The seeds of failure in Syria and Ukraine were planted long ago

By Kennette Benedict, September 30, 2014

In September the United States, along with European and Middle Eastern partners, deployed air power to destroy the radical forces that are occupying territory on the Iraqi-Syrian border. And in his September 24 speech to the UN General Assembly, US President Barack Obama harshly criticized Moscow for seizing Ukrainian territory and backing separatists, saying that “we will impose a cost on Russia for aggression.”

Though more than 1,000 miles apart, these two foreign policy challenges for the United States have much in common. For the sake of civilians—ordinary people trying to make a living, feed their children, and live with a modicum of dignity—we all hope that efforts to end violent conflict in the Middle East and Ukraine will succeed. But Washington’s approach to both problems is ad-hoc and may be much too late. Without new institutions of regional governance, economic integration, and cultural dialogue, these efforts will likely fail to bring about peace and stability.

By “too late” I mean years and even decades too late. That’s because the two major foreign policy debacles the United States faces today could have been avoided by building new institutions when the opportunity first presented itself at the end of the Cold War.

In the 1990s, though, the US foreign policy community fell into intellectual disarray. The hostilities between the United States and the Soviet Union had seemed nearly immutable, and ideological positions blinded even intelligent analysts to the need for a far-reaching post-Cold War plan. Very few had been contemplating what would be needed once the USSR collapsed. There were no plans to help build former Soviet societies after years of economic stagnation and environmental neglect, as there had been for Germany and Japan after World War II. Nor were proposals for international cooperation to prevent future schisms and new “cold wars” given much thought. The national security and foreign policy establishments in the United States and Europe did not undertake any thoroughgoing reviews or take seriously any new ideas that went beyond the already-existing United Nations.

Globalization was recognized as a force that would reshape the international system of politics, economics, and culture. But the “triumph” of the United States over the Soviet Union, coupled with a new emphasis in the United States on the supposed magic of the markets and “government as the problem,” led many leaders in the late 1980s to shy away from proposing grander plans that would draw former Soviet countries into closer cooperation with the West. Half-hearted offers of technical assistance were made, and private philanthropy had a role in building civil society in some eastern European countries. But by and large, possibilities for international institution-building were ignored, and societies in shock were left to fend for themselves. Russia was left to its own devices in the belief that economic globalization would take care of its many problems. 

With even less care and thought, the West led an expansion of NATO to include countries that had once been in the orbit of the Soviet Union. Rather than responding positively to Mikhail Gorbachev’s plea to unite with Russia in a common European home, Europe and the United States gave Russia the cold shoulder, as they had done to Germany after World War I, when they took actions that helped lead to the rise of the Third Reich. Had the West taken Gorbachev’s suggestion seriously, we might have seen Russia become embedded in a web of economic, legal, and cultural relations as the European Union deepened its community of nations over the 1990s and 2000s.

The United States, the remaining superpower, did not bother to consolidate its position with new institutions of law and regional cooperation in Eastern Europe. Nor did it seek to help build cooperation in the Middle East, where the US and the Soviet Union had been competitors. Rather, US political leaders proposed a military doctrine based on overwhelming force and global strike capability. And they believed so deeply in the triumph of a market-based economic system that they even dismantled their own regulatory bodies, including those regulating financial institutions, in a misguided effort to make the United States more competitive in the global market

The result, as we now know from the financial meltdown of 2008, was disastrous. Just as the belief in centrally-controlled economies led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the belief that market economics could conquer all ills led to the near collapse of the world economy. In fact, it was only government institutions and political leadership that prevented the complete ruin of the US economy.

In short, in the economic sphere as in political and military relations, the West and the United States in particular have turned away from institution building. The result is disruption and disorder, abetted by arms sales, ending in mob rule in parts of the Middle East and even Ukraine. It was almost pathetic to see President Obama desperately trying to persuade countries in the Middle East to respond to the violent challenge of the Islamic State group in a “coalition of the willing.” Had the United States and its allies helped build legal and political institutions of cooperation with countries in that region, as Western Europe did after World War II in the form of the European Economic Community and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), it would not have to flail around trying to collect partners for military action in efforts that are too little, too late. If it had built such institutions in Eastern Europe and with the former Soviet Union, it is unlikely that the United States and its allies would be facing a newly belligerent Russia in the conflict over Ukraine.  

Securing future peace requires reducing fear, building trust, and inventing predictable processes that encourage cooperation to solve problems. This is the work of institutions—of rules, norms, and regulations—that can ensure fair treatment and stable relations. In Washington, though, the intellectual disarray continues, alternating between blandishments to lead with military force, to encourage civil society organizations, or to open markets to the global economy. 

It’s not fashionable to talk about government or institutions as solutions to contemporary problems. Few acknowledge the importance of rules and regulations, of routine and the application of common standards to a well-functioning society. But today’s worries about disorder and violence may be indications that laissez-faire foreign policy, like laissez-faire economics, is not enough on its own to prevent increasing violence and chaos in our global neighborhood.


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