How Not To Bend The Arc of History
Monday Notes
How Not To Bend The Arc of History
Ukraine shows how idealism can get us into an unholy mess.
Published on: Jan 24, 2022  

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I have been struggling to put down on paper exactly why the crisis in Ukraine is much bigger than Ukraine, and have been miserably failing these past few weeks. Fortunately, Brookings scholar and Russia expert Fiona Hill penned an article that hits most of the points I would have liked to hit. Do read the whole thing if you have time.

Fiona’s essay opens with an arresting anecdote. “George, you have to understand that Ukraine is not even a country,” Putin apparently told then-President George W. Bush in 2008. “Part of its territory is in Eastern Europe and the greater part was given to us.” The backdrop for this ominous banter was the NATO summit in Bucharest, where the United States’ desire to extend Membership Action Plans to Georgia and Ukraine had been thwarted by the vetoes of France and Germany. As a compromise with allies, NATO offered a halfway measure to the aspirants: “An explicit promise to join the bloc, but no specific timeline for membership,” Fiona writes.

The wiggle room created by this half-meant promise—a promise she quietly lets us know she was opposed to while serving in the Bush administration—has since opened up space for Putin to play hardball. He sees the West overextended and without the will for a fight. He has calculated, correctly, that we won’t come to aid Ukraine militarily. By mauling Ukraine as we helplessly stand by, he plans to press his advantage, working to “exploit all the frictions and fractures in NATO and the European Union.” Our allies, especially those on Europe’s eastern flank, watching Ukraine get slowly dismembered, will have doubts about their own security guarantees, especially if countries like Germany continue to play down Russian aggression.

Fiona’s argument is compelling and convincing to me, so much so that it sent me reflecting on some of my frustrations with how exactly we got here—and with the often dangerous role that unchecked idealism plays in the making of foreign policy.

First and foremost, it’s worth stating clearly that I believe a country like Ukraine deserves a better future than the one that geography and history has cruelly bequeathed it. That said, I also believe that the difficulty of Ukraine’s situation is very concrete and real, and is difficult to wave away. No matter what we may want for Ukraine and its citizens, it has long been obvious that the best case scenario is well out of reach. The world is a tragic place. In many situations, good people meet horrible fates. That tragic reality, however, has been ignored by a generation of activist policymakers steeped in a progressive vision of the world that kicked off with the end of the Cold War. And today’s crisis is an excellent illustration of just how the best of intentions can lead us astray.

Just as NATO was starting to lead the Ukrainians and Georgians on with half-promises of eventual membership in 2008, the EU was playing the exact same dishonest game with its enlargement policy. It offered the six post-Soviet states not yet in the bloc the opportunity to join its “Eastern Partnership” initiative. Luuk van Middelaar’s Alarums and Excursions is particularly damning in telling this story.

The partnership was emphatically not an antechamber to accession. Western European public opinion was expressing itself tired of enlargement, so the Union kept its biggest magnet, the prospect of membership, in its pocket. This was not what leaders in Chisinau, Kiev and Tbilisi wanted to hear; for some, Union membership was the top priority.

A dilemma for Europe's diplomats: they wanted to support pro-European forces in the neighboring countries but could not make promises that went against the wishes of their own voters. The result was semantic ambivalence. In 2008 the European Council recognized Ukraine as "European country," still one step away from the coveted status of "European state" that would mean it could formally lay claim to membership. The subtle distinction was unsustainable. Knowing that these countries wanted to enter yet without promising to hold the door open, in its official declarations the Union repeated the Jesuitical formula "We recognize your European aspirations". In other words: no harm in trying.

Take a second to appreciate what is happening here: the idealists in Europe are refusing to bow to political realities at home—voters are tired of enlargement and advocating for it is a political loser—and are trying to lawyer their way to providing false hope to aspirant countries that have no realistic prospect of becoming members. They did it because they thought it was the right thing to do, and because it would be a shame to not give succor and hope to desperate people wanting a better life.

