The war in Ukraine is solely the responsibility of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has shamefully ordered an attack on a nonthreatening neighbor.
But the exploding conflict is also a warning about how missteps in American foreign policy can unnecessarily escalate tensions in ways that make war more likely. Some of those decisions heightened the acute risk of conflict in Ukraine itself, while others undermined the post-war norms that are now at risk of being fully torched by Putin's invasion. Through hubris and misguided attempts at projecting American power around the globe, four successive presidential administrations helped create the conditions that led to Putin's violation of Ukrainian sovereignty.
That doesn't excuse Russia's actions, but it does help to explain them.
That history begins with the Clinton administration, which inherited a world that for the first time in decades did not include the Soviet Union. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe meant that there was an opportunity for the United States and its NATO allies to reassess the purposes of the strategic partnership that had been formed in 1949 to oppose the Soviets.
Instead of reorganizing what had always been a defensive alliance, NATO during the 1990s went on the offensive. First, it admitted new member states that had previously been part of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, like Poland and Bulgaria. Then, with the backing of the Clinton administration, NATO launched into the Yugoslav Wars, most aggressively intervening in Kosovo.
The parallels between the 1999 war in Kosovo and Putin's attack on Ukraine are not perfect, but they are eerily similar in some ways. Both involved the direct military intervention of a superpower, were motivated (or at least justified) by claims of needing to protect an ethnic enclave within a larger country, ignored the post-WWII norm that great powers do not use force to redraw national borders, and created a huge refugee crisis.
The "war [in Kosovo] was waged without U.N. authorization, and was a rank violation of international law," writes Sarang Shidore, director of studies at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a realist foreign policy think tank. "It was conducted based on a new principle conjured up by the United States and some of its partners called the Responsibility to Protect or R2P—the idea that major human rights violations justify the 'international community' intervening militarily in any part of the world. While persecution of human beings is not acceptable anywhere, the highly arbitrary use (and non-use) of the principle by a set of powerful states against those less able reeked of opportunism even back then."
President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq (and, to a lesser extent, the long misadventure in Afghanistan) further undercut the principle that superpowers should not violate smaller states' sovereignty or engage in wars to topple unfriendly regimes. It is that same principle that the U.S. and NATO are now seeking to use to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine—indeed, none other than Bush himself has issued a statement articulating that same principle.
Bush also pushed to heighten the stakes in Ukraine. At a 2008 summit in Bucharest, Romania, the Bush administration (against the wishes of Germany and France) successfully negotiated for NATO to issue a statement offering future membership to Ukraine and Georgia. The so-called Bucharest Declaration triggered an immediate, aggressive response from the Russian government, which announced plans to provide military support to pro-Russia militias in Georgia and later invaded part of the country. Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, has called the declaration NATO's "cardinal sin."
"Many leading strategists warned that NATO expansion was a mistake," Chris Preble, co-director of the Atlantic Council's New American Engagement Initiative, tells Reason. "But there was a bipartisan consensus among foreign policy elites that dismissed Russian security concerns. NATO expansion advocates explained that NATO was a purely defense alliance and thus no threat to Russia. This was a key untested assumption underlying NATO expansion, a real blind spot, that was never seriously scrutinized."
President Barack Obama's promise to avoid doing "stupid shit" in foreign policy and his administration's attempt to "reset" relations with Russia might have offered some hope of reducing those tensions. But much of that went out the window when America plainly attempted to influence the outcome of the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, who had refused to sign a free trade agreement with the European Union.
Victoria Nuland, Obama's assistant secretary of state, in a leaked phone call to American ambassadors, expressed a clear preference for a successor in Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who would become the new president of Ukraine after the revolution. Sens. John McCain (R–Ariz.) and Chris Murphy (D–Conn.) visited Yatsenyuk during the protests and openly indicated American support for him—the kind of behavior that would be loudly denounced if it were Russian politicians attempting to pick favorites in a Mexican or Canadian election.
Putin responded by annexing Crimea—and Obama, wisely, decided against escalation.
As he was leaving office in 2016, Obama gave about as realistic of an assessment of the situation in Ukraine as an American president could. "The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do," he told The Atlantic, adding that "This is an example of where we have to be very clear about what our core interests are and what we are willing to go to war for."
The lesson did not stick. President Donald Trump broke with his predecessors by openly calling for a reassessment of America's role in NATO and NATO's role in the world, but those efforts were driven by domestic populist politics rather than a serious attempt at diplomatic realignment. Trump was neither the Russian stooge that many liberals claimed nor the tough guy that many conservatives imagined, but his administration remained committed to the 2008 Bucharest Declaration—a position that's in tension with Trump's loud criticisms of NATO and personal fondness for Putin—and, like Obama, Trump sold billions of dollars of weapons to Ukraine.
In each administration since the end of the Cold War, American presidents have made choices that echo in the current crisis. Whether directly related to Ukraine or as broader expressions of the de facto realities of foreign policy, those decisions have colored the contours of what is now unfolding. Principles like respect for national sovereignty cannot be discarded in some circumstances and held as insoluble in others, and even well-intentioned security commitments like the Bucharest Declaration can serve to escalate tensions in dangerous ways.
But the bipartisan foreign policy consensus in Washington has refused to acknowledge that "blindspot," as Preble puts it. Indeed, the Biden administration has continued this trend. During his confirmation hearing in January 2020, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Biden administration would continue to support eventually extending NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia.
"If you are successful," interjected Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.), "then we will be at war with Russia now."
Avoiding a direct military confrontation between the U.S. and Russia must be the top priority for American officials—now more than ever. All this history means nothing compared to the importance of what happens next.
While the actions of American presidents over the past 30 years do not excuse Putin's belligerence, today's choices are built atop those made in the past. And the truth is that multiple American presidential administrations spanning three decades engaged in foreign policy decisions that have helped shape the potentially cataclysmic choices Putin, Biden, and other world leaders now face.