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Ukraine and U.S. Grand Strategy

May 18, 2022
  • Yang Wenjing

    Research Professor, Institute of American Studies, CICIR

Since the Ukraine crisis arose late last year, the U.S. began to ponder how this may affect its own grand strategy, especially related to policies on Russia and China. The debate not only touches on the viability of NATO expansion strategy since the end of the Cold War but also on how the current crisis may shape U.S. strategy in the future.

Heavy criticism of NATO expansion is not new in U.S. strategic circles. Actually there is virtual consensus among some of the leading geopolitical gurus inside the U.S. about the inadequacy of the policy. For example, George Kennan, the legendary father of America’s policy of containment against the Soviet Union, called NATO expansion “a strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions.” Thomas Friedman, America’s prominent foreign policy columnist, declared it the “most ill-conceived project of the post-Cold War era.”

In 2014, Henry Kissinger, the embodiment of the American foreign policy establishment, argued, “The West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country.” Instead of joining NATO, Ukraine “should pursue a posture comparable to that of Finland” in which it “cooperates with the West in most fields but carefully avoids institutional hostility toward Russia.” Zbigniew Brzezinski, the noted writer of “The Grand Chessboard” and the former U.S. national security adviser, insisted that Ukraine should have “no participation in any military alliance viewed by Moscow as directed at itself.”

The most recent and vociferous voice in this regard comes from the “realist” international-relations scholar John Mearsheimer. For years, Mearsheimer has argued that the U.S., in pushing to expand NATO eastward and establishing friendly relations with Ukraine, has increased the likelihood of war between nuclear-armed powers and laid the groundwork for Vladimir Putin’s aggressive position toward Ukraine. Indeed, after the Crimea incident in 2014, Mearsheimer wrote that “the United States and its European allies share most of the responsibility for this crisis.”

The recent Ukraine crisis has reignited the long-standing debate over U.S. policy toward Russia. Many mainstream policy hands lay the blame on Putin’s policies, his personal ambition to restore Russia’s big power status and his “disobedience of international rules governing state sovereignty,” whereas Mearsheimer holds that the U.S. is at fault for provoking him. His arguments are as follows:

First, the trouble really started in April 2008, when NATO declared that Ukraine and Georgia would become part of the organization. There was also its intention to turn Ukraine into a pro-American liberal democracy, which the Russians unequivocally stated was an existential threat.

Second, a country like Ukraine, next door to a great power like Russia, has to pay careful attention to what the Russians think, just like states in the Western hemisphere must pay attention to the U.S. This is part of what great power politics means.

Third, it is not Putin’s intention to create another Soviet Union or try to build a greater Russia, nor is he interested in absorbing Ukraine into Russia. What he wants may be to take some part of Eastern Ukraine and install in Kyiv a pro-Russian government, but he doesn’t wanto to reestablish a Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, which would require an economic foundation Russia does not come close to having.

Last but not least, it’s China, not Russia, that is perceived as a serious threat to the U.S., and America’s policy in Eastern Europe is undermining its ability to deal with it.

Although Mearsheimer has been criticized harshly by mainstream scholars as a left-wing radical, his point of view actually is not uncommon within the realistic school of thought, as mentioned above. What he advocates is not fair treatment of Russia’s national interest but rather an appeasement of Russia in exchange for some degree of cooperation, or at least acquiescence, in countering China. Similar logic was presented decades ago when the U.S. sought China’s support to oppose the Soviet Union based on “the grand triangle” theory.

Mearsheimer regrets that his opinion has never been adopted by the U.S. government, since the latter has insisted on promoting NATO’s eastward expansion, along with liberal democratization. On the other hand, his thoughts have affected the intellectual dynamics of the study of U.S. grand strategy, especially on the seriousness of the so-called China threat and how to balance America’s relationship with China and Russia in the future.

For example, Harvard professor Stephen Walt has said that “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine does not alter the fact that China has become the greatest long-term challenge to the U.S.” The Biden administration, he said, “should not allow the shocking events in Europe to divert it from the larger task of balancing Chinese power.” His remedy is to let Europe take greater responsibility for its security at a time of Russian decline.

Furthermore, “economic or financial war” will reassert U.S. dominance with a new means of hegemony, “deterring other aggressors when they have little way to shield themselves from the devastating fallout of this kind of war.” This school of thought also advocates the idea that in the long term, a European security order should not exclude Russia — both to enhance stability in Europe and to wean Moscow from its growing dependence on China.

No matter the pros and cons of NATO expansion, the same conclusion must be drawn: China is a greater long-term, structural and potentially lethal challenger to the U.S. than Russia. For the time being, the U.S. may endure the cost of countering “two spheres,” but in the long run, Russia should be incorporated into its camp as well.

The U.S. should keep in mind that its fragile domestic situation, fissures in its alliance system, rising Chinese capabilities and the aversion to confrontation shared by most of the world, will doom its endeavor to create a new hegemony. 

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