The Corner

Russia as a ‘Strategic Partner’ – Another Bipartisan Ruling Class Fantasy

The confirmed death toll now approaches 300 from the missile attack by Russia-backed Ukrainian rebels against a Malaysian Airlines jet. We can stipulate that the foreign policy of President Barack Obama, who works against American interests in both the domestic and the international sphere, is a catastrophe – a frighteningly real study in what happens when America empowers her enemies.

Still, the failure to recognize Putin’s Russia as a hostile power; the delusion that we are part of an “international community” that functions like a global body politic with universal values and common interests under a recognized “rule of law”; and the consequent conceit that figuring out what our strategy should be hinges, like a prosecutor’s case, on proving the rogue’s intent beyond a reasonable doubt – these are not merely Obama fantasies. They are the gospel according to the bipartisan ruling class. With some honorable exceptions like John Bolton, the GOP’s transnational progressives have been nearly as infatuated with Vladimir Putin’s regime as Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and John Kerry.

The international realm in which we actually live is a jungle, not a community. Order is imposed by power, not law. A body politic operating under agreed upon principles that promote freedom and punish crime can afford to take the position that an accused is innocent until proven guilty. This is not so in the international arena, where there are few if any universal animating principles, where freedom is widely denied, and where the criminals are often the rulers. In the international realm, the United States is better off remaining strong and acting in accordance with the wisdom of U.S. Marine General James Mattis: “No better friend, no worse enemy.” To the extent the global order has been reasonably orderly for much of the past half-century, it is because American power—when exercised in furtherance of American interests—is a force for good. It is not because we’ve strengthened international institutions, which serve the interests of authoritarians and are designed to allow rogue nations to even the playing field against American power.

Less than four months ago, as Russia continued menacing Ukraine after just having annexed Crimea, Beltway solons claimed that we did not yet “have a sense of ” Putin’s “intent,” and therefore could not devise a strategy in response. I wrote this at the time, and events like yesterday’s missile attack continue to bear it out:

[I]ntent is not what matters in international affairs. The key is to have a strategic vision of the real world and our interests. That is the solid foundation for American foreign policy. If it were in place, there would be far fewer occasions to wonder about our adversaries’ intent. That problem is solved by having decided they are adversaries until proven otherwise; by treating them in that manner in every interaction; and by making clear to them that the wages of crossing us will be real and lasting. (Maybe someone could tell President Obama that Putin has joined the Tea Party — might do the trick.)

It is all well and good for House majority leader Eric Cantor, among other Republican leaders, to chide the president for designing policy around the Putin he hopefully imagines rather than the real Putin. This, however, is neither a new problem nor one that’s unique to Obama.

As I ruefully detailed back in 2008, the Bush administration delusionally regarded Russia as a “strategic partner,” notwithstanding Putin’s quite calculating strategic cooperation with Iran (you know, the “Death to America” guys) on nuclear-power development and ballistic-missile technology. Then, as I observed in late 2010, two years after the Georgia invasion, with Putin defiantly occupying Abkhazia and South Ossetia, GOP support for Obama’s wayward New START treaty with Russia was mustered by such foreign-engagement masterminds as former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice (architect of Bush’s strategic partnership with Russia) and Senator Richard Lugar (who in 2006 had partnered with then-senator Obama to disarm Ukraine). The treaty would not have been ratified without the familiar machinations of Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham — then on a respite between supporting Qaddafi against jihadists and supporting jihadists against Qaddafi. McCain and Graham strongly urged their colleagues to take up consideration of New START . . . then voted against it once its approval was assured.

Russia is on the march because it was treated like a friend while it acted like an enemy. As usual, the bipartisan transnational-progressive clerisy convinced itself that our adversaries, who thrive on instability, have an abiding interest in international stability — that they are best seen as trusted “partners” in the pursuit of American objectives rather than aggressors pursuing their own very different objectives.

As Putin menaces Ukraine, Obama prattles about international law. Even if this president’s sudden interest in faithful adherence to law could be taken seriously, the international arena is not a “community” sharing common legal norms and enforcement mechanisms. Aggressors are not presumed innocent such that we must sit idle until their intent can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. They are presumed hostile until they prove otherwise.

Today’s Russia is no Soviet Union, at least not yet. But it will grow stronger, and its behavior more provocative, until we devise economic, diplomatic, and defense policy on the assumption that it is an enemy. The longer we wait to “reset” in accordance with reality, the more painful the reckoning will be.

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