My Shadow colleagues Inboden and Tobey offer insightful advice for the Obama administration regarding Ukraine; here, I offer a reason why we have come to need their advice.
Vladimir Putin has managed to drag us all back into the 19th-century balance-of-power politics that were supposed to have been vanquished by our enlightened age of international law and institutions. How did he accomplish this? The pundits and experts have been scrambling to explain how their predictions of a non-interventionist Putin were so wrong. Is it because Putin is just extra-mean and aggressive and caught everyone by surprise?
No, the problem is the mindset of the Obama administration, its foreign-policy thinking, and that of many in the media and academia. It is a problem of fundamentals. To be sure, Putin is responsible for his own actions and nothing can absolve him of the crime of taking by force a country that he wishes would just fall into his arms willingly. But he could not do what he is doing if the Obama administration and the EU were not who they are. Perhaps the EU should get less blame for this state of affairs than the United States does because Europe has had to rely on the U.S. to do the leading and the heaviest lifting for a long time now. When the United States doesn’t, Europe tends to bow to pressures with France’s incursion into Mali being a notable and laudable example.
While there are many theories and approaches to understanding foreign affairs, all of them boil down to two basic views: the realism-based view that accepts that the world is an anarchy and power is the final arbiter of disputes; and the idealism-based view that insists that the world is a community and international law should be the final arbiter of disputes. Note that the first view doesn’t have room for the word "should" because it doesn’t wish or hope for something that is not quite there. Note also that the power it understands is multifaceted and it definitely includes the control of territory — that’s quite important in the present circumstances.
This divide doesn’t neatly capture conservatives on the one side and liberals on the other because people locate themselves at points on a spectrum rather than sitting in a box labeled realism or idealism, and they afford themselves some wiggle room depending on the issue. But fundamentally, this is about human nature as the American founders understood it. That is, some policymakers believe the natural state of human affairs is one of conflict and self-seeking while others believe it is one of cooperation and consensus-building.
Putin is in the former group. He watched as he got his way with Georgia, Syria, and Iran, and also on missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic; he further observes the U.S. doing little in response to China’s saber rattling in the East China Sea. He has seen that by the exercise of power (through others or his own) the West shows weakness and so he can enhance Russia’s interests — as he defines them. And he does not define them by being on the right side of history, being a member in good standing of the G-8, or being spoken well of in diplomatic circles. He certainly does not define them by being a good partner in the global effort to thwart climate change. He’s been rebuilding the prestige and power of Russia since before he became president the first time and for the last five years he’s been able to do that quite vigorously with muscle and might and intimidation.
He has been motivated to do this because of his view of the world and his strategy for Russia’s place in it both in offensive terms as well as defensive terms. But why act so boldly now, to literally threaten the peace of Europe and thus the world? Because he can. Because he’s taking Obama up on that "flexibility" promised to Medvedev. But most importantly because the Obama administration’s posture toward Russia is based on the idealist view and thus assumes mutually desired cooperation, dialogue and accommodation. In short, Obama has been treating Russia as an ally and assumes it shares our interests in supporting and furthering a community of nations built on international law and institutions.
Of course, the assumption is flatly wrong and easily dismissed by a review of Putin’s tenure in office. Putin understands all politics — domestic and international — as zero-sum. This past weekend he demonstrated that conclusively. The Obama administration has no choice now but to throw out absurd notions of resets, major cuts to troop levels, and every other policy based on the flawed notion that their idealist reasoning produces.
How is it that the president, a smart man, and his advisors, also smart, have been so wrong about Putin, the Iranian mullahs, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Syrian dictator, and others? Because they want to believe that the realist view where power and anarchy reign is wrong and that the idealist view of cooperation and international law is right. No amount of facts on the ground has dissuaded them of this belief until, one hopes, now.
Henry Kissinger famously notes that those powers that seek peace above all else are at the mercy of those powers that are willing to deny it to fulfill their interests. Putin is demonstrating that he knows this. He wants territory around Russia or at least control over it and he can get that, but only if the United States and the EU actually act. If they don’t, he’ll continue to operate in the world of power politics and keep gaining back the Russian empire, while Obama continues to insist on a community of international law and keeps losing.
Obama and his advisors, from grad school until now, have apparently seen the entire world as a single collection of nation-states just waiting to cooperate if the right people came into power in the United States to midwife it through dialogue and nice-making. Surely that belief has evaporated. It is time for the Obama administration to embrace reality and do what Putin did long ago and the rest of Russia’s reluctant neighbors are doing: Make two lists, one of your friends and the other of your enemies; support the first and torment the second. It might be distasteful to some, but it is the real world.