During his recent speech in Warsaw, President Biden said that Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power,” only to clarify a few days later that he was merely expressing outrage, not announcing a new U.S. policy aimed at toppling Russia’s leader. The episode, interpreted by many as a dangerous gaffe, underscored the tension in U.S. foreign policy between idealism and realism.
Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine should provoke moral outrage in all of us, and, at least in principle, it warrants his removal from office. But Mr. Putin could well remain the leader of a major power into the next decade, and Washington will need to deal with him.
This friction between lofty goals and realpolitik is nothing new. The United States has since the founding era been an idealist power operating in a realist world — and has on balance succeeded in bending the arc of history toward justice. But geopolitical exigency at times takes precedence over ideals, with America playing power politics when it needs to.
During the Cold War, Washington promoted stability by tolerating a Soviet sphere of influence and cozying up to unsavory regimes willing to fight Communism. In contrast, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, America operated under conditions of geopolitical slack; great-power rivalry was muted, enabling Washington to put front and center its effort to promote democracy and expand a liberal, rules-based international order.
What, then, is the path forward? The war in Ukraine now confronts the United States with the need to tilt back toward the practice of realpolitik. Washington’s commitment to keeping NATO’s doors open to Ukraine was a laudable and principled stand against an autocratic Russia. Yet America’s idealist cause has run headlong into Russian tanks; Washington’s effort to do right by Ukraine has culminated in Russia’s ruthless effort to put the country back under Moscow’s sway.
Mr. Putin has just sent history into reverse. The United States should seek to foil and punish Moscow’s aggression, but Washington also needs to be pragmatic to navigate a world that, even if more unruly, is also irreversibly interdependent.
The Gap Between Means and Ends
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exposed a gap between America’s ideological aspirations and geopolitical realities that has been widening since the 1990s. During the heady decade after the end of the Cold War, Washington was confident that the triumph of American power and purpose cleared the way for the spread of democracy. A primary instrument for doing so was the enlargement of NATO.
But from early on, the American foreign policy establishment allowed principle to obscure the geopolitical downsides of NATO enlargement. Yes, NATO membership should be open to all countries that qualify, and all nations should be able to exercise their sovereign right to choose their alignments as they see fit. But geography and geopolitics still matter; major powers, regardless of their ideological bent, don’t like it when other major powers stray into their neighborhoods.
It’s true that Moscow’s dismay at the prospect of Ukraine’s membership in NATO most likely is fed in part by nostalgia for the geopolitical heft of the Soviet days, Mr. Putin’s paranoia about a “color revolution” arising in Russia, and mystical delusions about unbreakable civilizational links between Russia and Ukraine. But it is also true that the West erred in dismissing Russia’s legitimate security concerns about NATO setting up shop on the other side of its 1,000-mile-plus border with Ukraine.
All major powers desire strategic breathing room — which is precisely why Russia has objected to NATO’s eastern expansion since the end of the Cold War. NATO may be a defensive alliance, but it brings to bear aggregate military power that Russia understandably does not want parked near its territory.
Indeed, Moscow’s objections to NATO membership for Ukraine are very much in line with America’s own statecraft, which has long sought to keep other major powers away from its borders.
The United States spent much of the 19th century ushering Britain, France, Russia and Spain out of the Western Hemisphere. Thereafter, Washington regularly turned to military intervention to hold sway in the Americas. The exercise of hemispheric hegemony continued during the Cold War, with the United States determined to box the Soviet Union and its ideological sympathizers out of Latin America. When Moscow deployed missiles to Cuba in 1962, the United States issued an ultimatum that brought the superpowers to the brink of war.
After Russia recently hinted that it might again deploy its military to Latin America, the State Department spokesperson, Ned Price, responded, “If we do see any movement in that direction, we will respond swiftly and decisively.” Given its own track record, Washington should have given greater credence to Moscow’s objections to bringing Ukraine into NATO.
NATO’s open door policy has meanwhile encouraged countries in Europe’s east to lean too far over their strategic skis. While the allure of joining the alliance has encouraged aspirants to carry out the democratic reforms needed to qualify for entry, the open door has also prompted prospective members to engage in excessively risky behavior.
Not long after NATO in 2008 pledged that Georgia and Ukraine “will become members of NATO,” Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, launched an offensive against pro-Russian separatists in South Ossetia with whom the country had been sporadically fighting for years. Russia promptly carved up Georgia, grabbing control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Mr. Saakashvili thought the West had his back, but he miscalculated and overreached.
