Last Tango in Washington?

Michael Brenner sizes up the scale of the West’s blunder in trying to use a crisis in Ukraine as the lever to bring down Putin and Russia along with him. 

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin hosts Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels, June 15. (DoD/Chad J. McNeeley)

By Michael Brenner

Reality has a way of catching up to us. Sometimes it comes via a sudden shock — Sputnik or Tet. Sometimes it creeps up incrementally — as in Ukraine with each thousand round Russian artillery barrage and the steady rise of the ruble now 25 percent higher than at the onset of the crisis.

Dim the lights, the party’s almost over. But that is not the end of the affair. Whatever the exact outcomes, there is no going back to the status quo ante — the world, especially Europe, has changed in fundamental respects. Moreover, it has changed in ways diametrically opposite to what was desired and anticipated.

The West has been inhabiting a fanciful world that could exist only in our imaginations. Many remain stranded in that self-deluded mirage. The more that we have invested in that fantasy world, the harder we find it to exit and to make the adjustment — intellectual, emotional, behavioral. 

An assessment of where we are, where we might go and the implications over time of the reactions of other parties is a singularly complex undertaking. For it requires not just specification of time frames, but also the varying definitions of national interest and strategic objective that government leaders might use as reference marks.  

The number of permutations created by the array of players involved, and the low confidence margins associated with forecasts of how each will act at key decision points down the road, exacerbate the already daunting challenge. Before one even contemplates embarking on such a task, there are a few crucial considerations to bear in mind. 

Those in Charge

First, the people who count at the head of governments are not pure thinking machines. Far from it. They are too often persons of narrow intelligence, of limited experience in high stakes games of power politics, who navigate by simplistic, outdated and parochial cognitive maps of the world. Their perspectives approximate montages composed of bits of ideology, bits of visceral emotion, bits of remembered but inappropriate precedents, bits of massaged public opinion data, and odds-and-ends plucked from New York Times op-ed pieces.

In addition, let’s remind ourselves that policy-formation and decision-making are group processes — especially in Washington and Brussels — encumbered by their own collective dynamics.  Finally, in Western capitals, governments operate in dual currencies: policy effectiveness and electoral politics.  

From left: U.S. President Joe Biden, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, meeting on June 14, 2021. (NATO, Flickr)

Consequently, there are two powerful, in-built tendencies that inflect the choices made: 1) inertial extension of existing attitudes and approaches; and 2) avoidance wherever possible of endangering a hard-won, often tenuous, consensus on a lowest common denominator basis.  

One thing we know with certainty: no fundamental change in thinking or action can occur without determination and decisiveness at the top. 

Necessity is the mother of invention — or so it is said. However, grasping what is “necessary” can be a very slippery business. An actual recasting of how one views a problematic situation normally is a last resort. Experience and history tell us that, as do behavioral experiments.

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The psychology of perceived necessity is complex. Adversity or threat in and of itself does not trigger improvisation. Even the survival instinct does not always spark innovation. Denial, then avoidance, are normally the first, sequential reactions when facing adversity in trying to reach an objective or to satisfy a recognized interest. A strong bias favors the reiteration of a standard repertoire of responses.

True innovation tends to occur only in extremis; and even then, behavioral change is more likely to begin with minor adjustments of established thinking and behavior at the margins rather than modification of core beliefs and patterns of action. 

The American Dilemma

Those truths underscore the American dilemma as the Ukraine venture turns sour on the battlefield and your enemy is faring far better than expected while your friends and allies are faring far worse.

Russia has blunted everything thrown at them – to the shock of Western planners. Every assumption underpinning their scorched-earth assault on the Russian economy has proven mistaken. A dismal record of analytical error even by C.I.A. and think tank standards.

Off-the-charts forecasts on the country’s economy, and the global impact of sanctions, crippled Washington’s plan from the outset. Tactical initiatives of a military nature have proven equally futile; another 1,000 vintage Javelins with dead battery packs will not rescue the Ukrainian army in the Donbass. 

