"Last Tango in Washington?"
by Michael Brenner
Consortium News (June 16, 2022)
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin hosts Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels, June 15. (DoD/Chad J. McNeeley)
Reality has a way of catching up to us. Sometimes it comes via a sudden shock — Sputnik or Tet. Sometimes it creeps up incrementally — as in Ukraine with each thousand round Russian artillery barrage and the steady rise of the ruble now 25 percent higher than at the onset of the crisis.
Dim the lights, the party’s almost over. But that is not the end of the affair. Whatever the exact outcomes, there is no going back to the status quo ante — the world, especially Europe, has changed in fundamental respects. Moreover, it has changed in ways diametrically opposite to what was desired and anticipated.
The West has been inhabiting a fanciful world that could exist only in our imaginations. Many remain stranded in that self-deluded mirage. The more that we have invested in that fantasy world, the harder we find it to exit and to make the adjustment — intellectual, emotional, behavioral.
An assessment of where we are, where we might go and the implications over time of the reactions of other parties is a singularly complex undertaking. For it requires not just specification of time frames, but also the varying definitions of national interest and strategic objective that government leaders might use as reference marks.
The number of permutations created by the array of players involved, and the low confidence margins associated with forecasts of how each will act at key decision points down the road, exacerbate the already daunting challenge. Before one even contemplates embarking on such a task, there are a few crucial considerations to bear in mind.
Those in Charge
First, the people who count at the head of governments are not pure thinking machines. Far from it. They are too often persons of narrow intelligence, of limited experience in high stakes games of power politics, who navigate by simplistic, outdated and parochial cognitive maps of the world. Their perspectives approximate montages composed of bits of ideology, bits of visceral emotion, bits of remembered but inappropriate precedents, bits of massaged public opinion data, and odds-and-ends plucked from New York Times op-ed pieces.
In addition, let’s remind ourselves that policy-formation and decision-making are group processes — especially in Washington and Brussels — encumbered by their own collective dynamics. Finally, in Western capitals, governments operate in dual currencies: policy effectiveness and electoral politics.
From left: U.S. President Joe Biden, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, meeting on June 14, 2021. (NATO, Flickr)
Consequently, there are two powerful, in-built tendencies that inflect the choices made: 1) inertial extension of existing attitudes and approaches; and 2) avoidance wherever possible of endangering a hard-won, often tenuous, consensus on a lowest common denominator basis.
One thing we know with certainty: no fundamental change in thinking or action can occur without determination and decisiveness at the top.
Necessity is the mother of invention — or so it is said. However, grasping what is “necessary” can be a very slippery business. An actual recasting of how one views a problematic situation normally is a last resort. Experience and history tell us that, as do behavioral experiments.
The psychology of perceived necessity is complex. Adversity or threat in and of itself does not trigger improvisation. Even the survival instinct does not always spark innovation. Denial, then avoidance, are normally the first, sequential reactions when facing adversity in trying to reach an objective or to satisfy a recognized interest. A strong bias favors the reiteration of a standard repertoire of responses.
True innovation tends to occur only in extremis; and even then, behavioral change is more likely to begin with minor adjustments of established thinking and behavior at the margins rather than modification of core beliefs and patterns of action.
The American Dilemma
Those truths underscore the American dilemma as the Ukraine venture turns sour on the battlefield and your enemy is faring far better than expected while your friends and allies are faring far worse.
Russia has blunted everything thrown at them – to the shock of Western planners. Every assumption underpinning their scorched-earth assault on the Russian economy has proven mistaken. A dismal record of analytical error even by C.I.A. and think tank standards.
Off-the-charts forecasts on the country’s economy, and the global impact of sanctions, crippled Washington’s plan from the outset. Tactical initiatives of a military nature have proven equally futile; another 1,000 vintage Javelins with dead battery packs will not rescue the Ukrainian army in the Donbass.
Military situation in Ukraine as of June 15. Ukraine territory in yellow, Russian in red. Arrows in red indicate Russian and separatist advances; those in blue indicate advances by Ukrainian forces. (Viewsridge, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)
So, you are stuck with the albatross of a truncated, bankrupt Ukraine hung around your neck. There is nothing that you can do to cancel these givens — except a direct, perhaps suicidal test of force with Russia. Or, perhaps, a retaliatory challenge elsewhere. The latter is not readily available — for geographic reasons and because the West already has expended its arsenal of economic and political weaponry.
