The Naïveté of Distance

The befuddled response to Russia's Crimea takeover shows that America needs a refresher on how the rest of the world actually thinks and works.

The Ukraine crisis has made it clear that there are some crucial facts about world history and geography that Americans don't really understand. As the world digests Russian President Vladimir Putin's aggressive moves and ponders future ones by Russia or other smaller powers, here are a few things about these two profoundly important forces -- or more specifically, the U.S. relationship to them -- that Americans need to keep in mind. Grasping them is, in a word, critical.

America is of the world. But does it really understand it?

Sandwiched between two non-predatory powers to the north and south, and fish to the east and west, the United States has lost -- if it ever had it -- the capacity to think and feel like a power that is vulnerable to geography and history. One would have thought that the nation's experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan would have made it wiser in this regard, and it did in one respect: America is more wisely and willfully risk averse when it comes to nation-building and meddling in the affairs of smaller powers and tribes. But have these experiences made Americans any wiser about why small powers and tribes -- and bigger ones too -- behave the way they do, or more artful in anticipating their actions or reactions?

I don't think so.

People in the United States just don't have the head or stomach for it. Americans have never really lived on the knife's edge, worried about physical or political survival; they have not felt the breath or boot of the big power on their necks. Don't get me wrong: That's a good, very special thing. Most nations have no such luxury. But this specialness has also made Americans much less adept at understanding the behavior of others who aren't as fortunate. Indeed, people in the United States tend not to understand others' fears or to trivialize them, choosing to dismiss their concerns as not terribly relevant to our modern world.

Nor do Americans seem to know or care much about seemingly 19th or even 20th-century concepts such as national pride, honor, dignity, and the like -- at least not as much as other countries. Sure, Americans get excited about the Olympics, but they don't appear to get angry, to feel slighted, bruised, or humiliated when other nations a quarter the size of the United States and with a fraction of its power ignore U.S. warnings, play Washington like a finely-tuned fiddle, or say no without cost or consequence. I don't see a whole lot of enthusiasm in America for confronting the Russians over Sevastopol, let alone Kharkiv.

It takes something really big like 9/11 to get Americans going. So when Putin, the Egyptian generals, or the mullahs in Iran act in ways that don't seem to add up to Americans' neatly ordered world or when they speak out against the United States in defense of their national dignity and pride, or out of personal or national pique, Americans judge it to be either inauthentic, politically contrived, somehow unhinged from reality, or unmoored from anything that could be perceived to be a legitimate interest.

Just because America doesn't seem to have many vital interests doesn't mean others don't.

Vital interests are those for which a nation is prepared to invest its time, treasure, and prestige, and ultimately to risk its citizens' lives and those of others, in the name of protection. Right now, U.S. vital interests are defined primarily in terms of defending the homeland. And this president, even while he's all but declared the war on terror over, has been pretty robust in prosecuting it.

But for a smaller power, Americans often seem to forget, protecting the homeland can mean being much more proactive: Offense can be the best defense, they say. So maybe it's not all that unusual that the United States didn't see Putin's land grab in Crimea coming: Americans couldn't imagine themselves doing something similar. Why would the Russians risk violating another nation's sovereignty? Just because they are worried about Ukraine drifting westward? Why would a pragmatist like Putin risk the post-1991 geopolitical arrangements so painstakingly created?

Why indeed. Americans, it seems, can't understand because they can't place themselves in other people's shoes, to see what the rest of the world sees as vital.

Just because it's the 21st century doesn't mean everyone sees the world the same way.

Part of the reason America misjudges smaller powers is that it assumes somehow that all countries see the world in the same way -- or at least are prepared to accommodate themselves to the way the United States sees it. This is driven by a dangerous illusion that today's world is a more modern world, a globalized one where everything is more integrated and nations don't act in ways that undermine their own economic interests. Doesn't everyone have a stake in everyone else's success?

Referring to Putin moving forces into Ukraine, Secretary of State John Kerry observed, "It's really 19th century behavior in the 21st century." Maybe. But thinking about it in another way, maybe Putin -- along with Bashar al-Assad, Kim Jong Un, some of the Iranian mullahs, and others -- is a 21st-century leader using 19th-century tactics that in fact still work for him. For Putin, geography and power -- that is, how to avoid being gobbled up by the first and how to maintain the second -- still mean something. And that sometimes requires actions that don't quite measure up to American standards.

History still matters.

The notion that nothing in America lasts longer than 15 minutes is a bit of an overstatement. But it's true that Americans don't pay attention to history much, and when they do, they're often using it to defend some partisan foreign policy or to draw the wrong conclusions.

