The three ghosts haunting US foreign policy

The calls for the U.S. to do something in, about or for Ukraine are growing by the day. The U.S. must stand up to Russia, stand by our Ukrainian “ally,” resist Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinOvernight Defense & National Security — US says Russia prepping 'false flag' operation Biden administration says Russia arrested Colonial Pipeline hacker Putin's 'Brezhnev Doctrine' involving Ukraine could backfire MORE’s bullying tactics and otherwise defend the freedom-loving peoples of eastern Europe — even to the point of deploying troops to the region. Failure to do so, we are told, will not only compromise American interests in the region, but undermine its position in the wider world as well.

Such calls are typically couched in terms of “realpolitik,” or power politics. In reality, however, the impulse to do something – anything – on Europe’s eastern marches has little to do with a clear-eyed understanding of the current distribution of power in the international system, U.S. interests, the limits of American power, actual Russian motives or anything else required by a realpolitik approach properly understood. Rather, that impulse is being driven by something far less rational — and far less realistic. It is being driven by what I will call the ghosts of world orders past.

What I mean is that, to a considerable degree, today’s debates about foreign policy in general and Russia in particular are being shaped by ideas that were born in the unique circumstances of earlier world orders – the interwar period, the Cold War, the post-Cold War “unipolar moment” – and that should have died with the passing of those orders but didn’t.

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Instead, like tormented souls that can find neither rest nor respite in death, these ghost-ideas carry on as shades of their former selves, haunting the corridors of power in and beyond Washington, often in consequential ways.

And what are these ghostly holdovers from the past? Well, the first is the ghost-idea of appeasement, a specter from the interwar period that has had a long career in U.S. foreign policy circles. When used in a geopolitical sense, of course, appeasement generally refers to the supposedly naïve practice of offering concessions to an aggressor in the hopes of defusing conflict and preventing war.

Its origins are to be found in the failed effort of European statesmen to appease Adolf Hitler in the late-1930s by acceding to his demands that Czechoslovakia surrender the Sudetenland to Germany. As this concession had the perverse effect of further whetting Hitler’s geopolitical appetite, ultimately leading to the Second World War, the term originally entered the lexicon of international relations as a part of cautionary tale: Don’t make concessions to illiberal dictators, as it will only encourage them.

The second ghost haunting the American geopolitical imagination is the is the ghost of the Cold War. During that moment of bipolar ideological struggle, American policymakers came to view world politics in Manichaean terms, with the virtuous United States locked in an existential struggle with the evil Soviet Union. In response, they developed the strategy of containment, a full-spectrum effort to limit the Soviet bloc’s contact with the global economy, frustrate Moscow’s diplomacy and stymie its military efforts to expand its influence abroad. Squeezed in this way, the logic ran, the Soviet-communist regime would first “mellow” and then collapse, effectively ending the Cold War and making the world safe for American democracy. 

The final ghost-idea is that of American primacy, a product of the post-Cold War unipolar moment when the United States found itself the only superpower left standing. Reflecting the realities of the moment, a new idea crystalized in the U.S foreign policy establishment — that Washington should expand the largely Western “free world” that had emerged victorious at the end of the Cold War into a truly global Liberal International Order.

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And a corollary of this was the idea that the United States was the “indispensable nation,” the one country that had both the power and the providential calling to defend that liberal order against all threats — especially those posed by “rogue states” that failed to internalize the now putatively universal norms of liberal democracy, free markets and human rights. 

And that brings us back to Ukraine. The various world orders of the past century are no more. This is not 1938, and Putin is not Hitler, Russia is not the Soviet Union, and the unipolar moment has long since passed. But the ideas spawned by those world orders – appeasement, containment and primacy– live on, haunting the debate over what to do about Russia and Ukraine.

The specter of appeasement, for example, is clearly visible in the portrayals of Putin as a Hitleresque figure dissatisfied with the post-Cold War settlement. Putin, like Hitler, insists that the West accept a redrawing of “illegitimate” borders on pain of war. But if it wants “peace in our time,” this specter reminds us, the West cannot make the same mistake with Putin that it did with Hitler. This time, the West must stand up to the bully — for, as the ghost-idea of appeasement counsels us, failing to do so will only embolden the aggressor and lead to the very war we seek to avoid.

Similarly, the ghost-idea of containment can be detected in calls to take whatever steps necessary to frustrate Moscow’s diplomacy and stymie Putin’s military efforts to expand Russia’s influence abroad. This includes incorporating Ukraine into NATO, originally the cornerstone of Washington’s Cold War strategy of containment. The logic, now as then, is not merely to check Russian expansionism but to induce Putin’s regime first to mellow and then collapse, opening the door for a more democratic regime willing to coexist peacefully with its neighbors.

Finally, the phantom of U.S primacy can also be detected lurking behind the claim that American leadership is essential if the international effort to resist Putin’s malign policies in Eastern Europe are to succeed. But why should this be the case? Why can’t the European Union take the lead in balancing Russia? If this isn’t a case for greater European strategic autonomy – for Europe managing its own strategic affairs rather than always relying on the United States – it’s not clear what would be.

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Why does this matter? Because these three ghosts are not only misleading; they’re dangerous. They’re misleading in that they frame the situation in Ukraine as an important U.S. national security issue when it clearly isn’t. Ask yourself: Is American security, freedom or prosperity even remotely contingent on what happens in Ukraine? The answer, obviously, is no. But if you listen to the ghosts of appeasement, containment and primacy, you hear a very different answer.

And they’re dangerous in that they demand action — the expansion of NATO, the provision of arms, the deployment of troops, the drawing of bright red lines. Faced with a revisionist bully trying to recreate the Soviet empire at the expense of an innocent neighbor, the indispensable nation must do whatever is necessary to contain the threat and perhaps even foment regime change — or so these ghosts would have us believe. The problem is that any such action is just as likely to provoke a (needless) war over Ukraine as deter one.

Appeasement, containment and primacy all had their day. But in each case that day has come and gone. It would be a mercy now if we would just let these baleful ghosts finally, finally rest in peace.

Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. and a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities in Washington, D.C.