Yesterdays meeting between Russias deputy foreign minister and our deputy secretary of state did nothing to break the impasse on the question of expanding NATO to include Ukraine.
The question puts the Biden administration in a box that is only partly of its own making. The precipitous manner of its withdrawal from Afghanistan opened the floodgates to a range of criticisms, the most predictable and politically perilous of which is the Republicans charge that Bidens foreign policy is one of retreat from challenges (never mind Trumps agreement with the Taliban that called for such a withdrawal even earlier). The knee-jerk Democratic response to such charges is to stand tough, or at least appear to stand tough, when confronted with the next challenge, which has turned out to be Russias threat to Ukraine.
But Bidenlike his immediate three presidential predecessorshas come into office saddled with one of the most questionable foreign-policy decisions of Bill Clintons presidency: that of expanding NATO to every former Soviet-bloc nation except Russia. Originally conceived as a way to counter Stalins creation of the Warsaw bloc (the USSR plus all the Eastern European nations that Soviet troops occupied as they advanced on Nazi Germany in 1944 and 45), NATOs purpose, once the bloc dissolved and Soviet communism disappeared, was, to state this gently, unclear. Clinton sought to clarify it by signing up all the Warsavians save only Russia. It proved to be one of the more confusing clarifications of modern history, and one that many Russians (not just the paranoids) viewed as both a slap and a threat.
Initially conceived as an alliance of Western democracies, NATO today has an almost undecipherable ideological profile. Among its members are Poland and Hungary, whose descents into authoritarianism have finally prompted the European Union to begin withholding aid to Hungary and to issue warnings to Polands regime. Trump supporters, most prominently Tucker Carlson, cite Hungarys illiberal democracy as a model the U.S. should adopt. By that standard, Hungary has become more of a threat to American democracy than Putins Russia, whose kleptocratic system may in fact be a model for Trumpians but not one they can audibly affirm.
Its hard to find a Western government thats keen to actually welcome Ukraine into NATOs ill-defined family, fearing as they do that it could become a longtime and costly burden. But the legacy of American conservatives rhetoric of expansion, combined with Putins determination to keep NATO out of Ukraine and the justifiable revulsion of small-d democrats and liberals at Putins autocratic and repressive regime, and now, their fear that he might seek to expand it into Ukraine, have created a standoff that shouldnt be happening but for our misguided policies at the end of the Cold War. If this seems the resurrection of the Cold Wars brinkmanship, one of those historic events thats happening, as it were, twice, as Marx put it, we must hope that it ends more farcically than tragically.