‘Foreign Affairs’ magazine, May-June 2014 issue: The false debate over “The Return of Geopolitics”

Amidst the confrontation between the West and Russia over Ukraine, the world is edging towards the precipice. At this fateful moment, Foreign Affairs magazine has chosen to feature an exchange of views between two of its house philosophers over the angel count on a pinhead.  Read more…




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Foreign Affairs magazine, May-June 2014 issue: The false debate over “The Return of Geopolitics”

                by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


The debate over the relevance of geopolitics to our understanding of International Relations featured in the May-June 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine pits Professor G. John Ikenberry of Princeton against Professor Walter Russell Mead of Bard College. Their sparring takes place in some abstract universe where pure ideas enter into combat wearing big boxing gloves so as to avoid doing bodily harm. The specific issues of current events intrude only as headings, a sort of ballast that may keep these philosophers anchored to the interests and concerns of their less enlightened readership who seek detailed solutions to the policy problems before them, not just word games or angel counting.

The abstractness of the debate is not the result of some idiosyncrasy of the two authors; it comes with the domain they occupy within the IR discipline – Wilsonian idealism in its late 20th century form, what we recognize as Neocon thinking. Their stock in trade is universal laws. History, language, religion, the economics of any given territory are almost irrelevant, the concerns of the sad lot over in what remains of the Realpolitik school, which is now passé.

Mead, who is editor at large within the magazine founded and run by Neocon popularizer Francis Fukuyama, has his two legs planted in the Wilsonian idealist domain. Ikenberry has always been more of an eclectic thinker. He coined the term structural liberalism to describe his school of thought. You could say he has one leg in the outer fringes of Realpolitik and the other firmly in Wilsonian idealism.

Though Mead’s connection to The American Interest is mentioned by the FA editors, they fail to say that Ikenberry has also contributed solidly to the same publication where his name has figured on the editorial board. Both also have a long association with FA where they are in the small pool of book reviewers, each with his own marked territory. And Ikenberry, at least, is affiliated with several other specialized IR journals in addition. To put it in business terminology, you might say that Ikenberry and Mead are members of the interlocking directorate that controls their industry and keeps nonmembers out of print.

The FA editors matched Mead and Ikenberry to get separate takes on what problems the current crisis over Ukraine, the confrontation between Russia and the West, have or have not posed for theorists invested in The End of History ideas.  First word was given to Walter Russell Mead, who represents the pur et dur positions of Fukuyama and Co.  I will deal with his thesis first before examining Ikenberry’s antithesis.

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Walter Russell Mead, “The Return of Geopolitics: The Revenge of the Revisionist Powers”

Mead’s basic case is that Russia’s recent actions and confrontation with the West over Ukraine mark the revival of the geopolitical dimension in international relations, meaning creation of spheres of influence, that was thought to have been vanquished when the Cold War ended and the world entered an ideologically free, post-historical phase. This idea is what Ikenberry spends most of his capital disputing.  

Instead I will deal here with something I consider more important, Mead’s contention that Russia is a revisionist power, a term which shares top billing with ‘geopolitics’ in the title of his essay. Ikenberry also contests this but for different, and, I believe, wrong reasons as I well demonstrate in due course.

In approaching the issue of ‘revisionist powers.’ let’s take a page out of Hans Morgenthau, the Ur-source on Realpolitik, as we try to understand who is the revisionist and who is the status quo power. Morgenthau said in Politics Among Nations  that revanchist or revisionist countries need ideology to conceal their aggressive ambitions, whereas status quo nations do not, since there is no change that needs justification.

For anyone with even a modicum of fair-mindedness, it is clear that with some help from Francis Fukuyama and his comrades-in-arms in the Neoconservative movement within the Republican Party, later with the help of the won-over Democrats in the Progressive Internationalists camp, since 1992 the United States has pursued an ideologically driven foreign policy which Meade ticks off for us quite accurately.

This was and is a modified Wilsonian idealist policy that is ‘values based’ as opposed to ‘interests based’ – promoting democracy, human rights across borders. Under this smokescreen, the US incidentally fomented the color revolutions and installed regimes deemed favorable to the West in a series of countries. The same ideology provided cover for a patently revisionist security policy – bringing into NATO a string of countries from the former Warsaw Pact, in direct violation of the understandings with the Russians that ended the Cold War in 1989. This reached its high water mark in 2004 with the inclusion of the former Soviet republics of the Baltics in NATO.  The efforts to incorporate Georgia and Ukraine as well crossed red lines set by the Russians for their existential security interests and were effectively frustrated, setting up the present confrontation and New Cold War.

We have here two smoking guns:  American revisionism as expressed by the never-ending expansion of its military alliance and bases to the Russian borders and American revisionism as seen in the roll-out of a suitable ideological cover for its expanding worldwide hegemony.

