US Triumphalism and the Ukraine Mess

Besides the misleading simplicity of Official Washington’s narrative on Ukraine, the “good guy/bad guy” storyline ignores important lessons of world history and human nature, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

Beyond the policy issue of what to do now to bring the crisis with Russia over Ukraine to as much of a satisfactory conclusion as may be possible, we ought to reflect on our own role, the role of the West and especially the United States, in paving the road toward this crisis.

To do so is not to minimize the direct responsibility of Vladimir Putin’s government for what Russian armed force has done, and for the disingenuous aspects of what that government has said. Nor does it negate the role of dysfunction in the Ukrainian political system. But a significant part of this story is how the West cornered the Russian bear before the bear bit back.

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivering a speech on the Ukraine crisis in Moscow on March 18, 2014. (Russian government photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivering a speech on the Ukraine crisis in Moscow on March 18, 2014. (Russian government photo)

More specifically, an important element in that story was the eastward expansion of NATO into what had been the Soviet empire, as well as talk about expanding it even further to embrace Ukraine and Georgia. We should not only understand the importance of that development for getting to the current crisis, but also what that development exhibited about American habits of thought and action in foreign affairs. It exhibited several such American tendencies, which also have surfaced in other ways and on other issues.

Forgetting the power of promises. The expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe broke a promise that the United States had made to Mikhail Gorbachev and that was part of a package of understandings facilitating the peaceful reunification of Germany. Breaking the promise was probably in part the arrogance associated with being the remaining superpower and feeling untroubled about the keeping of commitments.

It also reflected a general American tendency, amid one-sided focus on the credibility of threats, to overlook how the making of promises and commitments is a useful diplomatic tool. Breaking promises weakens the tool. Holding one’s own side accountable for fulfilling promises is important for the same reason that the right to be sued, and not just to sue, is an important civil right domestically; it is the right to be able to make an enforceable promise.

Institutional inertia. NATO has been one of the biggest success stories among multilateral alliances. It went well beyond most such alliances in constructing a joint command structure that even the French rejoined after a Gaullist spell outside it. The hazard of such institutionalization, supported in the case of NATO by a civilian bureaucracy ensconced in its compound outside Brussels, is that the institution starts being seen as an end rather than a means, which is not what alliances are supposed to be about.

This was the case with much discussion about the military mission in Afghanistan, which was seen as a way to keep NATO healthy and occupied. When earlier decisions were being made about the future of the alliance at the end of the Cold War, it was psychologically hard to bring the success story to a conclusion. This would have been like breaking up a winning team. Once it was decided to keep the team in business, eastward expansion naturally followed as a way to keep the business healthy.

Impulsively using a direct U.S. hand. For the United States, NATO has been the principal means to keep a direct U.S. role in the security affairs of Europe, and along with that much of the political affairs of the continent as well. So the United States has had this additional perceived stake in not only the continuation but the expansion of NATO.

Using the instrument of NATO, however, has exemplified an American tendency to think that if something is worth doing it needs to be done by the United States itself or with the United States in the lead, rather than realizing the advantages of letting others carry most of the necessary water. As the former Soviet vassals in Eastern Europe called out for inclusion in the West, an opportunity was missed to let the West Europeans carry most of that water.

In the first few years after the end of the Cold War, the European Union was at a height of attractiveness and vitality, with the Maastricht Treaty (which converted the European Community into the EU) signed in 1992 and the troubles of the eurozone still some years away. The EU was the perfect instrument for leading the way in “westifying” the East, and surely the economic and cultural risks that the Union would take on should be considered no greater than the commitment represented by Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty, which commits every member of the alliance to come to the defense of any other member under attack. But instead the order for the East Europeans became NATO first, EU second.

Insensitivity to the fears and concerns of others. The United States, relatively secure in its North American redoubt, has historically had a hard time appreciating how much other nations see the threatening side of someone else encroaching into their own neighborhood. Even though we have had our own Monroe Doctrine, we tend not to notice equivalent sentiments on the part of others.

It should not have been as hard as it apparently was to anticipate how extension of a western military alliance to the borders of the old Soviet Union, and moves toward extending it even farther, would elicit some of the Russian sentiments that it has, especially in a country that lost 20 million people in World War II.

Triumphalism. The world in American eyes is in many respects like a commercial battle for market dominance, with the outcome registered in terms of wins and losses. The Cold War was a Western win; it seemed natural for the winner to extend its market penetration even more.

The win-loss outlook also resembles a sporting event, and there was a yearning not just to record but to flaunt the win. Except there would not be an opportunity for anything quite like, say, MacArthur’s shogunate in Japan after World War II. Expansion of NATO became a way to put a big, bright “W” on the scoreboard.

Need for an enemy. Another aspect of the typically Manichean way in which Americans tend to look at international politics is that there has to be a foe, something or somebody against whom the United States leads the forces of freedom and light. Once 9/11 came along there were Sunni extremists and al-Qaeda, but terrorist groups never make as good a foe as a state. Besides, the eastward expansion of NATO was already under way before 9/11.

Iran has served as a more recent bête noire, but it has not entirely displaced Russia, which evokes old Cold War habits and actually does have nuclear weapons.

