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Ukraine, Russia, and the Messy Politics of the People

People often ask whether the West should protect its interests or pursue its democratic ideals when formulating foreign policy — but it's the wrong question to ask.
December 5, 2014, 9:10pm
Imagen vía Flickr

Listen long enough to debates over foreign policy, and you'll get the impression that there are only two ways to keep the world safe: Protect your own interests, or stay true to your ideals. The problem holders of each point of view have is that they aim to remedy the messiness of politics in places like Ukraine, the Middle East, and other hotspots around the world rather than embrace it.

The debate that has erupted from the halls of power to the corridors of think tanks since the Ukraine crisis exploded has, on the face of it, been about whether Russia or the West is to blame for the mess. (In his annual address to parliament yesterday, Vladimir Putin left little doubt as to whom he blames: Washington fomented chaos in Kiev, he suggested, in order to provoke a damaging conflict with Moscow and isolate Russia.) Idealists line up on one side, realists on the other, pushing and pulling policymakers in an ideological grudge-match that is, ostensibly, about the good of "the people" in Ukraine. But both sides really wish the people would just go away — and because they won't, our foreign policy is doomed to remain ineffectual.

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Take, for example, the argument of John Mearsheimer, the University of Chicago professor who wrote a recent article entitled "Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West's Fault" for Foreign Policy. Ukraine is a mess, he argues, because Western leaders put ideals before interests, blithely arguing for democracy and self-determination when those things were certain to provoke both chaos and a belligerent Russian reaction.

Had the West focused on interests instead of ideals, Mearsheimer argues, Ukraine would still be peacefully under the thumb of Viktor Yanukovych, who was a doormat for any interest — Russian, Western, even Chinese — willing to pay the price of entry. And Vladimir Putin would be purring quietly in his post-Olympics afterglow.

Would the Ukrainian people be better off than they are now? Perhaps, but Mearsheimer evidently believes he should be the judge of that rather than the man on the maidan.

The idealists, a.k.a. constructivists — idealism is a dirty word in foreign policy — on the other side of the argument make quick work of the realist reasoning. Realists condemn humanity, they say, to a world that never changes, where great powers perpetually lord it over smaller states, whose sovereignty and democratic enfranchisement are thus severely curtailed.

But behind the liberal rhetoric, the constructivists have a people problem, too. They tend to see the people as the carriers of ideas, norms, and values when they're demanding democracy and overthrowing dictators. (Good!) But they tend to see the same people as manipulated and oppressed when they reject the West and vote for autocrats. (Bad!)

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The unavoidable truth is that neither approach works because politics is messy. People tend to accept this fact inside their own countries because they better understand and accept the complexity of the people who inhabit them, who vote and argue and make an unending stream of bad decisions, but who also keep hoping that the future will be better than the past. Countries like Ukraine, or even Russia, are full of the same kinds of people. Most days, they endure poor politics and egregious governance — sometimes even despotism — because that's life. But some days they send their leaders fleeing in terror over the border. It's frustrating. It's exhilarating. It's messy.

When a democracy builds a relationship with another democracy, it does so on an institution-to-institution and society-to-society basis. Thus, the United States has a relationship with France and the UK, not with Francois Hollande and David Cameron. This can make for odd bedfellows, as George W. Bush's relationship with Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair demonstrated, but two political systems built on the churn of competition have an easy time accepting the mess of each other's politics.

Authoritarian regimes, on the other hand, try to eliminate the mess of politics, controlling it and damming it up. While they rule, autocrats present to the world a single, undisputed face to represent their country, conflating their own interests with that of their nation. Other democratic governments tend to acquiesce, ignoring the people and working only with their rulers. America and Europe thus have relationships with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, not with Russia and China. When Putin and Xi are gone, the people of Russia and China will not remember this fact fondly.

Foreign policy should not begin by asking how to either accommodate or oppose a foreign leader. It should start by asking, What kind of relationship do we want to have with the people of the country? To what extent do we want to trade with them and integrate with them? Do they pose a security threat? Having answered those questions, a country can then think about how much it's willing to invest in that relationship, and how long it's willing to wait to get there.

This is not a policy of conflict-avoidance, and it will not lead to world peace. Nor is it particularly idealistic. But it recognizes that no government can depart from the will of its people for long, and that when authoritarian regimes collapse — as they inevitably do —democracies may be left to pick up the pieces. Better, then, to build a foreign policy that, like our domestic politics, embraces the mess.

Samuel Greene is director of the Russia Institute at King's College London and author of Moscow in Movement: Power & Opposition in Putin's Russia. Follow him on Twitter: @samagreene

Photo via Flickr