Wishful Thinking: Russia and Ukraine

George Soros had an article about Ukraine in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books[1] that captured many of the dominant attitudes about Russia’s foreign policy and what we should do about it. His main argument is that the EU should be funneling a lot of money to the Ukrainian regime to allow it to resist the forces of evil from within and without, and that we should maintain and if necessary increase economic sanctions on Russia to (punish? deter?) aggression.

The article captures the zeitgeist on Russia and Ukraine, and it presents us with many opportunities for discussion, not the least of which is that rich people should probably not assume that they are masters of all disciplines simply because they are very good at one thing. But that’s a discussion for another time.

The two most important issues I see with this argument are: 1. We really have no idea how to “funnel money” to other countries to make them pursue the particular economic and political pathways we want.[2] If we knew how to do that, pretty much every country in the developing world would have an open, functioning economy and thriving democracy. 2. Economic sanctions rarely, if ever, work to achieve political outcomes, and when they do, they work best against relatively small and isolated states. There’s plenty of research on this in political science, and plenty available in the realm of common sense if you stop and think about it: probably the most effective sanctions regime in place today (“effective” if we’re talking simply about actually stopping the flow of goods and services to a country) is the one against North Korea (and even that’s not perfect), and that hasn’t worked so far; decades of sanctions did not dislodge the Castro regime in Cuba; and I could go on, but I suspect I would lose you, dear reader. I was dismayed when the United States slapped sanctions on Russia in response to the incursion into Crimea and more recent fighting in Ukraine. They really don’t work very often as instruments of foreign policy, but they like drone strikes at least allow the administration to appear to “do something” in the face of behavior it finds unacceptable. I’m also puzzled about why Soros argues that falling oil revenues in Russia are evidence that current sanctions are “biting,” when everyone knows global oil prices are in the toilet.

For me, Soros’s argument about Ukraine also highlights the difference between policy and political science. Political science is (at least in theory) a discipline[3] whose practitioners apply consistent theoretical frameworks to understand the world around them and to develop recommendations for how to respond to the world. Policymakers do not have to apply these consistent frameworks to their thinking, and it is glaringly obvious that they do not. Soros’s piece, for example, berates the EU for its shoddy management of the recent debt crisis in Greece (an EU member state), but his main recommendation is for the EU start shoveling (more) money towards a non-EU state. How exactly is that going to happen given the incentives that prevented the EU from providing a timely and generous bailout for one of its own members?

At its core, Soros’s piece is also based on the assumption that Russia is inherently aggressive and that its advance must be halted lest all of Europe (and eventually the United States) fall to communism. No, wait—not communism, because the Cold War is over, right? Indeed this piece smacks of orthodox Cold War reasoning. There’s no evidence that Russia and/or Putin have grand designs about taking over the world. Russia is a state with a faltering oil-based economy trying to make limited territorial gains it views as essential to its own security. “But they’re intervening in Syria!” you say? So is France! So are we! So is Saudi Arabia, which has been funneling money and arms into the region for years! Why aren’t we getting all wound up about Saudi Arabia’s efforts to dominate the Middle East, but we think Russia’s behavior is evidence of a plan to take over the world?

I’m not really doing justice to Russia here, I admit—I’ll take up the issue of Russia’s foreign policy behavior and why we should stop acting as if a New Cold War and/or WWIII is dawning in a future post. For now, let me say that Soros’s recommendations for Ukraine are founded on nothing more than wishful thinking and a weird nostalgia for Cold War-era resistance to Russian “aggression.” The “loss” of Ukraine (to what? The dark side?) will not lead to a “failed state,” nor would “saving” it lead to some magical transformation in European politics or a change in Russia’s behavior.


[1] “Ukraine and Europe: What Should Be Done?” New York Review of Books, vol. LXII, no. 15 (October 8, 2015).

[2] Unless we’re talking about funneling money to an established dictator to maintain his/her hold on power—there’s been some success with that in the past.

[3] I’ll admit that here I’m talking about international relations as a field within political science; this is distinct from “international relations” as a multidisciplinary field or degree in which students study economics, political science, languages, etc.

