12 Comments
Jan 7, 2023Liked by Robert Wright

I thoroughly enjoyed this epic debate. In addition to cognitive empathy, maybe your framework on diplomacy rests on what one could call a type of ‘dependent origination’ or ‘interdependent co-arising’ to use Buddhist phrasing?

If I am following along correctly your argument goes something like this (I am oversimplifying): In the 1990s when the United States became “the” Super Power, it had the chance to model diplomatic relations based primarily on the rule of international law — by following international law. Your examples of Iraq and Kosovo clearly showed that is not what the U.S. did. This disregard set a precedent of behavior that other countries could follow (too complicated to get into why in this post). It’s analogous, though not exactly the same, as Trump as president setting a certain tone and hyperbolic speech that filtered down to other politicians, journalists and even dinner conversations with friends. Trump didn’t make (as in force) other people to adopt his demeanor and tactics and they are responsible for their actions, but Trump set a precedent.

Less people seem to disagree with the Trump example, but wow so few want to look at the foreign policy example. As with Kaplan, most people think pointing to this ‘interdependent co-arising’ phenomenon on the diplomatic stage is excusing other nations for breaking the law, when instead it’s trying to point out a pattern that we can work to change — and not make a current situation worse by demonizing an advisory. Maybe understanding ‘interdependent co-arising’ goes hand-in-hand with cognitive empathy? It sure seems even harder to get across.

Expand full comment

If talking about the war in Ukraine, you are making many mistakes, especially about Ukraine, Russia, Eastern Europe, etc. Maybe someday I'll write about them. But for Christ's sake, get your facts straight if you are talking about American action.

1) Burns did not predict anything. Ukraine and Georgia applied for Membership Action Plan (this is not membership). Burns wrote a cable telling what Russians (Lavrov, etc.) are thinking and talking about this application. Burns is just retelling what Russians are saying. He is not making his own predictions, he is not making a personal assessment, his not saying to Bush "don't do it". In fact, there is nothing newsworthy in Burns cable, this is all public knowledge. (And by the way, the NATO summit rejected Ukrainian and Georgian applications.)

2)No missiles were placed in Poland and the Czech Republic. It is a 20-year-old plan, much discussed, delayed, rejected, stalled, etc. But no missiles so far.

Expand full comment

Two different statements:

1. The US took some actions that helped create a context in which we might expect a militaristic, nationalistic government to take power in Russia.

2. The US took some actions that partially caused the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

I agree with #1. But #2 is a stretch, and I think Bob was overstating his case in his talk with Fred.

I generally agree with Bob’s critique of US foreign policy, but I suspect Putin would have talked himself into invading pretty much whatever we’d done.

Expand full comment

I agree NATO expansion, US wars, the pulling out of treaties, and the humiliation of Putin all made Russia’s invasion far more likely. I just don’t see how this is relevant to US support of Ukraine now?

I have no doubt that calling the 2020 election for Biden was the prime contributing factor of the Jan 6th riots. I also think years of the media dismissing and making fun of right wingers contributed to it. Does shouldering this responsibility mean we should have brokered some deal that gave Trump 2 years and Biden 2 years?

It’s perfectly consistent to disagree with the US policy prior to the invasion, and yet oppose the genocide in Ukraine and pledge to help them with their defense. In fact, I believe this is the only consistent stance to take. A great solution would be to dissolve NATO, submit past US officials to trial for past UN violations AND send Ukraine everything it needs to defend itself.

I do not believe it follows that our past misdeeds should give Russia the okay to invade Ukraine (and China to take Taiwan) . This is a logical misstep in my eyes. It seems strangely egotistical to make Ukrainians pay for our past.

If we are truly interested in humanity “getting over” war. We must make the cost of invasion greater than the reward.

