Crafting a wise foreign policy requires weighing one's own national interests against those of rivals and adversaries around the world. The comparison with other countries is important because it's only through an informed understanding how they view the world — and our own behavior within it — that we can accurately anticipate how they'll respond to our actions.
If foreign policy writer Peter Beinart is right, the United States struggles mightily with placing ourselves in the shoes of our rivals and adversaries around the world. In a recent Substack post, Beinart calls this one of our "delusions of innocence" — the predisposition of Americans to think well of ourselves and to dismiss the stated concerns of others as rooted in dishonesty or bad faith.
That predilection certainly plays a role in how many pundits and analysts are thinking about the current standoff between NATO and Russia over eastern Ukraine. The argument goes like this: Russian President Vladimir Putin claims NATO poses a threat and demands the alliance halt all plans plans to expand to Ukraine, Georgia, and other countries in Russia's near abroad. But NATO is merely a defensive alliance that poses no genuine threat to Russia. Therefore, Putin's demands are nothing but an excuse for him to revive the "evil empire" of the Soviet Union, and NATO must to stand firm against making any concessions.
The questionable premise — the one rooted in our "delusions of innocence" — is the second one, that NATO poses no threat. As Beinart notes in his post as well as in a recent New York Times column, it's instructive to imagine the American response if Mexico attempted to join a military alliance backed by a rival power. We would of course be apoplectic and quite ready to use military force to stop it — yes, even if newspaper columnists writing in the rival power's capital city penned tightly reasoned opinion pieces about how the alliance on America's southern border posed no threat at all to the United States.
The point isn't to imply moral equivalence between the U.S., Russia, and an imagined geopolitical rival allied with Mexico. It's rather to suggest that moral stature has much less to do with formulating foreign policy than American opinion makers tend to assume. NATO has repeatedly expanded eastward since the end of the Cold War, right into Russia's backyard, and the alliance has demonstrated numerous times (in the Balkans in the late 1990s, in Afghanistan beginning in 2001, and in Libya in 2011) that it's quite capable of projecting military power offensively, far beyond its constituents' borders. That's more than enough to justify Russian obstinance and bellicosity.
This doesn't mean the West should capitulate to all of Russia's demands. But we should recognize those demands aren't entirely rooted in bad faith. That awareness just might make it a little more possible to resolve the current standoff without bloodshed or an even larger Russian occupation of Ukraine.