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Diplomats Can’t Wait for the Sky to Fall

The Ukraine crisis is a reminder of how farsighted diplomacy can resolve conflicts before they spiral out of control.

By , an Emeritus Professor of strategic studies at Georgetown University. He served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs from 1981-89.
French President François Mitterrand opens the Paris summit on Nov. 19, 1990 with the heads of state including U.S. President George Bush, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
French President François Mitterrand opens the Paris summit on Nov. 19, 1990 with the heads of state including U.S. President George Bush, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
French President François Mitterrand opens the Paris summit on Nov. 19, 1990 with the heads of state including U.S. President George Bush, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. DANIEL JANIN/AFP via Getty Images

Why does the United States tend to wait until crises occur to mobilize its diplomats? When properly deployed, diplomacy looks ahead, explores trends, heeds warnings, and works to prevent problems from exploding. It is not best applied to cleaning up a mess or responding to a crisis. Diplomacy is about building relationships, institutions, and norms—and then sustaining them. It is foolish to imagine that most problems in world politics will solve themselves with the passage of time. This is how Washington and U.S. allies sleepwalked into the Ukraine crisis that Russian President Vladimir Putin created.

The immediate roots of the current crisis can be traced to two distinct diplomatic failures. First, the Soviet Union’s collapse created a vacuum in much of Eastern Europe, and no new security structure was negotiated to replace it. Instead, NATO expanded into most, but not all, of the former Soviet-controlled spaces with the enthusiastic backing of former Warsaw Pact members, Soviet republics, and Western governments during years when Russia was relatively weak. The question of what to do with the other lands on Russia’s western periphery was never resolved; there has never been a “political settlement concerning the post-Soviet space,” in the words of historian Serhii Plokhy.

The 1994 Partnership for Peace provided a temporary way station for states emerging from Soviet control, but it was prematurely abandoned, confirming Ukraine’s descent into the vacuum between Russia and NATO. The question of how NATO and Russia would cooperate and coexist was left to the NATO-Russia Council established in 2002 as a forum for dialogue and consultation. This body provides an occasionally used forum but not agreed on shared principles or a security structure.

Why does the United States tend to wait until crises occur to mobilize its diplomats? When properly deployed, diplomacy looks ahead, explores trends, heeds warnings, and works to prevent problems from exploding. It is not best applied to cleaning up a mess or responding to a crisis. Diplomacy is about building relationships, institutions, and norms—and then sustaining them. It is foolish to imagine that most problems in world politics will solve themselves with the passage of time. This is how Washington and U.S. allies sleepwalked into the Ukraine crisis that Russian President Vladimir Putin created.

The immediate roots of the current crisis can be traced to two distinct diplomatic failures. First, the Soviet Union’s collapse created a vacuum in much of Eastern Europe, and no new security structure was negotiated to replace it. Instead, NATO expanded into most, but not all, of the former Soviet-controlled spaces with the enthusiastic backing of former Warsaw Pact members, Soviet republics, and Western governments during years when Russia was relatively weak. The question of what to do with the other lands on Russia’s western periphery was never resolved; there has never been a “political settlement concerning the post-Soviet space,” in the words of historian Serhii Plokhy.

The 1994 Partnership for Peace provided a temporary way station for states emerging from Soviet control, but it was prematurely abandoned, confirming Ukraine’s descent into the vacuum between Russia and NATO. The question of how NATO and Russia would cooperate and coexist was left to the NATO-Russia Council established in 2002 as a forum for dialogue and consultation. This body provides an occasionally used forum but not agreed on shared principles or a security structure.

The second failure occurred over the specific question of Ukraine. The sanctity of this buffer state collapsed in 2014 when Russia seized Crimea and fomented a proxy war in the Donbass region. Twenty years earlier, the 1994 Budapest Memorandum featured assurances by Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and independence. But nothing effective was done when Russia failed to live up to its “assurance,” deciding instead to expand into this major piece of its former empire. The 1994 agreement was not sustained or adapted, and it was not enforced. A festering sore was left open.

Treaty provisions do not last forever. Historically, they are often followed by fresh diplomacy or war.

In the midst of today’s crisis, Russian and Western officials cherry-pick the history that best serves their case. The Russian version is that NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe was a betrayal of Western commitments not to do so—allegedly made at the time of German reunification and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Western position categorically rejects that argument as not supported by any legal texts from the period, and it rejects any Russian claim to have the right to a special sphere of influence among independent states in the post-Soviet space.

French President Emmanuel Macron argues that the solution—the missing piece in this puzzle—is the absence of mutually agreed on European security arrangements to stabilize the situation. He is both right and wrong: There is a dangerous structural vacuum, but it cannot be fixed at gunpoint. As historian Timothy Snyder wryly observed, “[S]omething is wrong in the European security architecture—just ask the Ukrainians.”

Treaties are one way to address such problems, but they need to be maintained or adapted and revised to meet changing circumstances. Treaties typically address such things as the definition and sanctity of borders, the status of occupied or defeated states, the expansion and contraction of empires, and the norms and doctrines that should govern relations among allied and rival states. Treaty provisions do not last forever. Historically, they are often followed by fresh diplomacy or war.


Past treaties have succeeded in establishing stability in other times and places. The types of diplomacy and resulting arrangements or treaties differ in each case, as do the lessons to be gleaned from them today. The 1815 Congress of Vienna and the ensuing Concert of Europe stabilized great-power relations for half a century; but the concert struggled after the Crimean War (1853-1856), triggered at first by French and Russian intervention on behalf of Christian minorities in Ottoman lands but soon became an Anglo-French campaign to help the Ottomans check Russia’s southward expansion.

