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Why We Are In Ukraine
A Harper’s piece advocating “realism” wilfully misunderstands the conflict.
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After a year of intense fighting, both public and elite opinion in the United States remain solidly on Kyiv’s side in the Russo-Ukrainian war. But there are pockets of disagreement, including some MAGA politicians—perhaps influenced by the brazenly pro-Russian stance of former FOX News personality Tucker Carlson—who would like to see Moscow prevail. There is also a growing contingent of intellectuals on both the left and right fringe with dissenting views. Two such dissenters, long-time “realist” critics of American foreign policy, are Christopher Layne and Benjamin Schwarz, who have now penned an article of extraordinary length questioning America’s role in the war. It appears as the cover story in the venerable magazine Harper’s under the title “Why Are We in Ukraine?” and has gained a wide readership, and, in some quarters, accolades. Politico, for one, has put it on its coveted recommended reading list. The New York Times published an op-ed by Stephen Wertheim echoing some of its central claims. More predictably, The American Conservative has hailed it as “tremendous.” It is tremendous in length but that is about it. Indeed, it brings the intellectual flaws and moral vacuities of “realism” into vivid focus.
Layne and Schwarz argue that the war is the result of a monumental American blunder with consequences including bloodshed on a massive scale, the destruction of much of Ukraine’s infrastructure, and a gravely heightened risk of nuclear war. The blunder in question is the eastward expansion of NATO following the collapse of the USSR, with a door opened for eventual accession of Ukraine into the alliance.
This, Layne and Schwarz posit, is the latest in more than a half-century-long string of disastrous foreign policy mistakes, all of which they reprise, beginning with America’s role in precipitating (!) the Cuban Missile Crisis and ending with the war in Iraq, with stops in Vietnam, Serbia-Kosovo, and Libya along the way. These foreign misadventures, they say, have all sprung from a “Wilsonian belligerence” that has been catastrophic for both America and the world.
In this telling, the Kremlin bears little to no responsibility for the initiation of the conflict now under way. Layne and Schwarz dismiss the view of Vladimir Putin as a “bloodthirsty authoritarian” as a “conventional story” that is both “self-serving and simplistic.” Instead, Putin appears in their account as a rational actor responding as best he can to American aggression.
We must not ignore, Layne and Schwarz write, “the central responsibility that the architects of U.S. foreign policy bear.” It was the United States that “cavalierly enlarge[d] its nuclear and security commitments while creating ever-expanding frontiers of insecurity.” It was the United States that “recklessly embark[ed]” on a policy bringing back the atmosphere of the Cold War. It was the United States that “would no longer be bound by the norms implicit in great power politics.” Russia was given no other option than to “acquiesce to a new world order created and dominated by the United States.” It was, Layne and Schwarz write, “the global role that Washington has assigned itself generally, and America’s specific policies toward NATO and Russia [that] led inexorably to war.”
What are we to make of Layne and Schwarz’s arguments?
To begin with, there is no question that the eastward expansion of NATO has been a severe neuralgic point for Moscow. But Putin’s concern has never been about actual military aggression from the defensively-oriented Western alliance. His real anxieties lie elsewhere: in the threat to the internal stability of his autocratic regime posed by the demonstration effect of successful liberal democracies on Russia’s doorstep. It is fear of democratic contagion that explains why, in one country after the next, using propaganda, intelligence operations, and direct violence, Putin has done his best to subvert democracy across Europe and the globe. On the territory of the former Soviet Union, Russia has waged war against Georgia, maintained troops in Moldova, pressured Kazakhstan, showed increasing determination to absorb Belarus, and sought to undermine the Baltic states. A Russia that seeks to be the prison house of nations is an enemy of freedom and a menace to the peace of the world.
Layne and Schwarz paint a picture of unremitting Russian hostility to NATO. An important fact that they neglect to tell readers is that the intensity of Russian opposition to NATO has actually fluctuated sharply over time. Remarkably enough, on a visit to London in 2000, Putin even mused aloud about joining the alliance:
“Why not? Why not . . . I do not rule out such a possibility . . . in the case that Russia’s interests will be reckoned with, if it will be an equal partner. Russia is a part of European culture, and I do not consider my own country in isolation from Europe . . . Therefore, it is with difficulty that I imagine NATO as an enemy.”
Plainly, Putin’s opinion has changed, but that is not because of a mounting threat to Russia posed by NATO. Rather it is the consequence of an alteration in the character of Putin’s regime. Over the course of the past two decades, it has sedulously grown more aggressive, more autocratic, and perhaps more brittle. As a strongman astride an autocracy, ruling with the instruments of theft, repression, and murder, Putin has a great deal to fear.
One obvious question Layne and Schwarz never pause to ask is why so many East European countries have been so eager to join the NATO Alliance. Could it be because all of them have had historical experience with Russian domination, lost their capacity to self-govern, been robbed of their basic freedoms, and suffered grievously from totalitarian oppression? Membership in the NATO alliance guards against a repetition of the terrible past. Even Finland and Sweden, two countries that have not exactly embraced American foreign policy in recent decades, now have rushed to join the safety afforded by the alliance.
Of course, Ukraine has been the repeated victim of Russian aggression, including in the post-Soviet era. The annexation of Crimea in 2014, the simultaneous assault on the Russian-speaking regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, the attempted subversion and/or domination of successive governments in Kyiv, were all stamped firmly in the Ukrainian consciousness even before February 24, 2022. Like every other sovereign country, Ukraine has a right to its territorial integrity, to defend itself, to chart a course of its own choosing.
Layne and Schwarz disagree with this fundamental premise. In 2021, as a prelude to war, Putin wrote a lengthy historical essay entitled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” explaining why Ukraine was inextricably part of the Russian heartland. Closely following Putin’s logic, Layne and Schwarz regard Ukraine as part of Russia’s historical “sphere of influence,” a claim to which Ukraine—and the rest of the world—must yield, just as the United States under the two-centuries old Monroe Doctrine “has explicitly arrogated to itself a sphere of influence extending from the Canadian Arctic to Tierra del Fuego.”
The whataboutism is a nice touch that brings to the fore what is most striking about Layne and Schwarz’s essay, namely its extraordinary congruence with the main lines of Russian propaganda. On almost every point, from the alleged dangers posed by NATO to Russia, to its indictment of the “reckless” nature of American foreign policy, to the soft-pedaling of Russia’s criminal behavior, to the adumbration of a settlement of the Ukraine War on terms that Putin (his military unexpectedly battered) would now leap at—and even to casting blame on the United States for supposedly initiating the 1962 Cuban missile crisis—the authors uncritically propound the Russian line.
It is this extraordinary stance that makes it useful to recall that, back in 1999, Layne and Schwarz defended Patrick Buchanan when he infamously argued that America should have stayed out of Europe in World War II and let Hitler and Stalin fight to the death. It is true that FDR did not go to war in Europe to save the Jews, a point hammered by Buchanan as he descended into anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. But FDR brought the United States into the fight against Hitler because he understood that human freedom and civilization were being extinguished.
Layne and Schwarz, proponents of a false and unrealistic “realism,” reject any American intervention abroad based on values or morality in favor of what they, in their defense of Buchanan, called an “unsentimental and even ruthless approach to foreign policy.” But there is a fine line separating amorality from immorality, and, along with Buchanan, they cross over it, making the case for tying America’s hands while allowing malign actors to roam loose. If Layne and Schwarz’s prescriptions had been followed during World War II—or if they are followed now with respect to Ukraine—we would inhabit a grim, dark world in which murderous dictators have the upper hand.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center, is the author of Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law.
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