Ukraine and Russia
The only topic worth discussing today
Two years ago, I reviewed Peter Zeihan’s Disunited Nations.
Zeihan sees the United States retrenching generally, inexorably abandoning its role as guarantor of the Order. In his view, this makes it likely that old geopolitical conflicts will re-emerge: Russia and Germany will again be wary of one another’s designs for Eastern Europe. Japan and China will once more have disputes about control over nearby waters. Turkey and Iran will see opportunities to recover long-lost imperial glory.
Zeihan envisions a world in which sea lanes are no longer safe. The re-emergence of rivalry and conflict will reduce countries’ willingness to trade. He sees this undoing much of the gains that the world has made in recent decades in reducing poverty.
. . .It is difficult for me to evaluate such predictions. Perhaps the descent into conflict and autarky is not so fore-ordained as Zeihan describes. Perhaps under the Order, countries became acculturated to not invading one another or raiding one another’s commerce. Perhaps governments will be inclined to obey the norms of the Order even in the absence of the American policeman. Perhaps the aging of populations around the world has created more pacifist societies.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine means having to increase the probability of the Zeihan Scenario and lower the probability of my Perhaps Scenarios. But I would not move the probability of the former all the way to 100 percent or the probability of the latter all the way to 0. Immediately after 9/11, we over-rated the significance of Islamic terrorism, and we should be careful not to over-rate the significance of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Richard Hanania, Robert Wright, and others warn us not to trust our hawkish foreign policy establishment. Hanania points out that if we judge our recent interventions, particularly in the Middle East, by their adverse humanitarian consequences, rather than by their intentions, then we should be less outraged by Putin and more ashamed of ourselves. Wright would say that what others would call “appeasement” he would call “cognitive empathy.” Maybe Putin thinks we have about as much moral standing to support an independent Ukraine as we think he has to support an independent Texas.
Noah Smith writes eloquently about what he sees as the errors of those who were soft on Putin.
The Iraq War was one of the main things that revitalized the American Left. In the wake of that war, they adopted many theories for why wars and conflicts happen — most of them warmed-over Chomsky — and believed these theories deeply without much hard evidence. Those theories, which blamed the American military-industrial complex as the source of most (all?) wars, seemed to serve well during a time when the post-WW2 norms still held and U.S. power reigned supreme.
And because they subscribed to those theories, many leftists got the Russia-Ukraine conflict very, very wrong. Until the moment Russia recognized the breakaway regions of the Donbas — making it a certainty that Russia would invade — they treated the whole thing as a show. Convinced that Putin was simply posturing, they felt safe in flagellating the U.S. for NATO expansion that happened over a decade ago.
He is equally eloquent in castigating libertarians and isolationist conservatives. If I had to choose today, I would align myself with Smith rather than with Hanania or Wright. But I am not ready to discount the latter views entirely.
I think that economic sanctions are over-rated. In material terms, international trade is a win-win, which means that introducing barriers to trade is lose-lose. Our ability to inflict economic pain on Russia is going to be constrained by our unwillingness to inflict economic pain on ourselves and our allies.
There are strong incentives to come up with ways around sanctions. In fact, sanctions by the United States and Europe may have the effect of drawing Russia and China closer together. China certainly would be happy to have any Russian oil, gas, and banking business that the West does not want.
Having an armed populace may be under-rated. Missiles and tanks can defeat an organized military. But different tools are needed to suppress a guerilla insurgency. It is likely that Russia will succeed, using surveillance and indifference to civilian casualties. But there is a scenario in which the morale of Russian troops deteriorates, and I think that scenario is our best hope.
I hope to return to normal posting soon. I do not have a comparative advantage writing about current events, especially war. But at the moment, people are not likely to have much interest in other topics.
"Hanania points out that if we judge our recent interventions, particularly in the Middle East, by their adverse humanitarian consequences, rather than by their intentions, then we should be less outraged by Putin and more ashamed of ourselves."
Yeah, I don't think our intentions have always been so good either. Iraq was clearly motivated by the fact that we were angry about 9/11 and wanted to punish people who shared the same ethnic background as those responsible for the attacks. It was ugly.
Ukraine gave up some 1,400 nuclear weapons after the disintegration of the USSR. They gave up those weapons in return for worthless guarantees from the EU, Russia and the US. Right now, smaller countries around the world are realizing that the Long Peace is over and they need to protect themselves. And the only way a small country can protect itself is nuclear weapons.