With Victoria Nuland Nomination, Biden Signals a Return to Bush-Obama-Era Foreign Policy
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Some things never change in American foreign policy.
While there’s a lot of chatter about a “Great Reset” in terms of rebuilding society along technocratic lines in the wake of covid-19, US foreign policy appears to be going through its very own “reset.” Specifically, it appears to be going back to the neoliberal interventionist order of pre-Trump administrations. One of the most palpable reversions to the neoliberal mean was President Joe Biden’s nomination of Victoria Nuland to the position of under secretary of state for political affairs at the State Department in early January.
Although she’s still going through the nomination process, the very fact that Nuland is being considered for this position at the State Department is a telltale sign that DC has no desire to change its foreign policy ways. Nuland is a neoconservative through and through. Her track record speaks for itself.
During the Bush administration, Nuland was a key foreign policy advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney and would later serve as the US ambassador to NATO, a role in which she frequently made the case for the military alliance’s members to strengthen their contributions to the US’s nation-building excursions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Her next move on the foreign policy ladder saw Nuland become the State Department spokesperson during the Obama administration, when then secretary of state Hilary Clinton was pushing for regime change in Libya and Syria.
Where Nuland truly stood out, though, was in her post of assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, where she helped orchestrate a coup in Ukraine in 2014. Understanding American foreign policy since the Soviet Union’s collapse is key to realizing Nuland is a dangerous foreign policy selection. Post-Soviet Ukraine has been marked by repeated bouts of political instability and widespread corruption. These factors have made the country susceptible to interference from external actors such as Russia, the European Union, and the United States. From one administration to another, Ukrainian presidents have either made gestures toward the West or Russia.
One way the West has tried to extend its influence after the Cold War ended is by using the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a vehicle for eastward expansion in Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. In the early 1990s, the US initially promised Russian leaders that NATO had no intentions of expanding eastward toward Russia’s backyard. But for a superpower intoxicated with the desire to spread its influence abroad at all costs, the promise of restraint in the ex-Soviet sphere was dubious at best.
NATO’s first geopolitical flex after the fall of the Soviet Union was the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, which left many in the Russian security establishment wary of NATO’s geopolitical ambitions in the region. Furthermore, the US pulled an about-face and decided to advocate for the addition of countries such as Poland, Hungary, Estonia, Albania, and Croatia, among others, into NATO’s security umbrella. What started out as an alliance consisting of twelve founding members now comprises thirty nations.
Intoxicated by a triumphalist mindset typical of Western institutions in the post-Soviet era, NATO continued pushing the envelope by wooing countries in Russia’s orbit with the prospect of joining the military alliance. Like all expansionist ventures in geopolitics, NATO’s efforts eventually faced hard limits.
The cases of Georgia and Ukraine were instructive. The American government exerted its influence in both Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014) to bring them into the NATO fold. American hopes to add new NATO members were dashed when Russia countered these machinations with its own military actions in South Ossetia and Crimea, effectively ending the West’s monopoly on the use of force in world politics. For Russia, these countries are of strategic importance and within its traditional sphere of influence, therefore it felt justified in its actions to defend its strategic interests from Western influence.
In the latter case of Ukraine, Nuland was intimately involved in fomenting unrest while she was assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. What was rather ironic about that period was the Obama administration’s original desire to promote a “reset” in relations with Russia. However, Nuland’s machinations as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs threw a wrench into potential plans for a rapprochement between Russia and the United States.
Toward the end of 2013, Ukraine was mired in protests after the Ukrainian government under the leadership of President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign an association agreement with the European Union. Instead, Yanukovych opted to strengthen Ukraine’s relationship with Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union—a geoeconomic bloc made up of eastern European, Central Asian, and western Asian countries that Atlanticists are generally hostile toward. The Russian government attempted to sweeten the deal for Ukraine by offering discounted energy prices and $15 billion in economic aid.
