No Contest

Obama gambled that U.S. power would trump Russia's interests in Ukraine. He was wrong.

The Obama administration was clearly taken by surprise when Russia decided to seize Crimea by force. The real question, however, is why Obama and his advisors thought the United States and the European Union could help engineer the ouster of a democratically elected and pro-Russian leader in Ukraine and expect Vladimir Putin to go along with it? This remarkable combination of hubris and naiveté is even more striking when one considers that Washington has few, if any, options to counter Putin's move.

To be sure, ousted president Viktor Yanukovych was corrupt and incompetent and the United States and the European Union didn't create the protests that rose up against him. But instead of encouraging the protestors to stand down and wait for unhappy Ukrainians to vote Yanukovych out of office, the European Union and the United States decided to speed up the timetable and tacitly support the anti-Yanukovych forces. When the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs is on the streets of Kiev handing out pastries to anti-government protestors, it's a sign that Washington is not exactly neutral. Unfortunately, enthusiastic supporters of "Western" values never stopped to ask themselves what they would do if Russia objected.

There's plenty of room for finger-pointing and blame casting here, but the taproot of the debacle in Ukraine was a failure to distinguish between power and interests. Power is a useful thing to have in international politics, but any serious student of foreign policy knows that the stronger side does not always win. If it did, the United States would have won in Vietnam, would have persuaded India, Pakistan, and North Korea not to test nuclear weapons, and would have Afghan President Hamid Karzai dancing to our tune. In the real world, however, weaker states often care more about the outcome than stronger states do and are therefore willing to run more risks and incur larger costs to get what they want.

Unfortunately, U.S. leaders have repeatedly lost sight of this fact since the end of the Cold War. Because the United States is so powerful and so secure, it can meddle in lots of places without putting its own security at risk. United States officials tend to think they have the answer to every problem, and they reflexively assume that helping other societies become more like us is always the "right thing to do." Because we've become accustomed to our self-appointed role as Leader of the Free World, Washington is quick to proclaim redlines and issue high-minded demands, convinced that others will do its bidding -- if it barks loudly enough. 

Unfortunately, America's remarkably favorable geopolitical position also means that the outcome of many global disputes don't matter all that much to Washington, and still less to the American people. The result is a paradox: primacy allows the United States to interfere in lots of global disputes, but many of the issues it gets involved in are of secondary importance and not worth much risk, blood, or treasure. Why? Because the United States will be fine no matter how things turn out. It has the power to act almost anywhere, but its vital interests are rarely fully engaged. 

That is certainly the case in Ukraine, a country whose entire economy is about the size of Kentucky's. Last year, total U.S. trade with Ukraine was a measly $3 billion, less than the city budget of Philadelphia and about .00018 percent of America's gross domestic product (GDP). Ukraine's political system has been a mess ever since independence in 1991 and its economy is nearly bankrupt and needs massive outside assistance. It would be nice if Ukraine developed effective political institutions, but neither the security nor prosperity of the United States depend on that happening, either now or in the foreseeable future. Put simply: Ukraine is not an arena on which America's future depends in the slightest.

For Russia, however, the situation vis-à-vis Ukraine is quite different. Russia is much, much weaker than the United States -- in every significant dimension of national power -- and its long-term demographic and economic prospects are not bright. That is why any prudent Russian leader would want friendly regimes on its borders and would be sensitive about any area where ethnic Russians are a significant fraction of the population. Ukraine is right next door, there are deep historical ties between the two countries, and ethnic Russians account for about 20 percent of Ukraine's population and nearly 60 percent of the population in Crimea. Add to that mix Russia's naval base in Sevastopol and you can see why Putin sees the retention of Russian influence there as a vital interest indeed.

Moreover, Russia has spent the last 20-plus years watching the United States and its European allies expand NATO eastward and deploy ballistic missile defenses there, to boot, with near-total disregard for Russian interests and complaints. Because Americans never see themselves as potential aggressors and haven't had a great power in their own hemisphere for over a century, they have trouble imagining how these acts looked from Moscow's vantage point. But any good realist could have told you that Russia would regard these developments as a long-term security challenge. Imagine how Washington would react if a powerful China were one day to cultivate close security ties with Canada or Mexico, and you'll appreciate Putin's perspective a bit more.

Not only is Ukraine much more important to Moscow, its geographic proximity made it easy for Putin to act as he did and makes it hard for us to do anything about it. News flash: Ukraine and Russia share a long border, and Crimea is thousands of miles from the United States. Russia may not be a global military power (its defense spending is about one-sixth the size of the U.S. defense budget), but it is strong enough to occupy Crimea. The United States and NATO aren't going to assemble an expeditionary force to push them out, so don't expect to see a replay of the 1991 liberation of Kuwait. The bottom line: Putin was never going to see Obama's warnings as more than just a hollow bluff.

Mind you: I'm not defending Putin's action or relishing Obama's discomfiture. No one should take pleasure from this unilateral violation of international law or the likelihood that Ukraine faces more years of political instability and economic hardship. Nor should we neglect the possible fallout from this blunder in other areas -- such as the ongoing negotiations with Iran -- as the GOP is certain to seize upon this incident to cast doubt on the administration's entire approach to foreign policy. I just wish someone in the administration had thought this through before they decided to help ease Yanukovych out of power. Did we really think that power politics was no longer relevant in the 21st century, and that the spread of democracy, free markets, rule of law, and all that other good stuff meant that other states were no longer willing to defend their own security interests?

Sadly, this case provides another vivid reminder of why tough-minded realism is a better guide to foreign policy than feckless liberal idealism or neoconservative bluster. Since 1992, the U.S. approach to Russia and Eastern Europe has been guided by the assumption that Western-style democracy was the wave of the future and that the United States could extend its reach eastward and offer security guarantees to almost anyone who wanted them, but without ever facing a serious backlash. Even after the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia revealed the limits to what Moscow would tolerate and what the West could impose, some U.S. leaders continued to think they could draw more former Soviet bloc states into America's orbit without provoking stiff Russian resistance.

By contrast, realism tells you major powers care a lot about security and are often ruthless in defending vital interests, especially close to home. It recognizes that great powers ignore international law when it gets in their way (as the United States has done repeatedly), and it sees relations between major powers as a ceaseless struggle for position, even when that struggle is waged for essentially defensive reasons. Realists also know that diplomatic contests have no finish line and that every foreign policy initiative inevitably invites a counter-move. It's for this reason that those responsible for foreign policy need to think two or three moves ahead: "If we take this step, what are other states likely to do and what will our options look like then?"

Nobody in Washington or Brussels seems to have asked that question as they watched (and helped) Ukraine unravel, and that's why their options today are limited to angry denunciations and symbolic protests. It's possible that Putin has bitten off more than Russia can comfortably swallow, and the economic costs may prove to be too much for the fragile Russian economy to bear. But great powers are usually willing to suffer when their security is on the line, and that's likely to be the case here. If you thought the era of power politics was behind us, think again.



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.)