A World Without Consequences

Why Putin, Assad, and their ilk are making chaos the new normal.

Russia invades Ukraine. The United States responds with threats of unspecific "costs" Moscow will incur if it doesn't reverse course. We offer Putin-esque photos of Obama in almost comically aggressive postures on a telephone call with the Russian leader. We threaten not to invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to future summits of global big shots. NATO dispatches some of its elite corps of press release writers to offer up limp admonitions. And the U.S. president's critics are left wondering aloud: Is this the weakest American president since Jimmy Carter? Or is it unfair to Carter to include him in that question? House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers illustrated the critique, suggesting that "Putin is playing chess" while "we're playing marbles." 

Or alternatively, in the view of the president's defenders, perhaps Barack Obama is just doing as much as a responsible president, respectful of his mandate and the current limitations on American power, can do. 

The situation in Crimea is, of course, not the only factor in raising questions about the nature of contemporary American leadership. Looking around the world today we see as daunting an array of global crises and brewing problems as we have seen at any one time in recent history: Ukraine, Syria, Venezuela, Iran, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, Israel-Palestine, North Korea, China-Japan, Thailand, Burma, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, economic problems in faltering big emerging powers, and the climate crisis. It seems the lid has come off the pot worldwide. It forces a bigger question: Is this an aberrant moment or the beginning of a trend? Are the mechanisms we have for helping to stabilize volatile situations failing? Did they ever work well enough? And what does this have to do with the current crop of governments of the world's most powerful nations, notably the United States? Are their domestic problems and political predilections and the character of their leaders part of the problem? Is there any way they can become part of the solution?

Each crisis cited above, of course, is its own complex situation. In the case of Ukraine, the United States has made diplomatic efforts behind the scenes to address it. It is good to hear that energetic and creative Secretary of State John Kerry is flying to Kiev to meet with the interim government. Further, what Russia does in its near abroad is certainly not solely the concern of the United States. The European Union and the world's other powers have been equally ineffective or inert or both, thus persuading Putin that he could act with impunity while violating the sovereignty of an important nation. And beyond economic and political wrist-slaps, it is hard to know what the West can do without escalating the situation. Certainly, the current situation in Ukraine echoes what happened in Georgia when Russia effectively snapped up the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the United States, then under President George W. Bush, also did nothing but watch and vigorously complain. (It is worth noting that subsequent Russian provocations have effectively gone unchallenged by the Obama administration.)

But, even while acknowledging all that, we can be relatively certain that one of the reasons that Putin has taken the action he has -- why he has felt free to order troops into Crimea and indeed why he has felt so free to meddle in the affairs of Ukraine since the beginning of the current crisis -- is because he has felt there would be no consequences -- at least none serious enough to dissuade him.

This is the message that America's recent foreign-policy actions -- or rather its relative inaction and fecklessness -- from Syria to the Central Africa Republic, from Egypt to Anbar province, from the East China Sea to the Black Sea, have helped to send. We have gone from Pax Americana to Lox Americana. Our policy time and time again has effectively been to just lie there like a fish.

The world knows this now. They saw Obama hesitate to act in Syria years ago when his advisors were calling for it and he could have made a difference. They saw him blink when Syria crossed the red line he had drawn not once but 12 times. They saw him blink again when he almost took the most limited of military actions against Bashar al-Assad's regime, his team supported it, the ships were in place, and he punted. They have even seen, thanks to recent reporting by David Sanger at the New York Times, that when the NSA gave him cyber-options to use against the Syrians -- the lightest and theoretically most risk-free of all light-footprint options -- he refused to act.

When asked about Syria on Meet the Press, National Security Advisor Susan Rice accurately characterized what has happened there as "horrific" and then posed a classic false choice, arguing, "But if the alternative here is to intervene with American boots on the ground, as some have argued, I think that the judgment the United States has made and the president of the United States has made is that is not in the United States' interests." Because, of course, that is not the only choice, as the decision-non-decision to launch cruise missiles in August clearly demonstrated. And other available steps -- such as providing faster and more meaningful support for elements of the opposition we supported, a stronger, better-funded, more proactive humanitarian response, movement in the International Criminal Court to prosecute Assad, and tougher pressure on Russia and Iran to stop supporting Assad -- were also not taken. Assad is, per the assessment of Obama's own intelligence chief, James Clapper, stronger today (thanks to our chemical weapons deal) than he was before it. (For a good take on this, see Richard Cohen's piece "Susan Rice and the Retreat of American Power.")

