The Ukraine crisis dating back to 2013 and its subsequent toppling of the then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich underscored once more the validity of political realism within the domain of international relations. There had hitherto been some self-denial, particularly among mainstream Western commentators, as to the importance of issues pertaining to the so-called security dilemma and its relevance in the modern world. “There is no such thing as geopolitics in the West”, as recently put it the political scientist Andrew Wilson. Above all such delusions appeared more prevalent in Western Europe than across the pond in the United States.
We may assume this is related to the supra-state institutions, such as the EU, which have come to embody security since the end of the cold war and which require a different ideological outlook to the more sombre Hobbesian framework. What Europeans don’t wish to address is the fact that their pan-European peace rests fundamentally not so much in their institutions, but in the traditional Leviathan role inherited by the United States at the end of the Second World War. That is to say security competition in Europe is no longer in the balance and the German question has been settled by the presence of an occupying force.
“Pan-European peace rests fundamentally not so much in the EU institutions, but in the traditional Leviathan role inherited by the United States at the end of the Second World War”
A key article on the relevance of old fashioned Realpolitik appeared in the 2014 October edition of “Foreign Affairs” entitled “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault”. Its author, an erstwhile proponent of realist theory, John Mearsheimer, caused considerable consternation across the US foreign policy “blob” for laying the blame for the Ukraine fiasco at the feet of the West. Mearsheimer attributes much of the conflict that ensued following the Maidan “coup” to liberal delusions, in particular the inability to take seriously Russian security concerns or recognise its sphere of influence, let alone an ability to approach the issue with any hint of pragmatism. In his view the Europeans managed to turn the crises into a zero-sum game that ultimately is to the detriment of all parties involved.
However, a more subtle theme addressed by Mearsheimer in his exposition is the role played by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The NED came into life in 1983 and has since been active in over 90 countries world wide. One of its first engagements saw it provide support for the Solidarnosc movement in Communist Poland. Other notable “success” stories saw the NED help promote “democratic transitions” in Haiti, Surinam, Liberia, the Philippines and Chile. The organisation played a key role in Ronald Reagan’s “Democracy Programme” which sought to promote democracy abroad in conjunction with US interests.
Here we must not underestimate the importance of the phrase “US interests”. Then democracy promotion is not congruent with US interests per se. In fact influencing the democratic process abroad to suit the whims of Washington has little to do with the fair processes associated with democracy as a concept and clearly contravenes the non-interference in the domestic affairs of another nation state principle, one of the key tenants of international law. Strangely most Westerners are blinded by the connotations associated with the word “democracy” and are subsequently unable to distinguish interference to suit US interests from their own idealisation of some abstract, golden notion. The trick here, as Lindsey O’Rourke notes in her seminal work on covert regime change, is to “claim that they are interested in process (free and fair elections) and not outcome; in reality, the principal concern is outcome”.
“Most Westerners are blinded by the connotations associated with the word ‘democracy’ and are unable to distinguish interference to suit US interests from their own idealisation of some abstract, golden notion”
To obtain the required outcome in Ukraine (as Mearsheimer defines it: “to peel Kiev away from Moscow”) the National Endowment for Democracy funded more than 60 projects aimed at promoting civil society in the former Soviet Republic. One of their most prominent beneficiaries was the “Open Ukraine Yatsenyuk foundation”. US sponsorship of the Yatsenuk foundation is made all the more interesting by the fact that he subsequently became prime minister following the demise of the Yanukovich government. Furthermore his role in the new government appeared to be preordained. Then in a leaked conversation between the US assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, Victoria Nuland and the US ambassador to the Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt are heard to promote his cause when discussing who will form the new government. The pair state primarily that Klitshko should remain on “the outside and do his political homework” before Nuland promotes Yatsenuks position noting that “I think Yats is the guy who has the economic experience the governance experience”. In his article Mearsheimer informs the reader that the National Endowment for Democracy was one of the constituent parts that helped move $ 5 billion in US funds for pro-Western individuals and organisations operating within the Ukraine.
Mearsheimer’s article caused such a stir that the President of the NED Carl Gershman felt obliged to respond and within a month he had released a statement on the NED website rejecting the accusations levelled by Mearsheimer. Gershman stated that Mearsheimer had failed to consider the Ukrainian people themselves paying no heed to their desires and denying them agency. But in truth who were the people who protested on the Maidan? Certainly they were opposed to Yanukovich, but they failed to represent a coherent group. If the NED seeks to promote democracy than it should consider that the protesters equally did not represent a democratic choice. Certainly there were pro-Europeans, but there were also members of Svoboda, the infamous Praviy Sektor, Timoshenko followers and others who had simply had enough of yet another corrupt oligarch at the nation’s reigns. Was the Maidan protest an act of democracy? Almost certainly not. Democracy, as we have seen by the US response to allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race, has little to do with foreign state sponsorship to determine a favourable outcome. In the case of the Maidan both the protesters and the NED failed to adhere to democracy, then democracy is a process defined by the ballot box.
In his response to Mearsheimer, Gershman’s goes on to define the NED as “publicly funded, but entirely independent of the US government” and while this description may be correct de jure, on a legal technicality, it is certainly not de facto. After all 99% of NED funds come directly from US governmental agencies, while all the founding it provides overseas must first be approved by the State Department. As Allan Weinstein, the NEDs first director, confirmed in 1991: “A lot of what we do today was done covertly twenty five years ago by the CIA”.
Its NGO status is supposed to afford the US government to “plausibly deny” political interference or social engineering abroad. The NED effectively pursues US government objectives behind the mantle of promoting civil society. Foreign governments however inevitably view the Endowment with deep suspicion. Indeed the NED was the first NGO banned by Russia’s Vladimir Putin in its crack down on “foreign agents”. In a statement used to justify the move Vladimir Malinovskii, the vice Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation, declared that the NED “poses a threat to the constitutional order of the Russian Federation and the defensive capability and security of the government” before adding: “Using Russian commercial and non_commercial organisations under its control, the National Endowment for Democracy participated in work to declare the results of election campaigns illegitimate, organise political actions intended to influence decisions made by the authorities, and discredit service in Russia’s armed forces”. Given both its funding and its record of interference the Russian position appears more than understandable.