Military situation in Ukraine as of June 15. Ukraine territory in yellow, Russian in red. Arrows in red indicate Russian and separatist advances; those in blue indicate advances by Ukrainian forces. (Viewsridge, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

So, you are stuck with the albatross of a truncated, bankrupt Ukraine hung around your neck. There is nothing that you can do to cancel these givens — except a direct, perhaps suicidal test of force with Russia. Or, perhaps, a retaliatory challenge elsewhere. The latter is not readily available — for geographic reasons and because the West already has expended its arsenal of economic and political weaponry.

Over the past year, the U.S. attempted to foment Maiden style regime changes in Belarus and Kazakhstan.  Both were foiled. The latter was with the connivance of Turkey, which deployed a contingent of bashi bazouks from the stock of Syrian jihadis it keeps on call in Idlib (to be deployed as President Recep Erdogan did more successfully in Libya and Azerbaijan).  

There remains one conceivable sensitive target: Syria. There, the Israelis have become increasingly audacious in goading the Russians by airstrikes against Syrian infrastructure as well as military facilities.

Now, we see signs that Moscow’s tolerance is wearing thin, suggesting that further provocations could spark retaliation which Washington then could exploit to ratchet up tensions. To what avail? Not obvious — unless the ultras in the Biden administration are looking for the kind of direct confrontation that they’ve avoided in Ukraine, until now. 

The implication is that the denial option and the incremental adjustment option are foreclosed. Serious rethinking is in order — logically speaking. 

The most worrisome scenario sees the frustration and anger and anxiety building in Washington to the point where it encourages a reckless impulse to demonstrate American prowess. That could take the form of an attack on Iran in the company of Israel and Saudi Arabia — the region’s new odd couple.

Another, even grimmer prospect would be a contrived test of wills with China. Already we see growing evidence of that in the bellicose rhetoric of American leaders from U.S. President Joe Biden on down.

[Related:PATRICK LAWRENCE: Biden’s Taiwan Talk]

One may be inclined to dismiss it as empty chest-thumping and muscle flexing. Shadow boxing before a life-size picture of an upcoming opponent — and then sending him a video tape of your workout. However, there are influential people in the administration who are prepared to pick a fight with Beijing and to let the chips fall where they may. The likely American reaction to loss in Ukraine is less dramatic.

‘Sufficing’ Policy

British soldiers deploying to Kabul to assist in the NATO withdrawal on Aug. 13, 2021. (Ministry of Defence, Wikimedia Commons)

A “sufficing” policy would aim to encapsulate the entire affair. As best you can, forget about it and bury it diplomatically. The United States has gotten very good at that sort of thing: consider Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria et al.

Let the Europeans pay for the country’s maintenance and partial reconstruction. Writing checks is just about the only thing that Brussels has a talent for. Indeed, just a few days ago E.U. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced in Kiev the readiness of Brussels to accept Ukraine’s petition to be recognized as a “‘candidate” for membership in the union itself. 

In a wider compass, Washington could bank its modest winnings. The Europeans are now united in their servitude and obedience to Washington. That spares them the dreaded prospect of actually standing up — and standing together — to assume their proper responsibilities in the world.

Furthermore, any disposition to welcome Russia into a common European space is dead. That applies to economic dealings, including critical natural resource trade, as well as politically. Russia has been severed from Europe definitively for decades if not generations. If that leads to a less economically robust industrial Europe, so be it — that’s their problem.

The American economy, too, may suffer some collateral damage. It will get a boost, though, from privileged access to Europe’s energy markets and the weakening of a competitor in goods and services. 

The serious, systemic threat to the American economy looms down the road. Washington’s radical weaponizing of the mechanisms for managing international finance has accelerated the move away from dollar supremacy. A markedly diminished role for the dollar as the world’s principal transaction and reserve currency will erode the United States’ “exorbitant privilege” of running a deficit/debt economy without constraint.