In similar fashion, NATO encouraged Ukraine to beat a path toward the alliance. The 2014 Maidan Revolution toppled a pro-Moscow regime and put Ukraine on a westward course, resulting in Russia’s intervention in Crimea and Donbas. NATO’s open door then beckoned, prompting Ukrainians in 2019 to enshrine their NATO aspirations in the Constitution.
Now Russia has again invaded the country to block its westward path. Given its unenviable proximity to Russia, Ukraine would have been better off playing it safe, quietly building a stable democracy while sticking with the neutral status that it embraced when it exited the Soviet Union. Indeed, Ukraine’s potential return to neutrality figures prominently in the talks between Kyiv and Moscow to end the war.
NATO has wisely avoided direct involvement in the fighting in Ukraine in order to avert war with Russia. But NATO’s unwillingness to protect Ukraine has exposed a troubling disconnect between the organization’s stated goal of making the country a member and its judgment that defending Ukraine is not worth the cost.
In effect, the United States and its allies, even as they impose severe sanctions on Russia and send arms to Ukraine, are revealing that they do not deem the defense of the country to be a vital interest. But if that is the case, then why have NATO members wanted to extend to Ukraine a security guarantee that would obligate them to go to war in its defense?
NATO should extend security guarantees to countries that are of intrinsic strategic importance to the United States and its allies, but it should not make countries strategically important by extending them security guarantees. In a world that is rapidly reverting to the Hobbesian logic of power politics, when adversaries may regularly test U.S. commitments, NATO cannot afford to be profligate in handing out such guarantees. Strategic prudence requires distinguishing vital interests from lesser ones and conducting statecraft accordingly.
Beginning the World All Over Again
Americans have long understood the purpose of their power to be not only security, but also the spread of liberty at home and abroad. As Thomas Paine wrote in 1776, “We have it in our power to begin the world all over again.”
Paine was surely engaging in hyperbole. But successive generations of Americans have taken the nation’s exceptionalist calling to heart, with quite impressive results. Through the power of its example as well as its many exertions abroad — including World War I, World War II and the Cold War — the United States has succeeded in expanding the footprint of liberal democracy.
But the ideological aspirations of the United States have at times fueled overreach, producing outcomes at odds with the nation’s idealist ambitions. The founding generation was determined to build an extended republic that would stretch to the Pacific Coast. The exalted banner of Manifest Destiny provided ideological justification for the nation’s westward expansion — but also moral cover for trampling on Native Americans and launching a war of choice against Mexico that led to U.S. annexation of roughly half of Mexican territory.
President William McKinley in 1898 embarked on a war to expel colonial Spain from Cuba, insisting that Americans had to act “in the cause of humanity.” Yet victory in the Spanish-American War turned the United States itself into an imperial power as it asserted control over Spanish possessions in the Caribbean and Pacific, including the Philippines. The resulting Filipino insurgency led to the death of some 4,000 U.S. soldiers and more than 200,000 Filipino fighters and civilians.
As he prepared the country for entry into World War I, President Woodrow Wilson declared before Congress that “the world must be made safe for democracy.” After U.S. forces helped bring the war to a close, he played a leading role in negotiations over the League of Nations, a global body that was to preserve peace through collective action, dispute resolution and disarmament. But such idealist ambitions proved too much even for Americans. The Senate shot down U.S. membership in the League; Wilson’s ideological overreach cleared the way for the stubborn isolationism of the interwar era.
“The Iraqi people are deserving and capable of human liberty,” President George W. Bush proclaimed just before launching the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But the war resulted in far more bloodshed and chaos than liberty. Likewise, two decades of exhaustive U.S. efforts to bring stability and democracy to Afghanistan fell far short, with the American withdrawal last summer giving way to Taliban rule and a humanitarian nightmare. Across these historical episodes, noble ambitions became divorced from strategic realities, yielding dreadful results.
NATO meant well in opening its doors to Ukraine, yet good intentions have again stumbled on geopolitical realities. To be sure, Mr. Putin had the opportunity to settle his objections to Ukraine’s membership in NATO at the negotiating table. Last June, President Biden admitted that whether Ukraine joins the alliance “remains to be seen”; more recently, President Emmanuel Macron of France floated the idea of “Finlandization” for Ukraine — effective neutrality — and proposals for a formal moratorium on further enlargement circulated. Mr. Putin could have picked up these leads, but he instead opted for war — and now owns the resulting death and destruction.
