Washington and Brussels were surprised by the Kremlin’s strong reaction to the ousting of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February of last year.  They shouldn’t have been.  Yanukovych was forced out of office after he backed away from signing a Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement, an agreement Moscow viewed as a threat to its economic well being.  The Kremlin had been sending clear signals that it was alarmed by events in Ukraine, signals ignored by the West.  The anti-Russian nature of last year’s “Euromaidan” rebellion was evident from the start, as the extreme nationalists of “Right Sector” provided much of the muscle for the Ukrainian street.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, seeing an apparently hostile West egging on a Ukrainian street revolt for the second time in ten years (Ukraine’s 2004 “Orange Revolution” forced a revote of that year’s presidential election), moved to protect Russia’s Black Sea naval base in Crimea.  Russia eventually annexed the peninsula following the appearance there of “green men” (Russian troops in unmarked uniforms) and a referendum that showed mass support for Crimea’s joining the Russian Federation.  The Kremlin’s next move was to establish a foothold in Eastern Ukraine.  Moscow helped foment an insurrection against Kiev in two of Ukraine’s largely ethnically Russian and Russian-speaking eastern oblasts, Donetsk and Lugansk.  Russia armed, trained, and supported (with Russian volunteers and Russian military personnel “on leave”) a rebel force in Eastern Ukraine and inserted Russians from the pro-Kremlin right into leadership positions in the self-proclaimed people’s republics.  Briefly put, Russia reacted in the way great powers had routinely behaved before the era of “globalization,” by decisively and ruthlessly moving to protect her traditional sphere of influence.

The United States and the European Union, lacking any sense of history and displaying a degree of arrogance that has sparked hostility and suspicion around the globe, denounced Russia as an aggressive, expansionist power, casting Putin as a latter-day Hitler who threatens “global stability.”  Moscow fired back by denouncing the West’s obvious double standards.  After all, beginning with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Western coalition’s leading members had destabilized the Middle East, facilitating the rise of ISIS and opening a corridor through Libya for mass illegal immigration to Europe.  Apart from that, Yanukovych had headed an administration the United States and the European Union had acknowledged as legitimate, while Putin had hinted a number of times that he was prepared to reach a settlement with the West.

Nevertheless, the United States and the European Union (despite the reluctance of some member states) instituted economic sanctions against Russia and a number of Putin’s cronies.  In the meantime, the small-scale war in Eastern Ukraine bogged down, and factions on both sides have sought a way out of the crisis via a series of oft-violated (by both sides) agreements reached in Minsk, Belarus.

As the crisis unfolded, seemingly evolving into another “frozen conflict,” it became apparent that Europe was very reluctant to engage in any direct confrontation with Russia.  A June Pew Research Center survey of respondents in ten NATO countries, for instance, revealed that “at least half of Germans, French, and Italians say their country should not use military force to defend a NATO ally if attacked by Russia.”  In Washington, hawks have continued to pressure the Obama administration to arm the Ukrainians.  Despite much saber-rattling, the White House has not, thus far, gone that route, though both Washington and Brussels have extended sanctions against Russia until next year.

There are a few points worth pondering in assessing what we might call a “crisis of choice”—that is, a crisis brought on at least partly by Western meddling.  The notion that Putin intends to launch a Blitzkrieg against Western or even Eastern Europe is ludicrous.  As Putin himself has pointed out, it would be suicidal for Russia to make war on NATO.  Despite the apparent resurgence of Russian power, that country continues to decline demographically and is faced with economic stagnation (magnified by sanctions), the ever-present threat of instability in the North Caucasus, and the two-edged sword of stronger ties to a confident and increasingly pushy China.

So why is the West, especially the United States, so viscerally hostile to Russia and, especially, to Putin personally?  The answer is ideology.  As an acquaintance who had served in the Middle East told me a few years back, Washington was committed to “nation building”—that is, to overthrowing regimes and installing “democratic market systems” in that benighted region.  Or, more pithily, “we” were there to ensure that Muslim women could have abortions and obtain driver’s licenses.  What about Russia?  Putin’s (questionable) defense of “conservative values” and the reluctance of a part of Russia’s ruling class to submit to globalization tell the story.  The apparent aim of the most aggressive segments of the Western elite is to overthrow Putin and ensure that Moscow allows gay-pride parades.  Putin and indeed Russia herself are viewed as roadblocks on the way to the “end of history.”

These aims reflect what Ian Bremmer calls the “Indispensable America” view, the belief that America should act as globalism’s HQ, making the world safe for democracy.  It’s an America that will pay any price, bear any burden, to ensure that transpeople are safe in their fluid identities and traditional religion doesn’t get in anybody’s way, while (not coincidentally) helping the superrich get richer.

To be sure, the respectably mainstream Bremmer doesn’t put it that way.