Old Information about the Drone Campaign

Today I’m going to focus on a topic that I’ve been researching for several years: unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more commonly known as “drones.” Last week I came across an article on Gawker (purveyor of both celebrity gossip and genuinely important investigations, among other things) titled “Leaked Documents: Bystanders Killed by Drones Automatically Become ‘Enemies.’” My first thought on reading this headline as I sat in the airport was…“duh?”

The Gawker article references a group of classified documents leaked by “a source within the intelligence community” and now posted, with commentary, by The Intercept. You can read a thoughtful intro to the documents and the de-facto policy of assassination adopted by the U.S. government here.

To recap, the drone program has been targeting and killing individuals in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia for years; it started under the Bush administration and has expanded dramatically under Obama’s tenure. The detail that the original article found so distressing is the revelation that when individuals who are not the specific target of the strike are killed, they are labeled EKIA or “enemy killed in action.” In other words, anytime we kill someone who is not the specific target of a drone strike, we are classifying that person as an “enemy,” i.e., not a civilian (if appropriate), regardless of that person’s actual identity. The documents also suggest that the number of “EKIA” vastly exceeds the number of actual targets killed by these missions during a specific period in 2012.

For the most part, this is not new information. In 2012 the New York Times reported that the Obama administration was counting “all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants…unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” (And such intelligence is probably difficult to obtain after a strike that kills an individual and his or her close associates, nor does it seem likely that there are strong incentives to make the effort.) The Intercept claims that it is posting the documents because it believes the American public has a right to know what its government is doing. This suggests that transparency about the drone program might make Americans sit up and take notice of all the bad practices the United States has adopted and raise their voices in outcry.

That is unlikely. We already have more than enough information to conclude that the drone program is killing innocent people and probably creating more enemies than it is destroying. Most Americans simply don’t care. Drones are attractive precisely because they are cheap in human and monetary terms; no longer do we have to risk the life of a pilot or the crash of an expensive aircraft to attack individuals in foreign countries. There are many ethically dubious practices embedded in the drone program, but we have known about these for years, just as we have known about the abuses at Guantanamo for years (a major focus of Obama’s foreign policy platform when he ran for President the first time).

Even if a hundred whistleblowers came forward, they would be unable to change this basic calculation: cheapness + visible anti-terror effort for the Administration + public apathy = drones are here to stay. The only part of this equation that seems open to manipulation is the way in which the drone campaign is perceived by the President and his or her team. We’ll have to wait until at least 2017 to see if it can yield a different result.


Banner Image: Imperial War Museum, London

The image currently serving as the blog’s banner comes from the following photograph taken by my husband Robert P. Chamberlain:
DSC_0743The two signs that feature in the banner are part of a larger assembly of signs that stood at various “no-man’s-land” locations during World War I.  They featured in a special exhibit on the Great War at the Imperial War Museum in London, UK, in the summer of 2014 to mark one hundred years since the start of the war.  I visited the museum that summer as part of a research trip to the British national archives in service of my current project on British and French decision making in the Second World War.

This past March, I travelled to Paris, France, to visit the National Archives and the archives of the Foreign Ministry for the same project.  As part of the trip, my husband and I visited the Musée de l’Armée at les Invalides (better known to school tour groups as the site of Napoleon I’s tomb).  We spent a considerable amount of time at the “Two World Wars” exhibit, which focused on the French experience.

What was most interesting about the French exhibit was that it covered the period 1871-1945.  That is, for the French, the history of the world wars begins with the French defeat in 1871 in the Franco-Prussian War.  The British exhibit at the Imperial War Museum begins, as one might expect, with the events in the summer of 1914.  The contrast between the two approaches to the same conflict prompted me to think about the very different ways in which different countries can understand the same events, and the way in which those events can come to have very different meanings in the context of different national cultures.  I think about the American impression of the world wars (and what I was taught in high school history courses):  we have a vague belief that the United States swooped in to win the First World War for the good guys, and a much stronger sense of our “Saving Private Ryan,” guardian-of-freedom triumph in the Second World War.  This is not to diminish the United States’ contribution to either of those conflicts, but I doubt that the average American knows that the vast majority of German soldiers killed in WWII died fighting Soviet forces on the Eastern Front or that the French lost more than 10 times as many military dead as did the United States in absolute terms during the First World War.  I had never even heard of the Franco-Prussian War before graduate school.

