“For the better part of 20 years,” Senator Ben Cardin wrote in January, “Russian President Vladimir Putin has engaged in a relentless assault against democratic institutions abroad, universal values and the rule of law.” The White House, Cardin further asserted, has never so clearly ignored a national security threat. To tackle this threat, he suggested we work with “Europe” and strengthen her democratic institutions. A similar call is mindlessly repeated repeated among professional analysts, think tankers, former Neo-Conservative speechwriters, and journalists. It’s an argument that evinces a great ignorance about the clash of Russian and American interests, and American grand strategy in general.
Cardin et. al.’s analysis fails to weigh the long-term Russian threat against other geopolitical threats or competitors the United States might face. It misunderstands the structural realities in which the United States and Europe currently operate, and so fails to prioritize potential threats―something urgently required for American grand strategy. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, bipartisan American foreign policy has focused on the promotion of “Democratic peace” and liberal hegemony abroad. It has neglected classical conservative principles―eschewing realism, prudence, and restraint while scorning great power diplomacy based on narrow geostrategic interests.
Vladimir Putin is an autocrat, ruling with an iron fist at home and making mischief abroad. His Russia is an adversary of the West and a revanchist great power (denied categorically by the Obama administration, but highlighted by President Trump’s new National Security Strategy). It steadily interfered in not just the American election cycle, but also in other countries internal matters, including Estonia, Ukraine, Georgia. It has even murdered dissidents in the United Kingdom.
It is also a great power, with its own aspirations and threat perceptions. A great power decides what it considers a threat to her interests, not her geopolitical opponents’. One might lament when great powers undermine and refuse to follow international laws and norms, but that they do remains a fact regardless of regime type, government structure, or leadership.
Russian foreign policy has seen major changes since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but patterns exist which can be broadly divided into sets of phases. Each short phase of cooperation and rapprochement is followed by a longer phase of disillusionment and pragmatic balancing behavior. Russian foreign policy doesn’t depend on its leaders, or even regime type, but on what Russia considers a threat. What influences this pattern? Studies highlight Russian efforts to maintain naval ports in the Baltic and Mediterranean, consistent with Russian efforts to create land buffers against the growing European Union and NATO. New phases of Russian aggression begin when Russia perceives her fundamental territorial and naval interests threatened. Russia, in Stephen Walt’s terminology, balances against what it perceives to be a threat, and there is no reason to believe that will stop anytime soon―as indicated by Russian willingness to intervene in Ukraine and Syria, even at great financial and reputational cost.
The interests of the United States are not as aligned with Europe as they once were. With the unipolar moment gone, the United States now stands like Britain post-WWI, with massive debt, a public disinterested about unnecessary foreign entanglements, strengthening peer rivals, and a new multipolar great power rivalry. The EU simultaneously finds itself opposed to the United States on issues like arms supplies to Ukraine, the Nord Stream gas pipeline, and Russia sanctions, and is divided on bigger questions like the liberal international order and mass migration. It is puerile to imagine that the United States’ interests will cause her to be aligned with the same countries with whom her interests were aligned in 1945, or even 1989.
As America clashes with the German-led Western Europe on Iran, mass-migration, Jerusalem, Cuba, Nord Stream, Russian sanctions, and China, it finds itself aligned with Poland and other Eastern European countries, which are socially conservative, nationalist, and skeptical of both Moscow and Brussels. Unfortunately, this distinction is not reflected in American policy debates or security strategy. Concerning Russia, the United States is closer to states like Poland and Estonia than Germany and Belgium, and there’s no evidence that this will change in the near future. Despite big talk of a liberal international order, Germany, the engine behind the EU, continues to follow narrow national interests, as Nord Stream and Russian sanctions evince. Likewise, it is unlikely that Trump’s administration or any future American administration could make Western European countries pay their fair share for NATO. These countries are not as territorially fearful of Russia as are their Eastern counterparts, and they are perfectly happy passing security burdens to Washington―which is unsustainable in the long run and will continue to be indefensible to American taxpayers.
Sooner or later American policymakers will need to adjust to this new reality. The rift between Brussels/Berlin and Washington with regards to Russia and other issues will continue to grow regardless of who’s in charge, and Washington will find herself aligned with Warsaw, and, arguably, post-Brexit London. As conservative giants from Lord Palmerston to John Quincy Adams have observed, alliances are never perpetual―interests are. A truly conservative and realist foreign policy dictates that the way to deal with Europe and Russia is on the basis of a thorough understanding of American interests vis-à-vis Europe and Russia, keeping the changed structural realities of Europe in mind, and clearly communicating mutual red-lines.