The negotiations between Russia and Ukraine in Turkey could bring an end to the hostilities. According to some news sources, the Ukrainian side is showing readiness to stay neutral and provide satisfactory assurances to Russia against NATO membership.
Without in any way approving of Russia’s demands on Ukraine, there is nevertheless one positive side to this: a path to peace for the war-ravaged Ukrainian people. A prolonged war would cause more casualties and bring existential destruction to the Ukrainian economy.
The most important consequence of peace, of course, is that the Ukrainians can start rebuilding their country. Beyond that, new questions will emerge about what the post-Ukrainian war world will look like. Should Russia’s president get what he wants, namely a neutral neighbor, he will undoubtedly emerge stronger at home as well as abroad.
Correspondingly, America and the EU will emerge weaker. Putin will have kept the red line he drew already when NATO exhibited aspirations to expand to central Asia. Even though neither NATO nor America herself were directly involved on the Ukrainian side, a concession by Kyiv to Moscow’s demands will nevertheless reverberate deep into the foreign policy circles in Washington.
Plain and simple: America will be forced to rethink the global activism that has been her trademark since the end of World War II.
A war the neocons lost
A rewrite of American foreign policy would literally have global consequences, but it would first and foremost affect Europe. For several decades, Washington’s heavy influence over NATO has been the pillar upon which European security and foreign policy has rested. The changes, which would materialize in the form of a partial or full American withdrawal from Europe, would be a logical companion to emerging European proposals for a stronger, more independent military. Calls for Europe to be less dependent on America are already coming from multiple sources, including French President Macron.
In other words, Europe is already discussing security independence. Ironically, the ones who would face a real challenge here are the foreign-policy insiders in Washington. With the exception of Donald Trump, American presidents since at least Ronald Reagan have had the attitude that Europe is America’s younger cousin who will always need the embracing, protective arms from across the Atlantic Ocean.
Stronger European independence would break the continent’s dependency on a U.S. neoconservative doctrine, the goal of which is continuous expansion of territorial influence. Originally a Republican idea, the neocon doctrine of American global activism has been embraced by Democrats as well. This is not surprising: even if we do not count the World War victories, America does have some laurels to rest on. Fierce Cold War anti-communism helped bring down the Soviet empire.
The problem with the neoconservative version of Pax Americana is that it only works in a bipolar world. The evil, expansionist Soviet empire was built on a doctrine that mandated the eradication of capitalism and freedom. It was the duty of America and its Western European allies to stop them. When the socialist mother country imploded, the bipolar global contest of the Cold War abruptly came to an end.
At that time, it would have been logical for America’s foreign-policy wonks to rewrite their doctrine. But instead of pursuing a strategy for a new world without the ideological confrontations of the Cold War, the neocon establishment continued as if the peaceful victory over the Soviet Union was only a battle in an ongoing war.
As demonstrated by the efforts to expand NATO to Ukraine and even Georgia—whose capital Tbilisi is closer to India than to the Atlantic Ocean—America’s neocons were tone deaf to the new Russia that emerged from the Soviet rubble. A nation reborn struggled to find its role on the global stage, but never posed the existential threat to America that the Soviet Union represented. Steaming ahead with their territorial expansion, the neocons quickly incorporated eastern Europe into its NATO-based sphere of influence.
The new NATO members had their independent reasons to want to join the alliance—no one understood the consequences of ideological imperialism like they did—but from the American viewpoint there were no questions asked about the extent to which an eastward NATO expansion was in the best interest of global stability.
Having met nothing but verbal resistance from Moscow as NATO reached Ukraine’s borders, the neocons took for granted that Russia would continue to acquiesce as NATO reached into the thick of former Soviet republics.
That was a mistake. Russia bears the full moral and economic burden for the war, but it is also clear that America’s neoconservative doctrine is one of the losers in that conflict. It is time for the foreign-policy elite in Washington to accept that neoconservatism served America well during the Cold War, but should now be gracefully retired.
Rethinking foreign policy doctrine
The process to rewrite American foreign policy is going to be tough, especially since the alternative was formulated by a man who is universally despised by neocons. In the words of Trump administration insider Sebastian Gorka, Trump approached foreign policy like a businessman. Instead of being driven by a one-size-fits-all ideology, Trump looked at every problem from the viewpoint of “principled realism.” As Gorka points out, he could be firm and unapologetic toward totalitarian regimes in Cuba and Venezuela, but pragmatically negotiate nuclear de-escalation with North Korea.
What Trump realized more than perhaps anyone in Washington, is that the world is not necessarily going to embrace Western-style democracy and our model for the rule of law. As our own David Boos recently noted, it is a bygone era when the West was “terra desiderata for many other parts of the world.”
It is important to note the obvious, namely that a country that, like the Soviet Union, pledges to destroy freedom and capitalism where those values reign, will be treated like an enemy by free countries. However, unlike under the neocon era, such treatment must be reserved only for the occasions when such threats do exist. If they don’t, then a one-size-fits-all foreign policy is destined to do more harm than good.