Russia was there watching America on Syria and elsewhere. Putin was watching.

They saw that when then-President Mohamed Morsi abused the Egyptian people and the promise of democracy in that country, this administration refused to put meaningful pressure on him. But when the people of Egypt spoke and ousted a man who abused the trust they had placed in him -- as is the inalienable right of any people in the view of the founding fathers of the United States -- we also couldn't make up our mind on how to treat the successor regime. Indeed, not only did we hesitate (thus alienating not only a key ally but also virtually every other reliable ally we have in the region), but we even saw two inconsistent policies on Egypt emerge -- one from the State Department and Secretary Kerry that showed a practical willingness to work with the government of Egypt's army chief, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and one from the White House revealing only more recalcitrance and inaction.

When China sentences scholars to prison, the White House response is to tweet its "deep disappointment." When Putin meddled in Ukraine, our first response was to issue weak counterstatements. When the Ukrainian regime killed its own people, we revoked their visas. When Putin massed troops on the border, Obama urged him not to act, lest there be those "costs" -- a word that sent the unmistakable message that the worst Putin would have to contend with would be possible sanctions or more visa-war. (Obama also released a picture of himself posing forcefully at his Oval Office desk while talking to Putin.*) More recently we bandied about the threat of kicking Russia out of the G8 -- a group in which it didn't belong in the first place, one whose role has been marginalized somewhat since the financial crisis, and one the Russians can clearly live without. A White House press call on Sunday included a list of possible economic penalties being considered, but all were on the drawing board, many were pinpricks at best, and none seemed likely to alter the situation.

Just last week, in a corner of the world that has produced both U.S. and Russian foreign-policy failures, Afghanistan, when the regime of Hamid Karzai continued behaving as recklessly as it has all along, the White House followed another classic pattern -- warning that if the Afghan regime didn't go along with U.S. policy, then we were done, we'd just walk away. Disengaging after failure as a means of persuasion is a tactic the president has employed with the U.S. Congress time and time again, and it is now the policy driver likely to write the last chapter in America's longest war. Obama has unnecessarily deepened America's involvement in that war, in my view. But having no presence there, seeking no effective alternative to Karzai, going to the zero option would be a disaster -- especially because of the degree to which it would inhibit our ability to keep an eye on terrorist threats in the region and, more worrisome, Pakistan's nuclear program. 

Make no mistake, the administration of George W. Bush often and with devastating consequences went too far. It launched a catastrophic war in Iraq. He therefore owns a considerable share of the responsibility for America's loss of appetite for sound, active, sometimes forceful, foreign policy. But this president is the man who has since taken us too far in the opposite direction. He has not only sent the message that America won't launch reckless foreign wars -- which is why he was elected - but he has gone further and seemingly turned the false choice outlined by Rice into the foundations of a doctrine. We have gone from Bush's "us versus them" to "all or nothing" -- well, to be fair, to "too much or not enough." America is leaning away from the tough questions, leaning away not only from use of force (the last resort), but credible threats of force, from active use of sanctions and real political pressure, from mobilizing the international community effectively to support such efforts, from having clear policies, from making tough choices. And while we may even appreciate a reflective president who is not prone to rash moves, we need to be open to the idea that it is possible to go too far in the direction of reflexive passivity.

It is not terribly useful to get into simplistic discussions about whether we are isolationist or not, though the fact that these questions are being raised these days says something. Kerry was right last week to call out Congress on its tendencies in this direction. But doesn't this White House now own some of that opprobrium given that, for example, those in its administration first concluded that taking action against Syria was the right thing to do and then deferred to that isolationist-laden legislature knowing full well that doing so would likely mean no action would be taken at all. 

The wise Harvard international relations scholar Joseph Nye has argued that the Obama administration has been actively engaged worldwide and that we are therefore not taking an isolationist turn. But here again, unilateralist and isolationist are not the only options. Almost all presidencies operate in the shades of gray in between. Shifting a few notches toward waiting longer to act, acting less forcefully, and sending a signal that we are more rather than less reluctant to actively work to mobilize international opinion on our behalf opens the door to adventurism and abuse by the world's bad actors and places doubt in the minds of our friends and allies.

