Blindside - U.S. Foreign Policy
The sudden involvement of Russia in Syria highlights a blindside in U.S. foreign policy. American policymakers have shown reticence to get involved in another long-term conflict. The causes of this reluctance can be traced to the usual suspects, including electoral politics, public opinion, and geopolitical constraints. But we are conflating causes for U.S. reluctance with our expectations for other nations.
The implications of this blindside suggest dim prospects for the immediate future of American influence abroad and is best described as what Reinhold Niebuhr called the failure of moral imagination. Politics, Niebuhr reminds us, is a moral enterprise. The primary concerns of domestic factions and national interests are rarely, if ever, directed at “rational” aims like security, economic stability, and international peace. Instead, nations are driven by the moral outlook of leaders who can influence and shape policymaking.
In the case of Russia, policy influence is controlled by one man, Vladimir Putin, whose interests are singularly motivated by values fundamentally at odds with American interests. For instance, the Russian bombing of rebels rather than ISIS forces suggests he is pursuing aims much different than the official claims. By helping the Assad regime, Putin reveals his intent on building a club of dictators who can cooperate and mutually reinforce one another as they resist global deterrents.
But pay attention to what Putin says and the justification is much different. The official justification is that Russia is attacking ISIS. The incoming reports, however, suggest the target of the attacks are rebel groups fighting both Assad and ISIS. This should come as no surprise. For Putin, this is an all win, no risk scenario. Success brings gains, failure costs nothing. He is unlikely to be punished at home, and whatever international consequences come will arrive late, after he has accomplished his goals.
President Obama’s comments that Russia’s actions are “an act of weakness” reinforces this point. How is it weak to demand that the U.S. clear the airspace as reports suggest Russia did during the summit which preceded the airstrikes? American influence in the Middle East is either on holiday or in retreat. Putin knows this. He knows his window to curtail American influence may close when the next President (Democrat or Republican) takes office. By acting now, Putin is demonstrating not only that he is animated by unconventional norms—but he deftly pursues them when given the chance.
To be sure, Putin could be miscalculating and genuinely acting from position of weakness. Yet, even if true, it only reminds us that American policymakers lack the imagination to recognize what’s really going on. Why wouldn’t someone in a position of weakness seek to improve his position when the opportunity presents itself? Putin recognized the opening to aid Assad because the prospects of U.S. resistance is virtually non-existent.
This breakdown in our moral imagination has two types: realist and liberal. Neither approach to foreign policy has proven wholly capable of generating reasonable expectations for Russian behavior. Both could easily do so if policymakers think creatively about political motivations.
Realists typically argue that the contours of the international system and risks associated with military involvement privilege caution and risk aversion. But these prescriptions hold only when both uncertainty and negative consequences are high. But if the aftermath of his invasion of Ukraine have taught Putin and his advisers anything, it’s that the consequences are small and manageable.
Liberals, in turn, argue that markets and sanctions will place the necessary pressures to deter or punish morally repugnant behavior. But Russia is a strong nation and can offset those sanctions by building new alliances with other like-minded nations. It may not be the size and scope of the Eastern bloc of old, but it needn’t be to provide the benefits of alliance. This dictator’s club will soon be able to help each other reduce the bite of economic and political sanctions by collectively ignoring them.
The greatest shortcoming of U.S. foreign policy is that it is cautiously realist when crafting policies, but naively liberal when dealing with rivals.
This failure of our moral imagination could yield even graver consequences than what we are currently witnessing. Russia’s sudden involvement suggests that Putin is becoming bolder and more confident that the U.S. is retrenching. Our so-called reset has accomplished nothing, save creating greater opportunities for Putin and Russia. Indeed, even if Russia has miscalculated, the crisis in Syria will worsen, increasing the probability that the U.S. will have to intervene at a greater cost to American blood and treasure.
What we need is a more robust moral imagination. First by recognizing American motivations for what they are: the exception rather than the rule. Second, by expecting rival powers to test the limits of U.S. tolerance for maligned behavior. We shouldn’t be surprised that more nations will come to the same conclusions as Russia. How the U.S. responds to these tests will no doubt depend on what risks our current policymakers are willing to accept, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves that the U.S. speaks for the global moral majority.
We must realize that politics is driven by moral aims and that the morality of nations is, unfortunately, not uniform. Until policymakers realize this, Americans should be worried that things are going to get worse before they get better.