Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Russia’s Defeat Would Be America’s Problem

Victory in Ukraine could easily mean hubris in Washington.

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
U.S. President Joe Biden listens to remarks in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on May 19.
U.S. President Joe Biden listens to remarks in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on May 19.
U.S. President Joe Biden listens to remarks in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on May 19. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

At the end of Pericles’s speech convincing his fellow Athenians to declare war on Sparta in 431 B.C., he declared that he was “more afraid of our own blunders than of the enemy’s devices.” In particular, he cautioned against hubris and the danger of combining “schemes of fresh conquest with the conduct of the war.” His warnings went unheeded, however, and his successors eventually led Athens to a disastrous defeat.

Centuries later, Edmund Burke offered a similar warning to his British compatriots as Britain moved toward war with revolutionary France. As he wrote in 1793: “I dread our own power, and our own ambition; I dread our being too much dreaded. … We may say that we shall not abuse this astonishing, and hitherto unheard-of power. But every other nation will think we shall abuse it. It is impossible but that, sooner or later, this state of things must produce a combination against us which may end in our ruin.” Burke’s forecast did not come true, however, in part because Britain’s ambitions remained limited even after France was defeated.

I mention these two gloomy prophecies, because there is a possibility that the United States and its Western allies will come out of the war in Ukraine with a clear win. More far-sighted statecraft by the West might have prevented the war in the first place, sparing Ukraine the vast destruction it has suffered at Russian hands. That counterfactual notwithstanding, a combination of Russian miscalculations and military incompetence, fierce Ukrainian resistance, formidable Western material and intelligence support, and potent sanctions on Moscow may eventually produce a victory for Kyiv and its Western backers. Assuming the fighting does not escalate further—a possibility that still cannot be ruled out—and Ukraine continues its recent battlefield successes, Russian power will be greatly diminished for many years to come. It is even possible that Vladimir Putin will be ousted from power in Moscow. Should Russia suffer a decisive defeat, warnings about the inevitable decline of the West will seem premature at best.

At the end of Pericles’s speech convincing his fellow Athenians to declare war on Sparta in 431 B.C., he declared that he was “more afraid of our own blunders than of the enemy’s devices.” In particular, he cautioned against hubris and the danger of combining “schemes of fresh conquest with the conduct of the war.” His warnings went unheeded, however, and his successors eventually led Athens to a disastrous defeat.

Centuries later, Edmund Burke offered a similar warning to his British compatriots as Britain moved toward war with revolutionary France. As he wrote in 1793: “I dread our own power, and our own ambition; I dread our being too much dreaded. … We may say that we shall not abuse this astonishing, and hitherto unheard-of power. But every other nation will think we shall abuse it. It is impossible but that, sooner or later, this state of things must produce a combination against us which may end in our ruin.” Burke’s forecast did not come true, however, in part because Britain’s ambitions remained limited even after France was defeated.

I mention these two gloomy prophecies, because there is a possibility that the United States and its Western allies will come out of the war in Ukraine with a clear win. More far-sighted statecraft by the West might have prevented the war in the first place, sparing Ukraine the vast destruction it has suffered at Russian hands. That counterfactual notwithstanding, a combination of Russian miscalculations and military incompetence, fierce Ukrainian resistance, formidable Western material and intelligence support, and potent sanctions on Moscow may eventually produce a victory for Kyiv and its Western backers. Assuming the fighting does not escalate further—a possibility that still cannot be ruled out—and Ukraine continues its recent battlefield successes, Russian power will be greatly diminished for many years to come. It is even possible that Vladimir Putin will be ousted from power in Moscow. Should Russia suffer a decisive defeat, warnings about the inevitable decline of the West will seem premature at best.

There’s a lot to like about this outcome on both moral and strategic grounds, assuming that nuclear weapons are not employed and that Ukraine gets back almost all if not all its lost territory. So, I am definitely rooting for this outcome. But then what? How should the West, and especially the United States, take advantage of is victory? Above all, what steps should be avoided lest the fruits of victory be squandered?

