World Must Not Cede Russia ‘Sphere Of Interest’

I have long self-described as an internationalist when it comes to my views about the role the United States needs to undertake around the globe in conjunction with other nations. I strongly view the footprint of the United States as a needed tool to further not only our interests but equally important the needs and desires of other people.

One of the deeper reasons for my rejection of Donald Trump was the result of his not being aware of, or showing any interest in our legitimate and needed role on the world stage. Not having been in any way engaged with international affairs as it relates to governing left him prattling nationalistic rhetoric and doing substantial damage to our national image and policy aims.

That came to mind, again, when reading the latest from Robert Kagan, someone I try to follow when new columns are published. He is an American neoconservative scholar and a leading advocate of liberal interventionism. His The Price of Hegemony in Foreign Affairs was illuminating and thought-provoking. These lines below summed up my views from 2017-until Jan 20th, 2021, relating as it did to what Trump did not know, or care to learn.

For the 70-plus years since World War II, the United States has actively worked to keep revisionists at bay. But many Americans hoped that with the end of the Cold War, this task would be finished and that their country could become a “normal” nation with normal—which was to say, limited—global interests. But the global hegemon cannot tiptoe off the stage, as much as it might wish to. It especially cannot retreat when there are still major powers that, because of their history and sense of self, cannot give up old geopolitical ambitions—unless Americans are prepared to live in a world shaped and defined by those ambitions, as it was in the 1930s.

One of the complaints I have with those who shy away from grasping the role the U.S. must continue to play around the world, is the way they lament how ‘rough’ the West was on the defeated remnant of the old U.S.S.R. The facts prove, of course, that the West did not bluster or threaten, provoke or prod Russia. Instead, the various peoples of the former Soviet Union, when given a chance to make their own way in the world, looked West.

Kagan demolishes the idea that Russia should be allowed to think they have been granted a sphere of interest, based on history. A flawed notion President Putin tries to stand upon.

The problem for Putin—and for those in the West who want to cede to both China and Russia their traditional spheres of interest—is that such spheres are not granted to one great power by other great powers; they are not inherited, nor are they created by geography or history or “tradition.” They are acquired by economic, political, and military power. They come and go as the distribution of power in the international system fluctuates. The United Kingdom’s sphere of interest once covered much of the globe, and France once enjoyed spheres of interest in Southeast Asia and much of Africa and the Middle East. Both lost them, partly due to an unfavorable shift of power at the beginning of the twentieth century, partly because their imperial subjects rebelled, and partly because they willingly traded in their spheres of interest for a stable and prosperous U.S.-dominated peace. Germany’s sphere of interest once extended far to the east. Before World War I, some Germans envisioned a vast economic Mitteleuropa, where the people of central and eastern Europe would provide the labor, resources, and markets for German industry. But this German sphere of interest overlapped with Russia’s sphere of interest in southeastern Europe, where Slavic populations looked to Moscow for protection against Teutonic expansion. These contested spheres helped produce both world wars, just as the contested spheres in East Asia had helped bring Japan and Russia to blows in 1904. 

Russians may believe they have a natural, geographic, and historical claim to a sphere of interest in eastern Europe because they had it throughout much of the past four centuries. And many Chinese feel the same way about East Asia, which they once dominated. But even the Americans learned that claiming a sphere of interest is different from having one. For the first century of the United States’ existence, the Monroe Doctrine was a mere assertion—as hollow as it was brazen. It was only toward the end of the nineteenth century, when the country was able to enforce its claim, that the other great powers were grudgingly forced to accept it. After the Cold War, Putin and other Russians may have wanted the West to grant Moscow a sphere of interest in Europe, but such a sphere simply did not reflect the true balance of power after the Soviet Union fell. China may claim the “nine-dash line”—enclosing most of the South China Sea—as marking its sphere of interest, but until Beijing can enforce it, other powers are unlikely to acquiesce. 

