The Ukrainian imbroglio is a virtual compendium of the difficulties the Obama administration has faced as it has sought to reduce US commitments in the world to match the combination of straitened US economic circumstances, lack of US public will, and the rise of China as a peer competitor. Some of these difficulties stem from hard and inescapable features of the international scene. Others are self-inflicted by the US system, and even by the Obama administration itself.
Essentially what Barack Obama has been trying to do is scale back the international strategy set out in the so-called “Wolfowitz Doctrine,” the initial paper for the Defense Planning Guidance of 1992, drawn up for the administration of George H.W. Bush by then–Under Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and his assistant “Scooter” Libby. In its call for unilateralism and preventive strikes against potential threats, this paper anticipated much of the strategy of the George W. Bush administration after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Its most ambitious and controversial proposal, however, was that the United States should commit itself to preventing any other country from dominating any region of the world that might be a springboard to threaten unipolar and exclusive US global dominance. With the exception of Africa, which no-one sees as the potential source of great power challenge, and, to a degree, South Asia, where India has increasingly been seen as an ally, this effectively meant that the US itself had to be the hegemon in every important region of the planet.
This paper came under so much attack that its proposals were drastically scaled back in the final version. It was widely pointed out that this was a goal on a vastly larger scale than any country had ever aimed at before. Even the British Empire at the very height of its strength knew that it could not intervene unilaterally on the European continent, challenge the US on the ground in North America, or dominate China in the face of opposition from other Western powers. And these criticisms were no doubt shared by the quietly realist Bush the Father.
In practice however something very like Wolfowitz’s vision became the standard operating procedure not only of the second Bush administration, but of the intervening Clinton administration and of sections of the Obama administration too. To judge by the stances she has taken in the past, it will be the desired approach of Hillary Clinton if she wins the presidency in 2016.
But since Wolfowitz wrote his paper in 1992, the US has seen the limitations of its military power exposed in Afghanistan and Iraq. It has failed to dominate developments in the Middle East — whether in bringing Israeli-Palestinian peace, forcing Iran to abandon its nuclear program, or controlling the situation on the ground in a range of states. It has suffered an appalling terrorist attack, which compelled it to invest colossal new sums in security measures. And it has suffered an economic recession, which severely reduced the economic bases of US power and the public will to use it.
Above all, of course, the rise of China means that Washington is facing the first economically equal peer competitor since the United States overtook Britain some 130 years ago. Yet in Ukraine, Victoria Nuland — the leading US diplomat in the region, who egged on the Kiev protestors to bring down the pro-Russian Ukrainian government in February — and her US colleagues have been partying geopolitically like it was 1992.
It seems clear that Obama did not want it to be like this. Backed in private by strong support from the military, there has been a real effort to cut back on commitments elsewhere so as to concentrate resources and attention on the pivot to the Asia–Pacific. After the Russo–Georgia War of 2008 had made clear both the dangers of NATO expansion to Georgia and Ukraine, and the fact that the United States would not fight to defend them, the offer of NATO membership, while not formally dropped, was quietly shelved. In return, Russia voted for much tougher sanctions against Iran. These did much to bring Tehran to the negotiating table, raising the possibility that the United States could also reduce some of its commitment in the Persian Gulf.
But to reduce commitment to a region while maintaining your interests there requires dependable allies. They must either not pursue dangerous agendas of their own, or be prepared to deal with the consequences themselves. From this point of view, Ukraine has simply reinforced the lessons of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s: the European Union and its members are incapable of formulating a sound strategy, let alone of pushing it through or defending it. The best they can manage is a sort of impotent megalomania. Yet again, the United States has had to become involved, at great potential cost to its interests elsewhere.
But the Obama administration is not innocent either. The United States did not initiate the European Union’s bidding war with Russia, but in February — as her notorious leaked phone conversation made clear — Victoria Nuland and her US colleagues on the ground did everything possible to drive the situation in a way that was absolutely certain to provoke a very costly crisis with Russia. Any sensible person with a high school–level understanding of Russian and Ukrainian history could have predicted both that Moscow would react strongly and dangerously to any attempt to destroy its influence in Kiev, and that the reality of the power balance on the ground would give it numerous opportunities to do so.
What, one may ask, is the neo-conservative Nuland even doing in the Obama state department, given her absolute committed to the Wolfowitz Doctrine? The answer is that she is a Hillary Clinton appointee, whom Obama could not or would not remove, and the danger of whose approach did not become apparent until too late. This also illustrates the fact that, by now, the making of US foreign and security policy is both so complex and so suffused with domestic rivalries that it often takes a personal intervention by the president to create a major change of course. It seems that given the immense conflicting pressures on them from different groups and lobbies, no other institution is capable any more of drawing up a clear set of US priorities and sticking to them. And the President — to put it mildly — has other things on his mind.
If I were a geopolitical conspiracy theorist, I’d be tempted to suggest that the entire Western strategy towards Ukraine has actually been drawn up by a secret committee of the Chinese government — or possibly a joint committee of the Chinese, the Iranians, and the Afghan Taliban. By driving Russia towards China, US policy does much to ameliorate China’s two greatest strategic weaknesses: its lack of major allies, and its dependence on long and indefensible maritime energy routes. Meanwhile, Washington’s failure to let its strident rhetoric reflect reality and defend client states against Russia gives encouragement to rivals of the US and the West everywhere.