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Op-ed: Diplomacy is not what failed in Ukraine

Op-ed: Diplomacy is not what failed in Ukraine
Girl with "stop war" poster among Ukrainian protesters with candles in Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome, against the war operations of Russia in Ukrainian territory. (Credit: Marco Iacobucci Epp / Shutterstock)

We’ve all seen the images of Ukrainians crowded into makeshift bomb shelters, fleeing their homes, and queuing at ATMs and petrol stations. Those of us who watch international relations and geopolitics aren’t entirely surprised, but are certainly shocked at the rapid escalation of conflict. Each hour that passes is more heartbreaking than the next, and it has been sad to witness the apparent demise of a budding, burgeoning democracy unfold in real time on our screens.

This act of aggression by the Kremlin has been months in the making, with many arguing the plans were put into motion years ago. It is part of a larger strategy for Russia’s president to, in his mind, reclaim the lost glory of the Soviet era. To many, this is the latest salvo in the global war against democracy and democratic institutions. There is a large contingency of people who are saying that this was a failure of diplomacy, and that is where my contention lies.

There are different ways in which one can examine diplomacy and analyze foreign policy. The basic framework for examining foreign policy involves a variety of metrics based on policy goals, how to measure achievement towards those goals, strategies employed to advance those goals, as well as agreements put in place to ensure continuity of policy goals. Foreign policy isn’t something one puts together overnight – it requires careful, considered input from trained professionals who understand the environment in which they operate, and have a clear understanding of their own country’s foreign policy goals.

The rational actor (or rational choice) theory assumes that states are key actors in geopolitics, and that a state’s goals are to seek power, prestige, wealth, and security. When pursuing these goals, the state is considered a rational actor, and this dictates their actions when it comes to war and peace. However, foreign policy and international relations are rarely as easy to understand from textbook examples or theorems. The famous diplomat Ambassador Richard Holbrooke once said, “Policy is not a dry, airless product that emerges full-blown from the heads of people…it is often the product of accidents, egos and ambitions in conflict, misunderstandings, and deception, as well as careful plans.”

I mention this process to underscore the point that a) the Russian government’s decision to invade Ukraine was not made overnight, b) it was not made solely by one person in Russia, and c) western allied nations did not fail to understand or mitigate the threat. I would argue that the tragedy we are witnessing was not a failure of diplomacy, rather a glacier-paced behemoth which, after three decades of small, incremental moves, decided to finally crumble on every TV and smartphone screen in the world and submerge the second largest European country in its wake.

My main point in writing this is to argue that it was not diplomacy which failed in this current situation. In fact, I would go so far as to say diplomacy won and collective security agreements are more relevant in 2022 than they have been in the past 50 years. Diplomacy won because Russia’s aggression brought NATO member countries closer together, much closer than the alliance members have been for the last decade. Diplomacy won because it has exposed the fact that the Russian president is not a rational actor, and the world needs to treat him as such. The conflict we are seeing right now was largely unavoidable due to the irrational stance of its architects and was set in motion many moons in advance of this week’s invasion. Lastly, diplomacy won because it sharpened the minds of the leaders in the G7, and has led to a bit more imagination on behalf of how they will sanction and deal with this irrational actor. 

It would be a safe bet that even if Ukraine said it would not seek NATO membership, and the western allies and NATO members cowered to the rest of Putin’s demands, we would be in the very same situation we are in today. Every good faith attempt to bring this situation to a diplomatic resolve was roundly rejected and ignored by the Kremlin. Diplomacy works best (and some might argue only works at all) when there are two rational actors negotiating at the same table, with the same set of rules and guiding principles. This was not the case here and it is wrong to glibly proclaim that what we are witnessing today is a failure of diplomacy.

Diplomacy’s long game is to bring like-minded, rational actors together to achieve peace and security. To paraphrase President Biden from his first official remarks after the invasion “Liberty, democracy, human dignity. These are the forces far more powerful than fear and oppression… In a contest between democracy and autocracy, between sovereignty and subjugation, make no mistake, freedom will prevail.” It is my opinion that while we are witnessing the end of the beginning in terms of Russian aggression towards Ukraine and the Baltic states. It is also the beginning of the end of Putinism. The long game, the game which moves at a glacier’s pace, is that peace and security will be won and safeguarded by diplomacy. America knows how to play this long game, and our allies and our partners will bear the fruit of diplomacy’s eventual triumph.

Puru Trivedi

Puru Trivedi is the Vice President of External and Corporate Affairs at the Meridian International Center, a public diplomacy institution in Washington DC. The views expressed are his own.