Stephen Walt writes in support of learning history, but reveals that he hasn’t quite followed his own prescription:
The United States and the European Union backed the anti-Yanukovych forces in Ukraine in a fit of idealistic absentmindedness, and don’t seem to have considered the possibility that Russia would see this action as a threat to its vital interests and would respond in a sharp and ruthless manner. It is the latest in a string of bipartisan foreign-policy failures, a long list that includes the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
One of these things is not like the other. The invasion of Iraq was an act of commission under American control. We chose to start a bloody war for terrible reasons, with catastrophic consequences. The revolution in Ukraine was a Ukrainian revolution, one completely separate from the United States. It is the worst kind of national self-centeredness to focus on our actions in this situation. The US was and is a bystander, whose actions were largely irrelevant. That irrelevancy includes what happened afterwards, notably the Russian intervention. If America had guessed ahead of time what was about to happen, it would have likely made no difference. It’s a not a major foreign policy miscalculation, despite Walt, when we have no ability, before or after, to influence events in any substantial way.
Nor, to flip it around, does NATO expansion have much to do with it. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic shrinking of Russia over the past two decades constitute the actual crisis from the Russian perspective. They have lost influence in what used to be the inner elements of Russian empire. NATO expansion was just a symptom of that, but had NATO not expanded, Putin (and likely any Russian leader) would be trying to reassert Russian control locally. Great powers like to make sure their neighbors behave, and always have. I seem to remember – historically speaking – the United States throwing its weight around the Western Hemisphere with great regularity, James Monroe and Teddy Roosevelt looking on and nodding approvingly. This is not a fight in which we have much leverage or, frankly, much interest. The former means that the only major influence we could have would require a substantial military or economic effort, and the latter means we’re not going to do either. Walt aside, all the historical knowledge in the world is not going to change that, and I doubt it will make the discussion more sensible.