It may seem premature to raise these issues, given that the ultimate endgame in Ukraine is still uncertain. But we should start thinking about what happens if the moment of victory arrives. After all, the last time the United States won a great geostrategic victory—the peaceful collapse of the Soviet empire—it succumbed to the kind of hubris that Pericles warned against, and it squandered the opportunity to build a more lasting and peaceful world. If it gets another opportunity, it should learn from its mistakes and do a better job this time around.

Here’s what worries me: Although success in Ukraine is something we should all wish for, it is likely to strengthen the same political forces in the United States that produced the counterproductive excesses of the unipolar era. Victory in Ukraine will bolster claims about the inherent superiority of democracy and encourage renewed efforts to spread it abroad. Unrepentant neoconservatives and ambitious liberal crusaders will crow, having finally notched a success after 30 years of failure. Having profited handsomely from the war, the military-industrial complex will have many more millions to spend convincing inattentive Americans that they can only be safe by garrisoning the world and spending more on defense than the next seven or eight countries put together. With Russia greatly diminished and an economic recession looming, current pledges to increase European defense capabilities will lose steam, and America’s NATO allies will go back to relying on Uncle Sam for protection. Despite many past failures, proponents of liberal hegemony will claim vindication, at least temporarily.

So, what’s wrong with that?

For starters, it ignores some of the key lessons from the Ukraine war itself. Lesson No. 1 is that threatening what a great power believes to be a vital interest is dangerous, even if one’s own intentions are noble or benign. So, it was with open-ended NATO enlargement: A diverse array of foreign-policy experts had repeatedly warned that this policy would lead to trouble, and nothing that has happened since February 2014, when the Ukraine crisis began, has invalidated their warnings. Eking out a win in a war that might have been avoided is not a good argument for repeating the same mistake again. I’m not making an argument for appeasement, mind you, just issuing a reminder that ignoring what other great powers regard as vital interests is inherently risky.

Lesson No. 2 is the danger of inflating threats. The war in Ukraine is best understood as a preventive war launched by Russia to stop Ukraine from slipping into the Western orbit. Preventive war is illegal under international law, but Putin believed the U.S.-led effort to arm and train Ukraine was eventually going to make it impossible for Moscow to halt Kyiv’s geopolitical realignment. Just as American leaders exaggerated the danger of falling dominos during the Vietnam War and deliberately inflated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003, Putin probably overstated the actual danger that “losing” Ukraine posed to Russia.  Russian leaders repeatedly described this outcome as an existential threat—i.e., one worth fighting a war to prevent—but their fear that NATO might invade or that “color revolutions” might eventually spread to Russia were probably exaggerated (which is not to say that they were not sincere).  If so, then this misjudgment helped lead Moscow into a costly quagmire. My point is that inflating threats can get states into just as much trouble as downplaying them, which is why Germany’s Otto von Bismarck famously warned that preventive war was like “committing suicide for fear of death.” Future U.S. policymakers should bear this in mind.

Lesson No. 3 (which Putin seems to have ignored) is simple: If you invade a foreign country, don’t expect a friendly welcome. On the contrary, foreign invaders typically unite previously divided societies and inspire ferocious and highly effective resistance. Ukraine is a case in point, of course, and the war also reminds us that you’re even less likely to be welcomed when your armed forces commit war crimes or other atrocities. We’d do well to keep this lesson front and center too.

Lesson No. 4 (also apparently discounted by Putin) is that outright aggression alarms other countries and leads them to take steps to counter it. If the Russian president believed the comparatively mild response to the seizure of Crimea in 2014 meant that outside powers would do little to oppose his invasion in 2022, he made the same error Adolf Hitler made when he seized the rump of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and then went after Poland a few months later. Balancing behavior is sometimes inefficient, and states often try to pass the buck to others, but effective balancing is much less likely in the face of a direct invasion. We should understand this, insofar as U.S. adventurism in the unipolar era triggered soft balancing by some states and hard balancing by others, and these dynamics helped thwart some of Washington’s loftier ambitions. We’d be wise to remember this lesson as well.