Expand full comment

That was a useful debate. Debates among knowledgeable people are an effective tool for helping people judge the truth, so perhaps it’s not surprising that there very few such debates in the West. The other one that comes to mind is the May 2022 Munk debate where Mearsheimer and Walt defend the unpopular argument that the US is mainly responsible for the war in Ukraine (in the vote taken after the debate, they lost, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ivcSVG5eCeQ ).

That there are three notions of responsibility, namely causal responsibility, moral responsibility and legal responsibility - is a significant point. The US bears some significant causal responsibility for the war (and thus destruction of Ukraine) as Kaplan concedes. As for the moral and legal responsibilities I would say that US's foreign policy fares much worse than Russia's. In the latter legal sense the numbers published by Rand Corp about US’s ongoing military interventions (virtually all violating international law) are mind-boggling: on average 10 concurrent military interventions throughout the world during the last 70 years; the US really behaves like the global dictator (see figure 3.2 https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR3062.html ). As for the former moral sense, the numbers published by Brown University’s Watson Institute about how many people around the world have lost their lives because US’s militaristic foreign policy are horrific: we are talking millions (see https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/ ).

Regarding the Wright / Kaplan debate, I found it striking how often Kaplan made factual assertions which Wright had to correct. Incidentally in his “Where Realpolitik Went Wrong” article in Slate (https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2022/11/putin-mearsheimer-realpolitik-ukraine-political-science.html ), Kaplan claims that Putin has now revealed that he wants to conquer Ukraine – that this is *precisely* Putin’s stated goal – which is factually false. I have always thought that if truth is on one’s side there is no need to misinform about facts. And US’s narrative is full of misinformation, starting with the claim that the US (and Germany) never promised that NATO would not expand one inch eastward. Yet the declassified documents published in 2017 about the 1990 negotiations for the reunification of Germany conclusively prove that this promise what the central component of secretary Baker’s proposal for getting the Soviet Union to accept a reunified Germany within NATO (suggesting that given its history Germany in NATO serves USSR’s security interests as well, see https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/briefing-book/russia-programs/2017-12-12/nato-expansion-what-gorbachev-heard-western-leaders-early ). What’s more there is a public statement of then German foreign minister Genscher declaring the same (here in German https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E-_j_Bu-eUY&t=1260s ). So this promise was made – yet within monnths the US was secretly instructing its embassies in the former Warsaw Pact member states to signal the respective governments that their inclusion in NATO would be welcome (see note 161 here https://direct.mit.edu/isec/article/40/4/7/12126/Deal-or-No-Deal-The-End-of-the-Cold-War-and-the-U ).

Finally I disagree on one point with Wright. It seems to me that the war in Ukraine was not just an unfortunate implication of US militaristic foreign policy but a significant goal. Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee explained in the Senate back in 2020: “the United States aids Ukraine and her people so that we can fight Russia over there and we don't have to fight Russia here” (video here https://twitter.com/aaronjmate/status/1497602531467403270 ). Indeed it’s difficult for me to imagine what more could the US have made to provoke Russia. For example for 2022 had planned no less than 10 NATO exercises (seehttps://web.archive.org/web/20220303081045/https://w1.c1.rada.gov.ua/pls/zweb2/webproc4_1?pf3511=73286 ). In 2020 strategic bombers B-52 flew over Ukraine just on Russia’s borders (https://www.airforcetimes.com/news/your-air-force/2020/09/04/b-52s-fly-to-ukraine-to-train-with-troops-there/ ). On March 21, 2021 – just after a visit by an American general - Zelenskyy publicly ordered his government to take back Crimea by military means (see https://president.gov.ua/news/prezident-zatverdiv-strategiyu-deokupaciyi-ta-reintegraciyi-67321 ). Conversely, on December 17, 2021 Russia formally proposed treaties for the peaceful resolution of the crisis (https://web.archive.org/web/20220406170201/http://aalep.eu/nato-russia-agreement-and-us-russia-treaty ), which the Biden administration simply ignored. It is quite clear which party was after war and which tried for peace.

