Another Fateful Error
By David Brostoff
In 1997, George F. Kennan, the architect of the strategy of containment, condemned the United States’ decision to expand NATO as “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era.” Kennan feared that such enlargements would result in continued deterioration in Russo-American relations while simultaneously reinvigorating Russia’s militaristic and anti-western sentiments. A quarter of a century later, Kennan’s warnings proved true: following the Bucharest Summit, which promised eventual full NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine, Russia attacked Georgia, annexed Crimea, and now it is ruthlessly invading the rest of Ukraine. This has left a wide coalition of American intellectuals and policymakers—ranging from die-hard neoconservatives to devout liberal internationalists—searching for methods to protect Ukraine and preserve the “rules-based” international order. Nevertheless, while our sympathies may rest with the Ukrainian people, it would be another fateful error for the United States to get involved in the present-day crisis.
Since the end of the Cold War, the United States’ strategic priorities have been clouded at best. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the strategy of containment fell with it, leaving the U.S. without a clear grand strategy. Today, however, one geopolitical rival threatens to displace American power: the People’s Republic of China. Returning to great power politics, the United States needs to embrace the “strategy of denial.” As conceived by Elbridge Colby, this strategy seeks to develop anti-hegemonic coalitions with Indo-Pacific states in order to deter Chinese aggression in the region. Ultimately, in doing so, the U.S. can prevent China from dominating over Asia.
For the United States to pursue a strategy to deny Chinese hegemony, it needs to prioritize Asian—not Eastern European—geopolitics. In the rapidly intensifying competition with China, the United States needs to be prepared to mobilize the entirety of the state’s resources. If the U.S. were to militarily support Ukraine in the emerging crisis, it would risk overextending already stretched military and economic resources that could calculatingly be used to prevent China’s domination over the Asian continent. Soldiers, arms, cyberweapons, and economic power used to defend Ukraine would be used for a war of choice rather than a war of necessity. Following that logic, militarily supporting Ukraine runs the risk of imperial overstretch—the phenomenon in which great powers extend their economic and military commitments beyond their actual capabilities. So, if the United States is bogged down by conflict over Ukraine, it will be required to worry about multiple geopolitical fronts, thus running the risk of spreading itself too thin. Indeed, as Paul Kennedy noted in 1987, every great power in the modern world had declined when it encountered imperial overstretch. If the United States hopes to remain competitive in the geopolitical arena, it must forgo war for Ukraine in order to prioritize the denial of Chinese hegemony.
However, some foreign policy experts have pushed back by arguing that if the U.S. does not deter a Russian invasion of Ukraine, China may not trust that the U.S. would defend Taiwan. As a result, they argue, China would feel emboldened to launch an invasion. This thinking, however, is flawed for two reasons. At a foundational level, American interests in Ukrainian and Taiwanese independence are vastly different. True, Americans may sympathize with Ukrainian sovereignty, but it will not tip the scale of the global balance of power. An American-allied Taiwan, however, is crucial to the contemporary balance of power in Asia. If China were to overtake the island, it would be better able to “project dominating power against U.S. allies such as Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines.” Any rational Chinese statesman would recognize that American restraint for an ideological cause (Ukraine) will not lead to American restraint for a tactical interest (Taiwan).
Besides, what better time for China to invade Taiwan than when the United States is already engaged in a separate major conflict on the other side of the world? If the U.S. is devoting significant resources to support Ukraine’s bid for independence against Russia, it would have fewer resources to support Taiwan in maintaining its sovereignty. As a result, China may be more likely—not less likely—to invade Taiwan if the U.S. were involved in Eastern Europe.
Of course, imperial overstretch is not the only reason for a more restrained policy, as involvement in the crisis also risks further solidifying the Sino-Russian entente. As the world returns to great power competition, the United States needs to work with as many other great powers as possible to isolate China. Today, however, Russia and China are developing stronger relations: they are increasing their economic ties, performing joint-military exercises, and promoting convergent policies towards Europe and Asia. Indeed, a close partnership between these two countries threatens to upset the global balance of power and undermine American power.
Nevertheless, this relationship is still a marriage of convenience. If twentieth-century history can teach the foreign policy community anything, it is that ideology cannot hold Russia and China together. Although they were both authoritarian communist states, they became bitter rivals, culminating in the Sino-Soviet split. Through so-called “triangular diplomacy,” then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger was able to thaw diplomatic relations with China, thereby tipping the scale of the Cold War in Asia against the Soviet Union. Interests, not ideology, held Russia and China together before the split; interests, not ideology, hold them together today. American statesmen need to be able to appeal to Russian interests to pull a “reverse-Kissinger” and peel it away from China.
However, American involvement in the current crisis threatens this very approach. It is no secret in Washington that sanctions do little to change states’ behaviors: seventy-two years of sanctions have yet to topple the Kim dynasty’s Korea; sixty-four years of sanctions have yet to overthrow the Cuban regime; and eight years of sanctions have yet to weaken Russia’s control over Crimea. In short, sanctions are unlikely to change Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine. Still, the Biden administration has imposed “severe” sanctions in an effort to punish Russia by cutting it out of the global economy. But in an effort to engage in commercial activity, Russia is turning to China for greater economic cooperation, thereby strengthening their relationship. As this attempt at economic statecraft ultimately yields no actionable results while damaging American strategy, it must be avoided. Instead, it would be far more prudent to use sanctions to deplete Russian military power than to break its national economy.
February 22, 2022, will long be remembered for what it was: it was the dark day that “The End of History?” thesis shattered; it was the tragic day that echoed the infamous Melian Dialogue; and it was the catastrophic day that Russia invaded Ukraine. But the “unipolar moment” is over, and American policy must account for the return of great power politics. Prudence, not brashness—interest, not ideology, must determine American activity. Lest we forget, we will make another fateful error.