Taken together, these four lessons suggest that a victory in Ukraine will not put the United States in a position to reshape the global order to its liking. That goal was beyond its reach at the height of the unipolar moment, and overall conditions are less favorable now given China’s rise, Europe’s economic fragility, and the ambivalent attitude of many countries in the developing world toward the United States. If American policymakers see victory in Ukraine as a new opportunity for a global liberal crusade, they are doomed to fail once again.

Instead, success in Ukraine should prompt a careful reflection on the past 50 or more years of U.S. grand strategy, to identify which approaches have worked well and which have not. Here’s a quick back-of-the-envelope assessment.

U.S. military power was effective when it was used to create strong deterrent postures against genuine great-power rivals—as it did in Europe and Northeast Asia during the Cold War—while eschewing overt efforts at “rollback” or regime change. These efforts succeeded when it had strong, competent, and legitimate partners; they worked far less well when it was trying to prop up unpopular, weak, or incompetent clients. U.S. military power was an effective instrument when the United States was opposing unprovoked and illegitimate aggression, as in the 1991 Gulf War or in Ukraine today. It failed when it was used to topple foreign governments and impose democracy at the point of a gun, and especially when it lacked reliable local partners. Even when such efforts succeeded in the short term (e.g., Iran in 1953, Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003, or Libya in 2011), the long-term consequences were almost always negative.

More broadly, U.S. foreign policy worked best when it acknowledged national differences, did not insist that every country on Earth must embrace U.S. political values, and promoted democracy primarily by setting an example that others could emulate at their own pace and in their own way. It failed when U.S. leaders saw American-style liberal democracy as the magic formula for political and economic success, assumed that all human beings craved freedom and liberty above all other values, and convinced themselves they knew how to “nation-build” in countries that were vastly different from the United States.

U.S. foreign economic policy has succeeded when it sought to encourage greater openness, but with due regard for social and economic stability. As the late scholar John Ruggie shows in a classic article, the post-World War II compromise of “embedded liberalism”—which encouraged trade and growth while insulating domestic populations from the most severe consequences of globalization—was one such policy success. U.S. foreign economic policy has failed when Washington reverted to rampant protectionism (as in the 1930s) or when it put markets ahead of all other considerations (as in the neoliberal strategy of hyperglobalization). In the latter case, the result was politically explosive inequality, major financial crises, and supply chains that proved vulnerable to unexpected shocks.

U.S. foreign policy achieves more when it puts diplomacy first, as it did in developing the Marshall Plan, creating impressive alliance systems in Europe and Asia, negotiating Egyptian-Israeli peace, reaching trade deals with economic partners, or pursuing stabilizing arms control agreements with adversaries. U.S. negotiating efforts succeed when American leaders also recognize that other states have their own interests and that a successful deal must provide something of value for all the participants. By contrast, U.S. efforts fail when Washington abandons genuine diplomacy and negotiates on a take-it-or-leave-it basis: issuing ultimatums, ratcheting up sanctions, and rejecting mutually beneficial compromises.

Victory in Ukraine—again, assuming it actually occurs—will not be as momentous an event as the collapse of the former Soviet empire. It will not usher in another unipolar moment, because China is far stronger than it was in the 1990s, and the Ukraine war has not altered that fact. A Ukrainian victory is not likely to end the dysfunctional political polarization within the United States—if anything, a more benign external environment will make it easier to ratchet up divisions back home—and it is certainly not going to magically give the United States the ability to manage or direct local politics all around our diverse and complicated world.

Indeed, should Ukraine (and the West) win, they will face the same foreign policy to-do list that existed before Russian troops crossed the Ukrainian border: 1) averting catastrophic climate change and dealing with the severe consequences that are already apparent; 2) balancing and engaging China; 3) keeping Iran from getting the bomb; 4) managing a sputtering global economy; and 5) preparing the world for the next pandemic. Achieving these vital goals will require setting clear priorities and avoiding quixotic crusades. No one will be able to stop the Ukraine hawks from taking a victory lap, but it is essential to keep them from leading the West to repeat its past mistakes.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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