Variation in US responses towards Russian military interventions in Georgia and Ukraine can be understood through the lens of constructivism by highlighting the power and communality of norms.
By Florian Böller and Sebastian Werle. They are the authors of “Fencing the bear? Explaining US foreign policy towards Russian interventions”, Contemporary Security Policy, forthcoming. The full article is available here.
The occupation of the Crimean peninsula in February 2014 led to a major disruption of the relations between Russia and the West. The crisis also seemed to prove a pattern of Moscow’s renewed geopolitical aspirations that started already with the Georgia intervention in 2008. Scholars and pundits have tried to set Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Georgia in perspective to its international position (neorealism), have discussed domestic motives for Putin’s power politics (liberal theory), or heralded the dawn of an ethnocentric foreign policy doctrine (constructivism).
However, there is a remarkable lack of attention to the fact that the West’s response to Russia’s manoeuvres is all but coherent. Most notably, the West’s lead nation, the US, has chosen very different policies to deal with Russian interventions. When Russia intervened in Georgia in 2008, Washington, DC responded with diplomatic means. In 2014, the US opted instead for sanctions and hard deterrence. In our article, we try to explain this varying US foreign policy response towards Russian interventions.
There is a remarkable lack of attention to the fact that the West’s response to Russia’s manoeuvres is all but coherent.
US foreign policy towards Russia can neither be fully explained by neorealism nor by liberal approaches, the two dominant IR paradigms. From a neorealist perspective, the variance in US behavior would be explainable, if the relative gains for Russia were more substantial in the case of Ukraine 2014 than in Georgia 2008. However, rather than enlarging its power grip over new territory, in both cases Russia merely secured its influence over regions that had already been within Moscow’s reach. Thus, while neorealism can adequately explain the weak US response in the case of Georgia, it runs into difficulties to account for the comparatively strong measures in the case of Ukraine.
Similarly, liberal theory cannot fully account for the variation in US foreign policy. Considering the financial costs of imposing sanctions against Russia, neither in 2008 nor in 2014 the magnitude of US-Russian economic relations was significant enough to produce policy externalities for important domestic groups. From a liberal perspective, it is also puzzling that the hawkish Bush administration responded with softer measures than the Obama administration, which is often described as reluctant, favoring a doctrine of foreign policy restraint.
In contrast to the neorealist and liberal perspectives, the qualitative comparison shows that US reactions to Russia’s assertiveness can be best understood through the lens of constructivism.
In the case of Georgia, President Bush primarily sought to construct the Georgian crisis as a threat to the value of democracy. Bush’s narrative portrayed the situation as a conflict between the democracy of Georgia and Russia’s autocratic and aggressive regime. President Obama on the other hand stressed general principles of international law throughout the conflict over Ukraine. The president condemned Russia’s occupation of Crimea as a ‘clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity’. In his remarks to justify the imposition of sanctions on 6 March 2014, Obama argued, that the countermeasures were intended ‘to oppose actions that violate international law’.
Comparing the normative power of both assessments, it is clear that the attempt to frame Russia’s action in the Ukraine as a violation of the principle of territorial integrity (and thus Article 2.4 of the UN Charter) trumps the norm of democratic government. While the expansion of democracy played a central role in the neoconservative agenda of the Bush administration, it cannot draw on a similar level of legitimacy in international law compared to the prohibition of the use of force. Even domestically, democracy promotion does not rank among the core international goals of the US according to public opinion polls.
Furthermore, in the case of the Ukrainian crisis, the US could count on international support both from its allies in Europe and international organizations. A similar consensus was not obtainable in the case of the Georgian crisis. Some European allies of the US, most notably Germany and Italy, hinted at Georgia’s own responsibility for the outbreak of the crisis, thus disputing the Bush administration’s assessment.
The expansion of democracy cannot draw on a similar level of legitimacy in international law compared to the prohibition of the use of force.
Overall, both the national and international power of the conflicts’ central norms (international law vs. democracy) as well as the communality of the normative assessments (near unanimous Western response vs. contestation over the conflict) help explaining the puzzle of why the US took harsher measures in response to the Ukraine crisis in comparison to the Georgia conflict.
What implications entails this conclusion for the debate on US foreign policy? It seems that rather than acting erratic and following an incoherent ‘double standard’ regarding the promotion of a value-based world order, US decision-makers take domestic and international norms into account, although the US still possesses sufficient material resources to react unilaterally to threats to its interests.
Recent foreign policy decisions under the Obama administration show a similar pattern. In cases such as the air campaigns against Libya in 2011 and “ISIS” since 2014, or regarding the non-proliferation policy towards Iran, the US also attempted to act in a multilateral setting, which generates considerable domestic and international legitimacy. It remains to be seen whether this foreign policy approach will suffice to contain Russia’s geopolitical aspirations. Yet, this multilateral and norm based strategy currently seems to be the only policy option, which summons enough societal acceptance.
Florian Böller is an Assistant Professor for International Relations at the Department of Political Science, University of Kaiserslautern, Germany. Sebastian Werle is a Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Political Science, University of Kaiserslautern, Germany. They are the authors of “Fencing the bear? Explaining US foreign policy towards Russian interventions”, Contemporary Security Policy, forthcoming. It is available here.
 See for an overview of the debate: Elias Götz, “Putin, the State, and War: The Causes of Russia’s Near Abroad Assertion Revisited”, in: International Studies Review (2016), online first DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/isr/viw009.