Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Back to the Future?

“Following Russia’s controversial military excursions into neighboring Georgia, the Bush administration made its most direct commitment to the U.S.’s Eastern European allies to date by ‘strongly advising’ those countries not to border Russia under any circumstance.”
The Onion, August 25, 2008

Let’s give credit where credit is due. Vladimir Putin has found a way to turn the tense situation in Ukraine into a win/win for everybody. He has acquired Crimea so, in his quaint 19th-century foreign policy mindset, that’s a win for him. Then over the weekend he invited the Obama Administration to have talks. Since the Obama Administration seems to regard the mere holding of talks as a victory (cf. Iran, Syria), that means, in the quaint 20th-century foreign policy mindset of the president and Secretary John Kerry, that’s a win for them.

Unfortunately, the talks are not about Russia withdrawing from Crimea. Putin is looking forward, not back. He has amassed troops on the eastern border of Ukraine, so the topic of the talks will be: what will you give me not to take over more of Ukraine—and maybe part of Moldova, while I’m at it?

President Obama and Secretary Kerry’s mocking of Putin for being a throwback to the 19th century may not be working. Russia in Global Affairs editor Fyodor Lukyanov even suggests President Obama may have his centuries backwards. Lukyanov argues, with no apparent irony, that the 19th century’s way of doing things was actually better than the 20th century’s. He recounts how the Vienna Congress—essentially a gentlemen’s club of European monarchies—managed conflicts for most of the 19th century and, in fact, right up to the beginning of World War I. The 20th century, in contrast, “was marked by catastrophes: two world wars, the collapse of empires, the rise and fall of totalitarian ideologies, and repeated genocides.”

So far, the back and forth over Russia’s absorption of Crimea has focused on the military aspect. Should the U.S. get involved militarily? Should the U.S. arm the Ukrainians? What should the U.S. do if Russia invades another territory?

The fact is that there is no appetite these days in the U.S. or Western Europe for military involvement anywhere in the world, particularly in a faraway non-NATO country. One wonders if there would even be support for a military response to an invasion of a NATO member like, say, Latvia—even though it would be required by treaty.

Let us hope that the competition between Russia and the West does not become an all-out military one. The problem is that when one side is adverse to violence and the other side isn’t, the latter side can come to feel that it can achieve its aims with the mere threat of violence. Sometimes that is true. And sometimes that can lead to miscalculations with disastrous consequences.

In the long run, though, the competition will ultimately be won or lost economically. To the extent that the U.S. is seen to have “won” the Cold War, it is because the Soviet Union’s economy collapsed. Ironically, that was due in no small part to its military spending, which it kept increasing, trying to keep up with Reagan-era America’s military buildup. With its economy in tatters, the U.S.S.R. and its satellites lost the will to defend themselves from their own citizens, who liked what they were seeing in the West much better.

Today Russia’s economy has its share of problems, but the country does have a lot of oil and is not hesitant to exploit it. Worryingly, the U.S. and Western Europe’s economies do not look nearly as strong as they did in the latter 20th century. Government spending beyond what economic activity can realistically sustain over the long run has made recession or quasi-recession a seemingly permanent feature of the West for more than a half-decade now.

To strengthen their economies, these countries will have to 1) increase productivity or 2) reduce government spending or 3) some combination of the two. Unfortunately, currently popular political policies seem to be ones that do the exact opposite.

On the economic front with Russia, the West is cautiously trying sanctions, but the problem is that (particularly in the case of Europe) they are liable to cause as much or more pain for the sanctioning countries as for the Russians. And no one imagines that they will restore Crimea to Ukraine—or even deter Russia from another similar territory seizure if it decides to have another go somewhere else.

There is one thing that might make a difference economically. That would be enactment of two U.S. trade deals in the works with Europe and Asia. This would send a much stronger message to Vladimir Putin than just about anything else the West is realistically willing to do. Moreover, increased trade would be beneficial to the economies of the countries involved.

The good news is that President Obama has asked Congress to approve Trade Promotion Authority (something that lapsed in 2007), which would give him “fast track” authorization to negotiate the agreements. A bipartisan bill has been jointly introduced in both houses of Congress. Speaker John Boehner says the House bill is “ready to go.”

The bad news is that TPA is opposed by labor unions because it denies them the chance to lobby for the protectionist amendments they imagine will protect their members’ jobs. As a consequence, a large number of Democrats, including chamber leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, oppose TPA. In particular, Reid’s position as Senate Majority Leader allows him to prevent it from even being brought up for a vote. Proponents of the bill complain that the president hasn’t lifted a finger to drum up support in his party, presumably because he doesn’t want to complicate the upcoming midterm elections for Democrats.

Ironically, if the political forecasts are true that Republicans will take the Senate in November, TPA may be the one area where that actually helps the president to get something he says he wants. If so, the U.S. may finally add to the few arrows in its quiver that may actually make a new war less likely.

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