America’s Delusions of Innocence Threaten the World
Last Thursday, Poland’s foreign minister warned that the crisis over Ukraine means the “risk of war” in Europe “is now greater than ever before in the last 30 years.” Most people in official Washington blame Vladimir Putin for that. I blame him too. But I also blame an American foreign policy class so wedded to fantasies of American innocence that it can’t imagine why Putin, or anyone else, would see America as a threat. And I suspect we’d be a lot further from war if Joe Biden’s top foreign policy aides were Mexican Americans.
But first, a word about this week’s Zoom call, which will be on Thursday at Noon ET, not the usual Friday. Growing up, something puzzled me: Why were my relatives from the Arab world more anti-Arab than my relatives from Eastern Europe? The Jewish establishment, both in Israel and the diaspora, would say it’s because of the antisemitism that Mizrahi Jews experienced in Arab and Muslim lands. There was antisemitism, of course. Still, I think that narrative is mostly wrong. I suspect the right-wing character of Mizrahi politics stems more from the fact that Arab Jews had to reject their Arab identity in order to become Zionists and gain acceptance in a European-dominated Jewish state. And I believe that, in part, because of what I’ve learned from two extraordinary Mizrahi journalists, Orly Noy and Rachel Shabi. I’m excited that they’ll both join us this Thursday to talk about Mizrahi politics and identity in Israel-Palestine and beyond. This discussion will be cosponsored with Jewish Currents.
Back to the Biden administration and American innocence. For weeks now, Russia has been demanding a pledge that Ukraine will never join NATO, and threatening war if that and other demands aren’t met. And for weeks now, US officials have been replying with statements like this: “We must never stand for the flouting or erosion of our bedrock principles. That means no tolerance for overt or tacit spheres of influence, no restrictions on the sovereign right of nations to choose their own alliances.”
Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. Opposing spheres of influence is one of America’s “bedrock principles”? Has anyone in the Biden administration heard of the Monroe Doctrine, which for two hundred years has entitled the US to a sphere of influence from Point Barrow to Cape Horn? On Friday, after Russia threatened to send troops to Cuba and Venezuela in apparent retaliation for US deployments in Ukraine, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan warned the US would respond “decisively.” In other words, the US will both defend its sphere of influence and denounce spheres of influence at the same time.
In my frustration, I wrote a column last Thursday for The New York Times. In it, I quoted a Mexican historian named Erika Pani, who explained that Mexico could never join a military alliance hostile to the US because “if you live right next to the elephant, you know it is best not to provoke him.” And I began to wonder: What if people like Erika Pani, people whose families had grown up in the Monroe Doctrine’s shadow, were making US policy toward Ukraine?
There aren’t many such people now. While people of color constitute forty percent of the US population, a Politico article last year noted that they comprise only 13 percent of the State Department’s Senior Executive Service. Obviously, not all Americans whose families hail from south of the border—let alone all people of color—see foreign policy the same way. Indeed, there are prominent Hispanic Americans like Senator Marco Rubio who have literally demanded military coups against Latin American leaders that Washington doesn’t like. Still, on balance, people with family histories in countries subject to US bullying are probably more likely to question the sanitized, Disneyfied accounts of US behavior so often peddled in official Washington.
These myths of American benevolence are dangerous because they blind US officials to the way the US is perceived abroad. Washington policymakers and pundits keep calling NATO a “defensive alliance.” The implication is that its expansion to include Ukraine, a country whose border with Russia is over two thousand kilometers long, couldn’t genuinely threaten Russian security. And because it couldn’t—because NATO’s benevolence is self-evident—then Putin’s real motive must be his fear of democracy and his desire to extinguish it in Ukraine and around the world.
There’s an element of truth here: Putin clearly does fear that Ukrainian democracy might spread to Russia and threaten his tyrannical hold on power. But that’s not the whole story. After all, many of the leaders that the US once supported in Russia—the leaders we associated with Russian democracy—feared NATO expansion as well. In the 1990s, Boris Yeltsin told his friend Bill Clinton that expanding NATO into even Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic risked “plunging” Europe “into a cold peace.” Yegor Gaidar, the Russian prime minister who in the early 1990s delighted official Washington with his neoliberal economic reforms, warned that “the expansion of NATO is the best gift that you can make to the Russian ultranationalists.” Even Putin’s most prominent critic, the jailed dissident Aleksei Navalny, has expressed discomfort with treating Ukraine as a fully independent state. As two Russia analysts put it in 2018, “Navalny thus shares the establishment view that Russia is entitled to a say in the domestic affairs of its post-Soviet neighbors.”
