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  • Writer's pictureVladimir Chlouba

Smart Realism – A Balanced Approach to Upholding US Interests in Europe

The postmodern world’s complexity is manifested in both domestic and international politics, not least because the two are increasingly intertwined. The United States’ grand strategy, albeit drawing on a rich history of varying traditions of idealism, liberal internationalism, isolationism, and realism, is not clearly defined and the Obama years, I would argue, have done little to give American foreign policy a unifying vision. As is often the case in politics, Obama’s tenure was largely a reaction to George W. Bush’s neoconservative unilateralism. “Don’t do stupid stuff” was to many a natural response to America’s deep engagement in two long wars in the Middle East. As Hillary Clinton readily acknowledged upon her departure from the State Department however, “great nations need organizing principles and ‘don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” One finds little hope that things will change for the better after the 2016 presidential elections. Mrs. Clinton herself has at times been all over the place, initially commencing various trade negotiations, only to later announce that in the wake of her current political campaign, she now opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Donald Trump, on the other hand, offers an interesting mix of neoisolationism and heavy-handed actions against whomever Mr. Trump perceives as America’s enemy.

Russian forces in Crimea

The abovementioned contradictions have become palpable in the last few years with respect to Russia’s newly-found determination to assume a more important role on the world stage. After Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula and continued to destabilize the eastern part of Ukraine as a response to unfavorable changes in Kiev’s political orientation, the United States proved neither prepared to negotiate effective de-escalation, nor willing to engage in conflict on the European Union’s eastern border. The Obama administration has offered Ukraine some help but stayed away from provision of lethal weaponry. The president is clearly dismayed by Russia’s actions but instead of engaging the Russian president, either in action or negotiation, Obama seems to be aloof and at times disengaged.

This paper seeks to clear the air, remove some of the confusion, and offer a balanced approach to upholding US interests in Europe. In particular, this essay focuses on the appropriate response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine as well as a longer term strategy for US-Russian relations. Naturally, the policy recommendations that are forwarded throughout this paper are not conceived in a vacuum. Therefore, an entire grand strategy, termed smart realism, is sketched out at the very beginning of this essay. Smart realism acknowledges some of the most basic tenets of traditional realpolitik. Self-help is viewed as the most natural mode of state’s behavior. Geopolitical situational factors and rational cost-benefit analyses are thought to dominate policymakers’ thinking most of the time. However, smart realism is aware of traditional realism’s inability to locate a finite foreign policy goal and its implicit conclusion that states aim at protecting their existence merely to exist. Smart realism tends to take a longer-term view, acknowledging that actions which do not yield direct benefits in the short term may in fact prove perfectly reasonable in the longer term. Furthermore, smart realism acknowledges, without automatically making demands for liberal regime change, that states do differ in their nature and that democracies and dictatorships respond the foreign policy questions differently. In this sense, smart realism is a particular mix of traditional realism and a bit of idealism – although it makes use of some of the traditional tools of realpolitik, it attaches importance to the nature of different countries’ regimes and their political culture. The grand strategy of smart realism, as well as the particular US policy towards Europe and Russia, is designed so that it is capable of serving the United States’ interests and core values in today’s transforming world.

