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Opinion | On Russia, NATO and Ukraine, the U.S. Must Stop Lying to Itself

At the heart of the current crisis between Washington and Moscow is this: Vladimir Putin has massed troops on Russia’s border with Ukraine and implied that he may invade unless he receives a guarantee that Ukraine will never join NATO. The Biden administration rejects that demand out of hand. Powerful nations, it insists, cannot demand that their neighbors fall under their “spheres of influence.” As Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken put it last month, “one country does not have the right to dictate the policies of another or to tell that country with whom it may associate; one country does not have the right to exert a sphere of influence. That notion should be relegated to the dustbin of history.”

It’s a noble principle, just not one the United States abides by.

The United States has exercised a sphere of influence in its own hemisphere for almost 200 years, since President James Monroe, in his seventh annual message to Congress, declared that the United States “should consider any attempt” by foreign powers “to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.”

Listening to Mr. Blinken, you might think the United States long ago deposited this prerogative over the foreign policies of its southern neighbors in history’s dustbin. It has done no such thing. In 2018, Donald Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, called the Monroe Doctrine “as relevant today as it was the day it was written.” The following year, his national security adviser, John Bolton, boasted that “the Monroe Doctrine is alive and well.”

To be sure, the United States doesn’t enforce the Monroe Doctrine in the same way it did in the first half of the 20th century, when it regularly deployed the Marines to Central America and the Caribbean, or during the Cold War, when the C.I.A. helped topple leftist governments. Washington’s methods have changed. It now prefers using economic coercion to punish governments that ally with adversaries and challenge its regional dominion.

Consider Washington’s decades-long embargo of Cuba. U.S. officials may claim the embargo’s goal is to promote democracy, but virtually every other government on earth — democracies included — views it as an act of political bullying. Last year, the United Nations General Assembly condemned the embargo by a vote of 184 to 2. Human Rights Watch has denounced it for imposing “indiscriminate hardship on the Cuban population.”

Biden officials do not celebrate the Monroe Doctrine as their Trump administration predecessors did. But they still muscle America’s neighbors. Mr. Biden hasn’t eased the embargo of Cuba. Nor has he ended Mr. Trump’s effort to cut off Venezuela, another autocratic government that flirts with America’s foes, from global trade. The United States, in the words of one European Union official, is still prepared to “starve Venezuelans until their leadership surrender or their people oust them.” These policies serve notice to other Latin American governments that defying Washington can bring grave costs.

The United States also wields considerable influence through its “soft power.” Because the United States has a dynamic economy and an open society, close relations with Washington are more attractive to America’s neighbors than close relations with Moscow are to Russia’s.

Still, within the velvet glove remains an iron fist. As Erika Pani, a historian of U.S. and Mexican politics at El Colegio de México, explained to me, “The Mexican government has, historically, been clear it can’t do absolutely anything it wants” in international affairs because “if you live right next to the elephant, you know it is best not to provoke him.” Mexico, whose long border with the United States offers a parallel to Ukraine’s proximity to Russia, can publicly disagree with U.S. foreign policy, but it couldn’t join a military alliance with U.S. adversaries. It’s impossible to imagine a Mexican government inviting Russian or Chinese troops onto its side of the Rio Grande.

None of this means Russia has the right to dominate Ukraine. If America’s regional bullying is wrong, Moscow’s cruder version — which currently consists of troops massed on Ukraine’s border — is even worse. But the problem with the Biden administration’s willful naïveté about U.S. policy toward Latin America is that it fosters a willful naïveté about the way international politics actually works.

Of course, Ukraine has the right to forge an independent foreign policy. But foreign policy isn’t an exercise in abstract morality; it involves questions of power. And the United States and its European allies lack the power to deny Russia a say over Ukraine’s future because they are not willing to send their sons and daughters to fight there. Implicitly, the Biden administration has already conceded that: NATO has no plans to admit Ukraine anytime soon because doing so would commit the United States and Europe to Ukraine’s defense. And there’s no chance the United States and Europe will make that commitment if it could mean fighting Russian troops.

So long as Moscow is ready to threaten war, it can keep Ukraine out of NATO. The Biden administration just doesn’t want to admit that publicly for fear of demoralizing the Ukrainian government and encouraging Vladimir Putin to make even greater threats. As Thomas Graham and Rajan Menon have suggested, the best solution may be artful diplomatic language that allows Moscow to claim it has blocked Ukraine from entering NATO and the United States and Ukraine to insist that it could still join in some distant, theoretical, future.

America’s highest priorities should be preventing a wider war and ensuring that Ukraine remains a free society at home. A deal that tacitly acknowledges Russia’s veto over Ukraine’s military alliances is worth swallowing in order to achieve that, since in practice, Russia already wields that veto. It’s far better than a full-scale Russian invasion, which exposes the limits of America’s commitment to Ukraine and turns the entire country into a battlefield.

But this kind of compromise, which acknowledges the brute facts of geopolitical power, is harder when officials in Washington pretend that only tyrants like Mr. Putin expect a say over the behavior of their weaker neighbors. The United States must stop lying to itself. The more willing the Biden administration is to admit that it too expects a sphere of influence in its corner of the globe, the better able it will be to ensure that Russia’s sphere of influence doesn’t destroy Ukraine or plunge Europe into war.

Peter Beinart (@PeterBeinart) is professor of journalism and political science at The Newmark School of Journalism at The City University of New York. He is also editor at large of Jewish Currents and writes The Beinart Notebook, a weekly newsletter.

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