In his latest book, The Stupidity of War: American Foreign Policy and The Case for Complacency, the esteemed American political scientist John Mueller demonstrates that since the end of the Second World War, American policymakers have developed a kind of addiction to threat inflation by “routinely elevating the problematic to the dire…focused on problems, or monsters, that essentially didn’t exist.” And with regard to the American foreign policy establishment’s current twin obsessions, Russia and China, Mueller, ever the iconoclast, counsels complacency.
However much we may disagree with one or another of their domestic policies, Mueller believes that both countries are more interested in getting rich and receiving the recognition they believe is their due as world powers than on military conquest. Mueller writes that, “Neither state seems to harbor Hitler-like dreams of extensive expansion by military means, and to a considerable degree it seems sensible for other countries, including the United States, to accept, and even service, such vaporous, cosmetic, and substantially meaningless goals.”
Yet among the legacies of the first Cold War was the creation of a self-anointed caste of foreign policy alarmists in Washington who, according to Mueller, specialize in inferring “desperate intent from apparent capacity.” Well, plus ça change: US policy towards Putin’s Russia remains driven by threat inflation, emotion and the duplicitous lobbying of various foreign interest groups on Capitol Hill, rather than a level-headed assessment of American national security interests.
As Mueller shows, at every turn a bipartisan cast of serial alarmists proclaims that the US faces a global threat environment that is unprecedented. As an example, Mueller points to the 2018 Commission on the National Defense Strategy for the United States which proclaimed that the “security and well-being of the United States are at greater risk than at any time in decades.” The congressionally appointed 12-member commission included a mix of neoconservative and liberal interventionists including former CIA director Mike Morell, former US Ambassador Eric Edelman and think tank fixture Kathleen Hicks, who now serves as a US undersecretary of defense.
And on no subject is the bipartisan consensus more unshakable than on Russia. In the years since the start of the Ukrainian civil war in 2014, the US foreign policy establishment adopted the position that Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for the rebellion in eastern Ukraine was only the beginning: Putin had his sights set on Eastern Europe and the Baltic states.
But was that really the case?
Mueller, citing the work of West Point’s Robert Person, notes that for Russia, Ukraine carries “deep symbolic meaning” as well as strategic importance due to the Russian naval base in Sevastopol. But by contrast, Russia has “long recognized that the Baltics are culturally and historically different from Russia.”
To Mueller, the idea, so vigorously promoted by US foreign policy elites in 2014 (and beyond) that Putin was on an expansionary mission “seems to have little substance.” Indeed, according to Mueller, Putin’s Ukrainian adventure seems more like “a one-off – a unique, opportunistic, and probably under-considered escapade that proved to be unexpectedly costly to the perpetrators.”
Mueller observes, correctly in my view, that Russia, like China, “does not seek to impose its own model on the world.” In that sense, they follow a mainly Westphalian foreign policy of non-interference in the affairs of others countries – and in the instances Putin has veered from that vision, including the at-times farcical effort to influence the 2016 US presidential election, Russia has paid an unenviable price.