March 03, 2014

U.S. Conflict Prevention in the Age of Maidan Politics

The dizzying speed with which domestic protests in Kiev devolved into a great powers confrontation underscores that any effort to draw a firewall between international geopolitics and domestic dynamics within states is inherently unstable. As a result, U.S. national security planners – to include anyone within the U.S. government focused on conflict prevention – need to rethink the effects of domestic political change in a world where international rivalries continue to  persist and evolve. In the wake of the Arab Spring, it became clear to the U.S. national security community that de-prioritizing those events occurring within the "black box" of Arab States (e.g. political repression, economic stagnation, mass underemployment) in the name of pursuing U.S. core interests (e.g. counterterrorism, the free flow of oil) had been a short-sighted strategic gambit.

In Ukraine, the efficient trigger of domestic revolt was decidedly geopolitical – President Viktor Yanukovych's unwillingness to finalize an EU trade deal popular among Ukrainians interested in moving away from the Russian orbit. But ultimately the proximate cause of the initial protests mattered less than the speed with which the movement grew, as citizens dissatisfied with the political status quo and angry about corruption and economic disadvantage channeled their grievances against the unpopular but elected President. The spiraling of the Ukrainian protest movement reinforces the pattern of revolutions observed in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Egypt:  whatever the trigger of  the initial protest, what seems to matter is a) whether a diverse cross-section of the public are willing to express  their political and economic discontent publicly; and b) whether the state's core institutions, particularly its military and police, are willing to support or disavow the embattled leader. In Ukraine, the combination of an ongoing domestic debate about nationalist identity and grievances against Yanukovych and the government more broadly proved to be overwhelming.

This most recent reminder of the inextricable links between international geopolitics and domestic political change is not simply a question of theory, however. It has two immediate implications for how the U.S. national security infrastructure reconsiders conflict prevention in an age of a dangerously unstable brand of global interdependence:  

First, there must be a closing of the bureaucratic gaps between military strategic planners who focus on preparing conflict contingencies and the democratization, development and human rights experts who are fluent in the trends and trajectories of domestic politics. The former community needs to understand the implications of the latter's observations, and the latter needs to have a seat at the table in planning for an array of scenarios. In the Ukrainian case, these two communities could have been a powerful coalition advocating within the bureaucracy to elevate preventative diplomacy in Kiev over the past few months, using both security and diplomatic levers. 

Second, nationalism is at its height during moments of domestic revolution. The United States should consider how it can support the idealistic ambitions of protesters – and the quieter citizens whom they represent – without risking changing the subject to the issue of foreign (i.e. American) intervention.  In some cases, this means refraining from public statements about principles in favor of clever, behind-the-scenes efforts to wring concessions from all of the domestic conflict's protagonists. At other times it may mean dragging our allies and international organizations into the capital city so that they might lead these diplomatic efforts, while insisting that they publicly champion universal rights, including support for non-violent protesters.