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Have We Learned Nothing?

Crimea and the specter of reckless interventionism

By Joshua B. Lipson

Since my last column on the Crimean crisis, the plot has thickened considerably: from where National Geographic stands, the dangling Black Sea peninsula has joined the likes of Taiwan, Kashmir and Cyprus as an ‘Area of Special Status’. In terms of consequence to Eurasian politics and the U.S.-Russia bilateral relationship, Crimea has far outstripped Abkhazia or Transdniestria—marking the most glaring political geographic revision the Commonwealth of Independent States has seen since the end of the Cold War.

Over the course of a few weeks, it has become a lot easier to talk about Eurasian geopolitics in Cold War terms; Mitt Romney’s 2012 debate proclamations about Russia as grand rival have admittedly begun to sound much less unsound. But for the same reasons I identified two weeks ago, the Cold War paradigm has long ago met its maker. On the other hand, it is clear that attempts to neutralize Russia as a competing power, from Clinton-era shock therapy to the Obama-era reset, have been of little avail.

The truth lies somewhere in the middle, somewhat off the axis between Obama 2009 and Romney 2012: Russia is and will remain a Eurasian great power, deeply involved in its near abroad, and working with such a reality, the United States and Russia can identify issues of genuine common interest.

Opponents of this realist approach, which views power as the principal currency of international relations and does not, contrary to contemporary political dogma, amount to instinctive dovishness, cannot get past the imagined moral hazard. Putin’s impudence cannot go unpunished. If it has NATO member states in it, then let’s call it our neighborhood. We must act—rationally—in the face of chaotic irrationality.

This is the explicit, relentlessly moralistic language of the Republican and Democratic mainstreams and a vast majority of Ivy League elites, convinced that international order is something that can be precisely engineered, rather than merely managed. Seven months ago, it brought the Obama administration and Congress on the brink of war in Syria with no identifiable purpose and on the basis of trumped-up charges. Were it not for the president’s cautious bent and flagging marketing skills, the United States would be marking half a year of its third poorly-calibrated war in the Muslim world—hemorrhaging billions of dollars, political capital, and American lives. Any conservative or liberal worth his skin ought to know that he doesn’t want another Afghanistan or Iraq, especially as questions of strategic legacy have yielded to a debate over just how many trillions we wasted.

In the aftermath of Euromaidan and the Crimea takeover, it’s clear that American elites have missed the message once again. Harsh, face-saving responses are valued without accounting for the harm they pose to essential American interests; basic misunderstandings of culture, geography, and post-Cold War history has given rise to the hallucination that the West can determinedly outbid Russia in Ukraine. As is to be expected, they pick and choose revolutions (cloaking moral-ideological preferences under the guise of “vital interests”), forgetting that the Euromaidan movement overthrew an elected government vastly preferred by the people of Crimea and the Donbass. Russia’s response, while bold, is not an outburst—but rather, the logical equivalent of what the United States has done time and again in the Caribbean, the Persian Gulf, and Southeast Asia when it felt its interests threatened.

If any neoconservatives or more kindly-worded liberal internationalists think that maintaining the pretense of unipolar global policeman through force or monetary inducement is worth the incalculable, routinely higher-than-anticipated price tag, it is not worth arguing with them. If they can be made to understand American power as a complex machine with several engines, among them effective policy infrastructure and fiscal solvency, the temptation to bankrupt and embarrass America into absolute Good might be averted. Force is only the answer when it isn’t outweighed by blowback.

America’s foreign policy and national security interests are weighty and varied; as long as we remain the dominant power on the face of the earth, which is likely a while, it is only natural that we be concerned about many theaters. However, who holds sway in Kiev is not an overwhelmingly vital one, as it indeed is to Russia—and the rational response, however much engrained post-Cold War hubris it forces us to suppress, ought to take this into account. Most American voters (and Francis Fukuyama himself) have recovered from this nasty outgrowth of “end of history” thinking; it is time our political class gets with the program.

Joshua B. Lipson ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Near Eastern languages and civilizations concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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