For the great power willing to learn, history can be a very useful exercise in humility, and prudence -- a cautionary tale, really, about avoiding the transgressions of omnipotence and omniscience (believing that one can do anything and knows everything). But for the smaller power, history can also be a trap and create a current reality that forces actions based and driven by past traumas, vulnerabilities, victories, and humiliations. Americans expect others to get over the past, but for much of the world, Faulkner's famous line in Requiem for a Nun still rules: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."*

The mullahs have been living in the shade of the 1953 CIA coup for decades. Putin exists in the demise of the former Soviet Union and maybe even identifies with figures as far back as Peter the Great. Assad is an Alawite whose worldview is shaped by his minority community's historical experience both in and out of power. And while not all Israeli prime ministers' current realities have been shaped by the Holocaust, Benjamin Netanyahu's decidedly is.

In short, smaller powers' histories cast long shadows.

Not all leaders are cut from the same cloth.

American presidents and secretaries of state far too frequently deal with their counterparts as if they all belonged to some kind respectable club in which certain rules apply and mere winks and nods can work things out. U.S. leaders were fascinated with Syria's Hafez al-Assad for years, convinced that they could somehow make him into a partner; even his son, Bashar, for a brief period cast a spell on the Bush 43 administration as a modern man who saw Syria's future in terms of reform. President Bill Clinton emerged from his successful Israeli-Palestinian summit in 1998 persuaded he could convince Yasser Arafat to do a deal at Camp David. And both Obama and Kerry saw Putin as a guy they could work with on Syria and Iran.

American leaders tend to rely too heavily on their persuasive skills with these tough leaders from tougher neighborhoods or underestimate their partners' capacity to just say "no." In truth, the Bushes, Clinton, and Barack Obama have about as much in common with the Assads, Arafat, or Putin as they do with Mickey Mouse. Americans seem to get confused by the fact that such leaders wear suits and ties -- or in Arafat's case, kiss a few Israelis -- and think it's possible to make long-term deals with them. To be sure, at times, short-term gains are possible, and there are indeed exceptional leaders and moments. But these are rare and sometimes tragic too: Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin paid with their lives for their peacemaking, while U.S. presidents have gotten to write about how they almost made peace in their memoirs.

In short, Americans think they understand the world. But their detachment from it, and the idealism, naïveté, arrogance, and unbridled pragmatism that separation brings, tell a different story. For the United States to influence the world differently -- and more meaningfully -- than it does now, that story will have to change.

*Correction, March 31, 2014: This article misquoted William Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun. The correct quote is, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." The article originally stated, "The past is never over; it's not even past." (Return to reading.)


Reality Check

To Boldly Lead From Behind?

How Star Trek's Prime Directive explains Obama's foreign policy.

I've watched President Barack Obama's foreign policy for five years now. And I've finally figured what it's all about, thanks largely to Bob Woodward and Star Trek.

This is really not as strange a combination as it appears. Woodward's early reveal of Robert Gates's view, expressed in his new memoir Duty, that President Obama never really believed in the Afghanistan war or the surge is hardly a shocker. But it confirms something I've sensed for some time now.

Obama was only five when the hit series Star Trek made its debut in 1966. But I'd wager that the president must have loved the show and watched the reruns, because he modeled his key foreign policy doctrine after one of the most important themes of the series: the Prime Directive.

Now, the Prime Directive is a very complex principle. After all, this is a television show for most of us -- but a way of life complete with its own terminology and philosophy for its devotees. But essentially it boils down to this: Interference in the affairs of the internal development of an alien planet is strictly prohibited, whether or not the planet's inhabitants have knowledge of warp-speed travel or not.

The basic reasoning behind the Prime Directive, summed up by one of my favorite Star Trek spin-off captains, Jean-Luc Picard, is that "[h]istory has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous."

There is only one exception that permits interference: when the mysterious and galactically catastrophic Omega molecules are detected. These particles are hugely unstable, and the careless and unplanned destruction of a single molecule can nullify subspace for many light-years around it, rendering faster-than-the-speed-of-light travel impossible.

If that happens, well ... there goes the show! So the Prime Directive is superseded only by General Order 0 -- the Omega Directive -- which permits Starfleet commanders to intervene when Omega particles are detected.

Don't get me wrong. Barack Obama isn't Commander James T. Kirk. Nor is space -- the final frontier -- the foreign policy world in which the president operates.

The most important difference between Star Trek and our current reality is that the emotional and volatile Kirk -- usually driven by some higher good or other moral purpose -- violates the Prime Directive when he sees fit, but President Obama -- much cooler and more temperamentally aligned with the Vulcan Spock -- never does.

Indeed, with the exception of the Libya intervention and his policy on drones (that's not really intervention in the affairs of an entire civilization ... right?), Barack Obama has scrupulously adhered to his version of Prime Directive. What would cause him to violate it -- what his own Omega Directive would be -- is not at all clear.

From the beginning of his administration, it was clear that Obama's principle of non-interference -- certainly on the military side -- in foreign and distant lands would represent the most important tenet of his foreign policy. It was exemplified, certainly, in the expressed mantra of getting America "out of profitless wars, not into new ones." He had already voted against the Iraq war as a senator, and while he identified Afghanistan as the good war, his heart -- as Gates makes clear -- was never in that one either. The Afghan surge was at its core the opening shot in a campaign of U.S. extrication; to anyone who was reading the administration's intentions, getting in deeper in fact was designed to facilitate an eventual run for the exits. This may be patently absurd in terms of logic, but it's true.

