Following former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent comments on how to approach the “Ukrainian Problem,” two writers of Prospect Journal debate the merits of hard and soft power in dealing with Russia’s actions in Crimea. This is the second article in a two-part series. Part I can be viewed here.
By Patrick Johnson
We really need to start trusting in international institutions. That’s what this debate ultimately comes down to. When Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice criticizes Obama for leaving a “power vacuum,” she cannot do so without simultaneously devaluing the international institutions that can fill that void. Rice’s speech critiquing the “American Withdrawal” is a typically hawkish attitude. She views the world in the Cold-War mindset: a zero-sum game that is won or lost on the basis of hard (read: military) power. Not only is this a flawed understanding of the Crimean situation, it is an archaic policy that will, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, drag us back to the Cold War.
President Vladimir Putin, and every other world leader for that matter, does not view us as weak. Rather, he has a very nuanced understanding of American interests, of what we’ll fight over, and what we won’t. We won’t go to war for Crimea. Putin knows this, and operates according to Russian interests regardless of who is sitting in the Oval Office. Remember, U. S. foreign policy has remained largely unchanged since World War II.
Nor is Obama by any measure a weak president. He has ordered 50 times more drone strikes than his predecessor, President George W. Bush. Yes he has strengthened international alliances and focused on rebuilding American soft power, but these were measures necessitated by the policy catastrophes Rice herself helped to orchestrate. Not intervening in Syria, the go-to example of American “weakness” that war hawks embrace as proof of their claim, is actually a poor example. Intervening in Syria was never a clear case for U.S. military intervention, but a veritable quagmire, complicated by a very jumbled picture on the ground, and a host of conflicting regional parties and interests–not intervening was a demonstration of proper restraint and sheer prudence.
The reality is exactly the opposite of Rice’s view that this invasion is unprovoked. When the U.S.S.R fell, President Bush Senior promised President Mikhail Gorbachev that the U.S. would not take advantage of Russian weakness, and that we would incorporate them into the international system. This proved false, and NATO has steadily expanded its membership right to the borders of Russia, including Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Now, like a caged animal, Russia is lashing out against expanding U.S. influence and strength.
Stop and listen to Putin’s speeches and this becomes immediately evident. Putin announced to a cheering crowd that he would no longer stand Western aggression. I’m not arguing that the Crimean seizure was legal or justified, but perhaps it was more reactionary to Western actions than Rice suggests.
Rice correctly points out that Ukrainian independence was guaranteed after 1990, when they voluntarily gave up nuclear weapons. Yet we should not be so callous as to deny Russia a sphere of influence, especially when we have had a sphere of influence that included the entire Western Hemisphere since the Monroe Doctrine. Independence and influence is simply a paradox in the 21st century with which states must learn to deal.
Rice uses the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia to illustrate her argument: the problem is, she gets it wrong. She uses the example as a case when Putin was aggressive, but vigorous American action rebuffed him. What a terrible example to offer. It shows that Putin was willing to invade even with Bush’s hawkish administration in power, and with a much larger military budget. Moreover, Putin was not entirely rebuffed. 1/5th of Georgian territory is still firmly in Russian control. The takeaway from this example should be that Russia is willing and able to control neighboring territory, regardless of who is president, or whether they project hard or soft power appropriately.
So let’s trust international institutions and soft power. Deny Russia a seat at the G8 summit, and form an international coalition (that includes China) to denounce these actions. Russia may not break over such measures, but it will bend. Invest energy in helping Kiev consolidate power in reforming the state in order to stabilize Ukraine’s currently tumultuous situation. And ultimately recognize that this situation does not herald the end of U.S. supremacy on the world stage or prove the existence of a power vacuum. It is the result of a defeated rival being continuously threatened, and now lashing out.
Putin’s actions should be vigorously resisted and, more critically, reversed. But so should Rice and her hardline critique. Her criticisms confuse the causes of the Crimean invasion and dilute American involvement. What’s worse, they threaten a return to Cold War policies. If Rice had her way, the defense budget would continue to expand, and America would police the world with a metallic fist. I challenge America to be smarter than every other superpower in world history. The U.S. must value international institutions that can solve global conflicts, just as it must figure out a way to operate and exert global influence independent of pure military strength. Otherwise, as new powers emerge, we may find ourselves with policies suited to 1914, not 2014.
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