We lack the ability to ideate and innovate on foreign policy
One of the reasons why this new war feels so familiar, unnecessary, and despairing
Friends - It’s me, Melissa, today. I know you’re used to essays from Michael, and I rarely write publicly, but I felt compelled to write about this strange and devastating dynamic that is developing under the surface of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last night.
We saw Russia annex Crimea in 2014. We’ve seen a build-up of Russian forces for months, and the threat of war for weeks. It’s here now, and it’s devastating to see. Images of parents sending their children to safe zones, Ukrainians gathering in subway tunnels, British journalists wearing tactical gear while reporting in the foreground of bombs and blasts. The world has been here before so many times whether it’s civil war or foreign invasion — Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, just last year in Armenia, Georgia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Northern Ireland… I’m leaving out so much from just the last 30 years.
Why does this feel particularly hopeless this time? It’s because of our narratives, and our international myths. If you get a degree in political science or international relations or some variation of the two, you learn about WWI and WWII and the post-WWII global order. You learn about the origins of NATO and the Marshall Plan. Some may learn about the political origins of the EU — the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957 to contain Germany and prevent a third war on Europe’s continent. Since the fall of the USSR in 1989, students of politics have been taught that Europe is one of the more boring regions; it’s at peace and will remain at peace. You essentially learn that Bosnia and Kosovo in the 90s, though inside European borders, were essentially blips or bumps in the road.
So many cite Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History mostly in parody now, but the idea that we’ve achieved “liberal nirvana” is strong, still, in the ivory towers where American diplomats and analysts and politicos and foreign correspondents are trained. And if most are trained like this, then it gets reinforced when these students go out into the world, even as they gain promotions and move institution to institution.
What does this lead to? It leads to a foreign policy establishment that is more or less lacking ideas and imagination. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright invented the term (and an entire course at Georgetown University) called the “foreign policy toolbox.” The idea is that any given country has a set of tools they can use in their international relations. Since I came into contact with this concept, I’ve lamented that the United States began throwing many tools out of its toolbox in the 2000/2010s with the Bush Doctrine and Obama Doctrine. As is well-known, President Bush led the Afghanistan and Iraq War, and the latter caused huge rifts with European allies, and our murky reasons for declaring war discredited the United States and its stance in the world quite a bit. President Obama, in reaction to the Bush Doctrine in a lot of ways and because of the foreign policy advisors he surrounded himself with, often sought very narrow aims in his dealings with crises during his presidency — Syria and Ukraine are the two best examples. He let Congress vote on military intervention in Syria, knowing it wouldn’t receive approval. Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, annexing Crimea, and the US responded with sanctioning of some Russians, and some aid offered to Ukraine. We also threatened to pull out of a few different symbolic meetings (G8, Olympics, etc.). Those actions did nothing to deter Russia — President Putin invaded and remained as determined as ever — and there were few consequences in the years following, and now we are here today because he tested the waters without much consequence. Much of the Obama Doctrine relied on diplomacy and negotiation/collaboration, but often with lackluster results.
Before I go on, I want to be clear that I’m not a hawk or warmonger. I believe in the power and, in critical ways, the primacy of, diplomacy. I also believe in sovereignty and self-determination. And I’m a fan of many of the post-WWII institutions. I was trained to believe war would be rare on the European continent. I was trained that the post-WWII institutions were strong and not paper thin. So I know that I, myself, lack imagination for how we can all get along in the twenty-first century.
President Biden gave a strong speech today, his first since Russian aggression, and he detailed the various types of sanctions the US would take (and many of these sanctions in coordination with partners). Biden took press questions at the end of his speech, a rarer move for him. One reporter, Kaitlan Collins, asked about sanctions and why Biden would go this route if it doesn’t seem like they’re working to deter Russia. Biden, of course, reminded her that the sanctions haven’t had time to take effect, and Collins’ question was made to seem premature. However, that’s not the problem. The problem is that this kind of question belies much of the problem of the foreign policy establishment at the moment — are sanctions the only thing we can do? What else is there? Will this be enough? What if Putin takes over the whole of Ukraine and decides he wants Poland, a NATO and EU member? Estonia? Latvia? And so on.
Our foreign policy toolbox is so limited today, besides the last 20 years of various presidential foreign policy doctrines, because those in advisory and decision-making positions have been trained under a post-Cold War world that has fed them myths about the End of History and lasting European peace; that in 2022, we won’t behave like we did in the 19th and 20th centuries; that progress is inevitable, and sophistication and level-headedness will prevail. But ideas and beliefs like that lead to a lack of new ideas, to innovation. Why is it that the media and experts marveled so much at the unprecedented sharing of intelligence on President Putin’s next moves? Because it was something new. And it’s no surprise it comes from the intelligence community. They and those in the military and defense are not as often cultivated under the banner of progress and peace and the End of History in typical IR and political sciences courses, narratives, and hallways of power.
But history repeats itself. Authoritarians still exist. Strongmen with paranoia and ambition still exist. Nostalgia and love of territory still exists. Progress is not inevitable.
I don’t want to write the most depressing post that’s ever appeared on Reclaiming Hope, though. What’s giving me hope right now is that NATO has been re-invigorated, and Germany has begun to relinquish its total control on its energy aims. Transatlantic alliances are holding incredibly strong. The list of sanctions announced by the US and partners are far more comprehensive than 2014. And the images and videos of Ukrainians seeking to defend their livelihoods also gives me hope - and a cause for prayer. And this image in Moscow, when so many could experience severe consequences for their actions, gives me hope.
Courage and action are giving me hope. But I believe we must look at how we’re educating our students of foreign policy, and how we’re framing global problems. It’s leading to a dangerous policy anemia.