Thinking geo-strategically again


My post-graduate degree was in international politics, specifically focused on both strategy and domestic formulation of foreign policy; it is those topics that, deep in my heart, form my principal intellectual interests. Nowhere is there better food for thought than STRATFOR. If you do not have a subscription, or at least regularly read George Friedman and Robert Kaplan, you are missing out on some of the best strategic thought on offer. Their subscriptions are very reasonable and represent exceptional value and insight for money.

I rarely repost in this blog; I rarely read something that I think requires it. But Dr Friedman’s post on the wider strategic issues in the current crisis in Ukraine, Borderlands: the new strategic landscape, requires it; if you think about Ukraine, from any perspective, you should read it. You will be prompted to sign up for free weekly reports. I recommend them unreservedly (even if I do not always agree with the analysis therein).

In response to the blog, I posted the comment below. The fundamental point is that the calculus both of risk and of uncertainty has shifted in geo-politics; the Cold War is over. US and UK foreign policy, particularly, needs to shift also. Continually treating relations with Moscow as a zero-sum game risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Both countries, and particularly the UK, need desperately to rethink their footing on the world stage. The intellectual and ethical bankruptcy in recent UK foreign policy revealed by the Arab Spring, the impotence in Syria and profound unpopularity of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suggest a reformulation is long overdue. Ultimately, the failings come down to a poor understanding of the meanings of risk and uncertainty in a non-bipolar world. Time for a rethink, methinks.

So, my note to Dr Friedman and musings on the Ukraine crisis:

Dr Friedman

As ever, a fascinating and penetrative analysis. The lessons of history are important but complex, as Santayana and Hegel variously noted; Clemens’ addition, as always, is apposite. Providing a century-long sweep of regional strategic history offers an antidote to the limited perspective currently on offer from US and UK politicians and from news outlets everywhere. It also changes, as you imply that it should, the conclusions to be drawn about both what has been happening and how the parties can and should respond.

The Ukraine crisis offers a stark example of US policymakers trapped in an outdated mindset. The Crimean peninsula, as you point out, has been disputed Russian territory for a century or more; its loss to the Ukraine in the break-up of the Soviet Union was more a historic and strategic error attributable to Stalin’s administrative divisions of the federation than a recognition of its historic association with Kiev. But, in that moment, US policymakers showed their lack both of current strategic reality and of imagination. Moscow was never going to surrender control of its Black Sea fleet base to another sovereign country that was tilting to the West and, by implication, away from Russian influence. Nor should it. How would the US respond if Mexico suddenly rediscovered its appetite for territorial control of Corpus Christi?

At the point of emergence of the crisis, US intervention could and should properly have been, counterintuitively, pro-Russian. It should have stepped in very publicly to ensure that the destabilising effect of alienating Russia from her Black Sea fleet base was avoided. A simple but deft restatement by Sec. Kerry of the imperative and inalienable right of Russian access to Sevastopol, under whatever arrangements, would have defused the entire conflict and moved US and Russian relations to a new and more realistic post-Cold-War footing. The enemy becomes, to paraphrase John Kennedy (and Denzel Washington), war itself rather than Russia or Putin. In so doing, Kerry could, quite defensibly, sacrificed the independence of a small, traditionally Russian strip of Ukraine’s territory to maintain the territorial integrity of the remainder of Ukraine and, at the same time, have improved cooperation with Moscow rather than setting it back to almost pre-Yeltsin levels. Sadly, that pivotal moment was squandered.

Denying strategic conflict does not make it go away. But treating every minor skirmish as having strategic significance is as dangerous and provocative as it is escalatory (albeit inadvertently). The clumsy interventions of McCain and Kerry (at least early on) were an embarrassment and showed the paucity of thinking in Washington foreign policy circles, as well as their poor grasp of even recent history. The response was knee-jerk, Cold War reactionism and inevitably unsuccessful and, thus, counter-productive. As you point out, the US cannot act decisively in Ukraine; it should have thought more realistically and intellectually adventurously before acting. I think they all need subscriptions to Stratfor (or perhaps to use more actively the subscriptions they already have).

I look forward to reports of your forthcoming trip. Bon voyage.




4 thoughts on “Thinking geo-strategically again

  1. Hi Peter,
    I read the article just two days ago. I think, Dr.Friedman missed a big point by starting the date from 1915. Becasue all of the countries mentioned in the article (except UK and Russia) were under governance of Ottomans and none of them hag governance capabilities at that time. Western world has choosen to use dictators instead of teaching them democratic systems

    • . . . or pressuring them towards democracy. That is the ‘ethical’ change I referred to in the comment as a necessity in UK foreign policy. I would acknowledge the US position is more complex. In terms of your comment, though, I think the key point is the failure by US foreign policy makers to attempt rigorously to look at the world through the eyes of others. That failure was both material and amateur in the current Ukraine crisis.

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