To Pivot or Not to Pivot?
Shadi and Damir debate the "ought" and "is" of foreign policy. Also: do Americans care about democracy promotion?
In this subscribers-only Q&A, Shadi and Damir talk delve into interesting territory—including about Al Pacino.
The Problem with Pivots and Pacino
A reader has a question for us, which allows Damir to share his film knowledge.
Given America's pivot to Asia, and its apparent deemphasis of European interests, how do you see American national security interests progressing, and what kind of roles do the political machine and the public play here? —Andreas Kaju @andreaskaju
Damir: I always think back to that overwrought Al Pacino scene in Godfather Part III...
Obama was right when he complained that steering the ship of state to a completely different course is very difficult. His own "Pivot to Asia" was a notable failure, even though he, too, sought to de-emphasize Europe. Had Hillary Clinton won, she probably would have redoubled her commitments to the pivot, just as the Biden Administration has, after the undisciplined Trump interregnum.
But just because one wants to pivot doesn't mean one gets to pivot. What we're seeing in Ukraine is proof of that. Russia has sensed an opportunity and is pushing its advantage. As long as we remain committed to European security, we will get pulled back into European affairs if the Russians demand it.
As for the political machine and the public, I don't know. I don't think voters much care about the details. But politically, it's never a good look to be losing, especially against telegenic peer competitors like Russia and China. From a purely opportunistic standpoint, I fully expect Republicans to make much hay over Biden being a weak foreign policy president, capitulating on Afghanistan. If major concessions are made to Russia in Europe, expect that to be added to the list of failures.
Empty Promises and NATO Expansion
Thinking about the Ukraine issue, what should be the criteria be for NATO expansion? Should NATO only expand to countries that would not elevate tensions with Russia? Was it a mistake to promise Ukraine membership in 2008? If so, was NATO's expansion into the Balkans and the Baltic states also a mistake? —Aakash
Shadi: Damir's the expert here, but my own two cents is that if you're going to promise something, you should have a plan for meeting that promise. Empty rhetoric is the worst of both worlds. If you don't want to do something and you have no intention of doing it, then don't say you're going to do it. It almost sounds too obvious. There's a big (and inconclusive) debate in the academic literature about credibility. But some of this is surely intuitive and observable. When Russia pushes hard and sees that Western powers don't have the courage of their convictions, presumably they take note. How could they not? In this regard, the George W. Bush administration's failure to respond to Russia's aggression against Georgia in 2008 set a precedent.
As for NATO expansion, if it can only expand to countries that wouldn't elevate tensions with Russia, then there would be no NATO expansion. That may be fine, as an outcome, but it does no one any favors to pretend that NATO expansion is a real thing in that case.
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