Three or four years ago, it was often necessary to explain why particular news was bad. That is no longer the case. The predictable is already happening, and only the self-deluded have to ask what it means.
It has been surreal to watch the Western media deliberate over what it could possibly mean that the Russians sent attack jets to maneuver dangerously around the USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) in the Baltic. This one is not hard. It means the Russians are ready to violate treaties and international conventions – which is what they did on 11 April – in order to intimidate the U.S. and NATO. It means they feel free to. It means they are not a “status quo” power, as Kissinger or Morgenthau would put it: they are not broadly invested in the status quo any longer. It means they’re unstable, and we can’t be sure what they’ll do. It means it’s time to worry.
The average person seems to have picked this up pretty readily. It’s the paid media, journalists and talking heads, who polish a bizarre obtuseness into unparsable talking points.
What most people don’t realize is that we’re missing “thought leadership” at the very top. We should be able to remember something a top official of the U.S. has said about this and similar events. The same is true of the Western European “Big Three”: the UK, France, and Germany. But who does? For several years now – basically, since the end of the Libya operation in 2011 – there has been a tired, glazed-eyed silence from the national security leadership of the West’s biggest nations. If there’s a plan, no one knows what it is. From the Oder westward, there is no public strategic dialogue, no overarching, organizing sense of what the security interests of the alliance or the individual nations are.
This is not normal. If you’re 25 or 30, it may be all you can remember. Barack Obama, who operates on this method of shrugging silence about security matters, has been in office for seven years now, and people may have gotten used to it.
But it’s actually very weird and wholly exceptional, in the conditions of modern life (which I date back, for these purposes, about 250 years). Hearing frequent reiterations of national interest and policy, couched in deliberate terms, has been the norm for many decades. With Western nations, in particular, there’s been no need to consult chicken bones or interpret Delphic utterances. Even a president like Jimmy Carter observed the forms of convention: things like stating intentions before taking action, and choosing actions that had some rational connection with stated policy.
This aspect of international affairs has been unfocused and chaotic — in short, missing — for a good five years now. It’s clear at this point that that’s not going to change. There is no prospect of the cavalry riding over the hill, and things suddenly rebalancing. Whatever happens now happens with a governor off; there’s no mechanism at work any longer to herd us all into shared expectations.
So the dangers of a couple of recent disclosures are obvious, and are just what they look like. One was reported in a Chatham House release linked by the UK Telegraph on Tuesday. Discussing the Russian jets buzzing the U.S. destroyer in the Baltic, Chatham House said that Russian fighters had also been conducting simulated-attack maneuvers against U.S. aircraft in Syria.
But in Syria, the U.S. hasn’t been relying on a generic, decades-old treaty to insure against escalation in encounters with the Russians. Last fall, the U.S. and Russia concluded an agreement specifically to deconflict our air operations in Syria. Simulated attacks and other aggressive maneuvers are prohibited by that agreement.
The Russians have been engaging in them anyway.
Russia has been consistently testing the judgement and restraint of the US military. This trend has also seen aggressive and provocative manoeuvres against Western aircraft in Syria, in particular during a deployment by US F-15Cs and Es to Turkey in late 2015. There, the United States and Russia reached an agreement on separation and safety measures while their aircraft were operating in the same airspace. But this agreement was routinely ignored by Russian pilots, who took the opportunity to practise aggressive manoeuvring against US aircraft, including positioning for simulated attacks.
The other disclosure is that NATO has devised a new partnership status – a form of partnership that doesn’t quite fit any existing definition – in order to continue a quasi-accession path with Georgia and Ukraine.
Perhaps a better way to put this is to say that NATO hopes it has found a way to avoid dropping eventual accession plans for Georgia, and avoid ending any accession possibilities for Ukraine, while also avoiding a blow-up with Russia.
This is a worst-of-all-worlds scenario, one that Russia will still consider unacceptable, but that commits too little to Georgia and Ukraine to be meaningful. It is also actively stupid, because it alarms Russia, in a way that is not necessary (no security priority of NATO requires seeming to block Russia inside the Black Sea), while making no preparations to deal with the fallout.
Temporizing on how we define the partnership path with Georgia and Ukraine is a provocative act of weakness, one of the most destabilizing developments there can be in international security affairs. It’s hard to find temperate adjectives to describe it.
But NATO is cornered by its own shortsightedness and anemia now, unwilling to choose wiser courses because it has no will to pursue them with imagination and vigor. NATO’s leading nations are literally more focused on hectoring their own people over supposed political-correctness offenses than they are concerned about national security. Nothing is lurking just over the horizon to save us from this folly.