A most worthy article that deserves to be read in full.

Letter From Home: “Boy From Iceland Brings Needed Smile” 5/25/22

James and I had just pulled into our drive. Returning from an unexpected visit to a local hospital so to visit for the final time with a friend of 20 years was emotionally heavy. The lilacs near our home seemed to feel the mood of the day as the rain made them droop and sag. They are loaded this year with blooms, and being so densely packed makes them hang even lower today.

With the weight of headlines waking us this morning with photos of the 19 boys and girls shot to death in a Texas school my mood was already somber. Then a call alerting us to the placement of our friend on hospice forced our day into higher gear for what we knew needed to be done this afternoon. A visit to a hospital.

The lady we visited loved Elvis’ singing. I joked with her that if the music was not soon located and turned on in the room I could sing, but someone would need to move the chairs back as it takes room to swivel the hips. She smiled weakly, and I considered that a victory.

So as we arrived back home I felt sluggish, having only operated on one cup of coffee all day. As I turned up the sidewalk to our front door, I saw a blond-haired boy on a scooter, that seems to be the latest rage for boys about age 10.

A woman was with him and they were looking up into the tree and so I asked “What are you looking at?”

“Just wondering what bird is making those sounds,” the woman said.

“Cardinals”, I replied. “Hear the call and response?”, I added.

She remarked on the many birds to be sighted, and I told her of the catbirds and orioles that are also nesting in the area. But it was not until I spoke of eagles that fly low near the shore of Lake Monona that the boy looked more intently in my direction and then pushing one foot on his scooter made his way across the street, his mom at his side.

“They have huge wings,” he said and smiled at the idea. He had been reading lately about those birds of prey. We talked back and forth about their nests being up to the size of a mattress. It was agreed that sharing such a mattress was not a great idea.

His mom said they were visiting from Iceland, and the lad was homeschooled. His attentive eyes and kind smile made for an odd juxtaposition with the faces on the news from Texas I had looked at hours prior. In a convoluted fashion, so to address the issue without using any language that would be alarming for the boy, I asked her about how news coverage there would deal with the headlines of our country.

“Matter of factly, not sensationalized, but also with the question as to how this is allowed to continue,” she said.

She had grown up in Wisconsin but said very plainly that she would not allow her child to attend an American school at this time. “Just look at the statistics from the past 20 years”, she stated.

Had that kid not been looking up into the tree I would not have lobbed an inquiry across the street. Had he not found an interest in eagles from his reading he might not have pushed himself over to say hello on his scooter.

His mom said such conversations with strangers are not common on streets in Iceland, first often due to the weather, but the stoic nature of the residents makes for such interactions to be few and far between. I told her on snowy days with bitter winds while shoveling I still chat it up with anyone who comes along our way.

“I offer to let them shovel, but they all seem to have read Tom Sawyer”, I quipped.

She smiled, but Mark Twain had not yet left an impression on the boy.

As the rain picked up and we started to head in opposite directions I wished them well and pointed at the boy and said, “Thanks for being you.”

His youthful glee over the birds of the area, his smile, and his willingness to engage with the world was the mood lifter this day needed.

This type of interaction, off-the-cuff, so effortless, and free, is one of the themes of my latest book which is scheduled to be published by August. The tonic for the soul is often these very types of human connections. The book has been my focus since November, with the editing phase now underway.

Madeleine Albright Respected And Loved Worldwide

It was sad news. But not shocking. We knew over the past months we were losing Madeleine Albright. Her public moments were still filled with resolve about why democracy matters and insight into world affairs, but her frail health was obvious, too.

Today the end came for a woman who was loved and treasured worldwide. The first woman to serve as secretary of state died at the age of 84.

It is never tiring to hear about someone born in a place and time of tribulations, leaving for America, and when reaching our shores embracing democratic values and then over a lifetime working to firm up those values worldwide. I think of Henry Kissinger when writing such a statement.