Yeltsin and Gaidar’s point was that the closer NATO moved to Russia’s borders, the easier it would be for a hyper-nationalist like Putin to exploit Russian resentment and fear. As the political scientists Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry have noted, Mikhail Gorbachev’s decision to loosen Moscow’s grip over Eastern Europe and ultimately permit the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself “was premised upon the judgement of Soviet leaders that the West would not exploit Soviet vulnerability by encroaching on its historic defensive parameter.” So for Russians—including many liberal Russians—NATO expansion constituted a betrayal. And they predicted that this betrayal would create the kind of government we see in Russia today. Americans who understood Russia well offered the same warning. When he criticized NATO expansion in 1998, George Kennan, the legendary Russia expert who created the doctrine of containment, warned, “Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are.”
Does this mean NATO expansion was unambiguously bad? No. For people whose countries long suffered under Moscow’s boot, it’s been a blessing. If I were Latvian, I’d want my country to be in NATO too. But the people who make US foreign policy must be able to understand both why people in the smaller countries on Russia’s periphery want US protection and why Russians—including Russians who hate Putin and believe in democracy—see US hegemony over Russia’s periphery as a threat. As Eugene Rumer and Andrew Weiss recently noted, the “quest for strategic depth has defined the Kremlin’s policy since the times of Peter the Great, if not earlier. Strategic depth saved Russia from defeat in 1812 when Napoleon’s armies captured Moscow and in 1941 when Hitler’s armies marched almost to the gates of the Soviet capital. With the collapse of the USSR and the expansion of NATO, Russia has lost that strategic depth. Regaining it is an essential requirement of Russian security policy that has endured through centuries, revolutions, and government changes.” You don’t have to be Vladimir Putin to believe that.
That’s why the Biden administration’s insistence that Russia see NATO as a “defensive alliance” is delusional. Countries rarely see alliances as defensive when they’re aimed at them. The Warsaw Pact never came within thousands of kilometers of America’s borders yet America’s leaders didn’t view it as defensive because it sought to limit American power. Iran’s alliance with Syria is halfway across the world as well and poses no serious threat to the United States. Yet US leaders don’t describe it as defensive either.
Moreover, NATO doesn’t merely guard borders. It also launches wars. In 1999, NATO went to war against the government of Serbia, which was carrying out a horrific campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo but also happened to be one of Russia’s historic allies. At the time, Yeltsin warned that NATO’s actions could trigger a world war and NATO and Russian troops almost ended up shooting at each other. (NATO missiles also blew up the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.) Then NATO responded to 9/11 by deposing the Taliban and occupying Afghanistan. Then, in 2011, NATO went to war in Libya, where it deposed Muammar Gaddafi and left a failed state. To most people in official Washington, NATO launched these wars out of self-defense or a genuine concern for human rights. Maybe it did. But it also extended American power and smashed Russian allies at the point of a gun.
People with more experience of the dark side of American power—people whose families hail from Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Haiti, or Mexico, where US guns have sabotaged democracy rather than defended it—might find it easier to understand Russian suspicions. But those Americans tend not to shape US policy towards places like Ukraine.
If they did, I suspect the US government would be more open to the kind of compromise proposed by Henry Kissinger, Anatol Lieven, Thomas Graham and Rajan Menon, and others, in which the US promises that Ukraine won’t join NATO anytime soon in return for Russia promising to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty. Under that scenario, Moscow would reassure Kyiv but Washington would also reassure Moscow. Robert Wright often writes about the US foreign policy elite’s lack of “cognitive empathy” for those non-Americans who don’t see America’s behavior as benign. One way to foster that empathy is by elevating Americans whose own experience helps them see US foreign policy from the outside-in and the bottom-up. If more top Biden officials grasped the absurdity of claiming that the US opposes spheres of influence, they could better answer Russia’s demand for a sphere of influence in a way that neither betrays Ukraine nor triggers war.
In Jewish Currents this week, Abe Silberstein talks to the historian Lorenzo Veracini about what “settler-colonialism” actually is.
How the media’s obituaries for Desmond Tutu downplayed his support for Palestinian rights.
Beinart Notebook subscriber Barbara Landau has been awarded the Order of Canada.
North Korean officials claim that former dictator Kim Jong Un invented the burrito.
Hamas claims Israel is attacking Gaza with “killer dolphins.”
See you Thursday (not Friday),