This conversation about American foreign policy is more urgent than it may seem. Once the war in Ukraine is over, a conversation will start about how Russia is going to help with the reconstruction efforts. Even if Ukraine accepts the no-NATO demand, Russia will still owe Ukraine substantial reparations.
The question is how those reparations should be defined, and who should have a say on the matter.
If neoconservatives join the talks, there is a substantial risk that reparation will turn into retribution. According to prevailing U.S. foreign policy doctrine, Russia must be weakened so America can be strengthened. Therefore, one cannot rule out that there is a desire in Washington to once and for all break the back of the Russian economy.
No representative of the foreign-policy establishment has expressed such a desire, but it follows logically from neoconservative doctrine. There is a risk that America will drive demands for prolonged sanctions against Russia until war reparations—as defined by Washington—have been paid.
This is a golden moment to consider historical precedent.
Echoes from Versailles
The Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, placed a heavy burden of war reparations on Germany. Spelled out in Article 231 of the Treaty, the reparations were officially meant to pay for destruction during the war. In reality, the exaction of compensation took vengeful proportions and wreaked havoc on the German economy. Many observers noted this, among them British economist John Maynard Keynes (The Economic Consequences of the Peace, 1919).
Another analyst with a similar analysis is Huger Jervey, a law professor at Columbia University and director of the Institute for International Affairs. In 1932 he gave a speech (American Scholar, Oct. issue) at the University of Virginia, where he called Article 231 “a political and social blunder” with “disastrous consequences” that had “kept Germany in a fever of opposition” to the Treaty and its other signers.
Similar words were heard right at the end of World War II from H.V.R. Iyengar, the sixth governor of the Reserve Bank of India. Speaking before the Council of World Affairs in Delhi (India Quarterly, May 1946), Iyengar noted that when Germany demanded reparations from the French for their aggression in the war of 1870, the payments were completed in 18 months without any undue burden on the French economy.
By contrast, Iyengar notes, Germany was forced to take extreme measures to comply with Article 231. In addition to surrendering its gold reserve, the German government printed enormous amounts of money to acquire domestically what in-kind payments were demanded, from natural resources to works of art.
The result is well known: in 1923 German inflation topped 29,000%.
To demand war compensation from Russia is fair; economic vengeance or deliberate economic destruction are not.
From Irving Kristol to Donald Trump
The neoconservative goal to weaken other countries for the benefit of American influence, was warranted during the Cold War. It helped end the threat from the Soviet Union. However, what was then a doctrine in response to a threat is now a missile in search of a target.
To understand America’s doctrinaire approach to foreign policy, one must go back to its roots. Foremost among neocon proponents is Irving Kristol, a journalist, editor, and publisher with decades-long influence primarily over the Republican party. In Foreign Affairs in July 1967, he spelled out what has since been the mainstream of American foreign-policy thought: as a “great power,” it is America’s duty to impose Pax Americana around the world.
In a later piece, “Foreign Policy in an Age of Ideology” (The National Interest, Fall 1985), Kristol is even more outspoken on American global activism. He dismisses a doctrine of “national interest” where America relates to others as equals; with a sharp line between Soviet expansionism (as exhibited in Afghanistan at the time) and American values, Kristol makes clear that America must not act as if it has equals.
Again, this attitude was merited in a bipolar world of incompatible opposites. Today, and especially in the world beyond the war in Ukraine, this doctrine would risk instability and conflict where none is merited.
The primary error of Kristol’s neoconservatism lies in its need for an ideological enemy. Ukraine gives us many reasons to examine what such a policy could lead to in the future. The conversations about NATO expansion is one example; another is the astounding, still emerging story of possible American-funded bio-warfare laboratories a stone’s throw from the Russian border.
It remains to be seen exactly what those laboratories have been used for, but if President Obama was to be trusted back in December 2012, they were indeed used for research on biological warfare. Our own Tristan Vanheuckelom’s excellent article sheds further light on the issue, begging the question why this type of research was being conducted in Ukraine, instead of on American soil.
While the bio-warfare laboratory story continues to unfold and we—hopefully—will get the whole picture at some point, its symbolic value for American foreign policy cannot be overstated. It is not unlike the U2 spy-plane incident of 1960. When one of America’s top-secret surveillance planes was shot down by the Soviet air force, the U.S. government first denied any involvement. When the Soviets revealed that they had the pilot, the Eisenhower administration admitted to having conducted reconnaissance flights over Soviet territory for several years.
The incident served as a tension-building preamble to the blockade of West Berlin in 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis the following year.
Russia of today does not represent a mortal threat to Western values. Yet if neoconservatism prevails, there is a great risk for more activities that can be construed as aggressive. At some point, those activities will create and escalate unnecessary—and possibly catastrophic—tensions.
The only viable option is for Washington to embrace President Trump’s principled realism.
Sven R. Larson is a political economist and author. He received a Ph.D. in Economics from Roskilde University, Denmark. Originally from Sweden, he lives in America where for the past 16 years he has worked in politics and public policy. He has written several books, including Democracy or Socialism: The Fateful Question for America in 2024.