The Emerging World Order

Quite inevitably, we are moving into an era where the unchallenged dominance of the United States in the world arena will come to an end. This does not mean that the United States will not remain one of the most important nations on Earth, and, if it follows the appropriate strategy, perhaps even a primus inter pares. What this means is that that the sheer economic and consequently military dominance of the United States will be matched by other emerging powers. One needs not repeat an endless list of statistics that evidence this development. China’s growth and the emerging markets’ increasing relevance have been thoroughly documented elsewhere. It is quite possible, as the author of this essay believes, that China’s emergence, for instance, has its limits and often has been exaggerated and overblown. China has not discovered a new and miraculous path to economic growth. It merely goes through the same process that other developed countries experienced long ago. We are already observing the contradictions of investment-driven growth which cannot be sustained forever without comparatively burgeoning domestic consumption. The prediction that China will follow the same path as Japan – strong growth for several decades and subsequent slowdown, even persistent deflation – could very well be correct. Furthermore, China will have to face a number of other factors that the other Asian actors did not have to consider. For instance, will China be able to handle the social changes that accompany economic growth? Will the growing numbers of well-off Chinese be willing to forever live in a system that does not necessarily allow for democratic input? Will the Chinese bureaucracy be able to effectively respond to changing economic conditions at a time when the Chinese low-wage advantage will continue to erode? Based on the recent heavy-handed interventions in the Chinese stock market, sudden currency devaluations, and attempts to sustain very high growth at the cost of widening the underlying disparity between investment and consumption, the answers to these questions could very well be negative. However, even if China followed Japan’s path, it would remain one of the most important actors in world politics. The nature of today’s globalized economy is such that knowledge and information, the important sources of comparative advantage in a modern world, can no longer be effectively monopolized. In other words, widely disparate levels of development are unlikely to persist. We have been experiencing what Kishore Mahbubani calls the great convergence.[1]

Over the coming decades, we will likely experience the reemergence of something that the world has not seen since the age of chancellor Metternich – a pentarchy of powers shaping world politics. At the risk of taking a bold guess, we may predict that the pentarchy will be composed of the United States, a united Europe, China, Russia, and India. These countries are naturally vastly different in their power and India’s armed forces, for example, cannot compare with the military might of the United States. The inclusion of these countries, however, is justified by their economic potential, which can subsequently be transformed into military capabilities. All five countries have relatively long history of cohesive statehood and are likely to continue to exist in their current borders. These five countries or group of countries (the European Union, of course, is not a country but a union) also form unique civilizational areas which further underscores their internal coherence.

The most important interest of the United States will be to build lasting alliances while ensuring that the remaining countries do not team up against it. Specifically, one of the most vital tasks of US foreign policymakers is to encourage the European Union to stay together in whatever form this proves possible, whether as a federation or a confederation. The British exit from the Union is the kind of development that the United States needs to watch carefully and it must encourage the British to plan their future in close collaboration with the European Union. Furthermore, the United States should strengthen the economic and military alliance with the European Union. Despite the current backlash against free trade agreements, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is of vital importance, for it could result in economic benefits and tightening of the Euroatlantic political alliance. There currently exists a disparity between European Union and NATO membership. Many countries such as France, Germany, Italy, and the Czech Republic are part of both the European Union and NATO. Some, such as Norway, are only part of NATO and choose to stay outside of the European Union. Yet others, such as Sweden or Finland, are members of the European Union but have not joined NATO. Even though the United States must respect the fact that international organization membership falls entirely within the sovereignty of individual states, it should realize that the economic and political (EU), as well as military (NATO) alliances are two different sides of the same coin. The history of anti-American sentiment is long in certain political circles in Europe but the United States should forge a close alliance even if this includes various trade-offs such as leaving certain areas (the French are particularly concerned about their film industry) out of TTIP.

A strong Euroatlantic partnership will enable the United States to protect the basics of the post-World War II international liberal order. Free trade and continued importance of institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund is in America’s interest. Yet the emergence of the other members of the pentarchy poses a delicate question: what exactly does it mean to protect the existing international liberal order? To be sure, it does not mean to resist the reform of these institutions which is precisely what the United States has been lately trying to do. Protecting the existing order means allowing the emerging powers such as India and China to participate in the institutions’ leadership while ensuring that their nature is maintained. This is not an easy task but allotting the emerging countries more voting rights as well as including their currencies in the basket of official reserve currencies of the IMF constitutes a natural step. The tradition that the World Bank is always headed by an American while the International Monetary Fund is led by a European can also be changed, allowing for more inclusivity. By funding the New Development Bank, the emerging economies have already signaled that unless they get a larger share of the cake, they will simply establish their own institutions.

