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America’s Generation Gap on Ukraine
In Washington today, if you oppose keeping NATO’s doors open to Ukraine you’re a bit of a freak. I’m aware of barely any members of Congress, in either party, who hold that view. A decade or two ago, however, it was a position espoused by pillars of the American establishment. What happened? In part, it’s a story of generational change. US foreign policy is now dominated by people who came of age in a unipolar world. And that’s a dangerous thing.
But first a word about Friday’s Zoom call. (We’re back at our normal day and time.) During the January 15 attack on Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas by Malik Faisal Akram, Wajahat Ali, a prominent American Muslim commentator, tweeted, “You’re about to hear some ugly & vicious Islamophobia & anti-Muslim bigotry… People will use it to divide Jewish and Muslim communities for their political agenda.” Conservative commentators proved him right by accusing him of claiming that Muslims, rather than Jews, were Colleyville’s real victims. Waj is an intriguing guy. He’s an expert on Islamophobia who has at times run afoul of American Muslim organizations. I want to ask him about how to talk about antisemitism in Muslim communities without fueling Islamophobia, and how to talk Islamophobia and anti-Palestinianism in Jewish communities without fueling antisemitism. And I want to know how he talks about these frightening subjects day after day while remaining so darn funny.
Back to the generation gap over Russia and Ukraine. It sounds bizarre today but in the late 1990s, when the Clinton administration was considering expanding NATO to include merely Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic—barely anyone at that time was proposing admitting Ukraine—titans of American foreign policy cried out in opposition. George Kennan, the living legend who had fathered America’s policy of containment against the Soviet Union, called NATO expansion “a strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions.” Thomas Friedman, America’s most prominent foreign policy columnist, declared it the “most ill-conceived project of the post-Cold War era.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan, widely considered the most erudite member of the US Senate, warned, “We have no idea what we’re getting into.” John Lewis Gaddis, the dean of America’s Cold War historians, noted that, “historians—normally so contentious—are in uncharacteristic agreement: with remarkably few exceptions, they see NATO enlargement as ill-conceived, ill-timed, and above all ill-suited to the realities of the post-Cold War world.”
The critics lost that argument; Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic joined NATO. But a decade and a half later, as NATO rolled further east, another set of foreign policy greybeards warned against admitting Ukraine. In 2014, Henry Kissinger, the personification of the American foreign policy establishment, argued, “The West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country.” If “Ukraine is to survive and thrive,” he insisted, “it must not be either side’s outpost against the other — it should function as a bridge between them.” Instead of joining NATO, Ukraine “should pursue a posture comparable to that of Finland” in which it “cooperates with the West in most fields but carefully avoids institutional hostility toward Russia.” Zbigniew Brzezinski, who in his time as Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor was known as a Cold War hawk, nonetheless embraced the Finland model as well. Ukraine, he insisted, could have “no participation in any military alliance viewed by Moscow as directed at itself.”
Kennan, Friedman, Moynihan, Gaddis, Kissinger, and Brzezinski—these aren’t members of Code Pink. Yet if you espouse their views today you’ll instantly be accused of appeasement. What happened? Some might argue that since Kissinger and Brzezinski made their argument for Ukrainian neutrality eight years ago, subsequent events have proved them wrong. In 2014, Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, swallowing Crimea, fomenting a rebellion in parts of the country’s Russian-speaking east and so alienating Ukrainians that they now support joining NATO. By this logic, Finland-like neutrality has become impossible because Ukrainians want and need protection against the Russian threat. But you can flip that argument on its head. By showing he’s willing to launch a war to keep Ukraine from allying with the West, Putin has proved Kissinger and Brzezinski right. He’s shown that NATO can’t admit Ukraine because with NATO membership comes the obligation to send US and European troops to fight Russia in places like Donetsk and Luhansk. That’s not something any US president (or German, French, or British leader) will do. And since the last eight years have shown that NATO membership for Ukraine is effectively dead, Finland-like neutrality is the best remaining option.
