In his essay NATO Expansion and the Road to Simferopol Mr Pillar makes several arguments to suggest that the European Union, the United States, and NATO were as much responsible for Russia’s interventions in Ukraine as the Russian. His argument, which he summarizes at the start, is that the EU, NATO, and US have cornered Russia. How else did we expect Russia to react but to intervene in Ukraine and destabilize it and occupy parts of it when they were encouraged to oust a corrupt administration and seek closer ties with the EU and NATO?
To support his argument, Mr Pillar makes seven substantial points. I will address each of these before concluding.
Democracies not empires are based on consent.
He begins by reminding us that NATO and the EU are expanding into the old Soviet empire. He seems to forget that empire is never consensual. In empire, there are the rulers and the ruled. If someone is trying to escape an empire, by allying with non-imperial countries, like democracies or democratic alliances, it seems strange to suggest that democracies must respect the empires and their previous domination. One almost forgets the right to self-determination that each of these countries peoples have to seek to determine their own fate.
We promised Russia but who promised the Ukrainians?
He begins by invoking the idea that the West promised Russia it would not approach the states formerly subjected to Russian domination. Yet, that seems to suggest quite ironically, that the West can make these promises on behalf of the subjugated people. Was the sort of thinking that kept the West from supporting Hungary in 1956, or Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1968?
NATO expands by a fit of absentmindedness
Mr Pillar then invokes the idea that the moves to Ukraine are only a way to keep NATO occupied as an institution. He suggests that NATO has expanded east almost in a fit of absentmindedness as if expansion was simply what it was programmed to do. The problem with this analysis is that it forgets the success of Europe has been based on peace. Unlike the US, Europe has a whole has never known a period without some military threat hanging over it. As a result, its views on security and stability are more informed by Hobbes’s state of nature than the Federalist’s idea of an empire of liberty. However, both agree that where there is peace and stability there is also prosperity. For the Eastern European countries to be brought into that stability, they need to join NATO as EU has no army worth speaking of and any such army would be a “greater” threat to Russia than one lead by and restrained by the United States. To put it bluntly and directly would rather have NATO with America at its helm or a European army with a nuclear-armed Germany at its heart.
Without expansion the US would lose interest?
Mr. Pillar is concerned that eastward expansion has been a way to keep the United States involved in the security affairs in Europe. Leaving aside the point about a nuclear-armed Germany at the heart of a European military, the United States has let its European partners take the lead on a number of issues. We need to remember that the United States has never fought a military action outside of the Caribbean without an ally. One only need note that the US stepped back from direct intervention into Syria when the UK voted against supporting the effort. The West has expanded Eastward through the EU’s economic ties and only minimal military ties. The United States has become involved when direct military leadership is needed for a military solution. For the most part, that has only occurred infrequently in comparison to the continual and normal business and economic contacts between Western and Eastern Europe. The underlying reality is that Eastern Europeans would rather feel safe, be inside the EU and NATO, than face life under the continued and continual threat of Russian control. Poland’s stability and prosperity in contradistinction to Ukraine’s turmoil and relative stagnation show us the difference.
Above all, do not hurt the Russian’s feelings forget the Ukrainians feelings though.
We are reminded, though, that no one is being sensitive to Russia’s fears of being surrounded or showing enough concern for them. Such words seem to ring true, except that they ring hollow, when we consider Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the Berlin Wall. We also are puzzled by the fact that Switzerland is surrounded and seems rather calm about it. Perhaps because it has the 3rd largest army in Europe. The issue is not whether someone is encroaching on someone else, which the United States perhaps more than any major power has shown a high degree of sensitivity (one only need to note the concerns for Khrushchev to “save face” over Cuba) for other states in dealing with them. Yes, America can insensitive or boorish, but that is hardly a basis for deciding the security of a state. Considering the insensitivity, though, I think Europeans well remember that the Soviet Union trained and aided Hitler and the Nazi war machine up to the point it turned on them.
Such bad manners for democracies to court former imperial vassal states.
We then are reminded that any western advance of NATO and the EU is simply bad manners because it rubs Russia’s nose in its failure in the Cold War. Such thinking accepts the Cold War like the Super Bowl where if it had gone the other way, Russia would be chiding itself for being so rude as to impose a communist tyranny in North America. The expansion of NATO and the EU are simply trends within a wider geopolitical logic that goes beyond the tactical concerns with putting a “W” on the board. What looms over all of this is China’s rise and the potential to control Eurasia, which would be catastrophic for the United States. Russia has become the pawn between the United States and China and it wants to reassert some status, but can find no other way than to act as a spoiler rather than an enabler. Such behaviour suggests that its political sympathies lie closer to Beijing than the West.
We just need an enemy and Russia is misunderstood.
Although mention of China seems to indicate another enemy to focus America’s attention, the opposite is true. America does not go in search of enemies because it is a magnet for them. As Dean Rusk always used to say, the tenets of USFP are bound up with the UN Charter. He always talked of creating and maintaining a decent world order shown by the promise of the UN. We see a clear demonstration of a decent world order in the contrast between the EU and Russia regarding Ukraine. The EU sends tanks and Russia sends troops. One brings prosperity the other brings violence. The decent world order is one that has many enemies both at home and abroad without the need to search them out. Although many will want to view this as a Manichean struggle, Ukraine is simply part of the larger attempt to create a decent world order. No one need be destroyed to maintain this decent world order, which is why the PRC has been able to support it.
We are forgetting history because we never learned from it
I applaud Mr. Pillar for these arguments because they show us that if we forget history we are doomed to repeat it. We need to look to 1648 as much as we need to look to 1948, 1954, and 1968 to know what is at stake in the Ukraine. We would better to remind ourselves of Spykman and Mackinder than worry whether we are “hurting Russia’s feelings”. We need to consider whether we want a decent world or not. Do we avoid trying for of “triumphalism?” One wonders how America can remain free if it continued to basis its security and the security of its allies on the hurt feelings of states seeking to impose a tyranny by force or fraud. Perhaps Mr. Pillar could consider Thucydides “The strong do as they will, the weak do as they must. Only between equals is there justice”. I see the West trying to bring equality and the Russians asserting through force and fraud what the powerful have always done through history, subject the weak.
Which side are we to join? That is the choice we will have to explain to Ukrainians.