Over the past year, the U.S. attempted to foment Maiden style regime changes in Belarus and Kazakhstan. Both were foiled. The latter was with the connivance of Turkey, which deployed a contingent of bashi bazouks from the stock of Syrian jihadis it keeps on call in Idlib (to be deployed as President Recep Erdogan did more successfully in Libya and Azerbaijan).
There remains one conceivable sensitive target: Syria. There, the Israelis have become increasingly audacious in goading the Russians by airstrikes against Syrian infrastructure as well as military facilities.
Now, we see signs that Moscow’s tolerance is wearing thin, suggesting that further provocations could spark retaliation which Washington then could exploit to ratchet up tensions. To what avail? Not obvious — unless the ultras in the Biden administration are looking for the kind of direct confrontation that they’ve avoided in Ukraine, until now.
The implication is that the denial option and the incremental adjustment option are foreclosed. Serious rethinking is in order — logically speaking.
The most worrisome scenario sees the frustration and anger and anxiety building in Washington to the point where it encourages a reckless impulse to demonstrate American prowess. That could take the form of an attack on Iran in the company of Israel and Saudi Arabia — the region’s new odd couple.
Another, even grimmer prospect would be a contrived test of wills with China. Already we see growing evidence of that in the bellicose rhetoric of American leaders from U.S. President Joe Biden on down.
One may be inclined to dismiss it as empty chest-thumping and muscle flexing. Shadow boxing before a life-size picture of an upcoming opponent — and then sending him a video tape of your workout. However, there are influential people in the administration who are prepared to pick a fight with Beijing and to let the chips fall where they may. The likely American reaction to loss in Ukraine is less dramatic.
British soldiers deploying to Kabul to assist in the NATO withdrawal on Aug. 13, 2021. (Ministry of Defence, Wikimedia Commons)
A “sufficing” policy would aim to encapsulate the entire affair. As best you can, forget about it and bury it diplomatically. The United States has gotten very good at that sort of thing: consider Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria et al.
Let the Europeans pay for the country’s maintenance and partial reconstruction. Writing checks is just about the only thing that Brussels has a talent for. Indeed, just a few days ago E.U. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced in Kiev the readiness of Brussels to accept Ukraine’s petition to be recognized as a “‘candidate” for membership in the union itself.
In a wider compass, Washington could bank its modest winnings. The Europeans are now united in their servitude and obedience to Washington. That spares them the dreaded prospect of actually standing up — and standing together — to assume their proper responsibilities in the world.
Furthermore, any disposition to welcome Russia into a common European space is dead. That applies to economic dealings, including critical natural resource trade, as well as politically. Russia has been severed from Europe definitively for decades if not generations. If that leads to a less economically robust industrial Europe, so be it — that’s their problem.
The American economy, too, may suffer some collateral damage. It will get a boost, though, from privileged access to Europe’s energy markets and the weakening of a competitor in goods and services.
The serious, systemic threat to the American economy looms down the road. Washington’s radical weaponizing of the mechanisms for managing international finance has accelerated the move away from dollar supremacy. A markedly diminished role for the dollar as the world’s principal transaction and reserve currency will erode the United States’ “exorbitant privilege” of running a deficit/debt economy without constraint.
Admittedly, on the other side of the balance scale, a confident, intact Russia will find its economic and political future pointed Eastwards. The already deeply entrenched Sino-Russian partnership is the key geo-strategic development of the 21st century. That hardly should have come as a surprise; after all, just about all American actions in regard to both powers over the past 15 years have led inexorably to that outcome. That includes, of course, the blunder of trying to use a Ukraine crisis as the lever to bring down Putin, and Russia with him.
Whatever trajectory the contest between the West and the Sino-Soviet bloc takes, it now will demand ever greater imagination and skill to manage — without tempting fate — than if United States had been inclined to pursue a more constructive course.
One can argue that the historic choice that America has made by deciding to follow the Wolfowitz Doctrine as a user’s guide to strategy in the 21st century has been made for reasons lodged deep in the country’s psyche more than those that are the product of reasoned deliberation.
Collective American self-esteem, belief in being Destiny’s child, the ordained No. 1 in the world, has been our society’s foundation stone. We have not matured beyond that magical dependence on myth and legend — to our, and the world’s, misfortune.
Michael Brenner is a professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. email@example.com