What do we have on the other side?  From the 1990s until the last year or two, Russia abandoned its Soviet ideology and indulged in a policy of enrichissez-vous, preoccupied with enjoying the consumer life style that Communism had denied three generations of Russians. It has only been in the last year, and only in response to the shrill information war that the United States and Western Europe unleashed against Russia following the scandal over Snowden’s acceptance in Moscow as a political refugee and in the run-up to the Sochi Olympic Games which otherwise promised to accord great PR benefits to Russia that Vladimir Putin has moved to assemble a proto-ideology for Russia as guarantor of conservative values in a newly bi-polar world.

On the security side, Russia was on the ropes in the 1990s, retreating before every Western advance in territories that historically been allied with Russia for 150 years or more, including and particularly Serbia and other Balkan states.  Even as Vladimir Putin restored the economy and military potential of his country in the first decade of the new millennium, this retreat continued, initially as part of a calculated gamble to trade geopolitical concessions in its own back yard of Central Asia following 9/11 for the redrawing of European security architecture so as to include Russia. 

The first incarnation of this, in 2001, was the idea of Russia in NATO. That failed when President Bush responded to the Russian charm offensive with slaps in the face: the abrogation of the ABM treaty and the accelerated initiative to place missile defense installations in Europe.  Russia’s second attempt, the new European security treaty floated by Dmitry Medvedev which would give Russia a protection against military action directed against itself by its European neighbors, also failed miserably to get US and Western attention. 


Russia stopped its security retreat when it counterattacked in response to Georgian aggression in 2008. And it has continued its counterattack this year when it responded to the American led putsch in Kiev by fomenting the separatist insurgency in Crimea that led to annexation of the peninsula shortly thereafter.  But even here, to speak of Russian action as revisionist is a gross misrepresentation.  The annexation of Crimea was no more than a proactive defensive move to prevent the cancellation of its extended lease on the home port of its Black Sea fleet that would amount to a crushing blow to its naval military capabilities.


Thus, both in terms of ideology ( till recently totally absent) and in terms of the dynamic in its geopolitical relationship with the West (to halt an ongoing and adverse change), Russia has been sinned against rather than sinner over the past 20 plus years and Professor Meade’s type-casting Russia as revisionist is a gross violation of the truth.

What is hard to fathom is why the world’s most powerful nation and only surviving superpower at the end of the first Cold War in 1989 could not be content with its level of control in the status quo of the day and has  instead become the world’s leading revisionist state. This hubristic overplaying of the hand has run counter to any definition of common sense. The detachment of American foreign policy elites including Professor Meade from the realities of global economic and military trends is the most alarming feature of our present confrontation with Russia. The simultaneous baiting of China as seen in Obama’s just-ended tour of Asia provides further high drama to the unfolding doomsday scenario.

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G. John Ikenberry, “The Illusion of Geopolitics. The Enduring Power of the Liberal Order”


At the very start of his essay, Ikenberry pooh-poohs the notion that Russia (and China) is (are) revisionist powers threatening the post-Cold War world order that is U.S. dominated. Of course, his argumentation is radically different from what I set out above. They are, he says, just ‘part-time spoilers at best,’ opportunists who resist the United States’ global leadership in their own neighborhoods. This, Ikenberry goes on to say, shows more their weakness than their strength. Moreover, they ‘have no appealing brand.’

The other side of the coin in the essay under review is pure Ikenberry, i.e. an extension and reconfirmation of his decades-long celebration of the American Empire (global hegemony) for the public goods it delivers to the world through the web of international institutions it dominates. This is a worldwide architecture to which the problematic outlyers like Russia and China have no alternative to offer.

Ikenberry tells us that the global architecture of financial, defense and other liberal institutions which America put in place at the outset of the first Cold War and built out ever since was precisely designed to manage geopolitics. That is to say, geopolitics never lost the attention of American policy makers. It was the End of History camp that went astray with their illusions of full victory over the ongoing realities of power He takes the more ideologically invested Professor Mead to task for not seeing that world governance is well in hand and that the barbarians at the gates in the dispute over Ukraine do not threaten our rule.

Taking the constellation of his ideas in the first two paragraphs of his essay together, one wonders whether Ikenberry was in the pool of ghostwriters who prepared Barack Obama’s keynote speech of his European tour last month delivered at the Bozar auditorium in Brussels.  There the President rolled out a New Cold War containment policy against Russia which is premised on Russia’s weakness and its being nothing more than a regional bully, not a global power. The underlying ridicule, lack of respect for and underestimation of Russia is a tragic failure of comprehension that riddles our foreign policy establishment right through the editorial board of Foreign Affairs magazine headed by Gideon Rose, making them complicit in the unnecessary risks and volatility of international relations at this moment.


         © Gilbert Doctorow, 2014



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G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.com and affiliated websites worldwide. Also on sale in Sterling and Waterstone’s booksellers, Brussels.