You Can't 'Win' If You Set Impossible Goals

If you define “winning” as Russian withdrawal from places they are extremely unlikely to leave, you have chosen to fail before you begin.

Walter Russell Mead is worried that the U.S. and its allies are “losing ground” to our adversaries. Of course, he defines “winning” in such an absurd way that there is almost no way that the we could “win”:

Winning means getting Russia to withdraw from Syria, the Donbas and Crimea. A diplomatic victory is when China agrees to dismantle military bases on artificial islands in the South China Sea. Success involves getting Iran to stop arming and funding armed militias and terrorist groups in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq.

Mead is mocking the G7 summit for its toothless communiqué, but he is just showing how ridiculous and unreasonable his own standards for “success” are. No doubt other governments do not react to stern warnings from Western politicians by abandoning policies they have pursued for many years and sometimes decades, but then again punitive sanctions have completely failed to change this behavior as well. If you define “winning” as Russian withdrawal from places they are extremely unlikely to leave, you have chosen to fail before you begin. If you think that it is realistic to “get” Iran to overhaul all of its regional policies in exactly the way Washington wants, you shouldn’t be in the business of advising anyone about foreign policy.

Perhaps the problem here is not that Western governments have “forgotten what it means to win,” but that hawks like Mead insist that the U.S. challenge other governments over issues that matter far more to them than they will ever mean to us. Much like insisting on the “complete, verifiable irreversible denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, defining the success of your policy by the other side’s total abandonment of long-held positions pretty much guarantees that your policy will fail on its own terms.

Missing from Mead’s “analysis” is any consideration of what U.S. interests are in any of these places. Does it matter to U.S. security if Russia withdraws from Syria? If so, how much does it matter? How much is it worth to the U.S. to bring this about, and if the answer is “not much” then what is the point of driving them out? How much would it cost the U.S. to achieve its dubious goal? If it costs more than the U.S. stands to gain from it, why should we want our government wasting its time and resources seeking this goal? Mead seems to operate on the assumption that simply sticking it to adversaries and forcing them to give things up is sound policy. It may be viscerally satisfying to some, but it usually isn’t worth the effort, and unless important U.S. interests are at stake it isn’t going to be worth it.

If Mead’s understanding of winning is poor, his understanding of “losing” is arguably even worse:

Losing, on the other hand, is something the West has become quite good at. Losing is watching construction continue on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline as Russia declares the country’s largest opposition party an illegal conspiracy. Losing is moaning about Chinese behavior in the South China Sea as the military balance tilts toward Beijing. Losing is crafting intricate webs of ineffectual sanctions as Russia’s reach and control inexorably expand. Losing is wringing one’s hands and issuing eloquent critiques as China intensifies its crackdowns in Tibet, Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

The assumption that German-Russian trade is a defeat for the West is typical hawkish boilerplate, but it doesn’t really make sense. Nord Stream 2 was going to be completed whether or not the U.S. imposed sanctions on Germans in an attempt to block it. Waiving the sanctions avoids an unnecessary fight among allies and allows the U.S. and Germany to put this quarrel behind us. Even if you insist on seeing this as a “loss,” it is minor one that serves larger strategic interests. Mead would probably object to a grandmaster sacrificing a pawn as part of a larger gambit. “Can’t you see you’re losing your pawn?” he would be shouting in his ear. This complaint about a pipeline is the same as that.

Hawks are always whining that the U.S. and its allies are “losing ground.” On some occasions, this might be true, but we hear it so often from the same people that it is difficult to take it seriously. Hawks are also stupendously bad judges of which policies will lead to gains and which will lead to losses. The same people that cheered on the invasion of Iraq and the “maximum pressure” campaigns, all of which empowered adversaries to one degree or another, are suddenly very concerned that the U.S. is losing ground to adversaries when the U.S. pursues diplomatic engagement that might regain some of the ground lost over the last four years. When hawks claim that an adversary is “on the march,” it is usually the case that nothing is happening or the adversary is simply doing the same things it has done for a long time. When the U.S. manages to score a real success, as it did with the nuclear deal with Iran, they scoff at it and label it appeasement.

Mead asserts that “autocracy is on the march at the fastest rate since the 1930s.” Leave aside for the moment that autocracy is a clunky and imprecise term that blurs together all sorts of different authoritarian systems. Is it really true that “autocracy is on the march”? Where is it marching? What has it taken over recently that it didn’t have before? Supposing that this is happening, is it really at the “fastest rate” since the leadup to WWII? That’s quite a bold claim that Mead does not even pretend to support with evidence. It is difficult to trust Mead’s “analysis” on this point because he is so clearly invested in exaggerating the threats from Russia, China, and Iran. As usual, Mead’s alarmism is a poor guide to what the U.S. should be doing abroad.