Nonetheless, why is it that no one with the prestige of a Kennan, a Moynihan, a Kissinger, or a Brzezinski echoes their arguments today? Part of the answer, I suspect, has to do with life experience. These men came of age during the Cold War. As a result, they saw it as normal—tragic, but normal—that Russia possessed a sphere of influence. Many had been alive during World War II, when the Nazis marched through Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and the Baltic States and made it to within twenty miles of the Kremlin. They loathed the way Russian leaders brutalized the peoples under their control but they understood the fears that made Russia want a friendly buffer protecting it from invasion from the West. Even more importantly, they recognized that the United States couldn’t deny Moscow that buffer because the American people were not willing to fight Russia in its backyard. Franklin Roosevelt made the point pungently in 1943 when he asked the Polish ambassador, “Do you expect us and Great Britain to declare war on Joe Stalin if they cross your previous frontier? Even if we wanted to, Russia can still field an army twice our combined strength, and we would just have no say in the matter at all.” Dwight Eisenhower echoed the point in 1952 when asked why, as Supreme Allied Commander during World War II, he had not marched US troops further east to prevent Soviet forces from taking control of Eastern Europe. “None of these brave men of 1952,” Ike responded acidly, “have yet offered to go out and pick the ten thousand American mothers whose sons would have made the sacrifice” to gain that ground. Men like Kennan, Kissinger, and Brzezinski had watched US presidents stand by as Soviet forces crushed rebellions in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland in 1981. They recognized the limits of American power in the lands between the Black and Baltic seas. That’s what it meant to live in a bipolar world.
That generation is now largely dead. Joe Biden remembers the Cold War but he’s a politician who throughout his career has moved with the political currents. From his Vietnam-era dovishness to his ’90s-style liberal interventionism to his post-9/11 support for the Iraq War, Biden has almost always reflected the prevailing ethos in official Washington. And today he is surrounded in Congress, think tanks, the media, and his own administration by millennials, Gen Xers, and young baby boomers who grew up in the unipolar age.
If you were born in the 1970s or 1980s, your formative memories of a Russian leader are likely of Mikhail Gorbachev throwing up the geopolitical white flag or of the hapless Boris Yeltsin, who during a White House visit in 1994 infamously walked out to Pennsylvania Avenue late one night, drunk and wearing only underwear, in search of pizza. Unlike foreign policymakers who came of age during the Cold War, most of today’s practitioners and commentators grew up seeing Russia not as a peer competitor but as something between an irritant and a joke. Their life experiences incline them to see a Russian sphere of influence, even over the countries of the former USSR, as abnormal and unacceptable. And, critically, those experiences led them to believe that the US could deny Russia such a sphere at minimal cost. When Kennan looked at Europe in the 1990s, he took it as a remarkable accomplishment that Moscow’s grip no longer extended as far as Berlin. For his successors today, it constitutes an outrage that Moscow’s sphere of influence extends as far as the Donbass, Almaty, and Minsk.
Obviously, no generation is monolithic. Not every US politician, pundit, or policy wonk who came of age in the Gorbachev or Yeltsin eras sees policy toward Russia the same way. But as Karl Mannheim famously argued, different generations conduct different intra-generational debates. And among post-Cold War Americans, unfortunately, that debate tends to pit a foreign policy elite that sees abandoning NATO expansion as akin to abandoning the Sudetenland against people like Tucker Carlson, who don’t care about Ukraine because they don’t particularly like liberal democracy. Over the last three decades, the ever-expanding frontiers of American power have produced a nationalist backlash. Carlson foments it every night. But Carlson isn’t making the same point that Kissinger and Brzezinski did. He isn’t arguing that the US should balance its concern for Ukraine’s freedom with a recognition of the limits of American power. He’s saying something far cruder: That the US is ruled by a treasonous globalist elite whose true allegiance is to non-Americans, especially those that aren’t white. For Carlson, the problem isn’t that the US government lacks the power to deny Vladimir Putin a sphere of influence. It’s that the US offers a liberal democratic alternative to Putin at all.
There are people in Washington who are trying to update the realist sensibility embodied most famously by Kennan for today’s age. You can find them at places like the Quincy Institute and Defense Priorities. But there are barely any in the Biden administration. What prevails today in Washington’s halls of power is a defense of unipolarity dressed up as a recognition that unipolarity is dead. In both parties, top officials herald the return of great power competition but resist meaningful great power accommodation. What they mean when they say the US must compete with Russia and China is that the US must prevent Russia and China from altering the frontiers of American dominance established in the 1990s, when China’s GDP was roughly one-third as large as America’s and Russia was flat on its back.
The Cold War generation of American policymakers were hardly moral paragons. Kennan held racist views. Kissinger blessed hideous crimes. I’m not suggesting that they be taken as all-encompassing foreign policy guides. But they understood that sharing the world with influential adversaries imposes limits on American power, limits that America cannot evade by endlessly imposing sanctions or declaring that spheres of influence are immoral. They learned by hard experience a set of lessons that their successors have not. And I fear that the coming days and weeks may bring a painful instruction.
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See you Friday,