Expand full comment

I do not believe the US is the world’s dictator. Has the US expanded their borders in the last 100 years? What countries have they taken over? Are they currently oppressing any foreign population against their will?

Nor do I believe they’ve killed millions. I suspect the bulk of these are in Iraq? Record keeping disputes this. When we look at deaths classified by perpetrators we find the Sunni-Shia religious war was responsible for almost the entirety of the deaths in Iraq. https://www.iraqbodycount.org/database/

Putin is the one who tried for peace? If Putin's intentions are so noble, why does he hide them? Why doesn't he allow his citizens to access the internet? Why does he censor the press? If he is this peace loving man you imagine, it seems he'd invite transparency and free inquiry. Instead he's outlawing the very use of the word "war" as he bombs civilians and his soldiers loot towns and rape women.

When people hide the truth of their actions it's because they know what they are doing is wrong. They know what they are doing cannot be justified. It is somewhat surreal to listen to intelligent people try to justify his actions for him.

Expand full comment

I could continue forever. But.

US did not invite Ukraine and Georgia. Georgia and Ukraine applied for Membership Action Plan( what is not a membership). Bush said in an interview, that he supports giving them MAP. NATO Bucharest summit in 2008- this is official stuff and it counts - said "No" to MAP.

Maybe Bush should not have said what he said, but it is important to make a distinction what is an interview and what is official decision. And Russia was happy with Bucharest summit decision.

Expand full comment

Are you referring to the Bucharest Summit in April of 2008? If so, I wouldn't say that NATO sent a firm 'no' to Ukraine and Russia. Consider this extended quote from the NATO website:

"NATO welcomes Georgia's and Ukraine's aspirations for membership

"At the Bucharest Summit, NATO Allies welcomed Ukraine's and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership and agreed that these countries will become members of NATO.

"They also agreed that both nations have made valuable contributions to Alliance operations and welcomed democratic reforms in Ukraine and Georgia.

"The Membership Action Plan (MAP) is the next step for the two countries on their direct way to membership.

"Allies made clear that they support Georgia's and Ukraine's applications for MAP. Allies also said NATO will now begin a period of intensive engagement with both countries at high political level to address the questions still outstanding regarding their MAP applications. NATO Foreign Ministers were asked to make a first assessment of progress at their December 2008 meeting." (https://www.nato.int/docu/update/2008/04-april/e0403h.html)

In December 2008, Ministers concluded that both countries have made strides forward but both 'have significant work left to do'." (https://www.nato.int/docu/update/2008/12-december/e1203b.html) And NATO did continue to work with Ukraine to help them gain the conditions to join MAP. Consider these steps: (https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/topics_37750.htm)

I think it's particularly interesting that the first NATO Information and Documentation Centre (NIDC) to open in a partner country was the one in Kyiv in 1997. Its purpose was "to inform the Ukrainian public about NATO's activities and the benefits of NATO-Ukraine cooperation." I would call that courtship, not rejection.

Expand full comment

Nah, it is just a diplomatic and polite way to say "No". If they had wanted to invite or court, they would have given MAP.

In 1997 they signed NATO-Russia Founding Act. NDIC for Ukraine was just a little charity so that Ukraine would not feel left out. Poland, Czech, or Baltic states never wanted NDIC, because they saw it as a pointless PR exercise.

Overall, NATO, but also the EU or the west in general have always been confused and inconsistent about Ukraine. On one side, they sort of feel that Ukraine is important. Especially from a European perspective, Ukraine is just around the corner and if shit happens in Ukraine, it has a strong spillover effect on the EU. On another side, Ukraine has been weak and corrupt and indulged in many problems, and has never been ready for the EU or NATO.So, EU and NATO have been caught in between, they do not want to say "No, never", but they do not want to say "Yes" either. Thats why all this ambivalent talk about supporting aspirations and so on, but without concrete steps.

