By Ramin Karbasi

Edited by Namitha Sadanand, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist

To take the nature of foreign affairs at face value is to assume that they are solely contingent upon the successes or failures of diplomacy. Of course, an elementary understanding of international relations warrants this simple, yet gravely misinformed belief. At the risk of further devolving such an understanding, it is perhaps best explained by virtue of a dichotomy – ‘Diplomacy Works’ or ‘Diplomacy Ends When War Begins’.

Perhaps there is no better example of this ongoing misconception than that of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s aggressive acquisition of Crimea. In light of President Putin’s actions, and the repercussions of said actions, one is not entirely wrong to conclude that President Barack H. Obama’s efforts at diplomacy have fallen on deaf ears. What is wrong, however, is to assume that diplomacy has failed entirely because of the outbreak of conflict. Instead, conflict is simply another form of diplomacy.  In many respects, it is even a more artful form of diplomacy.

In The Art of War, Sun-Tzu argues that if one knew their enemy like they knew themselves, they would never risk loss in even a hundred battles. In a more contemporary setting, the seemingly interminable tension between the United States and Russia epitomizes such a lesson. The glaring fault, however, lies within the fact that the United States and its various extensions of power (e.g. NATO) do not fully understand President Putin or his Russia.

With this understanding in mind, the principal problem that the United States faces becomes clearer – How could the United States reassert itself and reassure its allies (in Europe and elsewhere) if it cannot even fully comprehend Russia’s intentions?

 Simply put, the answer is that it cannot achieve either goal without first understanding the nature of the beast that is Russia. To that end, NATO, the United States’ most relevant and crucial tool of diplomacy in this matter, must also be assessed in terms of effectiveness, or lack thereof.

In a recent interview dated June 5th, 2014, President Putin was asked about whether his actions mirrored intentions to restore a Russian Empire. He firmly replied that they did (and do) not. Such a response, however, fails to both address and discount attempts to gain popular domestic political support and increase Russian influence and resolve in the international arena. That is, though President Putin does not seek to restore a Russian Empire in name, the same cannot be said with respect to power and prestige.

President Obama’s response to Russian aggression has been ‘textbook’ at best. Russia acted, violated international norms and agreements (most notably the 1994 Budapest Memorandum) and the United States imposed sanctions, and diplomatic talks have taken on their traditionally stagnant form. This cyclical and largely ineffective response has not only worried US allies, but it has also severely undermined US credibility and resolve.

Russian intentions are clear: restore Russian political, economic, and social power by any means. Conversely, US intentions are less clear. It is upon this stark contrast that one must consider the relevance of NATO and Article 5.

Article 5 is the collective defense obligations portion of the NATO founding document. Succinctly, it posits that any armed attack against one member warrants a collective and coordinated response of assistance from other member nations. The problem with this agreement, however, functions in three significantly interdependent ways.

First, Article 5 carries an inherent ‘stigma’ in the form of ambiguity. As a case study, one may look to Russian aggression against Georgia in 2008. Russia acted as overtly as it did due to the fact that Georgia was not a NATO member nation. Had it been a NATO member nation, one could reasonably conclude that Russia would have acted far more carefully and reservedly so as to avoid provocation and Article 5 enaction.

Similarly, Ukraine is not a NATO member. Therefore, the first problem arises in how to properly respond to and assist Ukraine. As a non-member state, Article 5 is essentially void. It is further void by the implicit, but not explicit deployment of Russian troops into Ukraine. A pressing question consequently arises: If Ukraine is not a member state and the troops initially deployed were not explicitly identified as Russian, is Article 5 relevant?

The second, far more salient problem resides in an expression of US resolve and credibility for Eastern European members of NATO. If Russia were also inclined to exercise its influence over former Eastern Bloc-Current NATO member states, the use of Article 5 would be warranted. The ambiguity, however, prevents any significant and profound response. It discounts the inherent time lag for a response, what type of response would be given, and whether a war-weary US would be willing to directly involve itself in another costly conflict.

This lack of resolve is also an unnerving gesture to non-European allies, principally those in Asia. This third problem poses a final, pressing dilemma for the United States’ global position and credibility. If the United States cannot effectively challenge Russian action and defend its Eastern European allies, its Asian allies would be hard-pressed to expect any different. In light of increasing tensions regarding the Senkaku Islands, the continued foreign policy failures in Ukraine paint a demoralizing and ominous picture for the United States moving forward.

The United States should chiefly aim to reassert itself and reassure its allies, whether in Europe or Asia, of its security obligations. President Obama’s recent pledge of $1 billion for a program of new military exercises on land, in the sea, and in the air is a promising step forward. However, in terms of security obligations and resolve, it is more a show akin to late-President Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘Great White Fleet’ than it is an actual fulfillment of security obligations.

 In an era in which diplomacy is as much an art as actual war is, President Obama is forced to understand President Putin and Russia’s intentions better than his Cold War predecessors understood their Soviet counterparts. If President Obama fails to do so, he will likely be haunted by Sun-Tzu’s portentous promise of limited victories, or worse.

 Ramin is currently a Senior Honors student at Southern Methodist University, where he majors in Political Science and Sociology. An avid student of comparative politics and economics, Ramin hopes to one day pursue post-graduate International Development studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. As such, and acknowledging the works of Mr. Nayef Al-Rodhan, he best describes himself as a symbiotic realist. A self-ascribed Francophile, Ramin also enjoys reading works of French existential literature in his spare time.

Posted by The Indian Economist | For the Curious Mind