Obama, the realist

Stephen Walt, the distinguished Harvard proponent of “realism” in international relations argues that the Crimea debacle confirms the value of realism by showing how Obama’s liberal internationalist instincts led him astray:

To be sure, ousted president Viktor Yanukovych was corrupt and incompetent and the United States and the European Union didn’t create the protests that rose up against him. But instead of encouraging the protesters to stand down and wait for unhappy Ukrainians to vote Yanukovych out of office, the European Union and the United States decided to speed up the timetable and tacitly support the anti-Yanukovych forces. When the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs is on the streets of Kiev handing out pastries to anti-government protesters, it’s a sign that Washington is not exactly neutral. Unfortunately, enthusiastic supporters of “Western” values never stopped to ask themselves what they would do if Russia objected.

Walt makes a number of astute points–the chief one being that Russia has strong security interests in Ukraine while the United States does not–but his conclusion is exactly backwards. The West in fact did virtually nothing to encourage democratic forces in Ukraine. The United States offered virtually no aid–$1 billion in loan guarantees, which is pocket change. And the reason was that the United States did not care what happened in Ukraine, for all the reasons Walt gives. The West could not have “encourag[ed] the protesters to stand down”–that would have been politically impossible–and even if it had, and they had, Putin would still have seized Crimea. To believe otherwise, you would have to take seriously Putin’s claim that he objected to the illegality of the removal of Yanukovych, when in fact what he really cared about was losing Ukraine to the West.  If handing out pastries to protesters was our way of showing support for democracy, then I rest my case.

And while it is hard to call the annexation of Crimea a foreign policy “success,” the do-nothing response of the United States is exactly the correct response from Walt’s realist perspective. If we have little interest in Ukraine, we have literally zero interest in Crimea, a poor, out-of-the-way place. In fact, as Walt hints, it is most likely that Russia has violated realist tenets, not the United States, with Putin reacting to domestic political pressures or perhaps acting recklessly by risking war for a peninsula that Russia already effectively controlled. And so our major goal should be to ensure that we respond rationally rather than emotionally to the annexation by not letting it interfere with areas of potential cooperation with Russia. By imposing meaningless sanctions on Russia, that is what Obama, a Waltian realist, is doing.