The 1856 Treaty of Paris ended the bloodshed and brought short-term stability but could not accommodate the Ottoman Empire’s slow decline and pressures unleashed by German unification and the 1871 Franco-Prussian war. Geopolitics does not fit comfortably into a straitjacket; it needs diplomatic tailors to make adjustments.

The Congress of Vienna recognized and guaranteed Switzerland’s neutrality in 1815; Belgium’s neutrality was recognized and guaranteed in 1839 by the Concert of Europe. The first of these has endured; the second blew up in World War I. In 1884 and 1885, the Congress of Berlin defined the boundaries of territories colonized by Europeans during the so-called scramble for Africa, a division that lasted until Germany’s defeat in 1919, after which the other imperial powers absorbed its colonies. The imperialists’ map lasted for around 70 years until the age of African independence.

In today’s world, Putin will have a hard time subduing internationally recognized, independent states by force even if he regards them as part of the ancient Russian Empire.

Interestingly, African leaders who liberated their countries from colonialism essentially ratified their inherited colonial boundaries in a 1964 decision of the former Organization of African Unity. The borders may have made little geographic or ethnic sense, but they were better than nothing. The takeaways here are twofold: Wars can wreck treaties and create a new situation for diplomats to grapple with. And secondly, the territorial legacy of empires may serve as a source of stability if the successor states agree.

In the Western Hemisphere, the history of U.S. expansion is captured in a series of treaties negotiated more or less at gunpoint with Mexico, Spain, and Colombia between 1848 and 1903. The Monroe Doctrine, asserting U.S. opposition to extra-regional intervention in the Western Hemisphere, and the American belief in Manifest Destiny for expansion across North America both reflected the United States’ dominant power. They achieved the kind of stability that expansionist states prefer. Putin seeks a new form of manifest destiny—illustrated in his July 2021 essay—and he is not the only Russian who thinks this way.

But his timing is off, history has moved on, and he wields the wrong kind of power. In today’s world, Putin will have a hard time subduing internationally recognized, independent states by force even if he regards them as part of the ancient Russian Empire.

Some of his criticisms were predictable. In 1997, U.S. diplomat George Kennan, the architect of the United States’ successful containment policy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, warned about the potential for geopolitical backlash against NATO expansion, a policy he characterized as “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era. Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion.” He might agree with Macron today about the need for new arrangements in Europe to build an inclusive security order based on shared principles and common interests.


There is a right way for diplomacy to address the question of change. Negotiated agreements sometimes lead to the emergence of internationally recognized, independent states, as was the case with the 1962 Évian Accords that set the stage for Algeria’s independence from France after a brutal war. The 1988 accords with Angola, Cuba, and South Africa—in which I was the U.S. mediator—helped create an independent Namibia and ended the regional wars in southern Africa. Other negotiated agreements permit divided countries to reunite, as was the case with the process leading to German reunification in 1990, which also defined Germany’s internationally recognized borders.

A contrasting case occurs with agreements to divide countries into separate parts: The 1992 dissolution of Czechoslovakia was accomplished by an act of the country’s federal parliament, leading to an amicable divorce. A civil war in Indonesia was averted in a 2005 negotiation that provided limited autonomy for the region of Aceh. In 1955, protracted East-West diplomatic exchanges eventually resulted in the Austrian State Treaty, under which Austria declared itself neutral and foreign armies departed.

As these cases demonstrate, diplomacy is about building, not waiting for the sky to fall or the tanks to roll. Against this backdrop, there are some lessons that could be good to keep in mind as today’s diplomats—Western, Ukrainian, and Russian—reflect on today’s crisis.

Coercive border changes leave scar tissue and festering grievances that cause future trouble.

Diplomats and their leaders should avoid creating vacuums, and if vacuums develop, they need to be filled politically and, hopefully, consensually, as occurred with Swiss and Belgian neutrality. U.S. policymakers have ample recent experience with the downside of national vacuums, such as in Iraq and Libya; regionwide vacuums are even worse. The European one needs to be filled with something new and mutually acceptable to the U.S. and its allies,  and to the Russians after the immediate crisis has been managed. When it comes to Ukraine specifically, any settlement of the issues must have Kyiv’s consent.

In today’s world, borders can only be changed through negotiations and with consent, as in Czechoslovakia, whereas coercive border changes leave scar tissue and festering grievances that cause future trouble—for example, Iraq’s seizure of Kuwait in 1990, the Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus, and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict now frozen by Russian troops. Most borders are arbitrary in some sense, but that is not the point. Messing with them can open a Pandora’s box, which is why African leaders, like their Latin American predecessors, have preferred to respect the doctrine of uti possidetis—keeping what was inherited from before independence unless renegotiated by treaty.

Changing borders to avoid war is not a brilliant strategy, as the world learned in 1938. Nor is the unilateral claim of a modern Manifest Destiny dressed up as a normal sphere of influence: That only works if a government is in a position to impose it. Putin may dream and write essays about having one, but he would be better advised to more fully explore opportunities for diplomacy.


Europe’s future security order needs to be built on the basis of core principles of interstate relations, starting with the charters of the United Nations and Organization for Security and Economic Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). But it must go beyond the question of Ukraine to the larger challenge of building or recreating inclusive and effective commitments to shared principles in the Euro-Atlantic space—and then doing the serious work of negotiating confidence-building measures and developing verifiable measures of military reassurance and restraint.

Veteran diplomat James Goodby and historian Kenneth Weisbrode have argued the case for basing this effort on the OSCE and the inspiration of its origins in the 1975 Helsinki process. There may be other avenues to explore. But when this crisis is over, everyone will hopefully remember that it is good to have allies at a time like this. It will also help to listen to the other side, test its seriousness of purpose, and explore how best to strengthen the regional order. That is what good diplomats should be doing.

Chester Crocker is an Emeritus Professor of strategic studies at Georgetown University and served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs from 1981-89.

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