Has Foreign Affairs Begun a Love Affair with Diplomacy?

Throughout its history, Foreign Affairs has been the source observers consult to get a feel for the drift of Washington’s foreign policy. It provides significant hints about the concerns of the day and sets the tone that will help observers to understand emerging policy in the weeks, months and seasons ahead.
Ukraine and Russia

Illustration of the tensions between Ukraine and Russia. Military conflict. Conceptual map of state borders. 3d render © Borshch Filipp / shutterstock.com

April 24, 2024 06:40 EDT

The Ukraine war has reached what most careful observers acknowledge as an inflection point due to the obvious incapacity of the Ukrainian forces to turn the tide against Russia. In the buildup to Saturday’s vote in the House of Representatives that granted a cool $61 billion to Ukraine’s war effort, a major argument consisted of claiming that the money would permit Ukraine to avoid defeat.

Avoiding defeat is one thing. But neither Secretary of State Antony Blinken nor even the US Ambassador to Ukraine, Bridget Brink, who in March proclaimed “Ukrainian victory is good for the world, and it is good for us,” dares to claim that the new package will guarantee a Ukrainian victory.

In such a context, we should retain exactly three possible hypotheses:

1. A Russian victory sealed by a Ukrainian surrender,

2. A negotiated settlement before things become much worse,

3. A prolonged war along the model of Afghanistan.

The US and NATO have famously promised for the past two years to carry on the war “as long as it takes.” No one will accept the first hypothesis, which would be a total humiliation after only two year. The humiliation in Afghanistan happened so long after the start of the war, that it seemed almost natural.

With the hypothesis of a Ukrainian victory no longer seriously entertained, only choices 2 and 3 remain. The choice of a prolonged war would be consistent with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s famous assertion that the goal of the fight was “weakening Russia.” But prolonging the war has been seriously called into question by the reluctance of Republicans to keep funding the war effort. It is further compounded by the prospect of Donald Trump winning the presidency in November.

Has the idea of a negotiated settlement has now become a serious talking point? That is what the authors of an important article in Foreign Affairs appears to be saying. The article that bears the title “The Talks That Could Have Ended the War in Ukraine” asks this question:

“What did the Russians want to accomplish by invading Ukraine? On February 24, 2022, Putin gave a speech in which he justified the invasion by mentioning the vague goal of ‘denazification’ of the country. The most reasonable interpretation of “denazification” was that Putin sought to topple the government in Kyiv, possibly killing or capturing Zelensky in the process.”

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Most reasonable interpretation:

The one preferred by the speaker even when there is no factual basis for accepting it.

Contextual note

The authors, Samuel Charap and Sergey Radchenko have filled their article with a dog’s dinner of facts, conjectures and, of course, “reasonable interpretations.” My own conjecture is that the point of publishing such an article in Foreign Affairs is to prepare the public for a negotiated end to a war that Ukraine and NATO now realize they cannot win.

The $61 billion package for Ukraine’s defense will undoubtedly be the last one the embattled nation will receive from the US Congress. The months-long struggle to get that legislation through has forced the Washington elite formerly committed to fighting “as long as it takes” to accept the possibility of not achieving that goal. This will lead to an inevitable loss of face, but Charap and Radchenko’s article may be designed to limit the damage. After two years of denial negotiations, it won’t be easy. “When we put all these pieces together,” they tell us as if discovering some unsuspected truth, “what we found is surprising—and could have significant implications for future diplomatic efforts to end the war.”

The political game in Washington in this election year has become complex, especially when it comes to yet another failed military engagement. Democrats can still blame Republicans for creating the conditions for Ukraine’s defeat by holding back the funds the Democrats considered so necessary. Republicans, however, can now say that they honored their sentiment of solidarity Ukraine but that the ultimate result demonstrates that they were right to resist continuing to finance a lost cause. Both of those “interpretations” can be considered “reasonable.”

So, is the article a belated endorsement coming from the Washington elite of the idea that negotiations in 2022 should have been allowed to succeed? The authors also don’t quite go that far. They develop what I’m tempted to call the ChatGPT defense. Whenever confronted with a challenge to “official truth” contradicted by apparent facts, the AI chatbot consistently applies a three-word formula. It calls the issue “complex and multifaceted.”

Charap and Radchenko begin by signalling two opposing interpretations of the facts dating from March/April 2022. One version points to the claim that a nearly completed agreement between Ukraine and Russia had been reached. The other is the one held by those who “dismissed the significance of the talks entirely.” This is where the authors develop their ChatGPT defense: “Although those interpretations contain kernels of truth, they obscure more than they illuminate. There was no single smoking gun; this story defies simple explanations.”

The “reasonable interpretation” the authors put forward turns out to be a little more ornate than ChatGPT’s economical reasoning, but the intent is identical. Did the West block the negotiations? Or was there no serious likelihood that they might succeed? The authors cite a litany of true but largely anecdotal observations before culminating with a critique of the scope and ambition of contents of the proposed agreement, informing us that it was over-ambitious.

“They tried to deliver an overarching settlement even as a basic cease-fire proved out of reach.” Aiming for an “overarching settlement” to end a war would, in the authors’ eyes, be inappropriate. They don’t bother to explain why. They do, however, observe that “Putin and Zelensky surprised everyone with their mutual willingness to consider far-reaching concessions to end the war. They might well surprise everyone again in the future.”

That appears to be the point. The public now needs to get ready for a “surprise,” which is one way of sugar-coating a humiliating defeat.

Historical note

Foreign Affairs is unquestionably one of the most influential political magazines in the US. Although it can be counted on most of the time to reflect the orthodox thinking of the foreign policy establishment and the Ivy League elite, it has a track record of publishing seminal articles that shapes the discourse on international relations for Washington’s policymakers and the nation’s media. George Kennan’s “X Article” in 1947 and Samuel P. Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations” in 1993 stand as two examples of landmark contributions to the evolving worldview shared amongst the intellectual classes of the role of the US in the world.

Both Kennan and Huntington expressed original interpretations that influenced the direction of foreign policy for the following decades. Kennan articulated the Soviet containment policy that underlay most of the decisions made during the Cold War. It directed influenced President John F Kennedy’s reasoning that allowed him to avoid war during the Cuban missile crisis. In contrast, the same commitment to containment guided Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, to justify waging war with a non-nuclear enemy in Vietnam. Samuel Huntington’s article conveniently provided the rationale that permitted President George W. Bush to launch his “Global War on Terror” a decade later.

The consequences of those reorientations of Beltway thought are still playing out today in the most dramatic fashion. The conflict in Gaza falls into Huntington’s logic of a clash of civilizations whereas the logic behind the war in Ukraine has its roots in the containment strategy that led to the creation of NATO. The historical conditions have changed but the ideological reflexes are still in place.

The logic that spawned NATO should have disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union, as Kennan himself observed in 1998: “I think [NATO expansion] is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else.” Continuing Kennan’s reasoning, John Mearsheimer pointed out in a “controversial” article published by Foreign Affairs in March 2015, that NATO expansion into Ukraine, if pursued, would inevitably provoke a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Because Mearsheimer was “controversial” no one needed to take seriously his predictions.

So, should we now take seriously a hint in Foreign Affairs that a negotiated settlement is in the offing and that NATO’s eastward expansion will finally be stopped in its tracks? That would be a sea-change after 75 years of NATO. And though it will likely create a shock, it may just happen.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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