President Obama’s political opponents, and some of his allies, are becoming increasingly vocal about his perceived failings in foreign policy, from Syria to Iraq to Ukraine. The president’s response — that there are limits to American power –has not swayed critics, who see it as a cop-out.
It is easy to see why the president’s critics are upset. Having achieved a number of major foreign policy goals in the last quarter-century — the eastward expansion of NATO, the decapitation of al Qaeda, the elimination of Saddam Hussein and the democratization, however tenuous, of Iraq — we now face difficulties that are less daunting but somehow harder to achieve. Far from representing a failure in diplomacy, however, this is precisely the outcome we should expect.
As a rule, major powers pursue their interests abroad to the extent that they find those interests compelling and to the extent that they are able to promote them. In my book, “The Great Powers and the International System,” I show that major powers continue to do so until their interests and power are roughly counterbalanced by other actors’ interests and power. During the Cold War, this balance took the form of a divided Europe, with communist ideology and Warsaw Pact military power in the East roughly balanced against democratic, capitalist ideology and NATO military power in the West.
Sometimes the main actors agree on fundamental values and policies—as the Great Powers did, for a time, during the Concert of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars. More often, though, no foreign policy is completely successful. What that means is that, while everyone ends up at least a little bit frustrated, no one is so dissatisfied with the status quo that they are willing to exert the effort that would be needed to change it.
That is the situation in which we find ourselves today. Complete successes in foreign policy seem harder and harder to come by. At the same time, American citizens will not send their sons and daughters to die in an attempt to reclaim the Crimea or to defend the eastern half of Ukraine from annexation or coerced secession. Having worked to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities, we have insufficient interest in the outcome of its civil war — or, sadly, the fate of its civilians — to intervene further. Only an unexpected threat like the Islamic State, with an abhorrent ideology and a series of swift victories on the battlefield, could have drawn us back into engagement in the Middle East. Simply put, the challenges that remain are not sufficiently compelling to prompt us to attempt them in the face of determined opposition.
To be clear, recognizing the interests and motivation of other actors is not the same thing as endorsing them. The United States should not affirm Vladimir Putin’s claim to exclusive influence throughout “Novorossiya,” a territory that includes not just Crimea but much of southeastern Ukraine. We should, however, recognize the existence of this claim and the fact that Putin’s Russia is more willing to fight for it than we are.
Moreover, such pragmatism is not the same thing as passivity. No less a statesman than Otto von Bismark, engineer of the unification of Germany, reportedly called politics “the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.” Effective diplomats, like Bismarck, realize that a clear-eyed understanding of the limits of diplomacy is essential to achieving the best possible outcome within those limits.
Realistically, it makes little sense to hope that sanctions will free Crimea from Russia’s grip. As scholars like Daniel Drezner have pointed out, sanctions are often ineffective because the target has already anticipated them. From this perspective, Putin’s decision to annex Crimea reflects his determination, not the failure of American policy. Instead, we should recognize that, unless Ukraine is able to reassert control over its own territory, Putin’s determined opposition to the expansion of Western influence will leave Ukraine with two likely futures — division between east and west, or territorial integrity and a degree of neutrality.
Similarly, while military might was essential in the elimination of the overwhelming majority of al Qaeda’s leaders, containing the remnants of the group and preventing al Qaeda-inspired attacks may not be feasible. We don’t lack the firepower to do so, but we simply don’t want to lose as many soldiers, and kill as many civilians, as that mission would require. Worse, the effort might well produce more radical opposition. Our next-best weapons against terrorism, limiting the threat of foreign fighters and using development aid and education to undermine extremism, are less immediately gratifying but may well be our most effective options against the threat that remains.
The paradox of living in a world in which we have achieved most of our big foreign policy goals is that the lesser ones that remain seem more difficult to obtain. But that is exactly what we should expect, preciselybecause these are lesser goals — and because we have reached the point at which frustrating them matters more to someone else than achieving them means to us.
Bear F. Braumoeller is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the Ohio State University.