No sane person would advocate going to war with Russia over Crimea. But a very sane individual, NATO's former supreme allied commander, retired Adm. James Stavridis, on this site, points to the steps NATO should publicly be taking to add clout to whatever diplomatic steps America undertakes. Such efforts, showing NATO unity and purpose, would have the effect of at least limiting what Putin might seek to do and of making him think. Further, we could be undertaking public sanctions against Putin in the U.N. Security Council instead of tiptoeing around him, seeking emissaries that would do precious little but ultimately participate in the negotiations Putin wants -- to redraw the borders in the region, ensuring Russian access to key Black Sea ports. We could be making public plans to help use our new energy resources to help systematically reduce European dependency on Russian oil and gas, specifying just what meaningful costs there would be for Putin and letting him know that there are real red lines that must be respected, thereby making him believe that simply seizing an entire European country is simply not going to be tolerated in the 21st century by the members of the Atlantic alliance. Sometimes mobilizing troops and shifting military assets helps freeze an enemy in his tracks and sends a useful message. Surely, at any rate, Stavridis meant do something more than the flaccid press release issued by NATO after its meetings on this crisis this weekend.

(Former NSC staffer Michael Singh had an excellent piece in the Washington Post underscoring that lack of good contingency planning in this NSC has repeatedly left the president with limp choices -- a day late and several degrees of oomph and seriousness short. Importantly, he correctly notes how many of the crises we have faced recently have been predictable or at least anticipatable.)

Singh's point about the process shortcomings underscores that this is not just about Ukraine. It is also not just about process or, in the end, about the president. More importantly, this is about a message that has gone out to the world -- to Putin and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and Kim Jong Un and Karzai and other despots and troublemakers. They know that for whatever reason -- whether recent history, or the personality of leaders, or bad process, or the aftershocks of economic crisis, or mismanagement -- that since World War II the one nation that has been most depended on to push back on those posing a threat to the global peace is less likely to do so today -- by only degrees perhaps but palpably nonetheless -- than at any time during that period. And these despots, being who they are and the human nature of bullies and thugs and opportunists being what it is, are taking advantage.

Perhaps this Ukraine crisis will be the one that helps elevate this president, his team, and the processes upon which they rely to be better prepared, to have better options prepared beforehand, to better know the difference between empty gestures and meaningful leverage, to be more decisive, to personally engage with allies more effectively, to make faltering alliances work better, to know not just where we will step back but also where we must step forward. It is still evolving. Perhaps, the president and his team are simply evaluating and planning and will come up with the bold strokes needed to stop baldfaced aggression like that which has taken place in Crimea.

We can only hope. We cannot yet know whether this test will ultimately be seen as proof of Obama's potential for leadership or an indictment not only of him but of this generation of American leaders. But we do know this: If that does not happen, the Putins and their ilk will know it. They will take advantage. And the Crimeas will fall. And the Syrians will suffer. And those Egyptians and Venezuelans and Afghans and others around the world like them who had hoped they would be helped will in the end be the ones who are truly and devastatingly "deeply disappointed." 

*Correction (March 4, 2014): The original version of this article incorrectly stated that the White House released a photo of President Barack Obama with his foot on his desk during a March 1 phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This "foot-on-the-desk" photo reference mistakenly referred to a previously published photo of Obama on a phone call with House Speaker John Boehner. The main point -- that the photos released were chosen to illustrate strength -- remains the same. (Return to reading.)



Slack? Nap? Snooze?

A follow-up to my Recline manifesto.

It's hard to know where to go after last week's column, in which I urged everyone to stop leaning in and recline. What could possibly follow "Recline"? "Nap"? "Snooze"?

Spreading the word about the Recline Revolution also presents difficulties, since, as the Recline guru, I've become unwilling to do any media interviews that require me to leave my sofa. I'm counting on you, readers, to do the proselytizing for me.

We're off to a decent start. I'm half-thrilled and half-horrified to report that "Recline!" seems to have generated more media commentary, web traffic and social media shares than most of my previous Foreign Policy columns put together. It's sort of cool to be part of the Recline Revolution's vanguard (though I'm not crazy about being told I've "gone viral": it makes me feel like Typhoid Mary, or one of those zombie-vampires from The Passage). Of course, I'm also now struggling with the sad knowledge that if I have any shot at going down in history, it will probably be as "epic slacker," rather than "brilliant legal and foreign policy mind."

