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Geopolitical prudence

The Ukraine War, its complexities and global spillover effects, have not been adequately depicted by either political leaders or the more influential media. Most commonly, the Ukraine War has been narrowly and reductively depicted as a simple matter of defending Ukraine against Russian aggression.

Sometimes this standard portrayal is somewhat enlarged by demonizing Putin as criminally committed to the grandiose project of restoring the full spectrum of Soviet boundaries of post-1994 Russia by force as necessary. What tends to be excluded from almost all presentations of the Ukrainian struggle is the US Government policy agenda of inflicting a humiliating defeat on Russia which is at once related to the defense of Ukraine yet quite separate from it in significant respects. This agenda replicates Cold War confrontations, and in the global setting, seeks to remind China as well as Russia, that only the United States possesses the will, authority, and capabilities to act as the guardian of global security with respect to the maintenance or modification of international boundaries of sovereign states anywhere on the planet.

Illustratively, Israel has been given a tacit green light by Washington to annex the Golan Heights, an integral part of Syria until the 1967 War, while Russia remains sanctioned for its annexation of Crimea and its current claims to incorporate parts of the Dombas region of Ukraine have been met with harsh punitive sanctions and allegations of war crimes by the US president, Joe Biden. The most influential Western media platforms, including ‘CNN’, ‘BBC’, ‘NY Times’, ‘The Economist’, with few exceptions, have largely supported these one-dimensional governmental narrative accounts of the Ukraine War. The views of progressive critics of the manner that American foreign policy has handled the crisis are almost totally unrepresented, while the extremist right is castigated for daring to oppose the national consensus as if only the only dissenters are conspiracy inclined fascists.

Almost no attention given by these media outlets to understanding either the buildup of tensions relating to Ukraine in the years preceding the Russian attack or the wider security rationale that explains Putin’s resolve to reassert its former authority in the Ukraine. Similarly, there was virtually no mainstream discussion of ceasefire/diplomatic options, favored by many peace and religious groups, that sought to give priority to ending the killing, coupled with a search for possible reconciling formulas that combined Ukrainian sovereign entitlements with some adjustments taking account of Russian concerns. The most trusted media in the West functioned as a war-mongering propaganda machine that was only slightly more nuanced in its support for the official line of the government than what one would expect from unambiguously autocratic regimes.

Coverage highlighted visual portrayals of the daily brutalities of the war coupled with a steady stream of condemnations of Russian behavior, detailed reportage on the devastation and civilian suffering, and a tactical overview of how the fighting was going in various combat zones. These bellicose narratives were routinely reinforced by expert commentary from retired generals and intelligence officials, and never subjected to challenge from peace advocates, much less dissenters and critics. I have yet to hear the voice or read texts on these influential media platforms from the most celebrated public intellectuals, Noam Chomsky or Daniel Ellsberg, or even from independent minded diplomats like Chas Freeman. Of course, these individuals are talking and writing but to learn their views you have to navigate the internet in search of such online websites as CounterPunch and Common Dreams.

The fog of war has been replaced by a war fever while making the transition from helping Ukraine defend itself against aggression to pursuing a victory over Russia increasingly heedless of nuclear dangers and worldwide economic dislocations that threatened many millions with famine, acute insecurity, and destitution. The shrill assured voices of generals and think tank security gurus dominated commentary, while pleas for peace from the UN Secretary General, the Dalai Lama, and Pope Francis, if noticed at all, were confined to the outer margins of public awareness. This unfortunate absence of reasoned and responsible debate was further distorted by highly misleading statements made by the highest public official responsible for the formation and explanation of American foreign policy, the Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. Whether out of ignorance or the convenience of the moment, Secretary Blinken has been widely quoted as explaining to the public here and abroad in prime time that the US does not recognize ‘spheres of influence,’ an idea “that should have been retired after World War II.” Really! Without mutual respect for spheres of influence throughout the Cold War it is probable that World War III would have been ignited by Soviet interventions in East Europe, most notoriously in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968).

Similarly, US interferences in Western Europe as well as the defection of Yugoslavia were tolerated by Moscow. Where the most dangerous armed confrontations occurred were revealingly in the three divided country of Germany, Korea, and Vietnam where norms of self-determination exerted continuous pressures on boundaries artificially imposed on these countries for reasons of geopolitical convenience. Since the end of the Cold War, Blinken should be embarrassed about telling the peoples of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela that the idea of spheres of influence is no longer descriptive of how the US shapes its policy in the Western Hemisphere. Decades age Octavio Paz, the Mexican writer found vivid words to express the reality of such spheres: “The tragedy of Mexico is to be so far from God and so near to the United States.”

As has been observed, the Russian assertion of a traditional spheres of influence has more continuity with the past than does respect for territorial sovereignty of the countries that have regained statehood within such spheres after the Soviet collapse. This recognition is not meant to express approval of such spheres, serving only as a realization of geopolitical practice that has persisted through the whole of modernity and a further sense that mounting a challenge in light of this practice is almost certain to produce friction and heighten risks of war, which in relations among states armed with nuclear weapons should induce extreme caution on the part of prudent actors.

Excerpted: ‘Westphalian Logic and Geopolitical Prudence in the Nuclear Age’.

Richard Falk, "Geopolitical prudence," The News. 2022-05-22.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political practice , Foreign policy , Diplomats , Antony Blinken , President Putin , Russia , Ukraine