The Wrong Question

In the matter of Ukraine, policy makers in Washington appear to be obsessed with finding an answer to a question they think will unlock the formula for maintaining the peace in Europe.  That question is: What does Putin want?

It is an interesting question. It is also the wrong question. It implies that the solution to the developing crisis in Europe is transactional. Once we discover what Putin wants, the next step is to find a face saving way to give it to him. Otherwise we impose economic sanctions. Just like we did in Iran. And how is that working out anyway?

What is notable about this episode is the extent to which Western thinkers have mischaracterized the problem. David Brooks, an opinion writer for the New York Times, summed up the conventional wisdom the other day on PBS.  He argued that the seriousness of the Russia – Ukraine dispute was centered on the willingness of a large power (Russia) to use force to impose its will on smaller nations—like Ukraine.  In so doing, he argued, Russia was endangering the rules based liberal order put in place as a result of the catastrophic destruction wrought by the two World Wars of the first half of the 20th century.  

That is indeed the conventional wisdom. It also misses the point. There is a reason why the rules based system worked as well as it did for as long as it did. The reason does not lie in the work of the post war institutions we built like the United Nations, the Word Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Those organizations are simply instruments of Great Power geopolitics. 

The reason why the liberal world order flourished as it did is that the United States enforced the rules. Great Power politics did not vanish with the creation of a liberal international order. The United States emerged from the ashes of World War II with so much concentrated power that it was in a position to dominate the construction of the political and financial architecture of the emerging era. 

But those institutions, largely instruments of American power, were never going to be permanent. As the relative positions of other Great Powers began to improve vis-a-vis the United States, what had become became known as the Washington Consensus strained to adapt. While the United States largely held the Western Alliance together through NATO, other existing powers began to revert to old habits, particularly, Russia. 

Leave aside for the time being Russia’s general suppression of Eastern European countries through the Warsaw Pact. Russia also invaded Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) to put down local attempts at liberalization. They put nuclear missiles in Castro’s Cuba in 1961, constructed the Berlin Wall in 1961 and invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. And all along the way they supported various national wars of liberation around the globe. 

The only thing standing in the way of more aggressive (what was then) Soviet behavior was the United States. When the wall finally did come down in 1991 it took with it the Soviet system. It wasn’t just the military power of the United States that Russia faced. The U.S. combined military power with soft power. Who can forget Reagan’s speech in front of the Berlin Wall when he said  “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear down this wall”. 

But the fall of the Berlin Wall  did not take down the dreams of socialism, autocracy and ultimately totalitarianism, although by rights it should have. Vladimir Putin, who went from being a junior KGB operative in Eastern Europe to a cab driver in Moscow, described the collapse of the Soviet Empire as “…the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.”

That hints at the answer to the question: What does Putin want? First and foremost he wants to protect and expand his power. That means destroying NATO, hence his demand that the West pledge to never admit Ukraine to the alliance.  

To a large degree Putin has already succeeded in knocking NATO back on its heels. He merely has to deliver the coup de grace. Remember the original goals of NATO: Keep Germany down; Russia out and America in.  Now consider, the response of NATO and the United States to Russian aggression in the matter of Ukraine. 

Germany is continuing with its plan to approve Russia’s Nord 2 gas pipeline which runs from western Russia to north-east Germany, bypassing Ukraine. This will make Europe, and particularly Germany, dependent on Russia for its energy supplies. And not to make too fine a point of it, former German chancellor Gerhard Schroder went to work for Gazprom and sits on the Board of Rosneft, Russia’s biggest oil producer.

In the meantime the Biden Administration has threatened “swift and severe sanctions” should Russia invade Ukraine. But it is hard to imagine that Vladimir Putin will be shaking in his boots over anything that the Biden Administration says it is prepared to do. Already the Administration has looked for an off-ramp by trying to make a distinction between a “minor incursion” and an invasion, albeit with some belated after-action clean-up. 

Then there is the matter of the botched Afghanistan withdrawal and the subsequent lies about it. (See today’s Washington Post for one example among many). Honorable mention goes to the Biden Administration’s obsession with getting  a “deal” with Iran despite the fact that Iran continues to ramp up its nuclear weapons program and has recently tested a ballistic missile capable of reaching Israel.  

All things considered the question that matters is not what does Vladimir Putin want. The real question that matters is: What does the United States want? Another way to put it is: What is in the best interests of the United States, and derivatively, the West? Which is not the same as what is in the best interests of Joe Biden’s political standing, which seems to be the driving force of his policy making. 

Faced with the correct question to ask, we are immediately confronted by a problem. It ought to be obvious that the default position of mankind is not peace and prosperity, all the nonsense about the Noble Savage notwithstanding. Achieving those goals requires constructing both institutions and leaders capable of delivering and sustaining them.

The existential problem we face—and it truly is an existential problem—is that America’s scholars, public intellectuals, universities, thought leaders and cultural arbiters no longer believe in the intellectual infrastructure that made the modern Liberal state possible. The classical Liberalism of the Scottish Enlightenment developed by Adam Smith, David Hume, John Locke and Edmund Burke are based on the idea of natural law; that there are universals that spring from that idea; that among them are the right to life and liberty; that those rights in turn depend on property rights and the right of contract; that the rule of law applies equally to all and that it is the job of Government not to create, but to secure those rights. Those beliefs are what made America, America. And the institutions built on those beliefs are what allowed those 13 colonies to become the richest most powerful country in the world.

But today’s progressives do not believe that, campaign rhetoric aside. Today’s progressives are determinists and racial essentialists. For them, race, class and gender are determinative. The hierarchy of oppression is the scorecard. The hysterical opposition to school choice, the insistence on forcing 5-year olds to wear utterly useless masks in schools (when they are open) and acquiescence to the 1619 project and “anti-racism” in public schools give the game away. Which is: Command-and-Control. 

That ideology, for the moment, dominates public discourse. And it is why policy makers are incapable of formulating the right questions to ask, much less coming up with the right answers. And why they shy away from global leadership. They cower in fear of being called Neo-colonialists.

Shortly after John Kennedy was inaugurated as President  he went over to Foggy Bottom and asked various employees whom they represented. The answers came back quickly—France, England, India, Japan, Egypt etc. Whereupon Kennedy reportedly asked “Where is the American desk?” 

That is a question we should be pondering today. Another is: what would the world look like if America were to abdicate its role as global leader and enforcer of liberal norms. Answer: It wouldn’t be pretty.


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