Just to prove that Deep Thoughts can come from the depths of the sofa, I was planning to return to topics such as U.S. grand strategy and civil-military relations in this week's column. But we're only allotted 15 minutes of fame, which in the age of Twitter has been downgraded to 15 seconds. So -- while I briefly have your attention -- I want to take the opportunity to clear up a few misconceptions about last week's column.

First, I'll let you in on a little secret: I lied in last week's column. (Yeah, sue me.) I never really leaned all the way in. I didn't actually handcraft my children's lunch containers out of recycled tires -- I just faked it with fancy eco-Tupperware from Whole Foods. And I never truly stopped ducking out of conferences and meetings to read novels and take naps. I just pretended to stop. (And no one noticed! There's a moral here somewhere.)

My column generated some criticism as well as compliments: some of my more earnest Twitter and Facebook commenters worried, for instance, that my self-proclaimed "hate" for Sheryl Sandberg was a little "extreme." Wouldn't it be more measured, they asked, to just express some respectful ambivalence about "leaning in"? Shouldn't I consider therapy to help me work through my excessively negative emotions? And didn't I care that hating on poor Sheryl might hurt her feelings?

So I'll tell you another secret: I don't really hate Sheryl Sandberg. But would any of you have read a column entitled, "Why I feel that Sheryl Sandberg, whom I somewhat but not completely admire, is somewhat right about certain things while also being somewhat wrong about various other things"?

Either way, I doubt that Sheryl is sitting around moping about my column. She's too busy to mope. Anyway, as COO of Facebook and the author of a bestselling book, I'm pretty sure she's laughing all the way to the bank.

Sheryl Sandberg managed to monetize leaning in. As for me, I'm still trying to figure out how to monetize reclining. One of my editors suggested that Foreign Policy could make and sell Recline! T-shirts, so I spent a few happy moments composing possible Recline Revolution slogans: "A La-Z-Boy in Every Pot!" "Liberté, égalité, sororité, détendez!" But when I emailed my editor to suggest these, he didn't respond; he had taken my column to heart and gone off to lounge on a tropical beach somewhere.

Despite my regret for the lost revenues, I could only applaud.

To another editor, I suggested that Foreign Policy could market Recline Revolution action figures -- you know, tiny little plastic people with articulated limbs, who look like me. But then I realized they'd have to be "inaction" figures. Maybe tiny little plastic figures stretched out in La-Z-Boy recliners. And who'd buy those?

My last hope for monetizing the Recline Revolution lay in becoming a lifestyle guru -- the kind of "executive coach" who gets paid vast sums of money to utter meaningless platitudes at corporate conferences.

I can utter meaningless platitudes with the best of ‘em. One would think I could market this talent, no?

Wistfully, from the depths of my sofa, I pictured myself standing -- no, sitting -- in front of a crowd of eager corporate executives, all anxious to give me money. "Take time to stop and smell the roses!" I'd tell them. "To thine own self be true! Feel free to move my cheese, as long as you don't move my sofa!"


Seriously? Let's not sell the Recline! agenda short. Because much as I love my sofa -- and oh, I do -- the goal of last week's column was not, in fact, to urge you all to stop and smell the roses, much less snooze your days away.

It was not a call for "work-life balance," either, popular as that phrase has become. You can balance even the heaviest weights -- if you happen to be an industrial scale. But if you happen to be an ordinary human being, it's not so simple. Put an elephant on each of your shoulders, and you won't be balancing anymore; you'll be a squashed little heap of former-human.

That's why it's not enough to urge "work-life balance." For millions of people in 21st century America, the weight of work has become simply unbearable. For far too many, the disappearance of stable, full-time jobs with benefits -- and the fraying social safety net -- has meant a desperate struggle to find and keep multiple part-time jobs. For others -- including the "luckiest" Americans -- the problem isn't struggling to pay the mortgage, but struggling under the crushing weight of the 24/7 workplace: the round-the-clock emails, the assumption that commitment can only be shown by long, punishing hours at the office.