Even in Libya, things weren't what they seemed. Anyone who thought that the multilateral intervention there reflected the beginning of a Bush 43-like trend to nation-build or a muscular policy of supporting fledgling democrats against aging dictators was destined for disappointment. After all, the administration had helped show Hosni Mubarak the door in Egypt and made clear America had to be on the right side of history, but it then had neither the will nor skill to craft a robust and consistent strategy of engagement in response to fast-breaking events sweeping an entire region. (In fairness to the administration, given the complexity of the Arab Spring, what kind of comprehensive strategy was really possible anyway? To this day, none of the so-called foreign policy experts out there has offered a strategy that could have done any better -- that is done anything more than affect matters at the margins.)

If his risk-aversion wasn't altogether clear in the president's first term, it has become stunningly clear in his approach to Syria and Iran during the second. Whatever Kirk-like risk readiness there was among his leadership team for military intervention in places like Syria or even for cutting off all assistance to anti-democratic Egyptian generals, it stopped Spock-like at the water's edge.

The comparisons don't end with the Prime Directive, however. The other half of the Obama administration's foreign policy philosophy is the fundamental belief in diplomacy as the talking cure -- and this, too, is Star Trek-like in character.

To be sure, the universe is a dangerous place, and the Enterprise often finds itself in mortal peril, resorting to force in many of its adventures. But peaceful transaction, negotiation, rational discourse, and enlightened self-interest are in fact just as much the Star Trek way.

Not an episode of the old series went by without an alien ambassador or delegation from some planet presenting some new idea for interplanetary cooperation. After all, this is the 23rd century, and although there had apparently been a World War III, the earth had survived. So Kirk's planet must finally have learned a thing or two about how to live together peacefully.

Obama's commitment to talking, not shooting, was also evident from the beginning of his administration. A young, internationalist-minded president with transformative pretentions both at home and abroad believed he could change his world. His supporters and much of the international community encouraged this thinking, too. (Look no further than Obama's 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for proof of this.)

Predictably, during his first term, aspirations surpassed capacity, expectations trumped delivery, and rhetoric exceeded results. By the end of 2010, neither engaging Iran, resetting relations with Russia, nor moving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward had succeeded. And it appeared that the "yes we can" president had become a "maybe we can't" leader.

Since then, much of Obama's transformative pretentions have given way to more grounded realities. But the faith in engaging diplomatically rather than dropping bombs hasn't weakened. The Starship Diplomacy has plenty of warp drive, and its captain, Secretary of State John Kerry, plans to cover millions of parsecs in the next several years.

For Obama, this journey is clearly designed to protect his Prime Directive and thus avoid war and messy military interventions. Just think about the journeys of the Diplomacy so far.

In Syria, the goal of negotiations was to avoid an open-ended military intervention. Even the president's professed red line for war -- the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons against civilians -- became a catalyst for deal-making and a trade: If the chemical weapons go, President Bashar al-Assad stays. (I have no empirical evidence to prove it, but I'm also convinced that the president's desire to avoid military action in Syria was driven by his conviction that striking there would have triggered a proxy war with Iran and would have made a deal on the nuclear issue much harder.)

The same logic of using diplomacy to preempt war applies to negotiations over Iran's nuclear weapons program. The president's Iran policy aims to achieve three things: avoid an Israeli strike against Iran; preempt the need for an American one; and delay Iran's becoming a nuclear weapons threshold state on Obama's watch. Let Chris Christie or Hillary Clinton deal with it. And in Obama's view, the only way to do these things, and thus protect the Prime Directive, is to use diplomacy to render unnecessary the need or desire for military action.

I don't mean to suggest that Obama is a pacifist. He's been a wartime president and a tough trader in counterterrorism since his first day in office. And unlike the United Federation of Planets, the point of his Prime Directive isn't purely moral or philosophical. Rather, for Obama, the Prime Directive is driven by a practical belief that the use of military power in open-ended situations to achieve political objectives abroad is risky, costly, unpopular, and likely to undermine what he really cares about: his domestic agenda. After all, the success of his presidency will be shaped more by whether he can regain the momentum on his now troubled health-care initiative, the economy, and other social issues like immigration than by looking for Klingons to fight. What's more, Obama is correctly reading the public, who also have a stake in wanting strict adherence to the Prime Directive. Coming off the two longest wars in American history and the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression, Obama presides over a people fed up with foreign adventures and wanting to be healed at home.

Under what circumstances would the president violate the Prime Directive, abandon the Starship Diplomacy, and consider serious and sustained military intervention in a foreign land? In the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq, and based on everything he's said and done to date, I can see only one situation: another catastrophic terrorist attack on the homeland.

Whether you agree with Obama or not, his Star Trek approach to foreign policy is actually quite logical, a Vulcan might say. The ultimate goal, after all, is to live long and prosper -- as a nation, as a people.