Admittedly, on the other side of the balance scale, a confident, intact Russia will find its economic and political future pointed Eastwards. The already deeply entrenched Sino-Russian partnership is the key geo-strategic development of the 21st century. That hardly should have come as a surprise; after all, just about all American actions in regard to both powers over the past 15 years have led inexorably to that outcome. That includes, of course, the blunder of trying to use a Ukraine crisis as the lever to bring down Putin, and Russia with him. 

Whatever trajectory the contest between the West and the Sino-Soviet bloc takes, it now will demand ever greater imagination and skill to manage — without tempting fate — than if United States had been inclined to pursue a more constructive course.

One can argue that the historic choice that America has made by deciding to follow the Wolfowitz Doctrine as a user’s guide to strategy in the 21st century has been made for reasons lodged deep in the country’s psyche more than those that are the product of reasoned deliberation.

Collective American self-esteem, belief in being Destiny’s child, the ordained No. 1 in the world, has been our society’s foundation stone. We have not matured beyond that magical dependence on myth and legend — to our, and the world’s, misfortune. 

Michael Brenner is a professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. [email protected]

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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31 comments for “Last Tango in Washington?

  1. Robert Emmett
    June 19, 2022 at 09:51

    Re: headline… I thought Washington has two left feet, or two right. They’re interchangeable per the occasion?

    Cripes, that photo of the 4 schlubs at NATO is freaky! It looks exactly as if it’s a setting in a wax museum, circa 2022.

    We got a letter from President Joe Biden yesterday. We didn’t do anything with it right away but try to Ouija what it said, instead.

    Naw, I’m kiddin’. Who would want to have to check later to verify? Nope, right in the recycling box.

    ‘Cause, as I mentioned to my wife, he’s the recycled president. Washed & rinsed & blow-dried in a tie with a plastic smile full of the same ol’ malarkey as all the rest of them, combined.

    Combination Joe. Lay down your bets & choose your numbers. Are you feelin’ lucky yet? We’re just gettin’ started. Which way will the ball roll & where will it fall?

  2. Me Myself
    June 18, 2022 at 20:54

    Michael Brenner, we need Washington DC to enroll for your fall classes.

    Be sure to have a surplus of red markers.

  3. Jesika
    June 18, 2022 at 03:28

    Very good article, and what the US politicians have done to Russia for so many years, bigoted and greedy, is coming back to bite them. In fact, it’s what America in stupidity has been doing worldwide that is karmically catching up to them. Vladimir Putin has been one of the great leaders of Russia and is leading Russians out of years of prejudice against them. The West needs to develop a sense of humanity but the misleaders are thick as bricks!

  4. June 17, 2022 at 11:52

    Reading this article and countless others, the end of the United States as the most powerful force in the world is ending. While the world might be a better place for it happening, I am reminded of the report of Mark Twain’s death where he was quoted “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated. At the same time the world, whether friend or foe cannot ignore the brutish use of sanctions and the American controlled commercial system that allows them to work. Other powerful nations beyond Russia and China likely are coming to the realization that they could be next and best find a way to prevent its yoke.

  5. Stephen
    June 17, 2022 at 04:17

    Great article. US foreign interventions since Korea have a track record of disaster. I cannot think of a single country that the US left in a better state than they found it.

    Agree with comments that the US does this because it can. Most Americans do not focus on foreign policy so decisions are dominated by interventionist ideology that is fomented by the self interested military industrial complex. As long as the blow back home is limited then they can get away with it. Vietnam was the one intervention since Korea that cost significant American lives and impacted middle class people through experiencing or evading the draft. Since then, the interventionists have waged proxy wars so that other nationalities do the dying and / or have carefully managed on the ground American involvement to avoid significant casualties for the home team that would create domestic consequences.

    Ukraine does seem to be a turning point. Russia is a bridge too far. Tackling Russia and China at once is even more stupid. But these people seem to have no reverse gear. The President is not a leader. Europe is failing to provide a restraint either. Bumpy times ahead.