Expand full comment

100% agree about NATO / EU / the west’s confusion, ambivalence and inconsistency toward Ukraine. Also 100% agree with your assessment of Ukraine. Ukraine’s populace seemed more ambivalent about joining NATO as well. Perhaps that is why Ukraine got the NIDC, while Poland and the Baltics didn’t. There was less ambivalence on their part (and less corruption, certainly in comparison to Ukraine). Still, I can think of several ways of phrasing a rejection diplomatically rather than saying “NATO Allies welcomed Ukraine's and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership and agreed that these countries will become members of NATO.” For example, their statement could have simply read: NATO Allies welcomed Ukraine's and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership and agreed to work with these countries to meet conditions to become members of NATO. Or even just: NATO Allies welcomed Ukraine's and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership. In any case, NATO didn’t explicitly and officially say “no” in 2008. I also disagree that there haven’t been concrete steps taken to make MAP happen, especially with NATO working with Ukraine to improve accountability and transparency in their defense and security sectors. That seems like a step toward achieving conditions for MAP.

Expand full comment

Another note, here is Andrei Kozyrev (Russian Foreign Minister 1990-1996) about NATO enlargement: "While the West failed to seize the opportunity and some diplomatic mistakes were made on both sides, the United States and NATO were on the right side of history by admitting new democracies to the Alliance and being willing to find an accommodation with Russia. It was Moscow that returned to its antagonism toward NATO, which has been intensifying ever since."

Kozyrev supported NATO enlargement, because he saw Russia as imperialist power and NATO as a means to contain Russian imperialism, without NATO, Russia would have attacked sooner or later Baltic states, Poland, etc.

Expand full comment

Ok Robert, so here’s the thing. In 2014, post the coup d’état/glorious revolution (depending on one’s taste) I put it to one of my Ukrainian colleagues that they did have a legitimate president whom they illegally ousted from power. The dialogue went like this:

Me: so Taras, you did have a president called Viktor Yanukovich…

Tara’s: yes

Me: he was elected?

Taras: yes

Me: the elections were transparent and democratic?

Taras: correct

Me: OSCE observers were present and they did not observe any substantial distortions or meddling in the elections?

Taras: no, they didn’t

Me: your parliament then tried to impeach Yanukovich?

Taras: yes, an impeachment motion was presented and voted upon

Me: and it failed because it did not get the requisite number of votes in the parliament

Taras: yes, it was not passed for that reason

Me: then some people, many people, took to the streets, Maidan happened and Yanukovich was forcibly removed from power, right?

Taras: yes

Me: and I believe there is no right set out in your constitution or other legal statute that enables a group of people to forcibly remove a president from power without following due parliamentary process. So his removal was illegal?

Taras: yes, but you don’t understand - the system was rotten, man, it was corrupt through and through. Something needed to be done!

Me: granted. So if one group of people commits an illegal act, then you would agree that another group of people might also decide to commit an illegal act and, in their own eyes, be justified in doing so. That group of people happened to reside in Crimea. They decided they wanted nothing to do with the Kiev junta. And you can’t really complain about that, can you? Is that fair?

That is the source of Putin’s disquiet. He sees this illegal, clearly anti-Russian coup being committed in Ukraine, aided and abetted by the West, if not orchestrated by the West from start to finish (remember the leaked telephone call between Victoria Nuland and the US ambassador to the Ukraine, Pyatt, regarding the thereafter Kiev mayor endearingly referred to as “Klitsch” and Arseniy Yatseniuk - “Yats”, in Nuland’s derogatory shorthand?). Putin knows the writing’s on the wall.

So instead of busying himself with his pet Olympics in Sochi, Putin should have directed his resources towards preventing the coup. Evidently, he did nothing or not enough and he got an anti-Russia aka new Ukraine on his borders. The rest is history.

As for the US, as Plato put it a long time ago, it’s only the weak that need justice. The powerful don’t need justice.

Expand full comment