This kind of mindset led to a profound befuddlement across Europe when Russia finally invaded Ukraine in 2014 over Ukraine’s attempt to sign an Association Agreement with the bloc. Middelaar again:

The European Union refused to think in terms of spheres of influence; that, as President Obama would say later, was a nineteenth-century concept, unworthy of the twenty-first century. Against political antagonism it set a story of economic interlinkage. The trade agreement was presented as advantageous to all parties. It would immediately save Ukraine €500 million in import duties and in the longer term it would create 6 per cent annual growth, according to Barroso after the summit ended. This was not a zero-sum game, economist Van Rompuy agreed; prosperity in Ukraine would confer benefits on its neighbor Russia.

According to Brussels logic this win-win principle of trade was beyond dispute. It is the Union's raison d'être. Anyone who thinks or acts differently is beyond the pale. This conceptual rigidity revealed itself gloriously when Commission president Barroso firmly announced (without mentioning the man in the Kremlin by name), "This is a process not against someone. This is a process for something. It is for democracy, for stability and for prosperity. It is not against someone, because I don't believe someone should be against democracy, against stability or against prosperity." This was the ideology of the Brussels magnet in its most depoliticized, moralistic form. It sounded shrill. Impotent swagger.

Again, take a moment to appreciate this passage. The Europeans never had any intention of granting full membership to Ukraine. They could only offer halfway measures. But they dressed it up as a lot more than it was, both raising Ukrainian hopes and at the same time alarming the paranoid imperialist Russians. The Europeans were so deluded about what they were doing that they genuinely couldn’t comprehend why Russia was sending troops to Crimea. Nineteenth-century behavior! The world doesn’t work that way! We’re just trying to make the world a better place!

The duplicitousness is bad enough, but the swagger coupled with actual impotence was the most damaging. Western moral credibility was built on a set of promises made to aspirant countries, in language replete in talk of values and solidarity. What Putin is attempting to do now is to prove the hollowness of the whole edifice. We have acted in bad faith, and led on countries we always knew we would never go to bat for. Putin is looking to provide an object lesson as to our worthlessness as allies.

As regular listeners of the podcast know, Shadi and I have both scorned Obama’s passivity, memorably enshrined by the man himself in his remarks about the “arc of history bending toward justice”. One does not have to actually do anything if history will prove that we were on the right side all along.

But where Shadi and I part ways is in support of activist policymaking. His rebuke to Obama was that as the most powerful person on the planet, he should have bent the arc of history toward justice himself rather than counting on it bending of its own accord. If Shadi followed Europe more closely, he probably would have been sympathetic to doubling down on promises to the countries striving to join the West in 2008—by both Americans and Europeans alike. The political realities were bleak for it working out, but the role of leadership is to change these realities, to bend history. Better to nudge things along and work on the politics, right?

My unease with this pose has always been that certain realities are fundamental, and are not really forceable by strong leadership. It may be narrowly true that if Georgia and Ukraine had been admitted to NATO and the European Union in 2008 straight away, Russia would never have dared to intervene, first in Georgia that same year, and then in Ukraine in 2014. But the political reality is that NATO accession was being blocked by two major European powers, and EU enlargement was already mostly dead at that point. In short, contra Shadi, I’d argue that it’s as foolish to assume away politics as it is to assume that the arc of history automatically bends towards justice.

This, ultimately, is why I tend to advocate for a properly tragic view of the world. A smart politician will understand that no progress is permanent, and that every achievement is incredibly fragile. There are opportunities to make a difference, sure, and it may well be the case that in the case of Syria, Obama misjudged the situation—I’m not enough of an expert to argue those counterfactuals. But I maintain, however, that progress-minded policy activism, born out of a sunny optimism to change the world, is no less deadly than passivity. The crisis that the Western alliance is now facing on the eastern reaches of Europe, with Putin calling bullshit on all we stand for, is testament to just how bad a place good intentions can get us.