In Superpower, Bremmer proceeds from his assumption that current U.S. foreign policy is muddled.  In a chapter entitled “Incoherent America,” Bremmer writes that “Each time an international emergency arises, someone wants to know what America’s president will do about it,” but Washington’s responses to crises vary widely, with no pattern or strategy.  “Sometimes we charge in on horseback.  Sometimes we enter on tiptoe.  Sometimes we do nothing and hope the problem will solve itself.”  Bremmer believes that “incoherence in American foreign policy has been growing for twenty-five years,” and so, he asks, “What are we going to do about it?”

Bremmer sets out to tell us what he thinks America should do about it, offering three options and making a case for one of them.

Indispensable America, as described above, is an endless commitment to “promote democracy, freedom, and open-market capitalism everywhere in the world.”  Adherents of this view, writes Bremmer, view “human rights” as a “bedrock principle” and driver of foreign policy.  For adherents of Indispensable America, exporting “shared values” is part of the “nation building” package:

Only the United States can be the world’s indispensable nation, because only America has the means and the will to broaden and deepen the web of shared values that can stabilize international politics and the global economy, bolstering America’s long term security and prosperity.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that it is not primarily American security, but a global “democratic, open-market” system that is the real aim of this approach.  Taking care of America and Americans isn’t enough—indeed, Indispensable America is a global state that is made “stronger” through immigration.  The immigrants themselves are exercising a form of “self-determination,” and thus, I gather, fulfilling a “human right.”  Apparently those who have roots in this country and take a dim view of being displaced by hordes of foreigners don’t possess that right.  Critics of Indispensable America are dismissed as “isolationists.”

“Moneyball America,” Bremmer’s second option, draws heavily on the “realist” foreign-policy principles of Kissinger Associates cofounder and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft.

Scowcroft formulated a number of questions for determining whether American intervention is warranted.  Those questions outline the Moneyball America approach: “Was a vital national security interest threatened?”  “Did the United States have a clear and attainable objective?”  “Were the risks and costs fully and frankly analyzed?”  “Were all other nonviolent policy means fully exhausted?”  “Was there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?”  “Were the consequences of US action fully considered?”  Applying this framework, Scowcroft justified the Gulf War in 1991 and criticized George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion in 2003.

The Moneyball approach as described by Bremmer is cost-conscious, flexible, open to negotiation, and “guided by both discretion and humility.”  It seeks to protect America’s “vital” interests, and Bremmer finds much to recommend in it (though he admits an emotional attachment to Indispensable America).  But he does not get around to telling us what a vital interest is, and plenty of critics of the Gulf War did not see reversing the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait as a life-or-death matter for America.  The Kissinger-Scowcroft “realists” are admittedly more levelheaded and prudent than the ideologues of Indispensable America.  Nevertheless, Scowcroft could have posed one further question that does address the vital interests of ordinary Americans: Would you be willing to see your own son risk his life for this particular “interest”?

The third of Bremmer’s foreign-policy choices is “Independent America.”  Independent America would eschew nation-building and overreach.  It would dispense with a “superhero” foreign-policy approach.  It would acknowledge that America’s relative global power is declining.  And it would transfer to our allies responsibility for their own defense.  The Independent America approach recognizes that “Freedom is fragile.  Americans must protect it right here at home.”  For all the damage a foolish foreign policy inflicts on the world, “the greatest damage is done inside the United States.”  Supporters of Independent America are well aware that “a strong interventionist foreign policy strengthens the federal government in ways that distort the constitutionally prescribed balance of power between Washington and the states.”  That distortion weakens “not only our economy and our international reputation, but also the respect of our leaders for America’s founding principles.”

Ian Bremmer is an unlikely anti-interventionist.  He is president and founder of Eurasia Group, which the book’s author blurb describes as “the leading global political risk research and consulting firm.”  Bremmer is also an “editor-at-large” for Time, in which he writes a weekly foreign-policy column.  Nevertheless, to his credit, the author of Superpower comes down on the side of Independent America.  Bremmer notes that Americans tell pollsters that they “don’t want an open-ended commitment to risk American lives and spend American dollars to achieve goals of doubtful use . . . or to try and export values that others may not want.”  People around the world want less U.S. “interference in their countries and their lives.”  America is overstretched abroad and has a mass of problems to deal with at home.  The task at hand, as Bremmer sees it, is to get our own house in order and set an example for the world.

Bremmer is on the right track, so far as he goes.  His glaring blind spot is immigration.  This writer is more than ready for America to come home.  But we have to have something more than “democracy,” “open-market capitalism,” and ill-defined “values” to come home to.  America is being overwhelmed by mass immigration, and that is our most pressing policy issue, foreign and domestic.


[Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World, by Ian Bremmer (New York: Portfolio/Penguin) 220 pp., $27.95]