    • Sam F
      June 17, 2022 at 18:28

      The US leaders do not seek a strategy to maintain hegemony; they seek bribes to their political parties from the MIC, the rich, and the zionists. As long as they start small wars to sell MIC weapons they get MIC bribes. They can choose to attack either socialist nations to get bribes from the rich, or start wars to weaken Russia in Syria to get bribes from the zionists. This time they chose Ukraine for zionist bribes, and that did reduce Russian forces in Syria.

      We know that is true because both the US and Israel were ready to make coordinated attacks when Russia began reducing forces in Syria. The Dems got their bribes for the midterm election budget, but foolishly caused a recession in time to lose the elections. The FBI and HSI do not investigate those cashflows regardless of political affiliations: their jobs depend on doing something else.

    • SH
      June 17, 2022 at 18:32

      That’s why the draft was ended – so the US could proceed with its invasions without worrying about domestic opposition – we are free to wreak havoc abroad as long as our own don’t come home in body bags – and the drones are a perfect solution ….

  6. Piotr Berman
    June 16, 2022 at 22:49

    “the people who count at the head of governments are not pure thinking machines.”

    That reminds me a character named Count in Sesame Street that had a passion for counting. People who are actually counting in terms of manipulating numbers like commodity streams, ammunition usage, modeling inflation, unemployment etc., i.e. basic military and economic projections were carefully removed from the decision loops as nay sayers who would prevent “resolute actions” etc. Biden himself was not a number person even in his better years, and his grasp of reality can be summarized in his reply to a voter during primaries: “You liar [a funny invective deleted! Have you ever been to Iowa caucuses? It was CONFUSING!”.

    So he is exactly like octogenarian volunteers in Iowa trying their best to tabulate votes according to arcane rules of those caucuses. In the meantime the youngsters like Blinken, all brainwashed in think tanks, got free reign. Wrecking the economy and the Democratic Party (related) are concerns for Chamberlains, and we are all Churchills!

  7. Jeff Harrison
    June 16, 2022 at 19:01

    Beautiful. As clear an overview as I’ve seen. This is all being driven in my seldom humble opinion by an overweening drive by the United States to be the world’s hegemon.

  8. June 16, 2022 at 18:10

    The world is a mess indeed.
    My own theory: the number of humans in the world, now touching 8 billion, has outstripped the number of souls with human experience seeking new human bodies. Therefore, some humans are reincarnations of earthworms, crocodiles and the like. Some living human bodies have no souls at all. This is evident when you observe carefully.

    • Newton Finn
      June 17, 2022 at 10:53

      One of the strongest arguments I’ve heard for reincarnation, even better than the stuff from U.Va.

      • George
        June 18, 2022 at 01:46

        What is “U.Va”?

        • Newton Finn
          June 18, 2022 at 09:31

          University of Virginia, the one major university with a robust psi research department

        • Me Myself
          June 18, 2022 at 21:11

          Reincarnation University of Virginia


          • George
            June 19, 2022 at 00:53

            Thanks for the link.

    • George
      June 18, 2022 at 01:45

      Julie Wornan: I heard almost exactly the same theory from a group of eccentrics when I lived in Florida. Perhaps you visited there at some time or other. They met in an old church building a few miles outside of my hometown, Indialantic By The Sea. They taught that the destruction of primate species caused inexperienced souls to incarnate as humans, as primates are the next most intelligent life form below humans. I never thought I would hear of this concept again. Very unusual!

    • Yu Ma
      June 19, 2022 at 01:45

      I think that might be a little bit of an Earth-centric view. Some buddhist texts I have read state that reincarnations pull souls from all corners of the Universe, supposing that there are universal moral values.

  9. Black Cloud
    June 16, 2022 at 18:09

    While all of the factors weighing on politicians cited above are true they pale in contrast to the power and influence of the military industrial complex. The MIC is also the intelligence complex, run by the very same contractors – and is the driving force of US foreign policy though the media, which they control. Retired generals routinely comment on national media without any mention or disclosure of their positions on the boards of military contractors.

