Reality Check

The Naïveté of Distance

The Naïveté of Distance

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.)