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A U.S. Policy of Weakness towards Russia?
by Paul Pillar*
Over the past several weeks of the Ukraine crisis, there has been much commentary in the United States to the effect that the West and the United States in particular has been letting Vladimir Putin run amok. The commentary has been a sub-theme in a larger theme about Washington supposedly exuding weakness. To the extent such criticism has been linked to specific alternative policy proposals, the proposals usually include some combination of being quicker in imposing more extensive sanctions on Russia, making threatening military deployments, and giving lethal military aid to the Ukrainians.
Over the past few days, Putin’s policy on Ukraine has taken shape in two important ways. First, he has not embraced the “referendum” organized by dissident leaders in the restive eastern portion of Ukraine. Before the vote he called for it to be postponed; after the vote his government did not respond to dissident talk about accession to Russia, said it respects the “will of the population” of the eastern regions but did not recognize the result of the vote, and called for the whole matter to be resolved through negotiations with the government in Kiev. Second, despite ominous military moves near the border, he has not used Russian military forces to invade eastern Ukraine.
Both of these developments are subject to varying interpretations. Perhaps Putin could do more to influence the behavior of dissidents in Donetsk and Luhansk than he wants us to believe—the White House, based on its public statements, seems to think so—but this is not clear. Neither do we really know what Putin’s intentions were for the military forces that had been conducting maneuvers near the border. Maybe he did not know himself. But both of these developments are significant. Not doing something can represent a decision, and not doing something can be just as important as doing it.
Maybe I’ve missed something, but there does not seem to be any surge of commentary taking account of these developments, from the same sources that had been wailing abut how we had been letting Putin kick us around. Why has there not been acknowledgment that maybe the best way to deter additional undesirable behavior isn’t to start firing away with more sanctions whether the behavior occurs or not, and that threatening military actions isn’t necessarily the best way to get results when what we are threatening is a war that everyone knows we would rather not fight? Why hasn’t there been more updating of the scorecard on policy regarding Ukraine?
I hasten to add two caveats to these observations, lest the observations exhibit some of the same deficiencies as the subject commentary. First, not everything that the Russian government, or any other foreign actor, does can be attributable to the influence of U.S. policy. Much that happens is beyond the influence of the United States, and that includes many of the good things that happen as well as many of the bad things. Second, this whole story is far from over. Any assessment of policy is necessarily only an interim assessment. Russian forces could invade Ukraine tomorrow, and the scorecard would need to be revised again.
Most of the criticism about a supposed U.S. policy of weakness giving free rein to Putin has ignored these two realities. It vastly overstates the ability of the U.S. government to shape events, particularly in an area where U.S. interests are less than those of Russian interests. And it includes grand judgments as if they will be the final word of history, when really they are only the perspective of a single point in time.
The criticism also is like much commentary on other subjects in that it pays inadequate attention to non-events. Non-events can include wars that are not launched, terrorist attacks that do not occur, or unconventional weapons that are not built. Non-events are the other side of the same coin as events in their impact on U.S. interests. They constitute important data points in assessing which policies work well and which ones do not. The tendency to score policy performance only in terms of what has happened, without paying attention to what has not, produces an incomplete and biased scorecard.
*This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission.