The Failing of Ideology and the Need for Expertise

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(Originally published March 24, 2014 here)

The United States needs more expertise and less ideology in its formation of foreign policy, as evidenced by the repeated missteps in Ukraine over the past several months. America and her European allies continue to paint the Crimean crisis with the broad brush of Russian expansionism and Putin’s desire for a new Soviet Union. They continue to act as if Russia’s armed intervention in Crimea was unprovoked and unanticipated, while abdicating any culpability in the current situation. In order to effectively address Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the United States must 1) understand Russia’s current feelings about the international system; and 2) objectively review the recent Western interventions in Ukraine.

In an article for Foreign Policy Gordon Adams writes that the Russia’s intervention in Crimea is “about centuries-old Russian paranoia about the states on its borders and what Moscow think the Europeans, the Chinese, or the Americans are up to in its near abroad.” Russia, and by extension Putin, is not crazily searching for a renewed Cold War or armed conflict the West. Russia is asserting its dominance on a neighbor to ensure friendly buffer zones between herself and the increasingly powerful European Union in the West and China in the East. This is not a war of ideology, democracy, or even ethnicity. Russia’s move is specifically calculated to ensure the balance of power and maintain the national security of the Russian Federation. If the United States had more expertise in understanding Russian Foreign Policy, and fewer ideologues, the historical pattern of Russian intervention on its periphery could have been understood and applied to the current crisis and we may have had a very different situation in Ukraine today. Instead, history was ignored and the West’s interventions in Ukraine led to the historically expected outcome of Russian intervention.

Shortly after the Maiden protests erupted in Ukraine in December of 2013, U.S. Senator John McCain shared a platform with the chief of Ukraine’s ultra right wing, and Nazi-esque, party Svoboda assuring protestors, “The free world is with you; America is with you.” The impact of Svoboda on the new Ukraine was seen shortly after former Ukrainian President Yanukovych’s flight to Russia, when the new Ukrainian Parliament passed a long-standing Svoboda demand that all government business be conducted exclusively in Ukrainian. This law instantly marginalized the one-third of Ukrainians, and 60% of Crimeans, that speak Russian. Svoboda followed up this law with a push to repeal a law against “excusing the crimes of fascism.” Although Svoboda is not running the new Ukrainian Government, it has extensive influence and according to Andrew Foxall and Oren Kessler, controls more government ministries than any other far-right wing group in Europe. Clearly, Western meddling in Ukrainian affairs has at least given some credence to Putin’s claims that Ukraine is now governed by, “neo-Nazis and Nazis and anti-Semites.”

Some will argue that regardless of expertise in foreign policy decision-making, Putin would still have intervened in Ukraine because of the current administration’s perceived weakness on the international stage. Senator John McCain, the same man pledging American support for fascist groups like Svoboda in December, recently said that President Obama’s foreign policy “has fed a perception that the United States is weak, and to people like Mr. Putin, weakness is provocative.” McCain, and many of his supporters, believe that strength stops bullies and weakness invites conflict. The problem is that these detractors have no clear strategy for how to project strength in the current crisis and instead spend their time in messy counterfactuals and poor foreign policy instead of expert analysis and effective policy creation. Without clear solutions to the current crisis, these views are not helpful and distracting from real solutions.

Without the expertise needed to understand Russia’s response to Western meddling in Ukraine any response to the crisis is likely to be ineffectual and possibly even destabilizing. With an accurate understanding of the causes of the current situation, however, policy markers are armed with the tools necessary to make effective and clear decisions. The international community should condemn the armed Russian intervention in Crimea and subsequent annexation in every way. However, condemnation is not a solution to the problem and only through expertise, rather than ideology, can effective foreign policy be formed to address the crisis.

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