Yanukovych’s move raised eyebrows in the West, with the likes of Nuland and associated foreign entities figuring out ways to capsize his government. Taking advantage of the protests that ensued, which were motivated by perceptions of corruption and political abuse by the Yanukovych government, Nuland and co. made sure to crank up the pressure on the sitting president. What started out as an otherwise organic set of protests, morphed into a geopolitical tug-of-war among external actors. In this process, Nuland gained notoriety after a phone call between her and then US ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt was leaked to the public and became available on YouTube. During this call, Nuland and Pyatt had a discussion about who should be Yanukovych’s successor. On February 22, 2014, after protests had spiraled out of control and order had started breaking down across Ukraine, Yanukovych resigned and subsequently fled to Russia for refuge.
Regime change architects expected a smooth political transition in Ukraine but what ensued was anything but stable. Following Yanukovych’s departure, Russia proceeded to annex Crimea. Shortly thereafter, an armed conflict kicked off in Ukraine’s Donbass region. The latter region has substantial ethnic minority Russian populations along with a sizable number of Russophones, while the former is predominantly Russian in ethnolinguistic terms. The protection of its coethnics was a key factor that motivated Russia’s intervention in the aforementioned regions.
The possibility of Ukraine joining NATO following the Euromaidan demonstrations was a risk the Russian state was not going to entertain in light of the two decades of NATO enlargement in its own backyard. So far, the Russo-Ukrainian war has claimed the lives of more than 10,300 people, left 24,000 wounded, and displaced north of 1.5 million people. A crisis that could have been averted had the US not stuck its nose in the internal affairs of faraway lands, foreign policy mandarins like Nuland did not factor in Russia’s very real geostrategic interests and the lengths it would go to defend them.
Let’s ask ourselves this: How would the US respond if rival countries such as China or Russia engineered a coup in Mexico with the intention of installing a preferred presidential candidate contrary to US interests and the wishes of Mexican voters? Similarly, DC would likely go apoplectic if the emerging great powers installed client states right across the border in the Caribbean Basin. But US foreign policy operates on different standards. For the US government, the entire world is a petri dish for extravagant regime change experiments, blowback be damned.
Regime change delusions are deep-seated among the foreign policy class. So much so that orchestrating foreign policy blunders constitutes an example of “failing forward,” whereby political leaders are not held accountable for their failed policies and are instead rewarded with more prestigious sinecures. As a matter of fact, inflicting massive damage abroad is the best way to move up the foreign policy ladder in DC, as evidenced by Nuland’s nomination to under secretary of state for political affairs. Some things never change.
In a similar vein, foreign policy bungles turn out to be lucrative ventures for well-connected interest groups. The US’s misbehavior in Ukraine has been a boon for the ravenous hawks in the Pentagon. Russia’s decisive victory in Crimea and a resurgent China have provided fertile ground for the Pentagon’s 2018 National Defense Strategy, which pivoted America’s foreign policy from combating terrorism to embroiling itself into great power conflict. This means more brinksmanship and fatter budgets for defense contractors.
As with all of the perfidy emanating from DC, there is substantial bipartisan buy-in. Despite Donald Trump’s prorestraint rhetoric on the campaign trail, his administration’s actions told a grimmer story. The Trump administration was more than willing to throw bones at Russiagate hysterics by installing a missile base in Romania, deployed additional troops in Poland, slapped significant sanctions on Russia, provided lethal aid in the form of Javelin antitank missiles to Ukraine, and even escalated tensions with Russian mercenaries in Syria.
Relations between Russia and the US are already deteriorating, and with Nuland in the conversation as under secretary of state for political affairs nominee, we can only expect the status quo to remain firmly in place. It doesn’t help that Joe Biden’s current secretary of state, Antony Blinken, openly stated that the US government will not recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea.
Even worse, while in the nomination process for his current post, Blinken did not discard the idea of incorporating countries like Georgia into NATO’s security blanket. In a hubristic manner typical of US diplomats these days, Blinken glossed over Russia’s objections and previous demonstration of force to defend its interests from perceived Western encroachments in its historical sphere of influence. Blinken’s stances on Russia do not augur well for American relations with the Eurasian power.
The parties in power may change during any given election cycle, but the interventionist policies remain the same, much to the detriment of an American public exhausted after years of perpetual conflict. American policymakers would be wise to stop pretending we’re in Cold War 2.0 with Russia and instead to embrace a policy based on realism and restraint.
Frankly, a sober foreign policy will not materialize with Victoria Nuland in the picture.