    Politicians serve the interest and at the will of the military industrial complex. JFK and Trump prove this.

    JFK was killed after canceling the bombing of Cuba during the Bay of Pigs operation, failing to invade Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and finally for calling for the withdrawal of US military ‘advisers’ from Vietnam. LBJ’s first act as president was to escalate Vietnam.

    Trump was accused and prosecuted as a Russian agent based on phony documents paid for by former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton, surrounded by rabid neocons and “CIA informers”, had his orders countermanded by the Pentagon, and was even the subject of an anonymous editorial in the NYT – a stunning piece of propaganda in the nation’s flagship newspaper.

    As for the MIC, the Ukraine debacle has been a huge windfall for them and will continue to be so for years to come as NATO countries buy US weapons to replace those sold to Ukraine. The $40 billion in recent aid – on top of tens of billions already – went almost exclusively to arms manufactures, the Pentagon, and NATO countries for restocking.

    Some 10% may end up in Ukraine itself, which is reselling purchased weapons on the black market. These weapons are available on the dark web and have already shown up in Pakistan.

    War everywhere, all the time, is the business model.

    • Peter Loeb
      June 18, 2022 at 10:21

      to “Black Cloud”:

      An excellent comment. Which contractors expect remuneration for the weapons that the US has “donated” to
      Ukraine? In the case of the “javelin”, the contractors are Lockheed and Raetheon and if these giant corporations
      have been known to give away their expensive weapons for free that has escaped me. I have seen that the weapons
      cost in the tripple digits. How many weapons have these giants contracted for and over what time period? One story
      noted that for information Ukrainian soldiers were given a telephone number which turned out to be a Lockheed
      office in Florida from which the caller was referred to another Lockheed office and from there to the someone in
      the pentagon. And who will pay for all this? The (current) government of Ukraine? The pentagon? Let’s get some facts!

    • Yu Ma
      June 19, 2022 at 01:52

      Only one of possible many reasons why JFK was killed. I read about another very interesting one which stated that JFK was toying with the idea of bringing US$ back on full gold/silver standard. That alone would have bought him a bullet.

  10. c
    June 16, 2022 at 17:20

    How would the U.S. standard of living be affected if decision makers gave up the effort to control the planet, e.g. by closing foreign bases, shifting spending from military to civilian projects, negotiating nuclear disarmament, ending CIA operations, shutting down NSA surveillance, ending sanctions,etc.?

    Arguably, without a money printing option, those policies would be fatal for American (global) capitalism.

    Is it possible to negotiate a gradual re-balancing with the rest of the world? And of course bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. (which was why Trump was popular). Apart from libertarians like Ron and Rand Paul, are there any politicians who want to stand down from endless wars?

    • Humwawa
      June 17, 2022 at 17:14

      I think US vassals in Europe and Asia (Germany, Japan, UK, etc.) would probably prop up the US dollar to a point to try and prevent a collapse of the US-dominated financial system, but I doubt that China or the rest of the world would be prepared to chip in. China would probably demand a political price Washington wouldn’t be prepared to pay.

      The US economy depends on a corporate empire that controls much of the World’s assets. Ultimately, the US military is to safeguard those overseas assets by military force. The offshoring of manufacturing is irreversible. Westerners simply aren’t prepared to work as hard as Chinese of Indians.

      The US doesn’t make things anymore. Basically, the US owns a franchise or monopoly, like the British had the monopoly on the opium trade in the 19th century. The British made the Indian produce opium, which they then sold to the Chinese. Thus, without producing anything, the British were able to generate the profits necessary for importing products from the empire.

      The US’s financial system is the opium of today. US franchises like Apple make a handsome profit by selling products to the world that are made in Asia.

      The US State Department applies political pressure on foreign countries to grant US corporations the market access needed to run their global operations. Once the US loses the ability to apply political pressure (backed by military force), US corporations will lose their privileged status and face increased competition from non-US companies.

      Thus, the US economy and the living-standard of Americans depend on the US’s global empire.