Russia’s relationship with the West is fast heading toward militarized rivalry. In light of the tight strategic partnership that has emerged between Moscow and Beijing — and China’s own geopolitical ambitions — the next Cold War may well pit the West against a Sino-Russian bloc stretching from the Western Pacific to Eastern Europe.
The return of a two-bloc world that plays by the rules of realpolitik means that Washington will need to dial back its efforts to expand the liberal order, instead returning to a strategy of patient containment aimed at preserving geopolitical stability and avoiding great-power war. A new strategic conservatism will require avoiding the further extension of defense commitments into geographic areas that Russia and China consider their rimlands.
Instead, the United States should seek stable balances of power in the European and Asia-Pacific theaters. Washington will need to strengthen its forward presence in both theaters, requiring higher and smarter military spending and the strict avoidance of demanding wars of choice and nation-building adventures in the Middle East or other peripheral regions.
At the same time, taming an interdependent world will require working across ideological lines. Washington should ease off on the promotion of democracy and human rights abroad and the Biden administration should refrain from its tendency to articulate a geopolitical vision that too neatly divides the world into democracies and autocracies. Strategic and economic expedience will at times push the United States to partner with repressive regimes; moderating oil prices, for example, may require collaboration with Iran, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
Even though the United States will continue teaming up with its traditional democratic allies in Europe and Asia, many of the world’s democracies will avoid taking sides in a new era of East-West rivalry. Indeed, Brazil, India, Israel, South Africa and other democracies have been sitting on the fence when it comes to responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Russia clearly poses the most immediate threat to geopolitical stability in Eurasia, but China, due to its emergence as a true competitor of the United States, still poses the greater geopolitical challenge in the longer term. Now that Russia and China are regularly teaming up, they could together constitute an opposing bloc far more formidable than its Soviet forebear. Accordingly, the United States should exploit opportunities to put distance between Moscow and Beijing, following the lead of the quintessential realists Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, who in the 1970s weakened the Communist bloc by driving a wedge between China and the Soviet Union.
The United States should play both sides. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marks a fundamental breach with the Atlantic democracies, yet the West cannot afford to completely turn its back on Russia; too much is at stake. As during the Cold War, Washington will need a hybrid strategy of containment and engagement. Russia should remain in the penalty box for now, with the United States pushing back against the Kremlin’s territorial expansionism and other aggressive behavior by reinforcing NATO’s eastern flank and maintaining harsh economic sanctions.
But Washington should also remain on the lookout for opportunities to engage Moscow. Its invasion of Ukraine has just made Russia an economic and strategic dependent of China; Mr. Putin will not relish being Xi Jinping’s sidekick. The United States should exploit the Kremlin’s discomfort with becoming China’s junior partner by signaling that Russia has a Western option.
Assuming an eventual peace settlement in Ukraine that permits the scaling back of sanctions, the Western democracies should remain open to cautious and selective cooperation with Moscow. Areas of potential collaboration include furthering nuclear and conventional arms control, sharing best practices and technologies on alternatives to fossil fuels, and jointly developing rules of the road to govern military and economic activity in the Arctic.
Russia needs China more than China needs Russia, so Washington should also seek to pull Beijing away from Moscow. Beijing’s ambiguous response to the invasion of Ukraine suggests at least a measure of discomfort with the economic and geopolitical disruption that has been produced by Russian recklessness. Yet Beijing continues to benefit from Russian energy and strategic cooperation and from the fact that Mr. Putin is forcing the United States to focus on Europe, thereby stalling the U.S. “pivot to Asia.” Nonetheless, Washington should keep an eye out for opportunities to work with Beijing in areas of common interest — trade, climate change, North Korea, digital governance, public health — to improve relations, tackle global problems and potentially weaken the bond between China and Russia.
As during the Cold War, a world of rival blocs could mean economic as well as geopolitical division. The severe impact of the sanctions imposed on Russia underscores the dark side of globalization, potentially driving home to both the United States and China that economic interdependence entails quite considerable risk. China could distance itself from global markets and financial systems, while Washington could seek to further decouple the United States from Chinese investment, technology, goods and supply chains. The world may be entering a prolonged and costly era of de-globalization.
The United States will always be an idealist country struggling to navigate a realist world. That’s as it should be; the globe is a better place for it. But Russian’s invasion of Ukraine is a geopolitical watershed: A more realist world is back, requiring that America’s idealist ambitions yield more regularly to inescapable strategic realities.
Charles A. Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author, most recently, of “Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World.”
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