And, without doubt, I know it to be true for Madeleine Albright, too.

In her case that trek to our shores was harrowing as it took 10 years. In the midst of war and cruel policies in Europe, she had been denied knowing as a child that her family was Jewish. Her parents had protectively converted to Roman Catholicism during World War II, raising their children as Catholics without telling them of their Jewish heritage. She also discovered as a woman decades later that 26 family members, including three grandparents, had been murdered in the Holocaust.

When I reflect on Albright two things stand out.

First, the ease of conversation she used to express as to the course of foreign policy. Her immediate predecessor, Warren Christopher, was seasoned and a deep reader, but at times the ponderous nature of being able to inform the nation on policy was a problem. Add in a sense of humor that she added, effortlessly, and her acceptance on the world stage was made far easier.

Second, there was always a brooch. It might seem sexist to some readers for me to add this aspect to this post, but in our home for decades when she was on the news or being interviewed James and I commented on what brooch she was wearing. She was classy and there is nothing wrong with making that point most clear.

She will be missed because her voice on the most pressing international topic grows ever direr. Over recent years Albright pointed out that fascism now presents a more virulent threat to peace and justice than at any time since the end of World War II. Illiberal democracy is a concern here at CP, and she was one of the strident proponents for not forgetting history, and not taking our freedoms for granted.

We can honor her best by each of us picking up that banner and not letting it fall.

And so it goes.

Coping With Weight Of World Headlines

I found myself smiling over a fond recollection of a now long forgotten newsman on Friday afternoon. With staggering headlines hourly over the past weeks of carnage depicted through news photographs and video from war-torn Ukraine, I found a smile had come over my face as I recalled an interest in the voice of a CBS broadcaster when I was about age 12.

There is no time these days, or so it seems, to talk about the impact that the Russian invasion has had on the mental health of people worldwide. While in ‘normal times’ there is a raft of bad news from regions across the globe nothing can compare to the ruthless and obscene attacks on civilians that are playing out on the news from when we first get up from sleep to the last updates we seek out before retiring from another day. The compiling of today’s horrific news upon ghastly news from the previous day and appalling news from last week does take a toll on the human soul.

This is why I actually stopped reading a book in which reporter George Herman was mentioned and my eyes lifted up from the pages and landed on the furniture and mementos assembled in the room. My grandmother’s treadle sewing machine and her handmade afghan placed over an old rocker held my attention as I just let the ‘yesterdays’ take hold.

For the purpose of this post, I will be brief about why Herman hit a chord within. Our home did not have a television until I was in the 6th grade, but one of the first faces I came to know each weekend was a rather serious sounding and low-key newsman who had the most important people in the nation stop by for a conversation. Face The Nation started off as a weekly stop mainly due to the sound of his voice.

Then on Friday, the recollections passed and the real world took hold again.

The enormity of the international crisis–and yes it is both international in scope and very much a crisis–can not be escaped. There are even experts in children’s mental health who are advising parents on how to talk about the images that kids doubtless see, and hear about from social media.

While it seems like there are always new stress stories to contend with such as a new variety of spiders expected in the East and the next variant of COVID to spread, the Ukraine war poses a real need for coping mechanisms. While I am certainly no expert on how to find that center place to calm the roiling seas, I can attest to the need for such a place and the solace it provides when found.

For just a few minutes a newsman many have forgotten and even more never knew was the comfort zone for me. Perhaps for my readers, it might be the scent from the oven that carries them back to a place and time of joy, perhaps an article of clothing found in the closet this spring that transports them to a place of lighter thoughts and smiles.

The weight of the word is real. And it is too heavy to carry about without the needed mental escapes so to wake up tomorrow and start again.

I wish my readers to find those moments and embrace them as this chapter of history will be long and harsh.

And so it goes.

