The foreign policy experts are debating the current crisis involving Russian troops on Ukraine’s border and what our response should be in the event of a Russian incursion or invasion. Officials in Washington and in foreign policy think tanks use words like “appeasement,” “Munich,” and U.S. “credibility” in their effort to convince the Biden administration to come to the aid of Ukraine. On December 30, 2021, a group of national security experts, including Stephen Blank, Strobe Talbott, Ian Brzezinski, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, Larry Diamond, Paula Dobriansky, Francis Fukuyama, and Michael McFaul, released a statement urging the Biden administration to “take immediate steps” to supply more arms to Ukraine, ready economic sanctions, and work with NATO allies to oppose Russian aggression. Their recommendations include bolstering NATO’s presence in the Baltic states and Black Sea region.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) recently wrote a Churchillian op-ed recommending that President Biden “should make clear that there is no scenario under which Ukraine will be overrun by Russia, period,” and proposing U.S. military aid to Ukraine and NATO troops to supplement Ukraine’s ground forces. He warns that a “show of U.S. weakness in Ukraine would reverberate globally” and act as an invitation to Russia to have its way “across Eastern Europe, in the Baltics, and in outer space.” Jeff Jacoby writes in the Boston Globe that “it is more urgent than ever for the free world to defend Ukrainian sovereignty and democracy, and to force Russia’s dictator to back down” and warns that if Putin succeeds in annexing Ukraine “it will only be a matter of time before a fresh victim is in his crosshairs.”
More troubling, Secretary of State Antony Blinken previously stated that the United States has an “ironclad commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Republican members of the House of Representatives have called upon the Biden administration to take “concrete steps” to deter Russian aggression in Ukraine by fulfilling its commitment to a “key partner” by considering “an appropriate U.S. military presence and posture in the region.” Retired Gen. Ben Hodges proposes a NATO Black Sea strategy involving “increased security cooperation with all of our partners and allies in the region,” restrictions on Russian naval movements through the Turkish Straits, a possible blockade of Russia’s naval base in Syria, and increased deployments of NATO naval capabilities in the region. All this talk is simply adding fuel to the fire and heightening the risks of war over Ukrainian independence. (READ MORE from Francis P. Sempa: Does the U.S. Have a Vital National Security Interest in an Independent Ukraine?)
Oh, how American politicians and foreign policy observers like to play at being Winston Churchill, who is rightly applauded for warning about Nazi Germany’s threat to Europe and the world. The would-be Churchills, however, sometimes forget that after the war in a December 14, 1950, speech in the House of Commons, Churchill stated that “Appeasement may be good or bad according to the circumstances. Appeasement from weakness and fear is futile and fatal. Appeasement from strength is magnanimous and noble, and might be the surest and only path to world peace.” And later, in 1954, Churchill remarked that “jaw-jaw is better than war-war.”
Instead of the lessons of Munich, perhaps our foreign policy experts should relearn the lessons of World War I, what George Kennan rightly called the “seminal catastrophe” of the 20th century. Indeed, our foreign policy experts and administration policymakers would benefit from reading Kennan. In his 1950 book American Diplomacy, Kennan recounted how the Great War began:
The origins of this war were complex in the extreme…. Some were of a long-term nature: the still unsolved problems of the breakup of the old Turkish Empire, the restlessness of subject peoples in the Danube basin, the loss of … elan vital in Austria-Hungary, the relative growth of German power, the rivalry between Germany and England. Others were of a short-term nature: the stupidities and timidities of statesmen, the pressures of public opinion, the vagaries of coincidence.
Kennan wrote that there were various degrees of guilt among the warring nations, but he doubted that anyone deliberately schemed for war. “It was a tragic, helpless sort of war from the beginning,” he wrote. “Poor old Europe had got herself into a box. The shot at Sarajevo struck into that weak spot — and suddenly no one knew how not to go to war.” Kennan warned against the deadly combination of “war hysteria and impractical idealism.”
Statesmen, including Churchill, once talked about “spheres of influence” based on geography and history. Briefly, Ukraine became part of the Russian empire in the 18th century; parts of it were ceded to Russia in the 17th century. After World War I, a brief period of declared independence ended when Ukraine became a Soviet Republic in 1922. The breakup of the Soviet Empire in 1991 resulted in Ukrainian independence. Since then, NATO has expanded eastward into what Churchill once called Russia’s sphere of influence. European and U.S. statesmen have openly discussed expanding NATO’s reach to Ukraine, an example of hubris and the “impractical idealism” that Kennan warned against.
Kennan admired the diplomacy of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, and he wrote two books about the collapse of the Bismarckian system that led to the outbreak of World War I: The Decline of Bismarck’s European Order and The Fateful Alliance: France, Russia, and the Coming of the First World War. Those hankering to get us involved in a war with Russia over Ukraine should carefully read those books. Or perhaps those who are pressed for time can just read the following from the epilogue of The Fateful Alliance:
Do we of this generation not have before us … in the examples of the two great European wars of this century, the evidence that in the modern era one does not fight wars, anyway, for specific aims? That the immediate issues that occasioned the opening of hostilities, such things as Sarajevo, Danzig, or Pearl Harbor, are soon forgotten once hostilities develop — swallowed up in the wider effort to bring the adversary to total defeat, unconditional surrender, complete submission to the will of the victor? Only after all that has been achieved comes the question of the uses one wishes to make of one’s victory. After that, supposedly, “it will be easy.”
They should also remember what Bismarck said about the ability of statesmen to control events: “Man cannot control the current of events; he can only float with them and steer.” Ukrainian independence is not a vital security interest of the United States. We need to tone down the rhetoric and step back from the brink before a lot of young American men and women get killed on behalf of U.S. “credibility.”