain, sealed a long-term relationship with India and isolated Iran in conjunction with the president. All of this was achieved through her tenacity and clear understanding of geopolitics.

President Obama deserves credit for appointing Hillary Clinton to one of the most powerful positions in his administration. The decision was, in hindsight, more than political. It helped his government achieve numerous foreign policy successes.

The Geopolitics of China’s Rise

American president Barack Obama tours the Great Wall of China in Badaling, November 18, 2009
American president Barack Obama tours the Great Wall of China in Badaling, November 18, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

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

Henry Kissinger on China

Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger speaks at the World Economic Forum's India Economic Summit in New Delhi, November 16, 2008
Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger speaks at the World Economic Forum’s India Economic Summit in New Delhi, November 16, 2008 (WEF/Norbert Schiller)

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.

When the Chinese view of preemption encounters the Western concept of deterrence, a vicious circle can result — acts conceived as defensive in China may be treated as aggressive by the outside world; deterrent moves by the West may be interpreted in China as encirclement.

Already, the Chinese feel boxed in from the east where they face a chain of unallied nations, ranging from South Korea to Japan to Taiwan to the Philippines to Indonesia to Australia. It seeks to preempt having to face all these nations in league with the United States by simultaneously boosting economic ties and intimidating the smaller states of Southeast Asia — moves which, in the West, are readily interpreted as warning signs of future aggression, compelling strong words and reminders of America’s security commitment to all its Asian partners.

Rather than attempting to “organize Asia on the basis of containing China or creating a bloc of democratic states for an ideological crusade,” the United States would do better, Kissinger suggests in his book, to work with China to build a new “Pacific community” — a permanent framework in which disputes can be peacefully resolved.

Outside of the Pacific, China and the United States find themselves involved in South Asia without a clear sense of direction. Although both want to prevent Afghanistan “from becoming a terrorist base after the American withdrawal,” there is virtually no cooperation among them. “The big challenge,” Kissinger told Morning Joe, “is to see if we can get our policies on Afghanistan not identical but parallel enough.”

China directly borders on both Afghanistan and Pakistan and has a sizable Muslim population of its own with a secessionist movement in its midst. Yet it has so far stayed on the sidelines, ready to take advantage of economic opportunities in Afghanistan but relying exclusively on American security forces to safeguard them. “As long as we are there, we’re doing their job for them,” said Kissinger.

With its strong ties to Pakistan, China could play an important role in resolving the war but India is a frustrating factor. Whereas the Americans see Pakistan as a “necessity” in the fight against extremism and understand that their long-term partner in the region should be India, “China looks at Pakistan as a balancer to India” with which it has its own quarrels.

If the United States leave Afghanistan too soon, Kissinger feared that it might succumb to fanaticism once more and become the battleground in a proxy war between India and Pakistan with the former supporting the democratically-elected government and the latter elements of the Taliban. The bigger threat in South Asia though is the whole region witnessing a nuclear standoff with the world’s two greatest powers — China and America — backing either side of the equation.

Hu Cares? What a State Visit Can Yield

Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Hu Jintao of China attend a state dinner in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, November 17, 2009
Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Hu Jintao of China attend a state dinner in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, November 17, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

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.

Former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, who witnessed the normalization of Sino-American relations during the Carter Administration, similarly warned of “reciprocal demonization” in an op-ed for The New York Times earlier this month.

One of the dissonances in the relationship that fuels tension and mistrust is each country’s very different approach to foreign policy and strategy. Kissinger explained:

It’s very hard for the Chinese to absorb the fact that many of our actions — most of our actions — are more or less random actions that are generated by individual 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 simultaneously sells weapons to Taiwan and urges China to appreciate its currency, Chinese hardliners interpret that as an attempt to deceive them — prompting military assertiveness in East Asia which, from the American perspective, seems at odds with the country’s self-proclaimed “peaceful rise.”

Ahead of last week’s state visit, Brzezinski recommended both Presidents Hu and Obama to outline the principles of their countries’ cooperation in a formal declaration. “Such a joint charter should,” he wrote, “provide the framework not only for avoiding what under some circumstances could become a hostile rivalry but also for expanding a realistic collaboration between the United States and China.” No such charter was signed but the state visit had at least been an occasion, he told Fareed Zakaria on GPS, for itemizing the issues on which both powers can cooperate.

The challenge is now to find ways to work together with neither side feeling as though they’re giving in. On monetary policy, for instance, Kissinger noted that it was possible to persuade the Chinese to further appreciate their currency as long as they’re not perceived as surrendering to American demands.

In general, the relationship needs a clearer sense of direction, Brzezinski added, “but not one in which direction means, ‘I direct and you follow.’ That,” he admitted, “is much more difficult.”

The New Atlantic Order

Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger speaks at the World Economic Forum's India Economic Summit in New Delhi, November 16, 2008
Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger speaks at the World Economic Forum’s India Economic Summit in New Delhi, November 16, 2008 (WEF/Norbert Schiller)

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.

There is still bad blood between the Atlantic power blocks however. In spite of their feverish admiration of President Barack Obama, European leaders haven’t forgotten the past decades of American unilateralism. Indeed, as Kissinger notes:

it […] has become an alibi for a key European difference with America: that the United States still conducts itself as a national state capable of asking its people for sacrifices for the sake of the future, while Europe, suspended between abandoning its national framework and a yet-to-be-reached political substitute, finds it much harder to defer present benefits.

With Europe moving slowly toward further political integration, recently electing a president and something of a common foreign secretary, what will it work toward abroad? asks Robert D. Kaplan in “Let’s Go, Europe.”

Unlike the United States, most European countries are pacifist with a great public reluctance to go to war hampering any sort of foreign intervention. Besides France, Greece, Turkey and the United Kingdom, all European NATO members spend less that the required 2 percent of their GDPs on defense while countries as Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Spain elect to invest very much in but one of their armed forces: their navies. What’s to blame? Not just the continent’s “ethical awakening following centuries of war,” according to Kaplan, but “a new strategic context in which Europeans simply face no credible security threat.”

That is not to say that the Europeans cannot be convinced into waging war at all. In fact, the United States rather needs to do so, for as it focuses on the Pacific, drawing Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea into its camp to counterbalance China’s global ascendancy, it will have to rely increasingly on European forces to cover the Atlantic and Africa.

The way the world is shaping up, America will have no choice but to yank Europe kicking and screaming into conflict zones […]

In this regard, the stable naval power of many European partners is an advantage. “Sea power is inherently less threatening than land power,” notes Kaplan.

Moreover, future military operations will be all the more about rescue and disaster relief as populations continue to grow and climate change continues to upset fragile regions across the globe. As much as the Europeans might hate war, coming to the world’s rescue is something that politicians will have less trouble selling to their electorates at home.