Hope In Horrific War

These two front pages of newspapers allowed me a bit of an uplift in an otherwise harsh day of war headlines from Eastern Europe. I know there are truly kind and warm-hearted people in the world, but over the past three weeks the horrors of war does make it seem the better angels of our nature are so far removed. So these front pages made me most glad.

Stopping Putin Will Require Military Might From Europe, United States

From the start of the most recent Russian madness, I have taken a straightforward appraisal of the situation. For many of us, the Eastern European theatre has been long considered a potential tinderbox given Russian President Putin’s makeup and stated desires.

As the Russian military massed along the border I thought an invasion of Ukraine would occur, never thinking it would not. The dance of diplomacy had to be undertaken prior to the start of this phase of the violence, as that is an international nicety.

While I champion diplomacy, one has to keep in mind that there is a stark difference in sitting down with those one has disagreements with while hoping to foster dialogue and a working compromise, as opposed to talking with a madman who is wedded to delusional visions of conquest.

The war in Eastern Ukraine has been ongoing for years. Most of the world did not want to know about it. Thousands died prior to the latest invasion two weeks ago. That is the harsh reality.

So Putin has to be viewed in the totality of his past actions and declared threats for the future. As such, Putin can not reverse course and back down. There is nothing in his history to suggest that is an option for him to take. So the following news snippet this morning from Australia is worthy of posting.

Terry Barnes wrote the following for Spectator Australia.

A retired British general, Sir Chris Deverall, is arguing that a no-fly zone over Ukraine might yet be the only rational choice for NATO. Deverall says NATO will have to fight Vladimir Putin eventually, so should be prepared to do it now. Meanwhile, polling indicates 45 percent of Americans support a no-fly zone, 20 percent are against, and the rest presumably are undecided. Rightly or wrongly, the unthinkable is being thought. Putin’s war could yet become a European war.”

I again echo a theme on this blog that strength is what Putin understands, and weakness is what Putin uses for his own ends. If the world community can not accept that fact then Ukraine is doomed. And Europe is further threatened.

This morning Ukraine President Zelenskyy was termed by a news analysis on television as “Churchhill in the digital age”. With that phrasing comes to mind the weight of leadership that Winston Churchill would remind us of if he were here to gauge the current crisis. History will judge the international community harshly if we do not stand up to this test of our time.

Putin must be stopped.

And so it goes.

Russia Onlys Respects Strength, West Needs To Show True Resolve Over Ukraine

What would Winston Churchill do?

Russian President Putin, the madman of Eastern Europe, has shown his true intentions with not only a brazen and deadly invasion of a sovereign nation but also with his openly stated purpose.

Gone are the calm days of the autocrat merely talking about ‘peace keeping’. Now it is all about conquest. His declaration of consuming all of Ukraine is no longer in doubt.

But then what is next for the dictator who makes Kim Jong-un look utterly sane?

This weekend it is reported that Putin’s powerful navy assets have been spotted in the Black Sea port of Odessa. Anyone with a geographical understanding of what that means has to ponder if a larger European conflict is being contemplated in Moscow.

The issue can not be discounted, as the very weakness in world resolve in the past is very much a consideration for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. When Putin ruthlessly broke international law and took Crimea no one stood up and said “NO”. Instead, there was a collective shaking of the head at ‘the bad little boy in Moscow’ and in so doing ‘Putin learned his lesson’.

The lesson Putin learned, however, was there were no repercussions to audacious and criminal moves. Many on the world stage pretended the sanctions which were applied due to that land grab would result in Putin leaving the rest of Ukraine and Europe alone.

Those with realpolitik as their foundation knew otherwise. Sanctions are a politically-inspired balm, a mere image in place of taking concrete actions. Sanctions will not stop a madman.

With tepid responses from the world community, there was also the Trump Administration which took moves year-after-year to undermine alliances and international organizations. Today it was reported former national security adviser John Bolton believed that Putin was “waiting” for a possible United States withdrawal from NATO. That is the result of Trump tossing aside decades of collective unity for his tawdry displays while in office when dealing with Putin, as outlined in The Hill.