Another important principle of American grand strategy should be to seek additional, albeit less tight, friendships with the rest of the world, while gently keeping the other members of the pentarchy from forming an alliance. This component of America’s world strategy can be divided into three parts: engaging the rest of the world, reaching out to India, and preventing a Russo-Chinese pact. The United States, and the West in general, face both opportunities and challenges when it comes to engaging the rest of the world, namely South America, the Middle East, and Africa. The US has traditionally considered Latin America a sphere of its influence but anti-Americanism remains a potent force in the region. Washington should therefore attempt to proceed very carefully, aiming at the continent’s development through various investment and perhaps even trade partnerships. The main goal remains to prevent the other members of the pentarchy to dominate this region. Similarly, European countries such as France and Great Britain have long-lasting ties to Africa, albeit often tainted by memories of colonialism. Still, there are positive examples such as the relationship between Germany and Namibia, which allow the European countries to maintain a certain degree of influence while contributing to Africa’s development. It is especially in Africa where Chinese presence is ever more felt. The Chinese are primarily interested in ensuring stable supplies of natural resources such as copper, zinc, and uranium. This presents the West with an opportunity to approach Africa from a different angle, emphasizing Africa’s own development.

The Obama administration has already recognized the importance of India and whoever follows the current president in the Oval Office should further accelerate the development of the US-Indian partnership. This will naturally involve some trade-offs. Every step towards a partnership with India will result in Pakistan’s growing discomfort. This is a significant development, for Pakistan had long been an American ally when it comes to battling terrorism. Yet Pakistan has often been an unreliable ally and if the American ties with India will require a loosening of the American-Pakistani relationship, this would be a bearable cost.

Lastly, the United States should aim at preventing the formation of a Russo-Chinese alliance. Such alliance would likely be the most effective way of challenging continued Euroatlantic dominance. But the emergence of such alliance is far from inevitable. First, the said alliance would be deeply asymmetric, with Russia as the decisively weaker partner. Demographic developments in Russia suggest that the country will encounter problems of its own and its one-dimensional economy will, unless reformed, prove particularly vulnerable at times of low commodity prices. Given its limited bargaining power, Russia may not necessarily be able to negotiate a good deal, as the recent natural gas agreement evidenced.[2] China has been typically silent during the Ukraine crisis and it is assumed that unless pushed, Beijing will not necessarily be overeager to enter an alliance with Moscow. This is why it is important to invite the emerging countries to participate in the international system; shortsighted intransigence on the part of the United States will only lead to forging of unnecessary alliances.

The Ukrainian Crisis

The Ukrainian crisis which started in late November 2013 with president Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an association agreement with the European Union and later spiraled into a full-blown revolution assumes particular importance when viewed through the prism of the American grand strategy outlined above. First, it is a crisis which is not likely to be dissimilar from other disputes arising on the fault lines between the members of the emerging pentarchy. Although we do not necessarily adopt the late Samuel Huntington’s analytical framework which accorded primacy to fault lines between civilizations, we do expect to see instances of reappearing conflict of interests near the fault lines of the world’s five powerful regions. This tendency is illustrated by the Ukrainian crisis, naval disputes in South China Sea, and partially also by China’s attempts to gain a foothold in Africa. Second, the Ukrainian crisis worries some of the easternmost members of NATO and tests the United States’ determination to defend its allies and maintain the alliance. As will be demonstrated in the next few pages, NATO’s security is indivisible and a gradualist approach to the Euroatlantic alliance, which would entail the idea that there is a certain core of allies as well as a less important periphery, would cost the United States dearly.

