Liberal foreign policy in the Trump era is a bit like a fantasy novel. The narrative is compelling, but it requires a suspension of disbelief.
This is particularly true when it comes to Russia. The Democratic Party is rightly furious at Russian President Vladimir Putin for his interference in the 2016 election. U.S. President Donald Trump’s obsequiousness to Putin has Democrats asking why more is not being done to counter Russian aggression.
And yet anyone who remembers Barack Obama’s reset after Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, or his campaign to engage the world’s thugs and tyrants, cannot help but wonder where this muscularity was when liberals were in power.
Enter Peter Beinart. He seeks to cure Democrats of their recent amnesia. In an essay in The Atlantic, Beinart urges the party to return to its more supine foreign policy roots.
He longs for the Democratic Party that respected Russia’s prerogatives to influence the countries that once comprised the Soviet Union and looked for opportunities of great power cooperation.
"On North Korea, Russia, and NATO, Democrats in Congress sound a lot like the Never Trump hawks who once called them appeasers," Beinart writes. He knows whereof he speaks. In the run-up to the Iraq War, when he was editor of the New Republic, Beinart was one of those hawks calling out such appeasement.
Beinart has since repented. These days he is a reliable advocate of de-escalation, multilateralism, engagement and the other euphemisms that titillate foreign policy realists. With this essay, he becomes one of the first major voices to challenge the newfound bellicosity of his political tribe.
Beinart’s big criticism is that America’s many commitments in the world, from Taiwan to Ukraine, risk military conflicts the U.S. cannot afford and that most Americans will not support. (And, as Trump’s rise shows, many Republicans also agree with Beinart.)
These commitments create a kind of insolvency for U.S. foreign policy, a concept first put forth by Walter Lippman in 1943. Trying to become the world’s only superpower puts America in the position of promising what it cannot reasonably deliver. "Just as it cannot indefinitely incur debts that exceed its ability to pay," Beinart writes, "it cannot indefinitely incur overseas obligations that exceed its power."
Beinart does not go as far Trump did in June, when the president worried that America’s security commitment to NATO’s newest member, Montenegro, could create the conditions for World War III. He argues that Democrats have to continue to support the NATO mutual-defense bargain, even if he now thinks it was unwise to allow the Baltic states to join the alliance in the 2000s.
When it comes to Georgia and Ukraine, however, Beinart argues for retreat. “To protect what matters most — the integrity of its elections and those of its allies — America should compromise where it matters less: in Russia’s backyard,” he writes. This means encouraging the elected governments in Tbilisi and Kiev to accept the same status as Finland during the Cold War.
Finland enjoyed sovereignty over its domestic affairs, Beinart argues. But in exchange for not becoming a full vassal of the Soviet Union, Finland agreed to not pursue foreign policies hostile to Moscow. What’s not to like? This is not a particularly new argument. Before his death last year, Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, made the case for a Ukrainian Finland. So has Henry Kissinger.
The problem is that the Finland compromise was not so great for the Finns. As James Kirchick, a fellow at the Brookings Institution (and a close friend) has argued, the view that Finland’s compromise preserved Finnish democracy is a myth.
From 1956 to 1982, Finland had only one president. Finnish politicians ended up seeking patrons among the politburo in Moscow during this period, while authorities censored articles too critical of the Soviets.
Similarly, Beinart’s analysis fails to adequately consider what Georgians, Taiwanese or Ukrainians would prefer. The argument seems to be that it’s provocative for nation states on the periphery of China and Russia to demand real sovereignty, and that it’s bellicose for America to support these aspirations.
But this gets it backwards. Appeasing bully nations does not sate the desire for conquest. It whets the appetite. Beinart may be correct that Americans will not support a war for Georgia, Taiwan or Ukraine.
But he fails to grasp why the world is safer if China and Russia believe America is still willing to fight that war. Fifteen years ago, Beinart understood this. It’s a pity his atonement for the Iraq War has led him to forget.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun, and UPI. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.