Ukraine Is the World’s Foreign-Policy Rorschach Test

There are two basic ways to think about the war—and the world.

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.
People stand in front of an Ukrainian national flag fluttering as dark smoke and flames rise from a fire following an air strike in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, on March 26, 2022.
People stand in front of an Ukrainian national flag fluttering as dark smoke and flames rise from a fire following an air strike in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, on March 26, 2022.
People stand in front of an Ukrainian national flag fluttering as dark smoke and flames rise from a fire following an air strike in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, on March 26, 2022. ALEKSEY FILIPPOV/AFP via Getty Images

Like nearly everything else in politics these days, discussions of the war in Ukraine often devolve into nasty rounds of name-calling. If you say you are worried about escalation, aren’t convinced that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ultimate goal is to restore the old Soviet empire, and voice concerns that the war is a costly and potentially dangerous distraction from other foreign-policy priorities, then you’ll probably be accused of being an appeaser, an apologist for Moscow, or something even worse. By contrast, if you favor open-ended Western support for Ukraine, dismiss the possibility of escalation, and believe the war must continue until Russia suffers a decisive defeat and Putin is ousted, your critics will denounce you as a warmonger whose disregard for costs and risks could get us all vaporized.

 

This level of vituperation is not conducive to a serious discussion of alternative perspectives and policy options at a time when uncertainty is rife and weighing the costs and benefits of different courses of action carefully is critical. Humility, empathy, and attention to logic and evidence should be the world’s guiding principles, but these traits are hard to sustain when war is raging, people are dying, and passions are inflamed.

Like nearly everything else in politics these days, discussions of the war in Ukraine often devolve into nasty rounds of name-calling. If you say you are worried about escalation, aren’t convinced that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ultimate goal is to restore the old Soviet empire, and voice concerns that the war is a costly and potentially dangerous distraction from other foreign-policy priorities, then you’ll probably be accused of being an appeaser, an apologist for Moscow, or something even worse. By contrast, if you favor open-ended Western support for Ukraine, dismiss the possibility of escalation, and believe the war must continue until Russia suffers a decisive defeat and Putin is ousted, your critics will denounce you as a warmonger whose disregard for costs and risks could get us all vaporized.

 

This level of vituperation is not conducive to a serious discussion of alternative perspectives and policy options at a time when uncertainty is rife and weighing the costs and benefits of different courses of action carefully is critical. Humility, empathy, and attention to logic and evidence should be the world’s guiding principles, but these traits are hard to sustain when war is raging, people are dying, and passions are inflamed.

 

If we step back a bit, however, the debate on Ukraine can be seen as an illustration of a long-standing divide in foreign-policy circles. This divide was evident in debates on Vietnam in the 1960s and over the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. These competing worldviews are also fundamental to the policy differences between advocates of energetic U.S. interventionism and those who favor greater foreign-policy restraint.

 

Those who favor open-ended support for Ukraine see the world as highly interconnected and sensitive to small changes. In this view, international order is a fragile thing—like a financial market where a bit of bad news can spark panic and trigger a total market meltdown. For those who think this way, even minor setbacks can destroy a great power’s reputation, lead its allies to switch sides and bandwagon with an opponent, embolden revisionist powers, and produce rapid and far-reaching changes in the international order.

 

By the same logic, advocates of this view also tend to believe that even modest victories can produce big benefits in other areas and issues. If the United States comes out on top in some international dispute, allies around the world will supposedly be reassured, potential aggressors will be deterred for years, and the existing order will be reinforced. If the United States loses or even compromises, however, look out.

 

From this perspective, if Russia gets anything out of the war, then Putin’s appetite will grow ever larger, and he is likely to think he can keep blackmailing the West into giving him whatever he wants. The United States and NATO will lose credibility, wars of conquest will once again be seen as legitimate tools of statecraft, China will decide it can take Taiwan whenever it wants, any semblance of a “rules-based order” will collapse, and woe will be us. But if Russia is soundly defeated and Putin is retired (to put it politely)then revisionists around the world will learn once again that aggression does not pay. Ukrainian democracy will flourish, liberalism will get a new lease on life around the world, China will stand down over Taiwan, inflation will subside, and happy days will be here again.

