To simplify the issue enormously, but somewhat fairly, it's fair to say that the current divide splitting Western foreign policy analysts at a time of increasing global tensions is whether they are realists, or idealists.
Realists believe the only thing that matters is power. Idealists, on the other hand, think that ideas matter too. While for realists, the Cold War was a power struggle, for idealists it was an ideological one. There is, of course, more to it than that, but these simplified categories provide a useful lens through which to analyse foreign policy.
Neither realism nor idealism has ever fully dominated the corridors of power, but the West's victory in the Cold War allowed the Idealists a bit more leeway than they had had before. When you're all powerful, you can indulge your ideological predilections a bit more freely. And so it was that from the early 1990s, Western foreign policy became increasingly dominated by talk of democracy, human rights, and the like. Realist restraint lost ground to idealist liberal interventionism.
In principle, it would seem a good thing to provide policy with a moral basis. Unfortunately, too often, a sense of moral superiority has proven to be a poor substitute for serious consideration of the realities of power. Attempts to change regimes and impose democracy have floundered in the face of local resistance and the actual limitations of the West's ability to enforce its will on those who oppose it. The result has often been to make things worse, rather than better.
One can see this in cases such as Libya, Syria, and Ukraine, where support for regime change has left a heritage of chaos. And one can see it also in a rather different form in Belarus, where long-time leader Alexander Lukashenko has successfully resisted all attempts to depose him.
For most of the past 20 years, Lukashenko has engaged in a delicate balancing act between Russia and the West, doing his utmost to avoid falling entirely into the orbit of either one. This has become increasingly difficult since the presidential election of August 2020, in which Lukashenko officially won 80% of the vote, a result that few neutral observers believe. In the face of mass protests against alleged electoral fraud, Western states imposed a series of sanctions against Belarus.
More sanctions have since been added following an incident in which the Belarusian authorities grounded a flight passing through their airspace en route from Greece to Lithuania, and also in the aftermath of the recent migrant crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border. West European states have refused to recognize Lukashenko as president, and some acknowledge instead his defeated rival, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. The result has been a near total rupture of relations between Belarus and the EU, UK, and US.
Western policy toward Belarus has been rhetorically justified by reference to democracy, human rights, and a "rules-based international order." The anti-Lukashenko cause also provides lots of opportunities for virtue signalling. But while it makes sense from an idealist perspective, from a realist one it does not.
First of all, Lukashenko has not been bad for Western interests, and there is no guarantee that any successor will be any more pro-Western. Second, the West lacks the ability to topple Lukashenko. Sanctioning Belarus alienates it from the West, harming the latter's interests, but it fails to do anything to promote the democracy and human rights that are the supposed goals of the sanctions.
Confronting Belarus also weakens the West in its broader geopolitical struggle against Russia. This became obvious this week, when Lukashenko told journalists that he intended to visit Crimea and that Crimea was "part of the Russian territory. One can recognize that or not recognize that, it will change nothing."
Next, Lukashenko made an even more provocative statement. For some years, Germany has been threatening to make America move the nuclear weapons which it stores on German soil. Earlier this month, the head of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, announced that if the Germans did so, the bloc might move the weapons further to the east - into Poland. Lukashenko has now responded. If that were to happen, he told journalists this week, he would ask Russian President Vladimir Putin to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus.
Lukashenko's gestures are largely symbolic. While his statement on Crimea amounts to a de facto recognition of the peninsula as Russian, it falls short of being a legal recognition. And the pledge to host Russian nuclear weapons is one that Lukashenko is unlikely ever to have to carry out. Still, his statements will bring joy to Russian ears. It would be wrong to say that the Belarusian leader has fully thrown himself into the arms of Russia, but he's certainly a lot closer to that than he was two years ago.
Meanwhile, the talk of deploying nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe brings back memories of the early 1980s, when fears of nuclear war were very genuine. This isn't somewhere anyone should want to be. Coming on top of recent talk of a possible war between Moscow and Kiev, and of Putin's declaration that he would respond in kind if NATO deployed missiles in Ukraine, it's obvious that the world has become a bit scarier of late.
It's hard to see how this serves Western interests. Are we really better off for living in a constant state of tension? Surely not. In fact, we were more secure when we tolerated Lukashenko's undemocratic ways. Idealists like to claim that the pursuit of human rights and democracy will make the Earth a safer place. In the world of pure theory, that's true. But in the harsh realities of the world in which we live, it can in fact have the opposite effect.
The great German philosopher Hegel drew a distinction between "ideality" and "actuality." One might say that the former needs to be pursued in light of the latter. Excessive power has for too long allowed people in the West to ignore this, safe in the belief that if something goes wrong, they won't be the ones who have to suffer in consequence. But there's a difference between confronting Yugoslavia or Libya, and confronting Russia and Belarus (let alone China). When faced with people who are willing and able to resist, actuality has to take precedence over ideality. As the global balance of power shifts, this is a lesson the West is going to have to learn.