The author is president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
The United States is working to increase sanctions against Russia for its destabilization of Ukraine and is trying to extend a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. But activity in and of itself is not a strategy. In both instances, the question arises: activity toward what end?
The answers are not obvious. In Ukraine, the United States seeks an outcome that may not be achievable; in Gaza, U.S. policy needs to transcend the immediate crisis and recast the basic dynamics of the conflict.
The goal of U.S. policy vis-a-vis Russia appears to be to increase the economic pain until President Vladimir Putin backs down. But Putin is too invested in what he has done to simply give up; if he did so, he could well put his own future in jeopardy. There is, too, the fact that what he is doing enjoys wide support throughout Russia; this could change, but change will come slowly. In the meantime, Russia’s increased involvement in Ukraine — and what looks to be preparations for a possible invasion — raises the threat of that country’s further dismemberment, a wider war or both.
All of which is to say is that sanctions are an instrument of policy, not an objective. They are at best a means to an end. But what end? If Russian capitulation is unlikely and escalation a real danger, the challenge is to find an outcome that would leave the United States, its European allies and Ukraine better off — and preserve a relationship with Russia that, for all its problems, could still serve a range of U.S. interests, including reducing nuclear arsenals and stabilizing Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and North Korea.
The goal of policy should be to calm the situation. Moscow, for its part, would have to end its support of separatists within Ukraine and forswear military intervention. In return, it would receive assurances that Ukraine would not join either NATO or the European Union for an extended period. Sanctions would be eased but not removed entirely, given the likelihood that nothing could be done to dislodge Russia from Crimea.
Some would say that Ukraine should have the right to join NATO and the E.U. Yes, Ukraine has the right to petition to join both organizations, but NATO and E.U. members have the right to determine whether allowing it would be in their interest. It would not, given Ukraine’s significant internal weaknesses and the consequences (and obligations) of taking it on.
Others would argue that Russia should not be rewarded for its aggression and intimidation. But foreign policy is about tradeoffs. The historical parallel that comes to mind is the Cuban missile crisis. Then, as now, a strongman in the Kremlin acted recklessly. Then, as now, it made sense to temper Russian policy without provoking worse outcomes. A half-century ago, the United States got the de-escalation it had sought through a mix of pressure and compromise, including a public pledge not to invade Cuba and a private commitment to withdraw missiles from Turkey. Current policy should similarly balance pressure — including signaling the economic, political and military price that Russia would pay for further intervention — and inducements.
In the turbulent Middle East, the United States has been promoting a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. But now it should use the crisis to attempt something larger. There are signs the Obama administration is coming to this view; if so, it is to be welcomed.
It won’t be easy. Needed is a Palestinian leadership willing and able to act responsibly. The time has come to pressure Hamas to decide between being a resistance movement and being a political one. The United States, Israel, the E.U. and select Arab countries should offer a generous economic package to the people of Gaza, including a sharp reduction in economic controls — but only if it can be shown that there will be no tunnels or rockets in Gaza. The goal would be to demonstrate that the path to higher living standards and a Palestinian state lies in political dialogue, not armed resistance.
If Hamas is willing to accept these conditions, development assistance (as opposed to humanitarian aid, which should reach those most in need regardless) should start to flow. If Hamas refuses and breaks the cease-fire, starts to rearm or resumes tunnel construction, Israel would be free to respond. Soldiers of the Palestinian Authority, possibly accompanied by a force from several Arab countries, should be encouraged to enter Gaza to maintain order and contend with remaining Hamas fighters.
For any number of reasons, this approach might not work. West Bank Palestinians would need to demonstrate a readiness to re-establish a presence in Gaza; Israel would need to introduce a meaningful economic and political initiative to improve Palestinian living standards and lay out a path for statehood. The United States cannot insist on these outcomes, but it can work to bring them about.
Broadly, the Obama administration should reassess its approach to both crises. In Ukraine, it makes sense to assess what is possible as well as desirable, and to determine what the United States is prepared to give up in addition to demand. In Gaza, it is time to transition to a more ambitious diplomacy. Crises may or may not have seeds of opportunity within them; it is the purpose of foreign policy to find out.