 

One can understand why the Ukrainian government and its most fervent supporters in the West tend to purvey this view. If compromise would lead to all these horrible outcomes and victory would bring such tremendous benefits, then giving Ukraine whatever it needs to achieve its war aims seems like the obvious thing to do. This is the classic formula for starting or continuing a war: You try to convince people that doing more will bring great benefits at a reasonable cost and that failing to do so will lead to disaster. Given that, in this case, we are dealing with a nuclear-armed adversary, those who embrace this view also tend to argue that Putin’s nuclear threats are signs of desperation and warn against succumbing to nuclear blackmail. Not surprisingly, this is the official view from Kyiv.

 

But here’s the rub: If Putin and his advisors are thinking along similar lines—and there’s reason to believe that they are—then they also have a bit of an incentive to continue the war (and maybe escalate it if they are losing). If Putin sees the world the same way that Western hawks do, then he believes defeat in Ukraine would consign Russia to the second rank of world powers, make China question Russia’s value as an ally, reinforce U.S. global dominance, and quite possibly threaten his regime and personal survival. And he may still hold out hope that a compromise for peace, which kept Ukraine from becoming a de facto Western ally and struck a blow against what he sees as a U.S.-led effort to weaken Russia, would vindicate his original decision to go to war and justify the enormous price that Russia has paid for his miscalculations and incompetence.

 

The bottom line is more that key decision-makers on both sides view the war as an all-or-nothing struggle with far-reaching global implications—worsening the risk of dangerous escalation the longer it lasts. If you want to understand how that might happen, check out the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Jeremy Shapiro’s depressing take here.

 

But there is another way to think about this whole issue. If you believe world events are only imperfectly interconnected, then what happens in Ukraine is important but not likely to determine the fate of the planet. In this view, dramatic shifts of the sort described above happen rarely—and typically only when a great power collapses entirely and the entire structure of world politics is transformed. Most of the time, states adjust their policies to try to keep the strongest power(s) in check, balances of power tend to reform, and even one-sided victories typically create new problems rather than perpetual peace.

 

People who see the world this way agree that helping Ukraine defend itself is desirable on both moral and strategic grounds and that outside support should continue. But however much they might applaud a Ukrainian victory and the removal of all Russian troops from Ukrainian soil, they don’t think the question of who controls the Donbas will have much impact on China’s policy toward Taiwan, Iran’s nuclear decision-making, the refugee crisis in Africa and Central America, or the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. They suspect rifts in Europe will continue even if Ukraine is triumphant and that these divisions are likely to increase once today’s heightened fears of Russia diminish. A defeated Russia would be chastened for a while, but new Russian leaders might be as uncomfortable with U.S. dominance as Putin has been and still capable of mischief-making in several places. The internal challenges facing the democracies of the West would not disappear after a victory parade in Kyiv, and local rivalries and conflicting interests would continue to bedevil anyone who is foolish enough to try to dictate the political evolution of a diverse and divided planet.

 

If you think this way, it follows that victory in Ukraine, while desirable, is not going to solve all the world’s problems. Similarly, failure to inflict a traumatic defeat on Russia would not be a catastrophic blow to the global balance of power or the evolving world order. Even if Russia somehow manages to hang on to Crimea and maybe some parts of the Donbas, it is going to get substantially weaker over time, and there’s very little Putin (or a successor) can do about that.

 

Which of these two sharply contrasting worldviews is correct? Although I believe modern history strongly supports the second alternative, the conflict over Ukraine could be an exception to the balancing tendencies I’ve described. I can’t prove that the hard-liners are wrong either about Putin’s willingness to escalate or the broader consequences of what happens in Ukraine. Nor can they prove that the less alarmist view I’ve sketched is wrong.

 

But I continue to believe that a far more important issue for the future world order is whether the United States continues to dominate the commanding heights of the world economy or gradually surrenders that position to China as well as whether humankind can keep climate change from rendering these other problems trivial by comparison. What happens in Ukraine won’t affect these issues that much unless a prolonged war becomes a costly distraction for the United States and a growing burden on its European allies, even as China buys cut-rate oil and gas and remains happily aloof from yet another costly and dangerous global conflict.

 

The other way the war in Ukraine could exert a dramatic effect on world politics, of course, would be a shattering of the nuclear taboo, especially if this step leads to a significant nuclear exchange. The Biden administration seems to be more mindful of this danger than some of the people who are egging it on, which is a good thing. I’d like to think that people with sharply contrasting worldviews could still agree that a nuclear war would ruin everyone’s day and that there are no political objectives that would justify it.

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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