Few, if any situations, will bring into play each of these habits in the same way the stand-off over Ukraine has. But the habits appear unhelpfully in other situations as well, and Americans would be well advised to be more conscious of them.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

10 comments for “US Triumphalism and the Ukraine Mess

  1. JPR
    April 16, 2014 at 03:02

    2009 analysis pretty good in predicting this mess:

  2. TheAZCowBoy, Tombstone, AZ
    April 8, 2014 at 17:29

    When James Baker assured Mikheil Gorbechev that the UNITED SNAKES (US/NATO) would make no moves into Eastern Europe with NATO – he was lying!

  3. April 7, 2014 at 10:43

    Good analysis Paul! I sometimes wonder if the policy makers in Washington are just plain ignorant to the point of getting the world on the brink of global war, or if it is the more evident hubris! (Exceptionalism). It’s a matter of national security or national interest when things happen in Europe, Asia, Middle East, Africa. Forces reployed everywhere. Who watches the one that has become law unto himself?

  4. Vesuvius
    April 6, 2014 at 14:11

    A really good, informative article indeed. Thanks, Paul Pillar.

  5. Bill Jones
    April 6, 2014 at 00:27

    One more moron.

    “we ought to reflect on our own role — the role of the West and especially the United States”

    Any buffoon who self-identifies with what the great Arthur Silbur
    terms “The Death State”
    is worthy of nothing more than contempt and ridicule.

  6. lumpentroll
    April 5, 2014 at 21:16

    …not to minimize the direct responsibility of Vladimir Putin’s government for what Russian armed force has done, and for the disingenuous aspects of what that government has said.

    Russia is directly responsible for opposing fascism.

    Neither minimization nor qualification is necessary.

    Russians see themselves and their civilization as historically responsible for opposing fascism, as when Fyodor Dostoevsky prophetically claimed in the 19th century that the blood of Russia would save the world.

    This is an annoying attitude, I agree. Especially since I am not a Christian and it turns out to be true. However, it beats Protestant and Zionist denialism or exceptionalism (or Catholic oblivion) any day.

    Russian armed force defended against the dangerous and destabilizing actions of an aggressive Empire threatening its centuries long held strategic depth — at a cost of one or zero lives. To have allowed the aggression to succeed would have both destroyed Putin and dealt a death blow to prospects for an alliance against fascism.

    If Barack Obama got a Nobel Prize for being black and a president at the same time, shouldn’t Putin get a ribbon for possibly preventing WW3, at least?

    Again, there is one agressor and one defender. Let’s not get the two confused.

    • TheAZCowBoy, Tombstone, AZ
      April 8, 2014 at 18:03

      Never thought that with such great political saavy and ‘the power of the veto’ the Russians and Chinese have became the ‘peace makers’ of the Middle East; leaving thuggery up to the UNITED SNAKES and investing in their ecomomics and upgrading their own military for the Gog & Magog struggle that lies ahead.

      Today, as the UNITED SNAKES (US/Israel/NATO) run amoke in the Middle East, ‘tripping-over-their-di*ks’ in Georgia and now Ukraine, in Eastern Europe and (soon) SE Asia where the Chinese have ruled for 10,000 years. It seems that with certainly the Bankrupt UNITED SNAKES (US/NATO), regurgitated oil/gas thieves and wannabe colonists that they are, will soon discover that threatening the world is EZ – But, conquering the world, DBA: ‘Empire’ may be next to impossible.

      VA-ROOOM! VA-ROOOM! Get on your Harley, shirtless and determined, Papa Putin and ‘Kick arse with a vengence!
      Alexander-the-Great’ discovered that the ‘barbarians’ of AF/PAK would never allow themselves to be defeated – and much as the Soviet Union and US/NATO fools tried, leaving their dead and wounded scattered and disoriented with nowhere to go in the past two decades – it hasn’t been possible.

  7. John
    April 5, 2014 at 19:51

    Good thoughts, Paul; thanks.

  8. F. G. Sanford
    April 5, 2014 at 19:27

    “…direct responsibility of Vladimir Putin’s government for what Russian armed force has done, and for the disingenuous aspects of what that government has said.”

    I’m REALLY curious to know exactly what Russian armed force did, and exactly what was disingenuous about anything that government said. I suppose that when the “Kaganate of Nulands” descends into utter economic and political oblivion, NED, USAID and sympathetic analysts will insist that any insinuation of US complicity is disingenuous. Russian authorities have recently arrested Ukrainian terrorists who are alleged to have Western sponsorship. Maybe Russia can apply some of that US endorsed “enhanced interrogation” to determine their strategy.

    I know – maybe they want to get some other Eastern Ukrainian region to hold a democratic referendum so they can accuse Russia of another “land grab”. Kinda like those Palestinians who signed UN charters to get Israel to build more settlements…just to make those poor Israelis look bad.

    I propose an entirely new term for the political system US foreign policy is proliferating. I call it “Apoptocracy”, after the biological term apoptosis, in which damaged, superfluous or unwanted cells are caused to self-destruct. The host organism, in this case financial oligarchs and criminal corporations, remain healthy. Too bad the host organism is a genocidal predatory carnivore.

    • Susan
      April 7, 2014 at 12:02

      PNAC’s new website appears to be the “think” tank that Fox Noise uses to “inform” it’s viewers. Regardless, a new letter – remember the one they sent Clinton with recommendations to bomb Iraq – appeared which sets forth the coming U.S. foreign policy.

      Also, some of the articles are beyond belief – blaming Russia for fascism in Ukraine?

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