All things being equal, most Americans would agree it’s not good to have Russian military personnel anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. But the strategy Washington is currently employing to get Moscow out of Venezuela is virtually guaranteed to fail.
The tiny Russian military contingent that deployed to Caracas last week doesn’t threaten the United States, but blundering our way into great power conflict with Russia over this deployment absolutely does. This situation shows all too clearly how a new, realistic approach to U.S. foreign policy is desperately needed to preserve our interests at home and around the globe.
It is important to recognize that the calamity embroiling Venezuela is primarily a humanitarian crisis and secondarily a domestic political mess for the Venezuelan people. What it is not, however, is a security threat to the United States.
Understanding this is paramount, because getting the nature of the problem wrong can lead—and already has led—to a flawed response. More accurately assessing the situation could make possible effective solutions that actually benefit the United States and the people of Venezuela alike. Unfortunately, the Washington foreign policy establishment in general and National Security Advisor John Bolton in particular seem to have trouble correctly assessing complex international crises.
Bolton has led Washington’s overreaction to the March arrival of about 100 Russian “cybersecurity personnel” in Caracas. This deployment came after Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and other White House representatives repeatedly raised the specter of U.S. military intervention to bring about regime change in Venezuela.
Ignoring the predictable response to our threats, Bolton responded to the Russian troops by claiming they pose “a direct threat to international peace and security in the region.” Trump told Russia to “get out” of Venezuela, and his implied threat of military force to compel this departure is likewise an unnecessary risk.
A sober look at the reality of long-standing Russian-Venezuelan relations is needed. This Russian military deployment to Venezuela is neither new nor unprecedented. In May 2001, Vladimir Putin and then-dictator Hugo Chavez signed a bilateral agreement between the two nations “establishing a new multi-polar and non-violent world order,” based, among other things, on the “peaceful resolution of disputes [and] non-use of force or threat of its use.”
Since 2006, Russia has invested some $17 billion in the Venezuelan energy sector and is still owed about $6 billion. Moscow is keen on protecting this investment and recouping its money. To that end, as recently as October, Russia sent a group of economic advisors to help Maduro find a way out of his economic crisis. The question for U.S. policymakers, then, is not why Russia is active in Venezuela. It’s deciding what policies give us the best chance to assure American interests and our security are preserved.
First and foremost, we must stop believing every international issue can be solved with military power, especially as a policy option of first resort. Some diplomatic endeavors are most effective when backed by a legitimate military threat, but certainly not all. The threat of U.S. military intervention is never appropriate when our security is not at risk, and it is not at risk because of what is happening in Venezuela.
Second, we must be willing to talk even to those we don’t like. Cutting all diplomatic ties and shutting down the means of communication with international opponents is a major failure of modern American diplomacy. It is difficult to resolve disputes when you’re not even talking to the other side.
Third, Washington should better invest in professional development for our diplomatic corps, rewarding those who demonstrate superior performance and elevating the role of diplomats to at least the same level of esteem as we give our military.
Finally, we must rediscover the power of living by example. Our military power has helped to assure us more than a century of unprecedented national security. But America has the best chance of gaining the support of friends and allies, limiting the dangers adversaries pose, and assuring our own safety when we promote global peace and freedom, then live by those principles at home and abroad.
Perpetually threatening Venezuela, North Korea, or Iran with military intervention to demand they adhere to our preferred policy outcomes, while closing off or severely limiting our diplomatic engagement, will ultimately harm, not help, our national security. If we don’t want Russia meddling in the Western Hemisphere—and we don’t—we need to jettison our permanently militarized foreign policy for one that elevates diplomacy.
Daniel L. Davis is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served multiple tours in Afghanistan. He is a fellow with Defense Priorities. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.