Few analysts saw the Ukrainian crisis coming in the form and time in which it ultimately arrived. Ukraine has for centuries been a divided country, both in terms of culture and politics. The western part of the country, surrounding the center of Lviv, had long been a contested territory that at different times belonged to the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Poland, and finally the Soviet Union. No wonder that there are many ethnic Poles living in eastern Ukraine, most of whom are Catholic. The religious division between Catholic West and Orthodox East should not be underestimated, particularly because the fault line running right through the heart of Ukraine is not only religious but also cultural. The Poles, Slovaks, and Eastern Ukrainians had been largely shaped by the Latin tradition and it is no coincidence that western Slavs had adopted the Latin script. Eastern Ukraine has been inhabited by many ethnic Russians as well as Ukrainians who speak both Russian and Ukrainian fluently, claim mixed ancestry, and until recently did not necessarily think about whether they are more Russian or more Ukrainian. A few years after the establishment of the Soviet Union, the insensitive Soviet agricultural policies resulted in a famine which turned the fertile Ukrainian breadbasket into a large graveyard. The resultant resentment was so strong that many Ukrainians initially welcomed the Nazi occupiers who arrived in 1941 as liberators. It was also the policy of the Soviet Union to promote Russian as the dominating language and to encourage and at times forcibly organize migration of ethnic Russians to the Baltic states and Ukraine. The very first Russian state was established in the vicinity of Kiev and both the Russian and Ukrainian historiography trace the origins of the respective nations to today’s Ukraine. In conclusion, the history of Ukraine is one of continued interaction with Russia.

When president Yanukovych refused to sign the association agreement with the European Union, protests erupted on the Maidan square in Kiev. Even though the association agreement was the very first step on the long path of cooperation with the Union, the many Ukrainians perceived it as an important landmark which would signal their country’s geopolitical orientation for the upcoming years. In 2013, Ukraine was already bitterly divided. Electoral maps regularly split the country in two regions. The east and south always went for pro-Russian forces and president Viktor Yanukovych and the west repeatedly demonstrated Ukrainian nationalism and pro-western preferences. Because Yanukovych’s turnaround from negotiating the agreement to refusing to sign it was so sudden, many decided to take to the streets. In February 2014 and after more than a hundred people died during the protests, the Ukrainian president first reached a compromise with the protesters but subsequently fled the country. The exact facts surrounding the events remain unclear and properly distorted by various propaganda machines but ultimately, the Ukrainian parliament voted to remove Mr. Yanukovych from power and subsequent elections led to the ascendance of a pro-western government and president. In the meantime, Russian forces disguised as local “self-defense units” together with an unascertained number of separatists took control of the Crimean peninsula, which later joined the Russian Federation as a result of internationally-criticized referendum. Furthermore, the eastern region of Ukraine surrounding the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk likewise fell under the separatists’ control. The stalemate has now continued with varying intensity for roughly two years.

The assessment of the crisis as well as the recommendations for an American response have revolved around two opposing viewpoints which arguably represent the leading traditions of American foreign policy – realism and idealism. The realists, represented by University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer, blame the West for escalating the crisis.[3] In Mearsheimer’s view, the Ukrainian crisis is not an entirely novel situation, but rather a continuation of a dangerous trend that has shaped American policy in central and eastern Europe for the past two decades – the expansion of NATO. This, Mearsheimer and his analytical compatriots believe, constituted an unnecessary step which merely spoiled Russo-American relations. After reaching a climax with the EU’s association agreement, the West’s meddling eventually led to a predictable Russian reaction. This reaction is said to have a lot more to do with the fact that the West abandoned its promise not to expand NATO than with any domestic factors in Russia, let alone president Putin’s lunacy or desire to once again build a great Russian empire. Mr. Mearsheimer brings our attention to the fact that at its summit in Bucharest in 2008, the alliance made it abundantly clear that both Ukraine and Georgia would have a chance to join NATO, albeit not in the near term. Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 is then seen as response to the small country’s bold attempt to exit the eternal orbit of Russian influence. NATO, the realists assert, did not march alone. The EU, too, began with its Eastern Partnership initiative and further made nervous those who wished to keep the former Soviet republics in the sphere of Russian influence. After the February 2014 removal of president Yanukovych, which in Moscow was perceived as an outright coup, the pressure on Russia was such that the country could no longer afford to stand by and watch.

