How Is Failing to Interfere in Belarus Proof of "The Decline of the West"?

by Daniel Larison

A month ago, Anne Applebaum urged a new round of NATO expansion, which I pointed out was a terrible idea. These were her closing words:

We could continue that process [NATO expansion]. The stakes are lower - 2010 is not 1990, and the countries outside NATO are poorer and more turbulent than even those that have recently joined. Nevertheless, the very existence of a credible Western military alliance remains - yes, really - an encouragement to others on Europe's borders. This is a uniquely propitious moment. Right now there is a pro-Western government in Moldova; Ukraine's geopolitics are up in the air; elections are due to take place in Belarus in December [bold mine-DL]. We in the West might have gone sour on ourselves, but Europeans on our borders still find us magnetically attractive. But we will only remain so if we try.

This week in Belarus, we are seeing what the "uniquely propitious moment" means in practice. Following the rigged re-election of Belarus' ruler, government forces violently attacked opposition rallies. Applebaum has returned with a new column to try to exploit the brutal crackdown in Minsk that took place yesterday. Having described the terrible violence meted out to opposition supporters, she writes:

All in all, it was a stunning display of the regime's weakness: Indeed, the violence that unfolded in the wake of Alexander Lukashenko's fourth presidential election "victory" can only be explained as a sign of the Belarusan dictator's failure. After the polls closed, Lukashenko claimed to have received nearly 80 percent of the vote. But politicians who are that popular have no need to beat, arrest and harass their opponents, send provocateurs into a crowd or shut down Web sites.

Certainly, in some grander moral scheme, Lukashenko is an abysmal failure. Like other dictators, he rules by force and repression, and he likely does not command anything like the broad support reflected in the official results. I would caution against assuming that Lukashenko is as unpopular as Applebaum claims, if for no other reason than that this is what virtually everyone kept saying about political upheaval in Iran last year to their chagrin. Nonetheless, it is a serious mistake to assume that the use of coercion by brutal authoritarian regimes is proof of exceptional weakness. Even if a majority loathes Lukashenko, which is easy to imagine, that doesn't mean that there is any alternative that can replace him. This is the story in the post-Soviet world from Belarus to Uzbekistan: authoritarian presidents dominating weak or non-existent civil society. Compared to more legitimate, consensual forms of government, dictatorships are politically weak, as they cannot count on the ready deference and obedience that constitutional and elected governments enjoy, but in terms of political power inside their own countries these displays are anything but signs of weakness.

Lukashenko's weakness isn't what really interests Applebaum. She wants to take this opportunity to revisit the idea that we in the West have somehow failed Belarus and all of the states neighboring Russia, as if it were the responsibility of the U.S. or our European allies to save Belarus. Applebaum writes:

This, then, is what the "decline of the West" looks like in the eastern half of Europe: The United States and Europe, out of money and out of ideas, scarcely fund the Belarusan opposition. Russia, flush with oil money once again, has agreed to back Lukashenko and fund his regime. Let's hope it costs them a lot more than they expect.

If funding the Belarusian opposition is Applebaum's example of an idea, I suppose "the West" must be out of ideas. It is hardly a "decline of the West" if the same authoritarian ruler presides in Minsk as he has for the last two decades. Neither is it "Eastern aggression," as the title of her column so dramatically puts it. On the contrary, it is quite obviously the maintenance of the status quo. After the temporary rift between Lukashenko and Moscow for the last few years, Belarus is more or less back where it has been for most of the post-Cold War era. This is in many ways unfortunate for Belarus, and not particularly desirable for Belarus' immediate neighbors, but perhaps one reason why Westerners are unwilling to devote more of their limited resources to Belarus is that they conclude that they have no vital interests in Belarus. This is the correct assessment.

What could be better evidence of a West bereft of ideas than the proposal to resume the eastward expansion of NATO? Despite the lack of suitable candidates among the remaining ex-Soviet republics, and despite the lack of any strategic rationale for continued expansion, Applebaum was urging on expansion just a month ago and named the basketcase of Europe as one of her principal candidates. Let me suggest that any strategy that involves significant funding of the political opposition of Belarus is not worth the time, money or effort that would be expended. We are finally enjoying a temporary pause in the unremitting provocations in post-Soviet space that defined U.S. policy there for most of the last twenty years. Instead of being caught in a downward spiral, U.S.-Russian relations are improving for a change. What could possibly be gained by going back down the road of provocation and confrontation that Applebaum recommends?


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