    • SH
      June 17, 2022 at 18:38

      Uh, yeah, Stein did …

  11. Gene Storm
    June 16, 2022 at 16:39

    The complete political dysfunction in America does not portend a rational, reasonable outcome to the geopolitical disasters we have engendered for decades. There is no alternative voice to Biden, Trump or a Trump acolyte going forward.

    The disaster we fomented in Ukraine is bringing fundamental if not anticipated change, as Michael Brenner suggests. The collapse of the U.S. dollar as the world currency is just the tip of an economic iceberg that will find most Americans desperately seeking life rings to survive. The political fallout will be bloody.

    The U.K., with an economy in ruin and Boris Johnson teetering on political oblivion, dances to the tune fiddled in Washington. Emmanuel Macron narrowly averted disaster in the latest round of voting in France, where turnout in the French National Assembly election was abysmal. The blowback from the sanctions on Russia may be hitting Germany the hardest, with industrial production in some sectors scaling back or shutting down. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, marching in lockstep with the NATO response to Ukraine, appears a weak leader at best. The ordinary people of the U.K. and Europe will not quietly long suffer the ravages being heaped upon them.

    Already, with the realization that Ukraine is losing the conflict with Russia, there are rumblings in the official western narrative that Volodymyr Zelenskyy may not long survive as President of Ukraine. Any negotiations to end the conflict, finds Russia holding most of the cards. Our proxy war to defeat Russia and depose Vladimir Putin is failing and will leave Ukraine in ruin. We will reap what we have sown.

    • StandingOnYourHead
      June 16, 2022 at 20:51

      ” to end the conflict”

      It is generally wise to stipulate which conflict you wish to end, and which others are parties to the conflict, to end the conflict.

    • Andrew Nichols
      June 17, 2022 at 04:15

      German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, marching in lockstep with the NATO response to Ukraine, appears a weak leader at best.

      I wonder if we’d be where we are if Merkel had not retired. She was the only leader in Europe that had the cojones to tell the Yanks where to go.

      • Humwawa
        June 17, 2022 at 17:44

        Merkel became the darling of the left-liberal crowd because of her pro-asylum moment; however, she was a complete failure in geopolitics.

        Merkel grew up in the dissident community of the former communist East Germany, which was under Soviet control. She had some very naïve ideas about the benevolence of the US, which even Trump wasn’t able to cure her of.

        Unlike Social Democrat chancellors like Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt and Gerhard Schroeder, she was incapable of pursuing rapprochement with Russia because of her background.

        Merkel religiously followed the Nato line of “Assad must go because he bombs his own people” (when Assad was in fact defending his country against Western-backed jihadists). At the same time she encouraged Poroshenko to retake the Donbas by force, even though Poroshenko was indeed bombing his own people.

        It is true that she vetoed Ukraine’s EU and Nato membership because she understood that it would lead to war with Russia; however, she did nothing to make Ukraine comply with the Minsk peace accord, which would have been her duty since Germany is one of the guarantors of Minsk II. Instead she just stood by while Ukraine used Minsk II to buy time for rearming with the help of the US, UK and Canada in preparation for its war against Russia.

        Merkel has blood on her hands in Syria and Ukraine.

  12. Julia
    June 16, 2022 at 15:40

    Good onne

  13. Vera Gottlieb
    June 16, 2022 at 15:30

    I am no historian…Up to now the US has always managed to walk away unscathed from whichever conflict it started. Perhaps a bit tarnished…but unscathed nonetheless. Are we witnessing a ‘deja vu’? The US has gotten away with much too much for much too long. A tsunami of malaise is starting to role over the entire globe and the US will be caught in it too. And no amount of promises or money will make a difference.

  14. sam
    June 16, 2022 at 15:20

    Thanks for the thoughtful piece. Glad to see Michael Brenner decided to pick up the pen again! His is a welcome voice of reason in this age of “morbid symptoms”.

    • Bob M
      June 17, 2022 at 19:40

      Hear, hear!

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