Although Mr. Mearsheimer’s analysis has a number of strong points, several contradictions remain. Michael McFaul emphasizes that the United States and Russia enjoyed a period of unprecedentedly productive relations, roughly between 2009 and 2012.[4] It is thus unlikely that Russia’s choice to escalate the Ukrainian crisis was caused by a series of events that date back to the 1990s. More likely, it is the change in Russian leadership that brought back Vladimir Putin and hardball politics. The West cannot take the chance that the Russian president is merely reading Hans Morgenthau and it must prepare to respond to a revisionist leader who is not afraid to use practically any means to enlarge his power. This view is more or less shared by the retired American military officer David Petraeus and senator John McCain.[5] Senator McCain in particular employs the neoconservative analytical framework to denounce president Putin as a thug and calls for a decisive action that would drive Russia out of Ukraine.

A Triad of Principles for Russo-American Relations

The author of this essay opines that even though the realists led by John Mearsheimer are correct in their view that Russia’s aggressive response to the West’s attempt to incorporate Ukraine in its economic, political, and potentially also military structures was predictable, he is likely wrong to assume that previous NATO enlargement has been a mistake. First, it has been thoroughly documented that even though Russian officials did not spare negative comments when it came to accepting new NATO members, rhetoric was just about all that transpired after the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, the Baltics, and others joined the alliance. Second, instability and potential for conflict are perpetuated by uncertainty. If anything, expanding NATO only removed this sort of political uncertainty from central and eastern Europe. Third, and this should not be neglected, the new NATO members heavily lobbied to be accepted to the alliance, usually with an overwhelming support of their populations. The United States, rather than pushing for enlargement, merely followed through on its promise to represent liberty and security for the newly-liberated post-communist countries. Washington could have easily rejected the new member’s hopes but only at its own peril. To refuse the friendship of countries that were often heavily pro-American upon the collapse of the Soviet Union would be to risk that they will search for other alliances, many of which could not serve American interests. Lastly, and this point is naturally missed by rigid realism, the prospect of EU and NATO membership compelled the post-communist countries such as the Czech Republic and Poland to modernize their economies, fully democratize their politics and further approach the ideal of a liberal democracy. This is an achievement that has made Europe safer.

The mistake that the West made was rooted in its inability to predict that Ukraine is not Poland or the Czech Republic. For all the reasons cited above, Ukraine is not a country whose population and history favor a decisive pro-Western orientation. The distance from the Czech Republic and Russia is roughly similar to that between the Czech Republic and Spain but Ukraine is Moscow’s immediate neighbor. The United States and its allies were slow to recognize this fact. The subsequent response of the Obama administration has been equally unimaginative. The president, quite understandably, was not prepared to engage in an all-out conflict over Ukraine. Nor should he consider doing so. To revive some of the most dangerous moments of the Cold War because of a country that is obviously decades from building effective institutions and a strong economy, to risk an all-or-nothing alliance with a state which has undeniable cultural and economic ties with Russia would be nothing short of unwise. Yet the president has also chosen to be quite disengaged, opting to use his Secretary of State rather than attempting to repair his already damaged relationship with Vladimir Putin. To fail to come up with imaginative solutions for de-escalation and negotiated neutrality that would be acceptable to both parties is to leave history to its own course. Some of the initial actions that the administration took were quite proper. To organize the international community and threaten with eviction from the G8 group, as well as to impose economic sanctions, is to recognize that Russia has violated some of the basic principles of international law. In 1994, the Russian Federation agreed to “refrain from the threat or use of force against territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.”[6] To respond decisively after Russia sent unmarked troops to Crimea and organized an internationally-rejected referendum was the correct answer to Mr. Putin’s hardball tactics. Yet economic sanctions and steps towards international isolation should have been the prelude to intensive negotiations that would involve give-and-take tactics and allowed the Russians to save face. The Obama administration should have been ready to look for unconventional solutions, aiming at a mutual agreement rather than a complete victory or an embarrassment of the other side. Most importantly, the American policymakers must guard against the idealist all-or-nothing inclination which will not serve the US interests particularly well. The longer-term US strategy with respect to Russia should consist of three internally coherent principles. These are engagement and de-escalation, neutralization of Ukraine, and containment of Russian expansion.

