Best Defense

Wrong beliefs about the Ukraine crisis: No. 1, that the stakes are high for U.S.

Wrong beliefs about the Ukraine crisis: No. 1, that the stakes are high for U.S.

By Christopher J. Fettweis
Best Defense guest columnist

These seem to be dark days for U.S. foreign policy. President Obama’s initiatives, whether they involve peace deals in the Middle East or trade pacts in Asia, seem to be foundering. Worst of all, the president has shown weakness toward Vladimir Putin, who makes him seem to be the most naïve president in history, according to John McCain. Even otherwise sympathetic observers have hopped on the criticism bandwagon, asserting that the Obama foreign policy is in troubling disarray.

Even the president’s harshest critics would have to admit that there’s a great deal we don’t know about the crisis in Ukraine. We don’t know, for instance, if Putin is going to send Russian troops into the cities that are currently besieged by his paramilitary provocateur thugs. We don’t know if his ambitions extend beyond his immediate near-abroad. We don’t know if the people of Kiev, or those in Estonia or Moldova for that matter, have anything to worry about. We don’t even know whether or not Putin is the richest man in the world.

But there are a number of things we do know. We know, for instance, that a set of deeply pathological beliefs exists within the so-called “marketplace of ideas,” or arena of debate over U.S. foreign policy. As a result, we also know that the Obama administration will continue to be bombarded by a variety of misapplied analogies and faulty reasoning, generated largely by people who ought to know better, and that the president will have to tune out a great deal of noise and filth, to paraphrase Kennan, if he is going to chart a wise path forward.

Five examples of such faulty reasoning generated by pathological beliefs have been particularly prominent since this crisis began. In my recent book, I explain how these myths correspond to some of the most important underlying beliefs that animate U.S. foreign policy behavior, which can be slipped into the categories of fear, honor, glory, and hubris.

1) The stakes are high for the United States.
It is rather remarkable how little attention is devoted to what ought to be the central point about this crisis: The United States has no interest at stake in eastern Ukraine or Crimea. It is hard to imagine how any outcome here would affect the American people, unless of course it escalates into a trade war or (God forbid) a shooting one. This does not mean that we can or should ignore the outcome, but it would be nice if our various commentators would occasionally note that nothing that happens in these areas will be particularly important to the United States.

All U.S. interests in Ukraine are intangible — in other words, they are important not for the effect on U.S. interests today, but to the extent that we believe our actions can send messages that will affect the future. How we act now, it is commonly believed, can signal to Moscow (or to Beijing, or to Tehran) how we are likely to respond to provocations to come. Our inaction will encourage their belligerence.

There is a mountain of research from political science to suggest that this is an illusion, that credibility earned today does not lead to successes tomorrow and therefore is never worth fighting for. Others simply do not learn the lessons we wish to teach through our actions. Our rivals tend to believe that the United States will act in accordance with its national interest, rather than because of its reputation for resolve earned in previous crises. In fact, when countries back down in the face of provocation, often their rivals believe that they will be more aggressive in the future. The United States treated the Soviet Union like a wounded animal after the Cuban Missile Crisis, for instance; rather than press an advantage against an irresolute Khrushchev, Washington treaded lightly, assuming that he would be seeking an opportunity to recover.

Worrying about the messages sent during this crisis, in other words, distracts us from what ought to be its central fact: Ukraine does not really matter.

(more to come)

Christopher J. Fettweis is associate professor of political science at Tulane University in New Orleans. The thoughts in this essay are extensions of his latest book, The Pathologies of Power: Fear, Honor, Glory and Hubris in U.S. Foreign Policy.