Pandora's boxes, revisionism, and fecklessness

What the world needed to see from the US in the past twenty years was principled resolve towards Moscow, but US officials exhibited neither, now it is too late.

Pandora's boxes, revisionism, and fecklessness

“… the very fundamental principles… that are so important to keeping peace and security for everyone… the notion that one country can’t simply go in and change the borders of another by force or take it over; the principle that one country can’t dictate to another the choices that its citizens would make about their future; the principle that we’re past the time of spheres of influence where one country subjugates its neighbors to its will – all of those things are at stake. And if we allow those principles to be challenged, as Putin is doing now… that will open a Pandora’s box of trouble for not just us, but… for the entire world.”[1]


I assume -or hope, rather- that United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken felt a pang of conscience while pronouncing those words, actually the second time he used the Pandora’s Box metaphor in relation to the current situation in Ukraine. Mr. Blinken, a part of the Washington DC foreign policy community for most of the past 30 years, must be well aware that the issue is nowhere near as cut-and-dried as he suggested. In fact, if anyone is responsible for establishing a post-Cold War model for “going in and changing the borders of another country,” it is the US.

The example is clear: in the 1990s, amongst other erroneous decisions made in regard to the former Yugoslavia’s implosion, the US chose to support Kosovo’s disunion from Serbia, and later was among the first to recognize Kosovo’s independence. That officially made the US a “revisionist” power.

After the USSR’s disintegration, many small states emerged, and some of them engaged in revisionist wars, such as Armenia’s 30-year occupation of Nagorno-Karabagh. However, small states rarely set precedents. The US’ decision to support Kosovo’s separation from Serbia established the post-Cold War precedent for border changes because the US was the world’s lone superpower in the late 1990s. That is what truly threw open Secretary Blinken’s Pandora’s Box.

Other examples of border changes supported by the US are the creation of South Sudan, the emergence of Montenegro (also splitting from Serbia), and Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. All kinds of justifications for supporting these initiatives are available, but in the end, the world’s most powerful state supports “revision,” and that is what matters.


“…expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.”[2]

Those paying close attention to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s activities since he emerged as one of Russia’s most powerful officials in 1999, should have also noticed that US-backed events in Eastern Europe have been closely followed by similar Russian activities. For example, after Montenegro and Kosovo declared independence in 2006 and early 2008 respectively, NATO then stated in April 2008 that Ukraine and Georgia would eventually become NATO members. Only four months passed before Mr. Putin found a pretext to invade South Ossetia, a Georgian province, and to formalize Abkhazia’s independence from Georgia in late summer 2008.

Despite strong warnings from a variety of Russia experts that NATO expansion would provoke Russian reaction, and despite repeated indications -- starting as early as the scorched-earth tactics Mr. Putin used to subdue the Chechen resistance in 1999-2009 -- that violence would be a frequent option for Mr. Putin, US policy-makers have never devoted the effort necessary to formulate effective responses to deter Mr. Putin from further aggressive steps. This characterized both Democratic and Republican US administrations, though the lowest point may have been President Barack Obama’s infamous champagne glass-clinking with Mr. Putin.

Instead, the order of the day has been fecklessness, the key term that describes the last twenty-five years of U.S. foreign policy towards Moscow, and which bears frequent repetition. Feckless: Mr. Putin felt able to invade Ukraine because he learned time-after-time, in place-after-place, in South Ossetia, in Syria, in the Donbass, in Libya, that he could intervene and massacre according to his interests, and the US, NATO, and the EU would do nothing more than twiddle thumbs and throw more sanctions on the pile.

Feckless: instead of working to roll back Russian influence in Syria, the US huddles in its corner of northeast Syria with a terrorist organization that it arms, supplies, and funds even though the State Department designates that same terrorist organization as such.

Feckless: even though Mr. Putin telegraphed for seven years that he had aggressive intentions towards Ukraine, the US and NATO began to seriously supply Kyiv with weapons only after Mr. Putin invaded.

The situation in Ukraine has no easy solutions. Russia rightly, for historical and geostrategic reasons, sees Eastern Europe as its vital security zone, but has never in 300 years approached that quandary with methods other than military force and political oppression. Most citizens in Eastern European countries, equally aware of history, also want protection against their mammoth eastern neighbor that has caused them so much suffering during that same 300 years. For that reason, they see NATO as a vital security bulwark against Moscow.

Consequently, US officials need to choose their words and actions far more carefully. Bland American rhetoric about defending ideals no longer carries weight in most of the world. Everyone is aware that the US violated those ideals when it chose, and the US’ many disasters (Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.) disabused much of the globe of its naïveté. What the world needed to see from the US in the past twenty years was principled resolve towards Moscow, but US officials exhibited neither. Now it is too late, so the rest of Ukraine suffers death and destruction at the hands of Mr. Putin.

AA/Dr. Adam McConnel