The exhibits I visited over the past two years suggest that the British and French see the world wars as intimately connected, and the French view the 1871 conflict as intrinsically tied to the other two; I think the United States tends to view the two world wars as relatively disconnected events that happened “over there” in the first half of the twentieth century.  Differences in national memory and national legend can, I think, affect the ways in which we perceive both past and current events in international politics.

In other news, the United States has decided to suspend the program for training Syrian rebels; instead, we are going to be identifying appropriate indigenous forces to give American equipment.  The New York Times notes that, “failure on the battlefield or the loss of weapons that could fall into the hands of extremists could result in a cutoff of military equipment, officials said.”  Well as long as we’ll be cutting off additional transfers of weapons after the equipment has fallen into the hands of extremists, what could go wrong?

Peace or Justice in Syria?

Let’s follow up on last week’s post about the conflict in Syria. I briefly discussed France’s decision to launch air strikes against IS targets; the following day, we learned that Russia has entered the fray and begun bombing Syria, too. Predictably, the US reaction has been quite negative. The Pentagon asserted that the strategy was “doomed to failure.” There also seems to be some confusion over whether the Russian strikes are targeting IS specifically or anti-Assad forces in general. The New York Times reported on October 1 that Russia’s targets included at least one of the rebel groups trained by the CIA (remember them from our discussion last week?). American officials maintain that the strikes targeted rebel groups fighting government forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, a longtime Russian ally.

The negative reaction from the United States is no surprise—after all, we want to be the only ones running around bombing the bad guys whenever we feel like it. And apparently we think that funneling hundreds of millions of dollars in arms and military training into the conflict (the U.S. plan to date) is acceptable, but directly and openly using force to influence the outcome of the conflict is not.

But I digress. John Kerry has said that the United States is open to working with Russia on ending the conflict, but only “under amenable terms,” which presumably means some type of negotiated settlement preferred by the United States.  I am reminded of one of my favorite pieces by Richard K. Betts, “The Delusion of Impartial Intervention.”[1] It was written during the Balkan crises of the 1990s, but it is as relevant today as it was then. Betts argues that, although justice and peace are desirable, they don’t always coincide. If your primary goal is peace, i.e., an end to violence, you may have to accept a peace that is imperfect from the standpoint of justice; conversely, the pursuit of justice and fairness can hinder efforts to end violent conflict. It might offend our sensibilities, but if our primary goal is ending violence, then we should back the stronger side in the conflict and enable it to defeat the weaker.  What usually happens, however, is that we intervene on the side of the weak, which prolongs the fighting unless the intervention is backed with enough force that it can overwhelm the capabilities of all the belligerents.

This may shock and offend the well-informed American reader, in part because much of the rhetoric attached to American foreign policy these days asserts that the United States is omnipotent and should be able to impose its will on any and all outcomes in international politics. This in turn leads us to expect that we should be able to force a “just” solution to the fighting in Syria. Given the amount of resources the United States is willing to commit (and I think we have already committed too many), the truth is that we are long past the point where we can achieve both peace and justice in Syria. Given a choice between the two, the more humane option and the one most likely to minimize the total suffering of the Syrian people may be to seek peace, even a peace that is imperfect and unjust. Assad is a nasty guy and his regime has done some terrible things (and probably will again), but facilitating “regime change” there would leave us with a power vacuum and no end to IS atrocities. Russia’s effort to reinforce Assad’s power and to help him wipe out opposition forces may not fit neatly with our ideals, but the alternative—a continuation to the violence and/or capture of the state apparatus by IS forces—would probably be worse.

[1] Foreign Affairs 73, no. 6 (Nov/Dec 1994): 20-33.