The world community is concerned, and rightfully so about what comes next. While I appreciate the level of dread, as it is real, I do question the actual resolve from the world community to stop Putin. This week, NATO rejected the military move of creating a no-fly zone over Ukraine. They stated it would result in a military confrontation with Moscow. But it is that very type of messaging that Russia understands best.

A bully and killer on the world stage must not get clearance to continue the rampage. Or make additional threats. Up to now, Putin has done both, and promises to continue. The problem is that Russia for too long has thrown punches but does not receive in return an even more devastating counterpunch.

Let us be perfectly clear. A truly strident message of deterrence is what Russia understands, and respects. History makes the case. If we need to bump chests and eye the Russians down, then that is what we must do.

Putin feels that if he can demean and defeat our nation and Western Europe in the eyes of the world Russia can be akin to the ‘glory days’ of the USSR. To get to that point European nations will need to ponder if they might not have ‘peace keeping’ operations coming their way, too?

Without a more robust and truly diligent response to Putin, that may be the future.

And so it goes.

“False Flag’ Operation Feared In Ukraine, Biden Needs To Find “L” In Leadership

For a couple of weeks, many news analysts and foreign policy experts have warned what Russian President Putin may be planning as his excuse to invade the sovereign nation of Ukraine.

Many people fear that Russia is planning what is known as a ‘false flag’ operation, a contrived and self-generated event to give Putin a pretext to invade Ukraine.

It would be most similar to what the world witnessed, and history better understands in hindsight, when Wehrmacht troops, dressed as Polish soldiers, attacked a German wireless station in September 1939. (David Downing weaved that event into his John Russell series about espionage during WWII.)

It is strongly assumed this week the world will have headlined in every morning newspaper, and featured as the lead to evening news programs, the latest country in the world to have been brutally overtaken by a corrupt and dishonest nation. Russia and Germany have a list of such barbarity.

This weekend Putin’s troops exercised at strategic points surrounding the frontier of Ukraine. It is frighteningly clear that the US government expects that by the end of the week the Russians will be adding Ukraine to Poland, the Baltic States, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia on their list of shame.

This past week the line that jumped off of several news stories and pages of print was simple and direct.

“Moscow is actively trying to create a casus belli,” or a justification for war, a Western official said.

But the other statement that made me pay attention was uttered by President Joe Biden.

The weakness in American messaging and signaling blared when the White House let Russia know it need not fear the prospect of U.S. troops fighting to defend the sovereignty of Ukraine. Biden said, “there is not going to be any American forces moving into Ukraine.”

A BBC analyst read that comment as a means to lower confrontation and not ratchet up tensions into an even larger international crisis. That could very well be the case. And certainly, not a bad point to make in the midst of the gravest threat to international order since WWII.

Here at this desk, however, the rules of order and deliberative process that history proves stabilized Europe are the ones adhered to, and stressed when threats occur. No one should be pleased Russia knows before the first Ukrainian is killed there will be no military attempt to stop their forward motion. It is not a message we should have sent to the world that the United States will not stand up to Russia over Ukraine in a military fashion. In so doing, we have simply conceded a large nation to Russia, and in Cold War parlance enhanced their–sphere of influence–from which further efforts will doubtless be made upon other countries.  

We have set up a future of ever-more Russian meddling and militarism.

It galls me that area of the world is going to be further brutalized–Eastern Ukraine is already a war zone–due to a megalomaniac wishing to construct a map of the USSR. Nostalgia is a putrid reason for a war.

As such, the international order demanded that Biden not show his hand of cards or weaken the NATO alliance by telling Putin the limits of his ‘red line’ in Ukraine. A continuing strident message of deterrence is what Russia understands, and respects. And if we need to bump chests and eye the Russians down, then that is what we must do.

Leadership matters.

And so it goes.