Why the Ukraine-Georgia Trip Now, and Really, Why at All?

Vice-President Biden’s trip to Ukraine and Georgia this week raises three key questions. 

(1) What is Joe Biden’s role in the administration’s foreign policy?

(2) Is there any strategic value to scheduling a trip to these countries so soon after President Obama’s big show of reaching out to Russia?

(3) Is there any stategic value at all for the U.S. in maintaining and building on close alliances with Ukraine and Georgia?

But first, ol’ Joe.  I was a big fan of his selection as Obama’s running mate.  But I have to say, his comments on Israel attacking Iran a few weeks ago were not constructive.   Debate what he said all you want, but it’s not a good thing when you have to preface any policy discussion with a debate about whether he meant to say it or not

Until this week, I had thought key players in the administration had reached the conclusion that for all his foreign policy knowledge, Biden works best as a behind-the-scenes adviser, not a maker of foreign policy.  Biden as the “gaffe machine” may work great for his folksy appeal, but in the passive aggressive policymaking arena, where little snips can be big signals, Biden is probably a liability.  (And for those crossing their fingers for a gaffe-free trip this time, sorry.)

The State Department has experienced envoys deployed to the world’s key hotspots.  Hillary Clinton has been doing her fair share of globetrotting. And even the Energy and Commerce Secretaries were recently dispatched to China to make some headway on pre-Copenhagen talks.  And of course, Obama been the face of much of the administration’s foreign policy, especially his outreach to the Middle East. 

So maybe the take on Biden’s trip is wrong. 

Maybe it isn’t the U.S. sending a strong signal but merely the U.S. Vice President retreating to the post’s normal capacity: foreign trips that don’t have broad foreign-policy implications.

But then that brings me to my next point, which is, why go now? An AP story today cast the trip as a way to assure Ukraine and Georgia that the administration hadn’t cast them aside after the Russia trip.  But doesn’t that just make Russia question Obama’s credibility?  This is a zero-sum game, at least to some extent.  Improving relations with Russia, especially at a time just after the war in Georgia brought tensions to a peak not reached since the Cold War’s last days, is going to take some crafty work. And some sacrifices.

Perhaps ties to Ukraine and Georgia aren’t one of those sacrifices. There’s a lot of speculation that Obama will abandon the Bush administration’s plans for a missile defense system in Eastern Europe.  Maybe that will suffice.

But still, there isn’t a compelling reason to send Biden now.  And even if there was, he doesn’t have to call explicitly for Ukraine’s entry into NATO.  A majority of Ukrainians don’t even support such a move.   Obama took some flack from the Economist back in April for calling for Turkey’s entry into the EU because it could threaten a delicate, European-led process. But at least in that case, the pronouncement had strategic value for the U.S.

So, finally my last question.  Why does the U.S. really need to cozy up to Georgia and Ukraine?

Neither (especially not Georgia, despite a few bones Saakashvili threw ahead of Biden’s trip) are sterling democracies, so the idea that the U.S. is standing up for ideological allies against an interloping, authoritarian Russia just doesn’t hold water.  And even still, considering what’s at stake in U.S.-Russia relations, cost-benefit has to kick in somewhere.

I think that this is mainly a case of foreign policy guided by emotions.  After the Cold War, it must feel nice for some former Soviet foes with influence in Washington to show the old Reds who is the new boss.   “Ha, Putin– just watch us expand NATO to your door.”

Yet at the same time, it is unequivocal that the U.S. could use better relations with Russia– on Iran, on broader Middle-East relations, and on Obama’s ambitious dreams for the nuclear nonproliferation agenda.   Obama seemed to have made a decent first step on this front.  So why jeopardize it?

Photo from Reuters via the Washington Post.

3 Responses to “Why the Ukraine-Georgia Trip Now, and Really, Why at All?”
  1. nbunks says:

    Looks like Biden managed to save his gaffe – a lighthearted one really – for Ukraine

  2. nbunks says:

    On a more serious note, I think the fact that Georgia and Russia aren’t fully developed democracies is actually a solid reason for supporting them in the face of Russia. Ukraine is definitely further along in its democratic development than Georgia but they both deserve some support in the face of aggression. I don’t think we should be going to war to defend them or even necessarily give them NATO membership. Even in more realist terms, the US loses some credibility if we leave supposedly strong allies high and dry after aggression from another power

  3. sharbourt says:

    I’m not sure that slow democratic development, at least in Georgia, has that much to do with Russian aggression. In Ukraine, obviously there’s been some Russian interference, but then again, half the country is in support of that.

    My main point was that at such a critical point in U.S.-Russia relations, we shouldn’t have a trip that leaves observers (including Russia) guessing about its intentions. A way to signal would be to drop public calls for NATO membership. I’m sure Russia could tolerate some material support behind the scenes if the US stopped repeatedly embarassing them on their back doorstep.

    And true, we’d lose credibility if this was done overnight, but I didn’t mean to imply that the US would drop all ties immediately, and the credibility could be easily regained if it led to major breakthroughs with Russia.

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