“...the larger point is really this: It is diplomacy and respect for sovereignty, not unilateral force, that can best solve disputes like this in the 21st century. … The fact is this is the 21st century, and we should not see nations step backwards to behave in 19th or 20th century fashion. There are ways to resolve these differences.”
Secretary of State John Kerry
U.S. Embassy, Kyiv, Ukraine
If Secretary Kerry is to be commended during this most recent international crisis, it will be for reiterating the aspirations of statesmen and countries espousing a liberal foreign policy. If Secretary Kerry is to be condemned for conduct that fails to prevent the next international crisis, it will be for scorning the enduring reality of statesmen and countries practicing a realist foreign policy. The temporal distinction Kerry alleges is as illusory as the purported disjuncture between the Fukuyaman and Huntingtonian forecast for international security after 1991. Realism and liberalism are not specific to any century but are instead timeless and prevail simultaneously; Western leaders have only imagined their divergence and have unfortunately opted for imbalanced approaches, practicing one when circumstances demand the other.
Really Not That Complicated
As noted previously, after the Berlin Well fell and before the attacks of September 11th, international observers, theorists, and commentators struggled mightily to define the era. International system theorists contemplated how long the “unipolar moment” would last and when the inevitable multipolar system would arrive. Realist practitioners predicted the return of great power conflict; liberal counterparts envisioned a cooperative international environment. Each thesis possessed merit, but as the experience of the Clinton, Bush, and Obama Administrations have demonstrated, each one featured limitations.
As premises for diplomatic conduct, proponents asserted their universality, but in reality, each model could not be even characterize affairs globally.
Two American scholars James Goldgeier and Michael McFaul recognized this bifurcation early on in spring 1992. In an underappreciated International Organization article of the same year, Goldgeier and McFaul simply argued the post-cold war world was a "tale of two worlds" -- a core and a periphery. The former was populated by the developed industrial democracies which are increasingly of one mind as to political, economic, and security relationships. In contrast, the latter was the domain of formerly communist states as well as developing and underdeveloped nations where conflicts over political, economic, and security norms would continue. In short, Fukuyama’s end of history had prevailed, but only in the West; the rest of the world had become the arena for Huntington’s clash of civilizations.
Goldgeier and McFaul contended the increasing homogeneity of norms within the core would lessen the ability of realism to explain the behavior of the great powers (i.e. free trade and multilateral cooperation) there, but that realism would still be helpful in explaining the behavior of states within regional systems outside of the economic and political core (i.e. mercantilist trading and arms racing).
Ultimately, Goldgeier and McFaul cautioned policymakers against universalizing predictions about behavior.
Presciently, Goldgeier and McFaul concluded:
The fields of international political economy and international security will not be as separable as they were in the past, and new analyses of security politics will need to examine the nature of a liberal core and a realist periphery that will interact in new ways.
The Ukrainian crisis epitomizes this conclusion.
International political economy and security have become increasingly interconnected. An ideological competition no longer colors global affairs as nearly all stakeholders to the crisis maintain capitalist economies.
The liberal core and realist periphery have indeed diverged in their approach to security. Russia’s conduct has been quintessentially realist whereas the U.S. and the E.U. have espoused, to date, liberal policy responses, such as economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation.
Moreover, a requisite “new analysis of security politics” has been elusive as Western leaders have been confounded by the Russian leadership’s appropriation of liberal norms to justify their realist behavior.
By defending minority Russian self-determination and exercising the right to preemptive action, the bases for Western intervention in Kosovo in 1999 and Iraq in 2003, Russia is underscoring the sterility of Western rhetoric and severely curtailing the West’s ability to cohere internally around a more emphatic (and credible) defense of sovereignty norms.
A potential course of action may lie in following Goldgeier and McFaul’s advice to recognize that the behavior of stakeholders will vary and that new combinations are possible.
Latest Episode of Russian Aggression Is a Rerun
On the last occasion of Russian aggression against a neighboring sovereign state -- Georgia in 2008 -- American scholar Robert Kagan was asserting the democratic capitalism of the America and the West was in conflict with the authoritarian mercantilism of Russia and the PRC.
As noted previously, characterizing current international affairs in this manner is misleading. By linking the two countries on the basis of their similar regimes, Kagan obscured a key point of divergence between them: PRC leadership has historically opposed interference in another country’s domestic affairs and has traditionally protested military interventions.
When Russia defiantly defended its invasion of Georgia in the face of Western opposition and requested support from the PRC and other anti-Western states, the leadership was rebuked. Then Russian President Dmitri Medvedev turned to the PRC-led Shanghai Cooperative Organization (SCO) for diplomatic support and called for its conversion into a counterweight to NATO. Instead, the SCO declined to support Russia’s recognition of the two breakaway Georgian regions under Russian protection and instead the members issued a declaration “[reaffirming] their commitment to the principles of respect for the historical and cultural traditions of every country and to efforts aimed at preserving the unity of each state and its territorial integrity."
Recalling this discrepancy introduces the basis by which the the liberal West could counter a realist Russia: by aligning among major powers of differing regime types but similarly opposed to the infringement of sovereignty.
Ordering the relevant parties in this manner results in the following distribution:
The China Card, Take Two
Like the Russian oligarchs, the Chinese Central Committee presides over an authoritarian regime, but the country has its own share of potential Ukraines and Crimeas within its near abroad and does not need the principle of intervention legitimized. (Especially when recalling China suffered a similar fate, when a Soviet-backed referendum shifted Mongolia’s allegiance in 1945.)
In the wake of the Georgian crisis, American leadership could have reshaped its relationship with the PRC by signaling the intent to refrain from un-sanctioned unilateral intervention abroad (like Iraq) and articulating a firm commitment to respect a state’s sovereignty going forward. The PRC dictatorship may be vexing, but it is committed to modernization and integration with the global economy, in stark contrast to Russia, which has declined to diversify its petroleum-based economy and has repeatedly utilized its energy resources to blackmail its neighbors. Instead, American leadership inexplicably opted for a hollow “reset” with Russia and the abandonment of defense commitments to stalwart Polish and Czech allies.
Since the Georgian crisis, American leadership has only further squandered its credibility, most recently and notoriously in Syria last fall.
In the PRC, the leadership has turned over and the country’s foreign policy has shifted ominously from reassurances of a “peaceful rise” to an increasingly confrontational posture on matters of contested maritime sovereignty.
Accordingly, securing PRC collaboration falls to the European Union. Sharing a general aversion to interventions (as well as a dearth of power projection capability), the European Union and the PRC could collaborate on a more robust economic sanction regime. In 2011, Europe and the PRC consumed 68 percent of Russia’s exports; conversely, Europe and the PRC constituted 78 percent of Russia’s imports. In addition, China is keenly interested in the Arctic High North and the Arctic Council is predominantly a Western body.
Acknowledged, Europe is reliant on Russia for energy; however, inaction will only incentivize Russia to exacerbate this dependency to Europe’s detriment.
More pointedly, the near future of international liberalism could very well turn on the capacity of the European Union to enlist the PRC in a credible coalition against Russian aggression in the Ukraine.
Failing to reverse this offensive, the liberal core may face a future more defined by “nineteenth century realism” than not.
(03/21: The opportunity was ripe as recent as one week ago, but rapidly fading: Europe seems split on initiating a trade war, Russia has annexed the Crimea, and the PRC has become more aggressive vis-a-vis the Philippines regarding the Second Thomas Shoal.)