The United States should not allow itself to retain any illusions about the Russian president and his regime. He likely looks after his own interests, and when the personal clashes with the national, Vladimir Putin will go for the personal. It is our assessment that he aims at rebuilding a strong Russia because it enables him to be a strong president with vast power. There is only one thing president Putin wants more than a strong Russia – a strong Russia with himself on top. That is a crude reality that should not be taken lightly. On the other hand, the United States does not choose Russia’s leaders and rather than hoping for regime change, America must work with the world as it is, not with what it wishes the world to be. Therefore, there must always be plenty of avenues open to negotiation. Even when a stalemate is in place and the countries disagree on practically everything, Russia and the United States should never stop talking. The United States has to be imaginative in coming up with solutions to international crises and its idealism should be a source of inspiration, not a limit of what it deems possible.

Second, since it is unwise to escalate the Ukrainian crisis because Russia will always be prepared to lose more than the US, Washington should favor Ukraine’s neutralization, however difficult this may be at this point. A guarantee that Ukraine will not join NATO can and should be given and a joint package of financial aid for Kiev, composed of contributions from both international institutions and Russia, should be put together. Ukraine’s territorial integrity has to be regained, although it is unclear whether Crimea’s position will change anytime soon.

Lastly, the United States must be unequivocal in its determination to defend its NATO allies. There should be no difference between older and newer members and as much as Washington can become committed to Ukrainian neutrality, it should signal in every possible way that an attack on a NATO member, whether open or covert, will result in a formidable American response. Russia is likely to encounter obstacles of its own, ranging from low oil prices to excessive defense spending and deteriorating investment climate. If Putinism were to crumble, the United States and its allies need to watch this development from the position of a dedicated alliance that contains Russia’s unsustainable ambitions. Naturally, we cannot be entirely certain in deciphering Vladimir Putin’s motives. Even though we assume that he is more of a hardball realist than anything else, there are reasons to believe that he at times believes in his own invincibility, which is, strictly speaking, not a rational base for decision making. However, it is the combination of containing Russia’s expansion and keeping the avenues for negotiation open that will enable US policymakers to effectively respond to actions driven by rational calculations as well as heavy-handed expansionism.

It is the same eclectic nature of the proposed principles that enables us to remain confident when it comes to the domestic feasibility of the suggested strategy. A push towards Ukraine’s neutralization and emphasis on de-escalation will likely prove more acceptable to the American public than military adventurism and consequential commitments in a far-away region. At the same time, the emphasis on protecting US allies and containing Russia’s expansion will require stable and perhaps even increased defense expenditures. It is not unreasonable to expect that if properly explained to the American public and Congress, defense expenditure can be maintained at the necessary levels. To be sure, many of the proposed steps, such as firmly observing America’s duties as an ally, do not constitute a shift in American policy. Rather, they represent a reassertion of previously accepted principles. However, the 2016 presidential election could very well be crucial. The likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, would probably find it reasonable to adopt many of the suggestions laid out in this essay. Donald Trump, on the other hand, remains as unpredictable as a loaded shotgun. His statements often lack consistency and coherence but they do contain significant traces of neoisolationism that would clearly be incompatible with most of our recommendations. The upcoming presidential election is thus of crucial importance for America’s role in the emerging world order.

[1] MAHBUBANI, Kishore. Great Convergence: Asia, the West, and the Logic of One World. S.l.: Public Affairs, 2014. ISBN 9781610393690.

[2] O'SULLIVAN, Meghan. New China-Russia Gas Pact Is No Big Deal. Bloomberg View [online]. [cit. 2016-05-12]. Available at:

[3] MEARSHEIMER, John J. Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault. Foreign Affairs [online]. [cit. 2016-05-12]. Available at:

[4] MCFAUL, Michael. Faulty Powers. Foreign Affairs [online]. 2014 [cit. 2016-08-14]. Available at:

[5] PETRAEUS, David a John HERBST. Putin Hasn’t Given Up His Designs on Ukraine [online]. 17.2.2016. [cit. 2016-05-12]. Available at:

MCCAIN, John. Obama Has Made America Look Weak. The New York Times [online]. 14.3.2014. [cit. 2016-05-12]. Available at:

[6] The Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, 1994

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