NATO, the U.S. and Ukraine: A political economy of bad options?

Since I’m not an expert on Ukraine, the greater region it’s situated in, or much of the history, I’ve primarily observed and absorbed the various op-eds, arguments and blog posts I’ve seen from others. I don’t really have much to add about Ukraine or the politics of the region itself, but I have found the debate about what the best options are for the U.S. and NATO to be interesting. It seems that we’re encountering the limits of security-centric foreign policy, and profit-at-all-costs national economic outlook. Russia isn’t playing a complex game, the problem is that NATO and the U.S. don’t have the right tools to counter Russia’s fairly straight forward behavior.

As part of foreign policy, security is important, but it has limits. In the U.S. we have big military, big intelligence community, and relatively small everything else. Our military is powerful, but that’s only useful if we’re willing to use it; Russia knows we’re unlikely to put troops on the ground in Ukraine, so they can be pretty provocative along the Ukrainian border and with their special forces. We have big intelligence, but so what? We’re not going to put boots on the ground, and we’re not winning the diplomatic game…so what’s our massive intelligence apparatus gaining us? We’re not going to invade, and our token support to Kiev in terms of materiel, Geneva agreements and IMF packages doesn’t help much when the U.S. and NATO have no real leverage to change Russia’s behavior.

If we’re honest with ourselves, the U.S. has let it’s diplomatic capacity and creativity wane quite a bit the last 20 years. I wouldn’t say that U.S. diplomats are less talented, but I do think we have a pair of political economic problems that keep them from being able to be creative and offensive. We just unpacked one in the last paragraph; foreign policy is increasingly viewed as a security problem, so funding goes to security apparatus over diplomatic capacity. This has a knock on effect of causing anything not directly security related to effectively not be part of foreign policy. In principle energy policy, monetary and banking policy, and trade would be part of a strong foreign policy; in practice, they aren’t really. I’d argue that this is a unfortunate outcome of a national economic zeitgeist that favors short term profit and privatization above all else.

Let’s look at energy. To keep it simple, Russia provides a lot of gas to Europe; if NATO gets too aggressive, Russia will turn off the gas. Russia has the leverage because the U.S. and NATO don’t really have any viable energy alternatives. The diplomats don’t have much to work with because, particularly in the U.S, natural gas and petroleum interests work hard to prevent the expansion of renewable energy sources, and the export of gas and oil, with the help of compliant policy makers. This makes sense for those industries since they want to protect their market caps and profit margins. The problem is that this takes energy policy out of a NATO diplomat’s toolkit. Thus we end up with limited capacity to quickly scale a market for alternative energy, which could replace as least some of the need for Russia’s gas while also driving the price down (gas supplies don’t decrease but demand does). There’s potentially serious leverage for the U.S. and NATO here, but we can’t take advantage of it.

I’ve simplified these issues quite a bit to make my point, but perhaps some simplification is in order. Russia doesn’t need to play a complex game in Ukraine because they have a solution that the U.S. and NATO can’t effectively respond to. Perhaps the West’s real problem is continuing to make increasingly complex arguments to justify our drift toward a one dimensional foreign policy, when what we need to do is make fundamental changes to how we think about the role of domestic investment, research and development, not exclusively as profit-making pursuits, but also as keys to our ability to project power in an increasingly multi-polar world.



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