Meanwhile, the "life" side of the equation has also gotten harder. In particular, my column noted the rise of the "intensive parenting" culture, which, like the modern workplace, increasingly requires parental ubiquity. More soccer games, more homework, more home-cooked dinners, more supervised play dates, more Mommy & Me music classes for tots, more, more, more! Even parents who aren't employed -- the so-called "stay-at-home moms" (and a growing number of dads) -- are now working around the clock. After all, if all the other kiddies are getting stuffed full of Kumon math tutoring or extra language lessons, you worry that your own child will fall behind if you don't offer the same. Add to that the expectations of teachers, family members, neighbors, and a sizable dollop of internalized guilt, and it's almost impossible to stand firm against the intensive parenting culture.

The twin weights of work and family are particularly crushing for women. Given our gendered assumptions about who will take care of the house and kids, it's women who most often find themselves in the impossible position of trying to manage the equivalent of two full-time jobs.

That's also why "leaning in" isn't the solution. Sheryl Sandberg is quite right to urge women to stop undermining themselves by speaking too tentatively, disclaiming their own expertise, and undervaluing their own experience. But competence and confidence aren't nearly enough to combat the impossible expectations women face at work and at home. On the contrary, the reward for competence is more work, and all the self-confidence in the world won't make you less miserable when your high-powered job and high-powered family life leave you too exhausted to think.

And despite my defense of reclining, dropping out is also no solution. The impossible demands of the workplace lead too many women to give up their own career dreams, since they seem impossible to reconcile with parenting obligations. That can be a sensible choice for some women as individuals -- for some, it's the only sensible choice -- but it doesn't change anything for the rest of us, or for our daughters; over time, it just exacerbates the problems.

Most Americans are willing to work hard, and we want to be passionately engaged with our work. My tongue-in-cheek call for more reclining is not a call for disengaging: It's a call for us to create workplace cultures and family cultures that recognize that all of us are at our best when we have time to sleep, think, laugh, enjoy unstructured time with friends, partners and children, and even -- dare I say it -- get some time all to ourselves. When we have those things, we're more creative, more resilient, and more productive. We're better workers, better leaders, better parents, and better partners.

So what is to be done? How can we change the structure and culture of the workplace, and change the structure and culture of modern parenting?

There are some things we can do alone, as individuals, and some things we can only do together. In the long run, of course, we need the kind of structural and legislative changes that have already taken place in many other developed countries: We need better and cheaper childcare for working parents; we need laws that guarantee vacation time and a living wage; we need school schedules that reflect the realities of modern life instead of being based on archaic agrarian schedules and the assumption that every child has a stay-at-home parent, and so on.

That's hard, and it will take concerted, collective effort over many years. But in the meantime, we don't need to despair. There's a lot we can do right now -- starting tomorrow. First and foremost, we can have the courage to stand up against ridiculous expectations.

Here's where all that Sheryl Sandberg-esque self-confidence really does matter: We need to stop being scared to speak up on behalf of sanity. We need to have the courage to tell the boss that we can't make regular 6 p.m. meetings, because it's time to go home and have dinner with the kids. We need the courage to say to our colleagues, "I don't normally check email between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m. Please call me if there's a nuclear war; if not, I'll get back to you tomorrow." We need the courage to tell the school principal that 11 a.m. school concerts are a burden on working parents.

When we do these things, we're helping ourselves, but we're also helping our friends, families, and colleagues. We're modeling healthier ways to work for others -- and every time we speak out on our own behalf, we make it easier for others to speak out as well.

We also need to speak out directly on behalf of others. In particular, we need to speak up for the low-wage workers in the mailroom or the maintenance department, and for the junior employees afraid to stand up for themselves. We need to make sure our subordinates know that we don't expect them to answer non-emergency emails during their vacations, and we need to let our colleagues and fellow parents know that if they politely challenge the boss's unreasonable expectations, we'll be there to back them up.

Better still, we can work together. Make a pact with your colleagues and your fellow parents: Agree to remind each other that time in the La-Z-Boy will make us better, saner, more efficient, more creative, and more flexible. Agree to go to the boss or the school principal together to propose different ways of getting things done.

Not everyone has the luxury of standing up to the boss -- many workers have good reason to fear getting demoted or fired. But if you're reading this in FP, odds are that you're lucky enough to work in an environment in which polite pushback won't get you fired. Odds are, in fact, that you have a lot more power than you think. You might even find that your boss welcomes and praises your suggestions about how to make the workplace more humane -- particularly if you show him or her the many studies documenting the bottom-line benefits of saner workplaces.

Who knows? Your boss might even join the Recline Revolution, too.