[This article was originally published on the author’s blog, On Washington and the World]
Amidst all the commentary occasioned by Russia fishing in troubled Ukrainian waters, one fundamental point tends to get lost from sight. Like many other recent points of international tension, this one raises the question of what are the rules great powers play by.
The United States has championed a values-based approach with a strong missionary impulse behind it. Woodrow Wilson provided its first full-blown articulation, and post–World War II policy saw to its full-blown application. Holding a dominant global position, Washington sought with varying degrees of urgency and determination to advance a basket of ideological goods. U.S. leaders have articulated these goods in a variety of ways such as “democracy,” “free-market capitalism,” and “human rights.” But underlying all these formulations is a strong and distinctly American belief in the autonomy of the individual and a commitment to political liberty and limited state power. In the rhetoric of American statecraft these notions are a leitmotif. They have generally set the direction of U.S. policy responses to problems of the sort that Ukraine poses.
This American approach contrasts with a core dictum of classic realism: great powers have fundamental security interests most often manifested territorially. The venerable term to describe this situation is “spheres of influence.” What happens near borders matters considerably more than what happens half a world away. Globalization has perhaps qualified the dictum but hardly repealed it.
Even American policymakers observe this territorial imperative in their own neighborhood. Consider the continuing importance of the proximate in U.S. policy: the persistent neuralgia over a defiant Cuba; military interventions in Grenada, Panama, and Haiti; recurrent covert meddling against troublesome governments south of the border; and the intense attention given Mexico. No U.S. leader these days invokes the Monroe Doctrine (or at least the robust Teddy Roosevelt version of it), but the pattern of U.S. action reveals what they can’t afford to say.
To be sure, Russian leaders would also like to have it both ways. They too have championed their own set of values though with less enthusiasm than did Soviet leaders, who in turn themselves fell short of the Americans in their commitment to missionary projects.
But Russian and Soviet leaders alike have given clear priority to the near frontier. The consolidation of control over eastern Europe after World War II reflected this concern. So too did the dramatic interventions of 1956 and 1968 to crush unrest and the constant string pulling by members of the Politburo assigned to keep a hawk-like watch over clients in the East bloc. The intervention in Afghanistan, shaped by a fear of Islamist unrest spreading into nearby Soviet territories, fits within this pattern. That Putin would now respond to, even exploit the political disintegration in Ukraine just as he took advantage of the disputes along the Georgian border can come as a shock only to observers oblivious to the dictates of realist statecraft.
The Ukraine crisis is a striking reminder of the continuing, fundamental division over the rules of the international game. Do major powers have special regional interests, or are they tightly constrained by far-reaching standards posited and defended by the United States? The American answer doesn’t have to be the latter. FDR in his conception of the postwar order and Nixon in moving toward detente and normalization—to take two striking exceptions—recognized the need for some degree of accommodation among the leading powers. They accorded diplomacy a central role in identifying areas of accord while setting to one side knotty issues connected to lands that adjoined the major powers.
But on the whole U.S. policy has downplayed diplomacy as a regulator of great-power relations by often making capitulation the precondition for any opponent entering into talks. Real diplomacy would get in the way of the overriding preoccupation with holding in check regional powers—whether China, Iran, Russia, or India—that might pose a challenge to the United States. (The EU occupies an ambiguous position in this list of regionals as a powerhouse that hasn’t yet figured out how to realize its potential and for the moment speaks through Germany.) This U.S. approach, most forcefully articulated by the Cheney doctrine at the end of the George H. W. Bush administration, is a prescription for unending tension, with the U.S. policy a source of constant discord at one point and then another around the world.
It is hard to imagine a more misguided basis for policy, especially for a once dominant power steadily slipping in clout. The foundations for a better managed, more peaceful, and even more humane international order is more likely to emerge from great-power negotiations and compromise. Promoting a sense of security and comity among the dominant states may in the bargain discourage rough stuff in their neighborhoods far better than confrontation and high-minded if hypocritical blustering.
Michael H. Hunt is Emerson Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His book Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam, co-authored with Steven I. Levine, is now available in paperback.